October 26, 2012

Lucy, a Time to Change bloggerIf I had a broken leg, nobody would make me walk on it.

That sentence must be one most frequently used analogies about the struggle of living and coping with mental illness. I see blogs and articles peppered with it, usually written by people just like me who are expected to flick a switch and start coping again.

People who have never suffered are the ones who think that I need to just "stop worrying" or "be a bit stronger" or "enjoy life more". I can completely understand how a non-sufferer would find it difficult to grasp what it's really like to have a mental illness. I often liken it to trying to understand any ailment - I, for example, have never suffered with cancer or arthritis, so it is difficult for me to understand how that would feel, physically and mentally. There's something about mental illness, perhaps its invisibility, which makes people think it's OK to tell you how they think you should deal with it.

I am currently out of work due to anxiety and panic attacks.

I am currently out of work due to anxiety and panic attacks. After six years of living beneath an anxious cloud with occasional heavy showers in the form of panic attacks, my body finally gave up and told me I need to stop. I tried to carry on in my previous job, believing I needed to 'be stronger' and learn to cope and toughen up, which actually pushed my anxiety so far it was like my body just collapsed beneath me and I had no choice but to admit defeat.

It's easy to think that mental illness is a choice. There's this great belief that we control our mind and it doesn't control us. I think that works for a healthy person, but when your mind isn't working the way it should I don't think it applies. If I broke my leg, nobody would expect me to use my mind to overcome the breaks in my bones.

This summer, my boyfriend actually did break his leg. I saw the broken leg analogy play out in front of me.

This summer, my boyfriend actually did break his leg. I saw the broken leg analogy play out in front of me. In came the get well messages, the reassurances that not being able to go to work or social arrangements was fine and to just concentrate on getting better. His employers didn't want him to go back until he felt completely ready to do so, until the pain stopped. I don't think my previous employers thought I was in any pain at all.

As my poor boyfriend hobbles around on his crutches, people open doors, offer lifts, offer to come round and cook. His injury is visible and it's easy to relate to. Some people look awkward and clear their throats a lot when I try to talk about my anxiety. Absolutely nobody expects him to walk on a broken leg. So why are people with mental illness expected to think on a broken mind? When you're in the throes of anxiety, depression, OCD, or a psychotic episode, it's sometimes the hardest thing in the world just to wake up in the morning; let alone go to work, do a good job, be a good friend and keep a busy social calendar. Yet it's the bravest thing in the world to wake up, get up and carry on with your day. It's just that because a mental illness is often silent and invisible, people don't realise the daily struggle.

Not a lot of people would see me getting up, driving to work and getting through the day as brave.

People might say that managing to get through a doctor re-setting the bones in your leg without painkillers is brave, which it is. Not a lot of people would see me getting up, driving to work and getting through the day as brave. They don't realise it feels just as painful as having a broken bone reset, except the pain is emotional and sometimes it's hard to talk about.

I am very lucky to have a lot of very supportive people around me who do understand my struggles. There is still a lot of work to be done in changing people's attitude to living with mental illness though, especially in the workplace. It needs to be OK to talk about - it needs to be OK to tell somebody you don't feel fine and you need a bit of help.

So as my boyfriend rests his leg, I will rest my mind

So as my boyfriend rests his leg, I will rest my mind. Looking after him is giving my mind something else to think about, and caring for him makes me feel useful again. It will take 7 weeks for the bones in his ankle to heal, and then walking will be a bit wobbly for a while. I don't have a timescale for my anxiety. I'm having psychotherapy, which is really helping, and I plan to take as much time as I need to relax and let my nervous system recover. Then maybe I'll try to walk again, wobbly at first, but I know eventually I'll be back to full strength and able to get my life back again.

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