Content warning: Mental ill health
I have a mental illness. This is far from a secret – I talk about it all the time. I joke that I have made a career of oversharing. Right now my mental state is pretty tenuous and I am debating whether I should call the crisis team or not. My clinical manager was off work today so when I called expecting to talk to her I was told she was on leave. This left me feeling quite alone and vulnerable.
The interesting thing about my illness – or one of them at least – Is my capacity to work full-time, write books and do all manner of things while I am quite unwell. I remember a friend saying how amazing it was that I was unwell but that I was able to sell my house last year. I never worked out if that was a criticism and admonishment for me not to complain about my illness or if it was said from a place of thinking I was impressive. Looking back I think it was impressive to renovate and sell a property when I had only been discharged from hospital a few weeks prior and that the hospital stay was eight months! I didn’t think I was doing anything unusual at the time. I needed to sell my house so I did what you do to sell it. I am quite stoic and determined which I think makes that kind of thing possible.
I was not always able to accomplish things when unwell. I was unemployed / outside of the labour force from 1994-2003 and accessed disability payments. I remember being reviewed for my payments and worrying I would be too well to keep receiving them. My psychiatrist who filled out the form said ‘I will use the magic word: psychosis”! She was correct in thinking that part of my illness would warrant a continuation of my income support payments and it was a few more years before I started my current job.
My illness is a tricky one. Basically what happens is that if I get very anxious over a long period – or, as happened in one instance I take ADHD medication – I lose touch with reality and go into a psychotic state which is frankly terrifying, like living in a nightmare. I also get mood issues, usually depression but sometimes mania. Life becomes hellish and I often want to check out before I am supposed to. The first time I was psychotic I had no idea that I was unwell. I thought the universe was ending and I was the only person who knew this was happening. Very, very frightening. I call it my Alice in Wonderland experience – more the scary confusing bits that the whimsical ones though. I have taken medication for psychosis since 1995 and – unless there is a cure for schizophrenia – will probably have to do so for the rest of my life. The meds have side effects but I don’t usually consider living without them as it is likely that would end very badly.
I manage an immense workload both in my advocacy work and my day job. My managers at work and I agree that I do the work of two people. My capacity for hard work is huge. You might think that this is a negative in terms of mental health but it really isn’t. In fact work – day job or advocacy-related – is an excellent distraction when I am having a hard time. If I can focus on my work I am spending less energy devoted to worrying about my mental health. This doesn’t always work for if I am very unwell I cannot focus on my work. When this happens I take leave or downtime – depending on which sort of work I am doing. I take my work very seriously and love that I can devote myself to it.
I sometimes wonder if people think I don’t have as much drama with my mental illness as I say I do. This is because on the surface I am doing things that most people could only do if they were in a good mental state. The thing with me is that I don’t find anything I do very difficult whereas I think most people probably would. Most people would think that writing a book was a very difficult and involved process but for me writing a book is something I do most years and I really enjoy. Definitely not a big challenge for me. The same goes for my paid work. I have been at the same level at work since 2009 and know my job pretty much backwards so it isn’t really a big challenge to do my work. Sometimes even I doubt the level of my mental illness and then remember that I take major medication and every few years end up in hospital for a long time. I think comparing people’s mental health and judging what you think they should or shouldn’t be able to do is not really all that helpful.
I am proud of my accomplishments as a person with a mental illness / psychosocial disability. Life can be really challenging and frightening but I am still here. I have a 100% strike rate of keeping going and getting through the difficult bits. And I know my work around mental health has helped a lot of people. If my story and experience can help others to manage their mental health then I am doing something right!