Mental Illness – A Culture of One

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

A month ago, I offered a list of personal passionate concerns.  Tricky – communicating  a list.  Most often something  gets left off.   My list omitted one as vital to me as any:  Better Understanding of the Reality of Mental Illness.

[The topic was tackled from a different perspective in my Bigger Circle blog on November 10, 2012, the title was “More About the Gaping Hole in the Safety Net”: then scroll down and click the title of the blog you want.]

The issue is often at the front of my mind.  Some family and friends are in various stages of recovery, or not, from devastating mental illness.  Their struggles and those of people close to them are hard to reconcile with a medical era where so much serious illness is dealt with brilliantly.  It’s the absence of practitioners that is, to me, the glaring gap: a minimum one-year and often two-year waiting period to become a patient of an OHIP psychiatrist is too long for people and families who are living on the edge.  There is help available but only if you can afford private treatment – otherwise wait beyond your capacity to hold it together.

That being said, I think I have something to offer in the way of understanding the experience of people who are in trouble with mental illness.  In part, it’s because for many years I regularly experienced  anxiety and depression.  I have been blessed with help that has led me to acquire tools needed to prevent me inflicting permanent damage to myself and my closest relationships (those with whom the masking doesn’t work).   My tendencies don’t make the list of identifiable mental illness, but there have been moments when I felt I was seriously slipping.

First, Knowing You Need Help

There is a huge resistance in each of us to identifying where our behaviour is somehow dysfunctional.  Obsessing about unrequited love, having a hair-trigger temper, discomfort in any environment other than the familiar, or feeling singled out in receiving unfair treatment – there are so many ways in which each of us at times gets to the edge where feeling and behaviour ceases to work for our own good.  Occasionally.  Not regularly.

When an unhelpful behaviour becomes a pattern, when we don’t seem able to stop it, when we carry on as if nothing is particularly wrong, we’re heading in the direction of a denial that prolongs the agony for everybody!  Recognizing that we aren’t managing our emotions, our behaviour, in a productive way seems to be a big hurdle for many.   Bring able to accept and acknowledge that we need help is the first big grown-up step.

It seems to take a lot of time.

The Isolation Intensifies

This is the part that I know best, from personal experience.  One feels utterly alone.  Great hubris!  Great self-centredness!  As if there aren’t thousands at the very same moment probably feeling the same way.  But is it wilful self-absorption or are the feelings so intense that there isn’t room for reason?  If one has been flooded with anxiety, chemistry is against sensible interpretation of what’s happening.  Whether the feeling of numbness and greyness of depression, the intense high of being in manic mode, or the certainty that there are malign forces acting upon one, all around, directing the action, there seems to be no one to run to, to talk about what’s happening.

That isolation sets up the Culture of One – with history accumulating, and an alternate reality remaining in the mind as maybe the correct one.  The ‘crazy’ self begins to have a life of its own.

Accessing Help – The Barriers

A worse case scenario:  A tenant at work, with whom I’d developed a friendship, passed the 3-year mark in sobriety.  He was part of a close-knit AA support group with a Christian emphasis that seemed to work for him.  But the longer he remained sober, the more his unrecognized mental illness manifested.  The TV began talking to him.  In his new job as a worker in a charity shop, handling bundles of women’s clothing, he began to think that God was wanting to change his gender.   Reading scripture gave him no comfort – he repeatedly saw that punishment was due to him from a vengeful  Lord.  There was no psychiatric help available, beyond the 72-hour assessment in a psych ward.  A one-year waiting list was the best we could do. The meds prescribed conflicted with his hepatitis meds and he soon dumped them.  He has now been drinking steadily with violent outbursts for the past eight years since it was first clear that he wasn’t coping.   He is seriously alone.

A much better case scenario:  People who have accessed help can link up with others and create a life that has some affection and social richness.  Go to Progress Place, the drop-in centre, or to St. Jude’s residence at Jarvis and Parliament.  There lives my old friend Samuel.  It has taken years for him to come to this somewhat level ground .  Good supports, fellow residents who all have decent medical attention, and meds that have been tried and tested to find what works for each – these have allowed lives to develop that counteract the isolation.  Samuel may still have his particular ‘voices’ and concerns about forces manipulating him, but my friend has become grounded among people who understand, with whom he shares meals and social time, and who can give feedback if he is acting in self-harmful ways.

Recently another residence has opened up for people who are Mental Health Survivors, in the downtown area, with appropriate supports.  Bravo!  The Dream Team , a group of Survivors who work to provide information about the importance of decent supportive housing for those with mental illness, visits schools and various societies and funding groups who – if they listen well – will learn more about the importance of help to those who otherwise are lost.

Any Reason for Hope?

I really believe that the more we – the general population – understand the isolating and frightening aspects of the experience of those suffering from mental illness, the more we’ll be moved to insist on decent housing and care.  Is there a single reader who is totally unfamiliar with these experiences – during episodes in your own lives, or through your own network of family and friends?  It happens anywhere.   None of us can afford to be indifferent.

Please Comment if you can add to the picture we need to grasp.



Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries

4 responses to “Mental Illness – A Culture of One

  1. Rosie: an excellent blog about mental illness and the difficulty of getting appropriate help.
    Some of it depends on where one lives. A city the size of Vernon probably does a much better job assessing and looking after folks with mental illness than does Vancouver, Toronto or Hamilton.
    In any case mental illness needs to be talked about openly as do the barriers to treatment.
    This TED talk might contribute to the discussion.
    Please feel free to share this note and blog with others.

    From your retired psychiatrist friend with love, Stan

  2. Thanks Rosie!
    To care for someone struggling with mental health issues is so complex requiring patience, perseverance and an ongoing willingness to learn along the way, regardless of how informed you are. To care is the fixed point. How to care is the dance – at times close, at times not so close, yet never too far away..

  3. Karen

    Great blog Rosie – also love the above comment – to care is the fixed point and those struggling with mental illness really need that dance of care!

  4. Barbara Thomas

    Thank you Rosie. I’m just catching up on my emails. There are two rather serious cases in my family, but thankfully they were both able to access care.
    Not that that is the end of the story. Meds are tenuous and many years I worried that I would have a call, while I was out of the country, that my child had come to harm. Care is a life long ‘dance’ of commitment, as your commenter so beautifully phrases it.

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