Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Thoughts From Outside the Red House- Taking Care of your mental health
For a larger photgraph of the "Red House" visit
Having been involved professionally for 15 years working with some very disturbed children, it surprised me, back then, when either the school or parents sought psychiatric help for their children, inevitably, the hospital experts at the local Department of Adolescent Psychiatry reported back that there was nothing "clinically" wrong with the children and that they had mild behavioural disorders.
I think that has something to say in terms of my adult life when mental illness clearly exists on a spectrum between the normal and the abnormal. For professionals to get involved in individual cases, (which are very expensive to treat because often therapies involve a long series of sessions with highly qualified individuals, a person has to be way down the abnormal scale to get free treatment.)
I understand that, in some instances, clinical (i.e. severe) mental illnesses are not simply rooted in environmental factors and have genetic and chemical origins. But cases of mental illness, statistically, are ever on the increase nationally, and only relatively recently the number of women who are its victim has increased to be on a par with the numbers of men whose lives are affected in some way.
It is sad that the subject of mental illness is still a taboo, even though, more and more people need and search for help with their problems. I do not know, but suspect, that this is historical in a country where, in former times, visits to mental hospitals, then called lunatic asylums, provided a sort of "freak show" entertainment for wealthy weekend idlers.
There is a phrase that rings in my mind and it would be uncharitable for me to admit who actually said it and in what circumstances." Pull yourself together" was the directive I heard, aimed at a person who was depressive and virtually being paralysed by it, and that seems a common attitude to people when the way they feel mentally unwell and it starts to affect their daily lives and makes functioning a daily challenge. There is a sort of unwritten convention that we should be able to cope by ourselves and somehow not show what appears to some people to be any weakness byadmitting to a very real problem. These sort of social attitudes to personal problems mean, often, that the person doesn't seek professional help early, and by the time they do, the problem has inevitably grown in severity.
When I was in my late teens, I was frequently criticised by my peers for always being "over-analytical". At around the same time that I began a lifelong interest in Buddhism, I also seemed to be struggling to overcome the hang-ups of childhood. I read widely the sort of self-help books that ooze from the bookstore shelves and broadly they were of little lasting value. (Except that they made a lot of often pseudo medical authors a lot of money- curiously many with basic American PhD's!) I guess that some of the values and attitudes I had learned as a child meant that my self-esteem wasn't high and I tended to crave approval, trying to be the nice guy and ending up as everyone's doormat and also the shoulder to cry on. I was clearly on a stroke-gathering mission.
My first serious relationship ended in disaster ( marriage!) and a few years in, living with a "control freak" and largely giving in to whatever was demanded of me, I foolishly put my soul on ice in effort to please the unpleasable. I became increasingly unhappy and felt so isolated even within my growing family. I began to realise that there was something wrong and felt a deep sense of not being appreciated for myself and a feeling of being constantly criticised and, worst of all, began to doubt myself rather than question the validity of the person who I allowed to make me feel so unsure of myself as her partner.
It seemed that whenever I visited my family doctor, we always seemed to end up discussing the relationship problem I had. That actually led to a few sessions with a psychiatrist. It was a curious joy to be in the company of a person trained to listen constructively without judgement and in fact whose professional manner was more akin to the kind of relationship I actually wanted. The psychiatrist basically threw me back into the pond as she seemed to think I was pretty well informed about the root of the problem and more than capable of functioning without further support and pretty " normal."
I think we create our own order and sense of reality and in exceptional circumstances, the structure we create to make sense of ourselves and the world and others, begins to distort and if you are inactive and isolated, this exaggerates the problem, increases its potency and sets you down a destructive path to breakdown. (I always thought that breakdowns were not a medical event but the person's reasonable reaction to intolerable circumstances and, indeed, I think many "breakdowns " are elective and a part of our survival mechanism.) Sadly so often, it is at the precise point of cracking up when people finally seek help, partly, again, because of this social conspiracy of silence regarding mental health issues.
The actual final breakdown of my marriage is the greatest crisis I have ever had to face , lasted a long two years and it involved half a year away from work when I was on various medications for depression and anxiety and during which time I self-treated with destructively huge quantities of alcohol. I have to smile now when I remember the words of my wonderful doctor. He wasn't making light of my state of mind, but knowing my ex-wife as a patient and having sat through, what must, over the years, have amounted to hours of me offloading my relationship-related problems with this woman, he gave the most interesting medical prescription I have ever been offered.
For a long while the doctor had asked me searching questions as to exactly why I had remained in what he knew was a destructive marriage, and I think he knew too, that it really wasn't me that actually had the main problem but the person whom I had allowed to create those problems . This was something that took me so long to accept. When I was nearly recovered, I began to talk to him about what was to turn into my new relationship with Angela. "What am I going to do", I asked him," now I am just about able to cope with everyday life?" He turned to me and said, prophetically, "I'd investigate the divorcee you told me about! "
I have gone into rather a personal area above triggered by the shot of "The Red House" and the main reason for this is to be able to look back over the years and distil what I have learned from it and perhaps share it in a way that might be constructive to soemone else. Off and on over the years I have sought professional help and got some benefit from counselling at specific times of what you might call crisis points along the way.
In the majority of cases, the professional listeners were just that, enabling me to articulate and rationalise things so that I could continue on my journey through my life a little but stronger and wiser. So often, I found these sessions simply confirmed that my perceptions were right and that my solutions to them were more than reasonable.
I think so many people worry so much when they are struggling, that they are actually ill, when, in my experience, often what seem like huge problems are merely normal ones that face everyone of us day by day but something happens to unnerve us and we get them widely out of proportion and they assume a threatening importance as they become increasingly exaggerated.
Finally, there is a huge trend nationally to be more careful about physical health and for people to be more careful with their diet and life-style and to take more exercise. What I think I have discovered which is the most important lesson I could offer to anyone is that, it is also vital to take control of your own mental health, feed your mind and spirit as you would your body to ensure continual good health mentally.
This means, for me, not to lay blame in childhood experiences and not to go over that ground again and again, not blame others for the way you feel about yourself or even put your current life chances down to bad luck. I feel that I have now taken full responsibility for myself and I am in charge of what you might call my own strokes. I have examined what is important to me and I have found out what gives me a sense of fulfilment and that is not at the feet of anyone else, even my life partner Angela.
I think I finally started listening to myself, to my own heart and mind, trusting myself and building on my own strengths and interests rather than piggy backing on someone else. Writing, Photography, Making Music, looking at the world around me, making things are all things I have had a long term interest in and looking back, I shelved these interests because I was not being myself but trying to be someone else's idea of who I really was. I don't feel bitter or regret the time wasted, just determined to continue to grow and be the person I really am rather than a shadow of him.
The great irony, is that, on the path I have trodden, has been this life-long interest in Eastern thought, particularly Zen and Buddhism and, looking back, it is quite risible now, to realise, when it comes to practical guidelines to mental health and contentment, there is in fact, for me, no more helpful set of gentle guidelines than within the simple teachings of Buddha. It is as if I had the guide on my shelf , read it occasionally, but only recently gained the wisdom to live it.
johncoxon 3:10 PM - [Link] - Comments ()