Saturday 16 July 2016

Tsunamis and Theme Parks

Pippa talks about her experience of mental illness and the inherent challenges of communicating these experiences to others. 
-Pippa Woods 

It’s not just in my mind. They say it’s all in my mind. It’s not. It has physical implications. When it hits, it feels overwhelming. But it’s not just a feeling. It’s like a wave knocking me down. Except it’s a tsunami, not a lovely little wave you can jump over. It knocks me down and far, and when I surface, nothing looks like it did before. Okay, I’ll admit all I really know about tsunamis comes from the film ‘The Impossible’ (which is great but such a tear-jerker). But this is how it feels when my brain lets me down.

I say let me down because that is how I see it. Some people say I need to just get on with it and it’s all in my mind, others say it is a completely physical thing that you can blame on an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, I’m not sure what’s actually going on. But I do know that it feels like my brain isn’t really part of me when I feel like this. “Feel like what?” I hear you ask. If I could describe it, I would probably have the right treatment, help thousands across the country and have successfully achieved a research breakthrough. I guess you only really know if you’ve experienced something similar.

The trouble with mental illness is that we only know what it’s like to be in our own brain, to experience things from our perspective. This makes it inherently challenging to describe to others how it feels. It’s not like a broken arm, where you can say, “my arm hurts lots” and people understand, because once their arm hurt too. With mental illness they don’t usually want to understand. And even if they want to, they find it really hard to.

The tsunami example is the best analogy I can think of so far for how it feels to me when I’m going down. When it’s really bad, I get washed away. Taken from everyone I love, everything I enjoy and all that I usually find easy. I’m isolated, despite the attempts of others to reassure and support me. I’m far from them, hit by the great wave and pushed miles away. Not physically, but mentally. All my hobbies have ended up surfacing near my family and friends, ages away from me. And I’m not strong enough to swim through the water to reach them. When I try, a secondary wave hits. Everything is destroyed over again, we’re pushed further away. I haven’t yet learned how to find this strength to swim through the debris-full water to reach them, my friends, my family, my life. I’ll be sure to let you know when I do.

For me, mental health is like a theme park. A theme park where my brain is in charge of me. It determines which rides I go on, and when I do so. I’m constantly fighting to take back control of my theme park visit, but my brain has a hold on me and drags me around. I’m blindfolded. I don’t know what’s coming next, maybe the teacups, maybe the world’s highest rollercoaster. It is this, which creates my constant exhaustion. It’s not surprising when you think of it like this, anyone would be exhausted if they had to spend every waking moment, worrying about where they were being taken, how scary the ride might be, how long it might last, if you would get a break after it or straight onto the next. This is how it feels to be in my brain. This is how it feels to be me.

Now of course it seems this is all in my mind, all happening in my brain. Of course it is, my legs work perfectly fine, I don’t have diabetes or cancer. But it’s not only in my mind. Physically I may appear ok, but I’m not ok. I’m exhausted. My appetite isn’t predictable. Sometimes I shake uncontrollably. I get headaches and my muscles tense up. But I don’t have a physical illness, just a mental one.

That’s where the problem lies, ‘just’ a mental one. This isn’t the case. Rarely is an illness ‘just’ anything. If you get diagnosed with a physical illness, cancer for example, it isn’t ‘just’ a physical issue. It affects you, and those around you, both physically AND mentally. The same is true of mental illnesses; they affect those diagnosed, and those around them, both mentally AND physically. The sooner we realise this, and treat accordingly the better.

Not sure how to speak to a friend about their mental health? Take a look at our Look After Your Mate guide for some useful tips to get conversations started.

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