This week, I was caught off guard by an unlikely conversation. It happened before a yoga class when I asked the manager how often she practiced. Without saying a word, she gracefully pointed to a freshly applied tattoo.
My awe and wonder grew as she explained the significance of her blown-up, pixilated love heart: not only was it the visual representation of an extra life in one of her favourite computer games but it was also one half of her husband’s corresponding tattoo that also denoted an extra life - “1UP” – in the Super Mario Bros video game.
This insight prompted a stark realisation – like one of those unusual moments when all the pieces of your favourite jigsaw puzzle finally slot together. These permanently etched depictions signified that somewhere along the journey there is the possibility of finding so much love and happiness that one life is not enough: you want another one.
"You are suffering from severe depression"
That’s when it struck me. When I realised how ill I had become. It was as if someone had pressed the rewind button: all of a sudden I was taken back to the time when I first fell ill. When I didn’t understand what was wrong: Why couldn’t I stop crying? Why could I not sleep? At what point had the line between perceived normality and seeming madness blurred and merged into one? Friends looked perplexed; colleagues didn’t know what to say; my family sent me to the doctor. It was this very same practitioner, who, without any qualm stated: “You are suffering from severe depression.”
Then I was brought back to reality: how on earth, I wondered, while looking at the tattoos, could anyone want another life?
Something that is only ever discussed in whispers
There’s something about mental illness that seems to send a shiver down everyone’s spine. A taboo: something that happens to ‘other people’: something that is only ever discussed in whispers, as if it were contagious. Most of the time I think this is because people don’t understand it – don’t really know what it means to suffer from mental ailments. But, sometimes I wonder if it’s because we’re actually scared of it: we’re all worried that, if by some slim chance, by talking about it we might also become prey to it.
Take a holiday! Move country! Find a partner! - they suggest, half-heartedly, half-confused. But the sad reality is that however great the holiday, however pretty the change of scenery, however devoted your new lover, you still – at some point – have to come back to you.
Why are we so afraid to speak-up and talk about it?
Any that could mean any of us. We all have mental health – just as we all have physical health. Mental ailments come in as many disguises as they do forms and degrees. Indeed, an estimated 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year – so why are we so afraid to speak-up and talk about it? Why are we so rejecting about something that is already so negative?
When I fell ill, someone wisely pointed out that it wasn’t as much a ‘breakdown’ as it was a ‘breakthrough’. This was my body’s way of telling me that something wasn’t right – that something needed to change. And I’m not talking about a complete overhaul. I’m talking about making small incremental shifts that will – collectively – make a big difference over the long run.
If we were all more honest about mental health, it wouldn’t be so isolating
It’s talking about introducing flexibility in the way we think about the world and how we think about ourselves. It’s about self-acceptance; fallibility; realism. It’s knowing that it’s nice to have people’s love and approval, but understanding that without it – we can still love, respect and enjoy ourselves. It’s remembering that doing things well is satisfying but knowing that it’s human – and important – to make mistakes. It’s understanding that people are going to act the way they want – not the way we want. And most importantly: it’s believing that if we take the right steps, we won’t be ill forever, we can get better.
I truly believe that we can only embrace something once we’ve fully understood and accepted it. So perhaps, if we were all a little more honest and open about mental health then it wouldn’t be such a frightening and isolating experience. In a weird and wonderful way, we might also start to embrace the pros – and not just the cons – of this emotional roller coaster. Perhaps then, we’d see more people walking around with tattoos symbolising their wish to live this – and the next – life to the absolute full.