Archives For Time to Change

Hesitating to talk

March 13, 2013 — Leave a comment

All of us at the focus group for the new Time to Change campaign thought that the idea of splitting the advert into two parts – one part with people hesitating to talk and the next part with people explaining why it’s good to start a conversation about mental health – was inspired. The advert, if you haven’t seen it yet, shows four people who initially struggle to talk to or about their daughter with bipolar disorder, their son with psychotic symptoms, their friend with bipolar disorder, and their partner with bipolar disorder.

During the focus group – attended by a guy with schizophrenia, a guy with depression, a lady with anxiety disorder, a lady with a personality disorder, me with bipolar disorder, and a couple of people whose chose not to disclose their mental health status – we asked if the people watching the advert would have to guess if the people speaking had mental illnesses or were supporters or were just your average joe public – before you looked at the backstory videos to find out. It was obviously decided to make them people with some experience of mental health via a loved one, although starting a conversation about mental health is difficult for everyone, either because of stigma, embarrassment, uncertainty, or simple ignorance.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder nearly five years ago, and took the decision to speak openly about it with family, friends, work colleagues, and every bugger that would let me. I chose not to be stigmatised by the mental illness, and even chose to publicly support the charity Bipolar UK through social media and a superhero costume fun-raiser entitle ‘The Bipolar Scavenger Hunt‘. I sent one hundred invitations and RSVPs to family and friends – and about 10 famous strangers including Stephen Fry, Robbie Williams, and Ruby Wax. Unfortunately I became ill around the same time and wasn’t able to start the event in London – but still raised some much needed funds.

My family and friends carried on treating my like normal after the initial diagnosis and, with medication and talking therapy, I was able to return to work and get my life back to nearly normal. I didn’t change my life-style and didn’t really look after myself properly – and two years later I had another major episode. The medication seemed to stop working and a change of doctor left me with very basic clinical support (turns out these new doctors doubted the diagnosis) and my life slowly unraveled – I lost my job, my home, my life, and I felt that I’d lost support from family and especially from friends.

My behaviour was irrational and irritable. I would burst into tears for no reason. I would avoid the phone and front door. I would stay in bed for weeks. I would call people to say that I hated them, then call them to say I loved them…… And then I would arrange a holiday, meet people for drinks, start new businesses, spend excessive amounts of money.

I seemed to target a handful of close friends in an almost self-destructive manner, and those friendships have suffered as a result. Some friends have ended the relationship, some have distanced themselves, and some have chosen to ignore it completed. All the behaviours are understandable, and I am guilty of them too, but none of them really help to maintain my mental wellness.

My sister was able to convince me to see an new doctor and together with professional help, new medication, and regular counselling, I am now in recovery. A large part of the recovery, I feel, is due to discussions about my mental illness with a select few friends and family. They have listened, tried to understand, and tried to ask how I am feeling on a regular basis – although I still find it difficult to talk about the darkest moments of my mental illness.

Talking about our problems, the things that we are struggling with, is difficult at the best of times but generally this is the best approach in life. Talking about mental health is no different, except maybe the responses are sometimes highly emotional and sometimes illogical. Talking to someone with a mental illness calmly and with compassion is always better than arguing or feeling pity – so chose the right moment and let the person with the mental illness feel comfortable and direct the conversation, where possible.

During the focus group process, I was able to pitch an idea. I thought that the characters from The Muppets and Sesame Street would make great advocates for talking about mental health – mainly because they cross the age barriers, bring comedy into the conversation, and because many share symptoms of mental illnesses. Have you ever considered that Count von Count or Oscar the Grouch have obsessive disorders? Or that Cookie Monster has an eating disorder? Or Animal has attention deficit disorder? Or that Big Bird shows signs of schizophrenia with his imaginary friend Mr Snuffleupagus? Of course, this is not real life and is generalising about mental illnesses, but it’s an interesting start to a conversation about mental health…….

“Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letters T and C and by the number 2 – it’s Time to Change, it’s Time to Talk”

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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.”

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