Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mental Illness is Not For Sissies!

People tend to think of the mentally ill as weak and feeble. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I used to be Heather. Now I am schizo affective, bipolar, mentally ill, unstable, manic, depressed, delusional, psychotic, crazy, strange, borderline, poor, medicated, unmedicated, in crisis, affective, exhibiting symptoms, hospitalized, unemployable, insane, suicidal, anxious or myriad other things. It takes a strong person to fill those shoes and live to tell about it.

Mental illness has a way of creeping in and permeating every aspect of your life. I used to have a great job, make good money, had a house, boyfriend and pretty good life. I was a strong independent adult. Now I don't live on my own, can't sustain employment, lost my house, boyfriend fled. Some illnesses take things from you temporarily. Mental illness takes things away and never gives them back.

So why do I say mental illness is not for sissies? Well think about this. With most illnesses the doctor will say to you how are you feeling today. My doctor says Heather are you hallucinating, are you hearing voices in your head, do you feel like you want to hurt yourself or anyone else? Are you taking your medication? Are you sleeping too much? Are you sleeping too little? Are you hyper sexual? Are you getting along with your boyfriend and your family? Are you suicidal? Do you think about suicide? Are you doing well with your job? Are you telling me the truth? Are you telling me everything? Are you feeling high? Are you drinking alcohol or doing drugs? Are you exercising? Are you isolating? Are you seeing the therapist? see how this is going. Most people don't get interrogated by their doctors they are merely asked how they are feeling today. And try to remember that the wrong answers to these questions can get you locked up in a mental hospital. Try being grilled and having to be on your toes when you are not feeling well. NOT for the faint of heart.

And then there is the TEAM. Oh yes mental people have a team. The team is a bunch of people who I have to answer to because I have a mental illness. Okay here are the people on the team in order of power...the psychiatrist, crisis worker, psychiatric nurse, medical doctor, psychologist, case manager, social worker, therapist, mental health worker. Yep that is 9 people that I have to have appointments with and answer to at any given time. Let me run it down for you...the psychiatrist every 1-3 months, crisis worker when doctor or psychiatrist deems it necessary, psychiatric nurse every 3 weeks, medical doctor every month or more if need be, psychologist for testing when needed, case manager every couple of months, social worker every two weeks, mental health worker every week. I will let you do the math on how many appointments that is in a year...and that is when things are going okay. The number of appointments rises exponentially when the illness rears its ugly head. I have to answer to all of these people and answer their intrusive questions about my life. Imagine having 9 people watching over your shoulder all the time about every aspect of your life...from where you live to how you feel to whether you end up locked up in the psych ward. NOT for sissies!

Mental illness lies to us. It changes our perception of the world and alters our reality. Mental illness constantly whispers in my ear that i am crazy, bad, weak and unworthy. It fails to tell me that I have a physical brain illness. An illness where chemicals and neurotransmitters in my brain have gone awry. Somewhat like hormones or heart rhythms or blood cells go awry in other physical illnesses. So because my illness is a mental illness I am always dealing with false feelings and emotions. I feel sad when there is no reason to feel sad, elated and out of control for no reason. I see things that are not really there. Hear voices when no one is there to speak them. I have thoughts that tell me I am worthless and useless and that my life is without merit. Those of you with mental illness know what strength and courage it takes to battle these false signals every day and keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is hard to cope when every one of your senses is feeding you false information yet we do it.

Mentally ill people do not have the same rights as other people. People with cancer, diabetes, cardiac illness or any other illness can refuse treatment or decide on their own course of treatment. People with mental illness can be arrested by police and forcibly locked up in a mental institution. They can be medicated against their will. They can be injected with drugs against their will. They can be restrained and tied down. They can be locked in seclusion cells for hours or days at a time. Why...because they are ill. Not because they are criminals but because they are ill. We can have a judge decide that we are not allowed to make any decisions; for health, for financial, for legal. A person's family could even sell their home while they are ill. Can you imagine the public outcry if someone who had diabetes was treated like this...someone with a blood disorder?

Not to be overly gloomy or dramatic but lets talk life and death here. Mental illness kills. Notwithstanding the fact that it murders the soul and essence of the person it physically kills. The average life expectancy of someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is 20-25 years less than the that of the average person. Yep 20% less life to live. So if you are going to live to 75 or so, statistically I might make it to 50 or 55. Not exactly a ripe old age. All the things that go hand in hand with mental illness factor into this; poverty, poor diet, smoking, suicide, medications that cause ill health, lack of concern or awareness for ones own safety, being prone to being a victim of violence are just a few. The suicide rates alone for mental illness are staggering. 10% of schizophrenic people will take their own life. Depression claims 15% of its own to suicide and a whopping 20% of bipolar people succumb to suicide. Yes 1 out of every 5 people with bipolar people will take their own lives. And if anyone thinks ending their own life is the easy way out think carefully about what that entails and how one ends up in that place.

All this and society thinks mental illness is hysterical, hilarious, a riot. I admit that mental illness does have its humorous aspects and I am not above a funny mental illness joke but the stigma is NOT funny. How many times on television do you see people laughing at the person who is hearing voices or hallucinating? Laughing because someone is schizophrenic? Making jokes about someone being locked up in a mental hospital?... and trust me being there is not funny. How many times have people laughed and told you about some crazy guy they just saw, or the crazy homeless woman who lives on the corner? That is funny? What reaction would someone get if they came into work and said hey everyone I just saw this woman who must have cancer and she has no hair ah ha ha ha ha? But mental illness is funny and people call each other crazy, bipolar, schizo, nuts, you should be committed, up your medication, et al. Try struggling every day and having people think it is the funniest thing ever. We do it though don't we and we put up with it in good humour and we don't bite people's heads off when they do this. Most of us even manage to laugh at ourselves... a lot. If that doesn't show strength I don't know what does.

So if you don't struggle with mental illness next time you see someone who does, just try to remember that that person is probably one of the strongest people you will ever see. That person battles demons most can't even imagine. If you are a person who lives with mental illness then give yourself a pat on the back. You are ten times stronger than you give yourself credit for. You are a fighter and you are a survivor. That you are here today means you are beating incredible odds. Don't let the beast beat you.



  1. Oh Heather,
    You said it so well , these reasons and more make me proud. Proud for the courage you and others have to do the simple things most of us take for granted. I am truly humbled by the struggle. Proud for your ability to share it so openly and so insightfully. You are a beautiful treasure. Keep writing. These expressions definitely work!
    B C Levinson

  2. Sometimes the only thing I can do is reach way down in my gut and try to find a laugh.
    When I was being interviewed to spend a few days in the psych ward at the University of Washington, I was first placed in a padded room with no windows and no door knobs on the inside.

    I settled in after awhile, just long enough to allow my sarcastic side to emerge and answer the questions. The social worker was very methodical and finally when she asked me if I hear voices in my head I said, "I don't know, let me ask."

    Then I promptly said, "He says 'No, there are no voices up here.'"

    The look on her face was, as the American Express commercial says, "priceless."

    "Are you serious?" she asked.

    "I suppose that's for you to figure out." I responded.

    Bipolar is certainly nothing to laugh about, but sometimes it's hard to answer the questions without a little fun involved.

    Seems insanity feeds on sanity...or is it the other way?

  3. hi wayne
    first... i hate those seclusion rooms. shudder. but i think it is hilarious what you said to the social worker about the voices. lol one time when i was i.p. i wore my tshirt that said i hear voices and all of them say they hate you but they wouldnt let me wear it.

  4. What an excellent post. I do hope that people not directly affected by mental illness and stigma will read this, because it very much drives the point home.

  5. Damn, girl!! Hit the nail on the head. VERY well expressed!

  6. I am just in awe. You said everything that all of us want to shout at the world. Thank you for giving all of us that voice.