What's mine isn't yours
I've noticed a phenomenon. One that I find particularly annoying; I'd say on a par with waiting in a queue for a day, only to find that whatever it is you're queuing for runs out just as you get there. It's like a wasted day, when we all know time is precious. Probably as annoying as the constant references to 'stress, depression and anxiety' when people talk about mental health problems. Notice I say 'mental health problems' and not 'mental illnesses'. Because they're different, right? A problem can be solved, but once it's an illness you're no longer a functional human. I have an illness, not a problem. I make it not a problem, even though I'm ill.
Let me begin with an example of the aforementioned phenomenon - I attended an event based around handling difficult conversations with employees with mental illnesses. The keynote speaker was our very own, very publicly alcoholic, Alistair Campbell. He regaled us with the story of his downward spiral into the gutter, and his subsequent rise back to health, with the help of a lot of money and a lot of meditation dahling. Let's be honest here, when the police pull up to a drunken man swimming on the pavement and they see that in fact he's a public figure, they are bound to treat him well. He got respect, dignity and an easy transition into medical care, whereas Joe Bloggs would've got bruises from being roughly manhandled and a night in a concrete room with no daylight, with no even an alka-seltzer for his hangover. Of course, I'm not belittling the level of depravity Mr. Campbell reached - in fact I'd imagine that just spending time amongst some of the biggest liars in the land would result in one soaking in depravity simply by osmosis - but what I am saying is that for him, the experience had some cushioning peculiar to his level of celebrity.
What I've realised is this: people feel that if they've had a mental illness, that means they understand what it's like for everybody else who's had a mental illness. It gives them carte blanche to put on their judgy pants (please forgive me Mumsnet, for I have sinned) and set themselves in a class above anyone who has made decisions they don't understand, or behaved badly when they were unwell. And to illustrate this, I give you Alistair Campbell.
At the beginning of the evening, I was prepared to have an uplifting shared experience of breaking down barriers, of acknowledging that no matter who we are, we're all vulnerable - anyone can have a mental illness, blah blah blah etc. During Alastair's speech, as he reclined in his chair and slurred only slightly less than I imagine he might have when he was drinking, it became clear that he was sharing nothing that resonated with those of us for whom treatment had been a mystical land we would never reach. He'd been politely and tidily nurtured back to health and sobriety in the Priory. Believe me when I say that it's a far cry from the corridors of an NHS acute ward. They keep a game of charades in a glass fronted dresser rather than an emergency hammer in a break glass box by the window.
After the performance (and yes it was), we retired to the networking area, and whilst he pointedly (and whilst looking around to make sure people were noticing) chose an orange juice, I went for wine - a large one. I was halfway through it, when Mr. Campbell sidled up to me and the group I was talking to, with an incredulous and sneering middle class expression on his purple vein-laced face.
"What's with the tattoos?"
"I got them to cover up scars."
And then he disappeared as fast as his addled legs would carry him.
This is a textbook example. It's all well and good talking about mental health, until someone says something that 'even you' in your position of being cool about all mental health, just because you've done time as an alcoholic in psychosis, has no understanding of. I can guarantee that in his head he thought:
"You mean you actually got tattoos, like some sort of prison hard nut, and even though you're a woman? And.... You... Cut yourself so badly that you needed full sleeves of tattoos to cover them?! What am I meant to do with that?!"
Well, I'll tell you what; it doesn't matter that some reputable organisation invited you to deliver your story and plug your book - the fact you're in the enviable position of being able to down tools and write a book in the first place gives you a chance that most normal people don't get. The man sitting on the bench outside Tescos conversing with his voices whilst drinking cider, unwashed and unshaven for years will never write a book. He may not even live beyond this winter. Average Joe with chronic anxiety walks past him every week with his shopping, thinking "Ugh, what a disgusting tramp", before driving to his CBT session paid for by his private medical insurance. There's a shortage of clients at my DBT group, because although the treatment is proven to be successful for even the most challenging clients, it's costly. Please someone tell me - which part of 40 hours of therapy costs £60000? Yes, it works, the therapists know their shit. But really, this could change people's lives and yet the cost is prohibitive and it's very existence is kept under wraps. What the fuck are we doing?
The moral of the story is this - talk all you like, be open about your experiences, because it helps facilitate conversation rather than sweeping them under the rug, but your codeine addiction is the same as that tramp's heroin habit, cheaper perhaps. Do you control your kidney function? You don't? Ok, well your brain does a bunch of stuff you can't control, including ordering your other organs around. You might end up living on the streets as a drunk and dying of cold and gangrene, or you might end up spending 2 months in a nice hospital where you kick your alcoholism using drugs that stop the withdrawal killing you. Oh, and enjoy charades.