I have what I think most people would describe as a good life. I am employed, accomplished and have a wonderful cat, along with many other fine attributes. But my companion for the past 22 yeas has been the poor behaviour of my errant brain with its resident mental illness. I am a high achieve with mental illness, which is a bit of a privilege for me. I am one of many people who gives an example of a life lived well with mental illness. As I am also Autistic I feel that I am in a very good spot to support and empower others with similar challenges.
My mental illness has been given many names by different doctors but when I unpack it involves the symptoms of mood issues (either depression or elevated mood / mania, which might sound enjoyable but usually involves hardly getting any sleep, spending money on unnecessary and sometimes puzzling things, being incredibly irritable and always having the threat of terminally damaging my reputation). I also have episodes of psychosis and ongoing psychotic symptoms like visual and auditory hallucinations, delusional thinking (e.g. ‘I am dead and in purgatory’) and ideas of reference – meaning I see personal significance and often prophesy in things like adverts and news articles. Since I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1995, I have had countless stays in many different psychiatric hospitals, residential services and therapy courses.
In my twenties my mental illness pretty much destroyed me and any hope I might have had ta the time. I was aggressive, confused, disempowered and self-destructive. Yet now I am quite good at managing my illness and what comes along with it. I have somehow taken on a great deal of insight and self-awareness. I own my illness and am not ashamed of it and I know countless strategies which enable me to live a fulfilled life.
I imagine that some people think because of my unusually large workload and my proficiency at writing and public speaking that my illness is ‘mild’ (who invented that unhelpful little word??) In fact a few years ago, while working in a professional role and outwardly ‘living the dream’, I had the crisis team and my case worker come and take me to hospital a number of times and was placed on a mental health treatment order on one occasion. Even now I regularly speak to the crisis team, Lifeline and my psychiatrist and take high doses of a number of psychiatric medications, without which my life would be extremely frightening and unpleasant. My mental illness is far from mild but I have strategies I use to address it and make it manageable. I often suffer but it does not stop me from living my life.
My main mental health strategies fall into the categories of:
- My own attitudes and thinking
- Taking medication as prescribed and seeing my doctor to change anything in regard to meds
- Regular visits to mental health professionals – in my case my psychiatrist – and my GP
- Being willing to ask for help when I need it
- A wide rage of practical strategies including distracting myself with enjoyable activity (this means my work), self-soothing / stimming, challenging negative thinking and paranoia
- Mr Kitty – he is both good for long term, ongoing mental health ‘maintenance’ and in a crisis too
- Strategies for a crisis – knowing who to contact, what to do and understanding it will pass
- My advocacy and my paid work. These are both a distraction but also a strong protective factor. For example if I have suicidal thoughts, a helpful tactic is to reflect on what a terrible sort of legacy that would be for all the people who read my writing on mental health or look to me for support and empowerment against their own mental health demons?
- Address Autism-related issues where possible. Sensory issues and meltdown are bad enough but when I am in mental health crisis they can present a perfect storm of misery and overload. Looking after my levels of sensory and other stimulation, ensuring I have enough solitary time and having friends and colleagues who understand my Autism is also a great mental health strategy.
I choose to be open and honest and quite a bit vulnerable at times about my illness. This is a conscious choice When people hear ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘psychosis’ they can get quite upset. Unfortunately the media and popular culture often incorrectly use the term psychosis as an interchangeable word for psychopathic. This is not only completely wrong, it is very unhelpful for people like me because I have to explain I am not a psychopath when I am unwell! These days I am actually very vulnerable when experiencing psychosis and – sadly, because I know this from experience – I am much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence.
Over time and experience, I realised how important it is for mental illnesses to be seen as a health issue rather than a character flaw. People with mental illness do not get it because they are ‘weak’, people who engage in self-injurious behaviour probably aren’t ‘doing it ‘for attention’, and even if they are it goes much deeper than that simple and judgmental statement. Psychosis doesn’t mean psychopath (stupid media!), many people with mental illness can and do study, work. have families and relationships and all the sorts of things others do. Despite a lot of good work being done to address stigma in recent years there is still a lot of stigma and assumptions around mental illness.
After having worked in a suit-y office environment for ten years, I can cite a number of occasions where colleagues – some in management positions – have told me they have schizophrenia or bipolar. It is said almost as a shameful thing or an admission of fault but it shouldn’t be. I will not be ashamed of my illness so if you are on my social media you will probably see some posts about how things are hard or I am struggling with my errant Jeanette brain. It doesn’t mean I am less able to advocate for others or that I can’t do my work. I find the opposite of that is usually the case. It does mean I have had a difficult life at times and still do, that I have been invalidated and gaslighted, often by services which are supposed to be helping me and that I have to be constantly aware of my mental health. I think it probably also means I am able to be quite compassionate and kind. Unlike some chronic overachievers, I do not judge other people by their outputs. I spent many years making no outputs at all other than entries in my hospital file, and I know a person’s character is far more important than what is listed on their CV. \