Dec 102013

In this day and age, I find it amazing how totally unsympathetic some people are when it comes to mental health. It seems to me blindingly obvious that a traumatic past may have the effect of holding back a person’s development and cause them problems. The fact that parental divorce or bereavement, or whatever the trauma was, affects two people differently I put down to the difference in their individual experience, rather than one being stronger or better (though it may be that one has processed the trauma and worked on it more effectively than the other).

I also believe telling someone who feels a victim to stop being so feeble and self-indulgent is (usually) a crass and counter-productive way to handle the situation. Love, support and patience are the answer. Or they have been for me. We’re all different and I suppose in some cases some home truths and tough love may be a productive solution. Here, as in everything, really, it’s so important to understand how different characters respond to different approaches.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh on the people I consider shockingly lacking in empathy – the problem is, they have no idea what it’s all about. Although they may not have had X disease, they have certainly had some sort of physical affliction at some stage and, at some level, they can relate to a physical problem or illness. They believe in it because their experience has brought them into that realm. Someone who has never been struck down by depression, anxiety or other psychological condition, and never been intimately involved with anyone who has, has no point of reference or window on that world.

If I’m honest, I have been guilty of such lack of imagination and empathy myself. I used to get terribly impatient with my short-sighted friend. My own vision was 20/20 and I couldn’t get my mind round the idea that someone couldn’t see what was right there in front of him, clear as crystal (to me). Ten years on, my eyes have lost their youthful sharpness and I need glasses for reading, writing and close-up work. Now, of course, I have far more sympathy for my friend – but it shouldn’t have taken going through it myself for me to make that leap.

But the point I want to make today is that, despite being appalled and frustrated by their failure to acknowledge the power of the mind to ruin a life, I have to concede there is a grain of truth in the argument put forward by the just-get-on-with-it types. They are right that, however grotesque our history, we are all responsible for our own behaviour and attitudes. Having had an abusive childhood is no excuse for growing up to abuse others.

It’s no excuse but it is a reason, and this is where those on both sides have to be sensitive and those of us with the issues have to be honest with ourselves. Repeating the mistakes that have caused so much pain and misery to us, taking out our pain and misery on the people in our lives now, is bad. It’s bad for the people around us and it’s bad for us.

Depending how our issues have manifested and what sort of mental-health problems we’ve got, there may well be times when it’s beyond our control.

I feel very strongly that those close to someone who struggles with issues of mental health owe it to that person to be kind, patient and supportive and not just hide until the person has got over the crisis alone. The reason they do this is usually nothing more selfish than fear, but I still find it frightening that ill people should be left to suffer alone, just because the symptoms are beyond the understanding of the people around.

However, if we are going to expect this from those close to us, we have to meet them halfway. We owe it to them to work on ourselves, to work towards recovery so that life won’t always be like this. We also owe them huge apologies if we give them a hard time. When I’m under the influence of my demons, I can be vitriolic and over the years I’ve been truly nasty to two of the people I love most in the world. Up to a point, I feel I couldn’t help it but at the very least it’s essential that, as soon as my brain clears a bit, I say I’m sorry and explain it was the demons talking. I like to think I would never take it further and indulge in physical violence but I don’t believe I can take much credit for this; it’s just the way I’m built.

There is no doubt that the chemicals of the brain affect people strongly and I believe that, in the case of someone inexperienced in analysing their feelings and impulses, it probably is fair to say that if they lash out, they can’t help it. For me, the principle of responsibility is on the larger scale. Yes, I’m asking those around me – and society as a whole – to make allowances for my issues, early on. However, as soon as it becomes apparent that I’ve got a problem, it is my responsibility to get therapy, to read and research, to think and experiment and to work on myself until I get the problem under control. For those on the other side of the argument, please remember: the less you criticise and the more you support me, the sooner I’ll be able to sort myself out.

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