Is mental health something we’re allowed to talk openly about these days? Our mind controls our behaviour and most of the time we’re not even conscious of the way we think, the decisions we make and the things we find ourselves doing. We concern ourselves with the daily round of working, eating, playing and sleeping. Then all of a sudden, without any clear warning, we start thinking unusual thoughts. Our behaviour may seem perfectly normal to us until our family, friends or work colleagues start to notice we’re not ourselves. That’s when the trouble starts.
One of the masterstrokes of The Sopranos is the thread in the story when Tony Soprano, husband, father and New Jersey mob boss, begins to have panic attacks. He collapses at home. He loses consciousness while driving and he has no explanation. Looking for answers he turns to psychiatry and we find him sitting in a quiet room with his shrink, an attractive Italian-American woman. He’s not happy about it. He fights the process of revealing himself like he’s swinging punches in a championship bout. But he needs to be there. He will get no sympathy from his gruesome associates if they find out he’s “not right in the head”. Mental health to them is a fatal weakness. A Mafia man with mental health problems might do something rash like talk to the cops. Mobsters have to be on their game 24/7. At times during his sessions, Tony Soprano seems to be making progress. He is able to admit that the blackness in his life has passed into him from his mother who is a self-centred harridan with nothing kind to say to anybody. But he rails against being questioned and even physically attacks his shrink when she gets a little too close to the sensitive character he is suppressing.
I have lived with mental health difficulties all my life. My mother was bi-polar and this genetic legacy ran like a river through my family. I can still remember the uncertainty of living with mum as a child. Was this mood normal or was it going to a place that felt dark? Sometimes I would find her at the fireplace, fat tears rolling down her face, trying to start a fire to kindle a spark that would comfort her. I remember when she became over-excited and started to “have a clean-up”, which meant opening every drawer in the house and sorting through its contents. I remember visiting her up in the old “mental asylum” at Craighouse. The grounds were beautiful, but they were haunted by men and women who walked the paths and looked through you as if you weren’t there. When mum appeared, she was often sedated and what she said didn’t make a lot of sense.
Until my mid-40s, I thought I was immune. And then one day in Leeds, I swung my legs out of the bed. “Stand up” I told myself and nothing happened. I felt as if I was underwater. My muscles wouldn’t respond to my mind. I could not get up off that bed. The paralysis wasn’t in my body though, it was in my brain.
A grey cloud rolled in and settled over me. I was unable to think of anything good in my life and my mind drifted back to the mistakes I had made all through my life.
I knew that I wasn’t right. As soon as I could, I visited my GP. I was put on a course of mood-stabilising drugs that gave me a sort of emotional “armour-plating”. Things that would normally have upset me barely made a dent in my mood. My anxiety and depression began to fade. I didn’t feel great but I felt I was able to look forward again.
It was only three years later as I was struggling free of my first marriage that the second wave hit me. My colleagues at work were first to notice. But they didn’t tell me. They went to my boss. He was concerned enough to call me into his office. “People are saying that you’re acting funny, you’re not yourself, they’re concerned for you.” This came as a surprise to me. I didn’t feel down. I felt the opposite. I was elated and creative. But I wouldn’t stop talking and apparently some of what I was saying didn’t make sense. My boss was out of his depth. He clearly thought I was a liability and didn’t want me in the office. He asked me to go home and get better. “In the meantime,” he added, “we’ll send you work.”
That was a serious mistake. If an employee has mental health issues, the thing to do is make sure they see a doctor. Then, if they are signed off, they are in recovery. You don’t send them assignments with tight deadlines. I came back to work but I wasn’t right. I went back to my GP who told me about a telephone psychotherapy service called Living Life. Medication is one way of dealing with serious moodswings. But talking and being listened to is therapeutic as well. Once a week for 18 months I spoke for 30 minutes with a trained psychotherapist. He taught me Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, a technique that trains you to identify negative thoughts, to question whether they have any foundation, and if they don’t, to try and banish them from your mind.
One in four of us will experience mental health difficulties sooner or later. Partners, colleagues, family and friends will look awkward, shuffle their feet and struggle to handle the situation. Some of them will tell us to “Pull yourself together”, or “Snap out of it” or “You’re just stressed, you’ve been doing too much.” If we’re lucky a friend will take you aside and say “Are you okay?” and listen to the answer without judging, interrupting or criticising you.
It’s taken until this year for me to be formally diagnosed. I am “bi-polar 2”, a relatively mild form of mental disorder that sees my mood sometimes swing up until I’m high as a kite. When I get like this, I often spend money on things I don’t really need or sit down with a notebook and scribble ideas that feel great to me but don’t make a whole lot of sense to anybody else. When my mood swings the other way, I become argumentative. I will quarrel about small things and even enjoy the disagreement.
Luckily our NHS is a marvelous institution and expert help is there for every ailment we can imagine, mental or physical. My mood is good right now. I have taken advantage of all the help available, chemical or otherwise, and I look forward to the coming years. But I know there are others, some of them in my own family, whose every day is a battle and who sometimes wake up cursing the fact they are still alive.
Whenever we meet somebody who gives us a hard time, we need to try and imagine that they may be having the worst day of their lives. We need to cut them a little slack. Depression or psychosis don’t come with a big comedy stookie you can sign. They are out of sight – but just as crippling.
If you feel you are not yourself, don’t be too inhibited to do something about it. Confide in a close friend and get yourself to a GP. Once you’re on the mend, make it your mission in life to be as open about mental health as you are about a bad back or a broken limb. Let’s get rid of the stigma and start supporting each other through life.