Tomorrow night, to commemorate Mental Health Week, the mental health organisation I frequent has organised a free screening of Silver Linings Playbook. Before the screening there will be three “inspirational” speakers talking about their recovery journey; I will be one of those speakers!
With less than twenty-four hours to go, I’m pretty terrified about publicly speaking for the first time…ever…but hope that once it’s over, I will be able to see it for the momentous victory that it is.
What follows is a sneak peak at the speech I will be delivering tomorrow evening, hopefully it’s not too bad because it’s a little too late to change things now! :)
When I was asked to speak tonight my initial reaction was HELL…NO! I suffer from social anxiety disorder, how exactly am I supposed to stand up in front of hundreds of people and speak to them for ten minutes? And not just speak to them, entertain them, enlighten them…inspire them? For that matter, how exactly does someone who has only just begun his recovery journey qualify in speaking about recovery?
I was advised to keep it simple. I was advised to make it safe. I was advised not to make it too personal. I was advised to throw in a few statistics, like: “about twenty in every hundred people will experience some form of mental health problem at some time in their lives” or “only 49 per cent of Canadians say they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness.”
But I have a problem with that. Mental health isn’t simple; mental health isn’t safe; in fact, mental health is about as personal as it gets. Sometimes I feel we get so caught up in citing references, figures, acronyms and percentages, that we forget the individuals on the front line; those incredibly awesome souls who live with mental health problems every single day of their lives.
It is their stories I’m interested in.
So from this point on there will be no statistics, there will be no simple, there will be only me, a few swear words and a trigger warning.
My name is Andrew, I’m 34 years old, I exist in Wodonga and I’ve been fighting on the front line against mental illness since I was thirteen years old.
I’ve cut myself to sleep more times than I can remember; I’ve exploded boxes of matches in my hand; tried to hang myself; suffocate myself and drown myself. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be touched, hugged or kissed. I’ve been a sufferer, a carer, a survivor and a nobody. I’ve had more conversations with people only I can hear than I’ve had conversations with people who actually exist and I’ve believed for as long as I can remember that the mythical realm of Death is the only place where I will be accepted for just being me. I’ve had to deal with more crap than I’d wish on my worst enemy; neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, social isolation, homelessness and – rather obviously – PTSD from…well…all of the above!
Yet despite all of this, I’ve never been more scared than I am right now.
For not since I was eight years old wearing a pink nightie have I been on stage in front of so many people, let alone publicly spoken about my journey with mental illness. So, before we go any further let’s clear a couple of things up. One, I was playing the ugly sister in a production of Cinderella; I don’t just randomly pop on stage wearing female nightwear for the hell of it. And two, if I tap the microphone four times – like this [PERFORM ACTION] – it means “someone tackle me to the ground quick-smart ‘cause this guy’s about to have a freaking panic attack!” Okay?
Good. Hopefully we won’t require such excessive measures, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What I eventually decided to share with you all tonight is a letter that I wrote to a younger version of me; a letter that is not simple, far from safe and is about as personal as it’s possible for a socially anxious soul to be without pushing him to tap the microphone four times.
Dear Younger Andrew,
In order to prove my credentials (that I am in fact you from the future) I shall begin this letter by telling you exactly what you’re doing right now: you are sitting on the East Beach in Port Fairy, there is a knife in your trembling right hand, a mobile phone in your left and dozens of tears dribbling down each cheek. You’ve just read a text message about insects and are beginning to question your decision to slash your wrists. Am I right?
Of course I am. I was there.
Now, put that knife down you imbecilic moron and pay attention to me for a moment. You might not like what I have to say, but what you do afterwards has a lot of bearing on me, so be a good little boy and just listen.
A little over eighteen months from now you are going to be diagnosed with an illness called Bipolar Affective Disorder. This diagnosis is going to turn your life upside down and I’m here to prepare you so the transition from unlabeled to labeled is as painless as humanly possible.
Now, even though I know you’re familiar with the term bipolar, from here-on-in I shall be referring to it as manic depression. Why? Well, over the forthcoming years many people will stick many permanent labels on you with their trusty DSM approved label makers, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. It will take you several lifetimes to realize that you and only youcan decide what label (if any) applies to you…so you may as well learn that lesson now.
Now, Manic Depression is a mental illness in the ‘mood disorder’ classification of illnesses; which means that your moods are – for want of a better term – fucked. This deep suicidal depression you’ve just slipped into courtesy of Louise’s betrayal, your ludicrous workaholic mentality and years of untreated mental health problems is part of the manic-depressive cycle. Soon enough (I won’t tell you when as it will take all the fun out of it) you’re gonna experience something called mania. You’ve been there before, without realizing it, but when it happens next, it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever experienced in your life. To whet your appetite, imagine yourself as an immortal God where nothing you do, say, think or feel is wrong; where you are the most perfect individual to have ever existed and everyone (regardless of how cute and spankable their posterior) thinks you are the bees-knees.
(Note to self: when you come to write this letter, please find a better phrase than ‘the bees-knees’!)
Of course, this is all bollocks. You are not an immortal God and regardless of how you perceive yourself during these periods, you are actually acting like a major twat. You just won’t realize it. Nothing I do or say will stop you during these periods so…what the hey…enjoy it, because soon enough the depressive thoughts will creep back in and life will turn to hell in a hand basket once more.
That’s the nature of Manic Depression. The endless cycle between manic, depression and (what everyone forgets about) all that messed-up crap in between!
I won’t bore you with all the details, but there are gonna be days where you go from walking on rainbows one minute to frying in the depths of hell the next. There are going to be weeks where you believe that you can save the universe by hanging yourself in the depths of the Dandenong Rainforest. There will be days that erase themselves from your memory and months that you’ll never again be able to remember. And just so that you’re prepared, there are going to be years spent living in isolation on the streets of Melbourne, and yes, it will be as soul-destroying as you think it will be.
It’s a bastard, Manic Depression, and you’re gonna seriously hate the crap out of it for destroying your life. But what I want you to understand – what I need you to remember – is that it isn’t all bad.
Sure; there’s gonna be a crap-load of medication that will leave you looking like an extra from The Walking Dead, more self-harm than you can imagine, friends will flee your life faster than you can think possible and (almost) an entire society will turn against you because you dared suffer from an illness that you had no control over.
But…your creativity will bloom. You will take some of the most beautiful photographs in the world, paint some of the most random (and obscure) images known to humankind and you’re gonna write like a possessed demon on steroids, churning out page after page of the most detailed, random, gut-wrenchingly honest collection of syllables known to blogging kind.
Because of your illness you will meet some of the most beautiful souls that you’ll ever know; people who will put a smile on your face with one word in an email; people who will trust you with their soulful desires; people who understand you completely. They will never judge you, not even for that.
Because of your diagnosis Andrew, you will blossom – heart, mind and soul – but only if you let it.
So let it.
Once you get through all the confusion, pain, agony, torment, loneliness and social hate.
Once you get through all the labels, meds, misdiagnoses, re-diagnoses and psychiatric bullshit.
Once you stop getting hung up on a label and start getting hung up on yourself, you’ll not give two shits about being diagnosed manic-depressive because – even when the entire world disagrees, which it will – you’ll remember what Samantha will tell you; it’s just another small stitch in the multi-coloured tapestry that is you. And everyone who doesn’t see that isn’t worth knowing.
If you take just one thing away from this letter, Andrew, take this: recovery is possible.
One day you are going to be fine; one day you will be happy again.
I’m just not going to tell you when, because…spoilers!
So throw the knife in the trash and phone Ms. I’m-sending-you-a-text-message-about-ants because she can help you a hell-of-a lot more than I can right now.
Love and hugs always,