i realise, this year, that the failure of some people advocating for mental health is that they approach disorders symptomatically. for example - someone who does not suffer from generalised anxiety might approach the issue of anxiety as a battle against feeling nervous before an event, or before meeting someone new, or in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. someone who does not suffer from depression might approach the issue of depression as a battle against low mood. the problem with a symptomatic approach - i.e. tackling individual symptoms - is that, more often than not, these disorders do not manifest themselves symptomatically. that’s to say, living with a mental health disorder is not living with individual symptoms that are separate and able to be rationally tackled one by one. mental health disorders are pervasive, consuming beasts that alter the very fabric of your being.
for me, more than obvious ‘nerves’ or panic or feeling explicitly ’sad', the struggle i have with my mind is in battling the constant, endless, circling, always victorious negative thoughts. everything that, superficially, i love in life - my brain will distort to make negative. family? - disappoint them. friends? - probs hate me. boyfriend? - will leave me eventually when i get too much. dogs? - not a single one i’ve ever met will outlive me. if business is bad then i’m an obvious failure, if business is good i’m a total fraud. all the support, praise, positive feedback, kind comments in the world don’t mean shit if one single person tells me i’m a hypocrite or a bitch or blind to my privilege. all the orders out on time, received with warmth, and gushed about passionately online mean nothing if i get one email chasing me up because i’m a few days behind. the problem with negative thought patterns is that you don’t need convinced that you’re worthless. and it isn’t necessarily a question of self-esteem - it can, often, be knowing rationally that you’re a pretty decent person, but being so trapped in focusing on your shortcomings that you can no longer apply the things you *know* about yourself to the way you *feel* about yourself.
for many people, their adventures in mental health take place on a tourist visa. it’s feeling wracked with nerves from time to time, or feeling miserable in winter because it gets dark at 3pm and you haven’t been properly warm in about 4 months. and that’s not to say they haven’t experience poor mental health; i think it would be irresponsible and unrealistic to assume *anyone* hasn’t had some dealing with it at some point in their lives. but it does mean that their experience of it is often limited to experiencing those individual symptoms. the ones that we can focus on changing. the ones we can isolate and analyse, in order to exact positive change on them. when your mental health symptoms start overlapping and interlocking and informing each other, it becomes much harder to understand what’s going on in your brain - which, in turn, makes ‘fixing’ it near impossible.
one of the main differences, in my experience, between the symptomatic & the all-consuming experiences of poor mental health is in our notions of self-destructive behaviours. as is the way with a lot of mental health stuff, self-destruction has become somewhat of a trend recently. we love to outline how busy we are by boasting about how many coffees we’ve had in a day even though we know it’s bad for us. we love people to know how hard we’re hustling by saying we haven’t had time for a proper dinner in a week. and this is where you see the divide between our society’s experiences of mental health. self-destruction isn’t just forgetting to have lunch some days or not drinking enough water or not taking the time to chill at the end of a busy day. it’s screaming at the people you love, and who love you, because what’s going on in your head makes you defensive and angry and scared of being abandoned because you’ve become too much to handle. it’s hearing advice that you can only ever translate as criticism, and feeling completely broken by it because subconsciously you’re always just waiting for the day that your loved ones decide you’re not worth the effort anymore. it’s being 4 seconds away from a complete meltdown that will immediately write off the rest of your day at any given point for any number of reasons - you messed up your eyeliner, you tried to get up early but ended up running late anyway, you said ‘you too’ when the waiter said ‘enjoy your food’ and the minor humiliation has sparked a catastrophic landslide inside your brain. it is an ever-present, underlying, insidious belief that it’s simply a matter of time before you inevitably fuck up like you always do because you cannot do a single thing right - it’s not an ‘if’, it’s a ‘when’.
there’s nothing wrong with not understanding what the mental health experience is like for others, and there’s certainly no shame in being vocal and active in the MH community even if you’ve only experienced it symptomatically. it’s just important that we don’t speak about mental health as a general entity based only on our own personal experience or that, if we do, we make it clear that we’re just speaking from what we’ve been through - rather than that we are the voice of mental disorders. those among us with MH issues like psychosis and personality disorders will always be subject to a harsher and more extreme reaction than those of us who enjoy the privilege of having one or more of the 'socially-accepted' disorders. more than anything, we have to practice the understanding, kindness, and patience that we preach. remember it when your friends with mental health issues are pushing you away or isolating themselves or manifesting the symptoms that you so passionately advocate for de-stigmatising.
the good news? the more we talk about it, the more open we are, the more we choose to bravely share with the people in our lives - the more they will understand what we’re going through and the more readily they’ll be able to help. people’s lack of help is not because they don’t care, people don’t help because they don’t know how to help us. be patient with them, and with yourselves.