let’s not gloss over the difficult realities of mental health

Warning: This is a post about mental health. The message is not an uplifting one. If you are struggling right now, caution is advised.

For all the mental health community’s efforts at raising awareness of mental illness, and all their positive impact, I find that many of the more challenging realities of mental illness are rarely addressed. Worse, I feel that the reductive and uncritical simplicity of many awareness-raising articles, memes, personal disclosures and so on often risk leading a lay audience to a false sense of awareness and comfort around mental illness, often to the detriment of their ability to come to a rounded awareness of the issue and support those who suffer.

I could write a thousand pages around this topic, if I could only stomach it. For now, I want to share a personal anecdote in an attempt to paint an often ignored part of the picture.

Around Christmas, social media was buzzing with mental health awareness-raising efforts. We were reminded that major events like these can be triggering for people with mental illness. Attending large social gatherings, being forced to engage in difficult family relationships, having to pretend you’re OK, our friends and family not providing an environment where it’s OK to struggle. Or, on the other end of the scale, the pain of being alone at Christmas.

This message exists for good reason. These are certainly some of the problems a person might face. It is, however, an incomplete message. It is an extension of a more general line of reasoning on mental illness:
The mentally ill would be so much better off if only they had supportive, compassionate people around them; if only they weren’t forced to engage in uncomfortable activities; if only they didn’t have to pretend; in short, if only their illness was properly supported and not stigmatised.

I think it goes without saying that Yes, a world like this would be very much welcomed. The risk in this message, however, at least in the way I see it presented, is that a lay audience might come to an invalid conclusion. Namely, that stigma and lack of support are effectively The problem of mental illness, and that in their absence the effects of mental illness would naturally be greatly diminished. Specifically in the case of Christmas, they might reason that if only a person were not subjected to these uncomfortable expectations, and were provided with a loving and supportive environment, their symptoms would naturally abate.

I want to explain my Christmas, in the hope of illustrating the error in this thinking. I am not looking for sympathy. And I do not claim that my story is applicable to everyone. I am simply seeking to add some balance to a discussion that I feel is dangerously one-sided.

I spent my Christmas day at my closest friend’s house. Her and her husband are two of my very closest and most trusted friends. They have experienced significant mental illness in their lives, traveled complex journeys, and are deeply aware and compassionate.

We were joined by five of their friends, all of whom I have met previously on many occasions and been comfortable with. Everyone in attendance has experienced mental illness. Everyone is very aware and supportive.

This was a small, casual gathering. There were no family dynamics to contend with. I knew and was friendly with everyone there. I did not have to disguise challenging feelings. I was very compassionately supported. I was not alone. The weather was pleasant.

I could not have spent Christmas in a more ideal environment. And yet, I was in debilitating emotional pain throughout. The whole day, around six hours, I probably uttered no more than fifty words. My mind and body shut down. Eventually I sat alone as the men and women split into two conversation groups. My aloneness was respected. Beware of assuming that my friends were unsupportive by leaving me be – they were aware enough to see this was the best of unfortunate options.

Yes, things would have been worse had I had to endure all of the typically cited issues. Yes, things would probably have been worse had I spent the day alone. But no, my day was in no way made good by the presence of the perfect environment. It was an irredeemably terrible, painful day. I hated every second of it. Every second was a reminder of how disabled I am at feeling calm and experiencing pleasure.

This is one of the painful truths I and many people have to live with. In the best possible surroundings, I was locked in my straight jacket, paralysed and slowly dying inside. We have to live with the truth that we have no known, reliable safe place, and the suspicion that none exists. We are in greater need than anyone of a little safety, comfort, and pleasure, yet we are less capable than anyone of experiencing those things.

Mental illness is vicious. Be mindful not to forget this in amongst all the poetic messages of hope and optimism. Solutions can be far more elusive than we are often led to believe.