Lately, I haven’t been blogging. Obviously. I have also been staying away from Facebook. I’ve been in college for a total of two hours this week, and I’ve done very little studying. My flat is a biohazard, cups and dishes merrily congregating together like groups of friends at a dance venue.
Sadly, this is all too familiar.
There are one hundred and one things I could write about this week. Only yesterday I was trying to think up a pithy title for a post on Western menstrual taboos- bloody frustrating work, badum-bum-tshh. I should review Doctor Who (I was disappointed this week). Maybe I could explain why I didn’t make it to the Chomsky talk (a veritable comedy of errors, I’ll get around to putting that particular shaggy dog story to paper in a couple of days). Possibly give out a bit about that housing shortage nobody’s talking about (I live in a freaking tenement). But while I was browsing the news in my usual pre-noon haze, this column caught my attention- http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/does-hollywoods-portrayal-of-mental-illness-help-or-hinder-854743-Apr2013/ and I started thinking.
Though the author is critical of mainstream film’s alternate fetishisation and demonisation of mental illness, he seems to implicitly agree with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman, whose article he quotes- “It’s Hollywood, so there are still going to be things that are there more for the story than for accuracy.”
Well, of course. Real life doesn’t have neat endings that tie up all the loose ends, whether happy, sad, or otherwise. Dr. Schlozman’s statement could apply to just about any sort of human experience- falling in love, striving for a dream, or losing a loved one, for example. Sure, these things might be portrayed as smooth, gritty, or somewhere in between, depending on the production, but there’s a common rule of thumb- film cuts out most of the boring bits, and real life doesn’t have montages.
The catch is that love, being the underdog and bereavement are pretty universal themes. Almost anyone can relate to them, and after a few years of suffering the proverbial slings and arrows, most of us realise that art does not perfectly imitate reality. The greater part of the audience will not find our prince or princess. Our dream jobs won’t fall into our laps. We won’t pass neatly through the Five Stages of Grief in order. While mental illness is most certainly common- Mooney points out that one in four of us will experience it at some point in our lives- it is by no means ubiquitous. What proportion of that remaining seventy five per cent are still at sea?
Almost everyone reading this will know somebody with a mental illness. Not everyone reading this will know that they do. A good proportion of us appear, well, normal. Most people don’t realise that there’s something wrong with me until I start twitching (this is becoming a rarer event, see below). I have General Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. I am on medication, and awaiting therapy. I don’t generally advertise it. People notice me missing classes, but for all they know, I have a chronic physical illness, or I’m a party animal, or I’ve dropped out and joined a cult.
I am writing about this because I am irritated at the quick-fix quackery abundant in the media (‘Five Fool Proof Ways to Reduce Your Anxiety!’ ‘Depressed? Chocolate and Exercise Prove the Cure to Happiness!’) and films that show the transition from ill to healthy as anything but the slow journey it actually is. Some may say that a realistic depiction of mental health recovery runs a risk of discouraging those who need help from seeking it out. However, I would argue that painting the process as quick and painless is both disrespectful of those who are struggling and leads sufferers to believe that they are incapable of getting better when they find the path rockier than expected. I am a far healthier person than I was four or five months ago, though I still have relapses- like this week, as you have probably guessed. The fact that it has taken quite a while for me to get here does not make me any less grateful for that.
The following is adapted from a comment piece I started writing months ago, but never finished. It charts my progress from a breakdown in December until the middle of February.
I am not looking for attention, but seeking to inform. I would appreciate if readers could keep their comments to constructive criticism on the style and debate on the content. Thank you.
Anxiety attacks don’t bode well for students with journalistic ambitions. This, of course, only serves to make me more anxious.
A minor breakdown in the third row of a crowded lecture theatre turns out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It’s not easy to describe what happens in those moments. It’s a combination of being smothered- rough hands pushing a pillow over your face, the last of your air running out, the certainty that oh God, this is it, this is it I’m going to die- and shock in the aftermath of a tragic event, all shaking hands and difficulty speaking, heart hammering and no, don’t touch me, stay away, why can’t I stop this, this is all my fault. Just to confuse matters, my definition will probably differ from that another sufferer. It’s hard to understand, raw primal fear- the kind that tells you to step away from the edge of a cliff. Except you’re blindfolded, you don’t know whether your facing towards or away from the sheer drop, and you feel that you’re somehow responsible for the whole situation.
Of course, if this was Hollywood, I’d hyperventilate for a while, eyes popping out of my head as if Benedict Cumberbatch had just waltzed past in a Speedo, and then breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes. I’d recover, the class would murmur among themselves- some warily, some sympathetically- and I’d make a dignified if shaky exit. I’d run into a handy Wise Mentor Figure and have a heart to heart. They would point me in the direction of a therapist, who would, in one session, trigger a Major Epiphany, leading to Essential Character Development and perhaps the resolution of the plot. There may even be a later shot of me traipsing around a sunny park in a yellow dress, with an offensively cheerful terrier at my side and a grin on my face.
However, this is Dublin, and I’m a mess. I trip out the door, mascara running and cheeks red, to the accompaniment of an awkward silence punctuated by a single stifled giggle. I disassociate, wandering around campus, hearing conversations as if the volume had been turned down. Calmly, I decide to jump off a nearby overpass. It seems as obvious and necessary as deciding to pick up a litre of milk on the way home. On the way, I run into an acquaintance, who snaps me out of it. I freak out- I’m losing my mind– and run for the bus home. I pace my room for about twenty minutes before deciding to leg it to a local GP. There are no appointments available for today.
We have four emergencies already, yes, I’m sorry, yes, I know, here are some freephone numbers…
The woman from 1Life (1800 247 100) is very understanding. It takes me fifteen minutes huddling in the back garden, sobbing into my mobile, for me to get out a coherent sentence. She refers me to Pieta House. Thus ends the dramatic climax. What follows is boring, mind-bogglingly frustrating, and very, very real.
Pieta House refers me to my GP.
My G.P. gives me anti-depressants, and refers me to UCD’s psychiatric service.
UCD’s psychiatric service never rings. I return to my G.P. She gives me stronger meds, and refers me to Ballymun.
Ballymun refer me to UCD.
There are a lot of things that they don’t tell you about Lexapro.
Don’t worry though, the manufacturers include a very detailed list of side effects. Excruciatingly detailed, I would say. I suffer through palpitations reading about nausea, strange rashes, and allergic reactions. There’s got to be some irony in this, but I’m too spaced out to care. I grimace, and pop ten milligrams of anti-depressants (this will later become fifteen, then twenty…).
The leaflet mentioned “tremors”, but I wasn’t expecting this. This is not a tremor. This is a full-body earthquake, measuring at least a 6.2 on the Richter scale. I briefly consider hiring myself out as a human vibrator, and then remember my unfortunate tendency to punch strangers who invade my personal space. I meet a friend for coffee. Now l ‘m waiting for my GP to refer me to a cognitive behavioural therapist, and I’m supposed to talk often with trusted people. Reconnect with reality. Leave the house. I’m comfortable with this girl; she has been through something similar. I knock over her latte, and she diagnoses me with the “Prozac shakes”. Later, a seasoned veteran, I will tell another friend the same thing.
I am not magically better because I decided to look for help. Right now, I’m not really sure what “better” means. But I am trying. Sometimes, progress isn’t measured in leaps and bounds, but in coffee meetings and essay deadlines met. I do know that it has been several weeks since I’ve been too afraid to leave the house. And I am proud of that.