December 8, 2014
It has taken me a long time not to see myself as a ‘failure’ for having this illness.
First published: TheJournal.ie, 07-Dec-2014
WHEN I WAS in my early twenties I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I went to my doctor with a flu and came out with this diagnosis (I was tearful and exhausted in the surgery). I had always assumed that people with depression and anxiety could not get out of bed every day and I said this to my doctor. She told me that it comes in many ways, where a person could be out at work all day but comes home and cry their eyes out all evening.
I don’t describe myself as ‘being’ depressed or anxious but I describe myself as ‘having’ it. My illness is not who I am. Thankfully, I am well at the moment through the ongoing support I am receiving. However, I often think the stigma of having depression and anxiety is worse than having it.
It has taken me a long time not to see myself as a ‘failure’ for having this illness. Now I think going for help despite the stigma that persists is a brave and courageous thing not only for myself but for all people with a diagnosis of mental ill-health.
In my opinion I think people with mental ill-health fear rejection and non-acceptance by family, friends and co-workers. For example I have disclosed my illness in some of the places that I have worked. At times this has been a really positive experience and in others not so positive. When it has not been so positive, I have been spoken to as if I am a child despite having a good education.
The daily world of work can be a minefield if you have had a mental illness. The thoughts that went through my head in work particularly at the start were “Do I disclose and if so to whom and when?” “If I disclose on my probation will they let me go?” “How will my colleagues react to me?” “Can I trust the person to whom I am disclosing that they will accept me and keep my illness confidential?” “I don’t really want to disclose but what if I get sick again?” Others thoughts that crept in were “Will I be assigned menial tasks or not be seen as capable?”. When I have disclosed and have been out sick due to a physical illness like a cold or flu I have wondered if my organisation thought I was out sick with depression and anxiety.
Going to work while anxious is also not a pleasant experience. Thoughts of losing my job, making mistakes and so forth have raced around my head in work – needless to say, all these thoughts are exhausting. Thankfully with the help of exercise, deep breathing and relaxation I have my anxiety under control. Anti-depressant medication can make people feel tired as well as having depression and anxiety and this can be difficult in work, especially if you do not want to disclose. Work night outs may be difficult as you may not feel like socialising, you have been advised not to drink alcohol, and alcohol is a depressant anyway and you may feel very tired. At this time of year it is especially difficult to avoid these work events with Christmas parties now taking place. Christmas itself is also not an easy time for many people.
I have worked in amazing organisations where they knew my diagnosis and were fully supportive. I found I worked very well there and really helped my recovery. It was such a relief to be able to open about it. I have been in organisations where my disclosure did not go well and felt it very difficult to go into work when I felt the odds were stacked against me.
Relationships and dating are also a minefield. When you are very ill the last thing you may want or be able for is a relationship. However, I met my partner at a time when I was becoming unwell again but did not know it. I just wanted to be ‘normal’ and have a ‘normal’ relationship, but as the months progressed into our relationship I became more unwell. A family member encouraged me to seek professional help again and, thankfully, I have responded very well to treatment. I told my partner at this time about my mental illness history. He was amazing and treated me with compassion and understanding and we are now getting married next year.
Not everyone will have such a positive experience. It is very hard to open ourselves up to people, and before my current partner I was with someone who did not understand or have compassion. They saw mental illness as a sign of “failure”. When dating with a mental illness – a
gain, like in work – you can be tired. You may not be allowed drink alcohol and in Ireland out socialising revolves around the pub. As a non-drinker anyway it is very difficult trying to get many people to understand that you just don’t like alcohol.
Whatever decision a person makes about disclosure it needs to be right for them and on their terms. The stigma of mental illness makes it so much harder to go about daily life for many people with mental illness. Words like ‘mental’ and ‘crazy’ are used to describe the abnormal but people with mental illness are ‘normal’ people who do their best to go about daily life. Despite mine and other people’s mental illness diagnosis we face this world everyday with its increasing demand for perfection. I think that makes us brave and courageous, not ‘failures’.