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Mindfulness and our brains

I was ashamed of my mental health issues but Tea and Talk changed my life

Shell’s grounded oil rig in Alaska and their plans to avoid paying taxes; Climate change and Britain’s second wettest year on record; The official extinction of the Javan Rhino in Vietnam; – in the first few days of January there were already a number of significant events to discuss and I was sure that the environment would take centre stage for my first ‘editorial/feature‘ on the new blog. However, I found myself reading – via the Twitter feed that I’d become addicted too – first one blog on the Time to Change website about Dave’s experiences of depression and the support by four of his friends, then another blog by Tim speaking about the great support from his best friend, then finally a review of the most popular blog of 2012 on Ruby Wax’s The Black Tribe by guest blogger Andrew. This piece was also about relationships with people who have mental illnesses, included the difficulties of the people trying to offer support – please read it.

All three blogs were basically about the same subject, although took different angles, and the retweeting and replies by others this week showed how important and sensitive the subject of relationships and mental illness is to the mental health community. I assumed that most replies were from people with personal experience of mental illness as I found myself connecting with most of the messages – and then found myself feeling uncomfortable about my own experiences.

This wasn’t a suitable subject for me to explored at the moment, I thought. It would only upset me and it would be better to write about this once I was back to full health. But I had already made massive improvements over the last six months and I was already starting to address this issue with the psychiatric team – and my thoughts were clearer on the subject although I still wasn’t happy with how I felt about changes to relationships with family and friends. I should wait six month and then write about it…..

Avoidance is one of the biggest problems that I have at the moment. It’s not a clinical symptom of bipolar disorder but more a psychological side effect, and one that had, I thought, given me some time to make improvements.

….. No, I should write about it and it was a perfect time as nobody would read it anyway – plus I could blog about it again in six months and see if my thoughts had changed.

After attending a focus group about a new tv campaign for Time to Change, it dawned on me that mental health charities often sugar-coat some issues of mental illness to make it more understandable and appealing to general society. They try to put a positive spin on people’s experiences although every private forum and support group that I’m involved with talks about losing family and friends as a direct result of the illness – and this is my experience too.

Over the last five years, I have intermittently become angry, upset, confused and distant with some family and most friends, and damaged beyond repair many long-term relationships. I still think that I have to take responsibility for all my words and actions, but I’m not sure that I should blame myself for getting unwell – or blame others for their reactions to my behaviour. Well, that’s where I want to be!

In reality I still feel embarrassed and ashamed, abandoned at my most vulnerable moments, and hurt that people seem to be judging me – without judging the illness. I remember family and friends joking about my behaviour after I was first diagnosed ‘Have you taken your pills because you’re talking bollocks?!‘ but I rarely recall anyone saying ‘It’s not your fault, it’s the bipolar‘ when my behaviour was unacceptable – to them and to me! Instead many friends have questioned the diagnosis, called the friendship in retrospect unhealthy, or even claimed to not to have notice the signs – I lost my job, my home, spent excessive amounts of money, moved back with my parents, and stopped contacting people!

I realise that I do try to hide my symptoms but I am also very open to talk about my mental health – although it’s hard to open-up when people just want to hear ‘I’m fine‘ when they ask how you are. There are times to walk away and protect yourself but there are also times to offer support and ask ‘How are you?‘ – then just listen.

So what’s the solution? Actually, I don’t know. Friends have spoken about a ‘no win situation‘ during the worst episodes, and they may be right. But does anyone need to win? This illogical illness either puts you in an elated mood where you can’t be wrong or a depressed mood where you can’t be right, or leaves you with psychological side issues – but the key word is illogical. These are the times that our expectations of others are most distorted and we shout out for help, or at least think that we do. So are the expectation we have of others too high? My expectations of others and myself are definitely lower now, and life seems a little more balanced although I wonder what the next episode will bring and how many relationships it will damage.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh said it best

“The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.”