I don’t write full-time, like many other writers I know. What I do full-time isn’t a day-job, though. What I do full-time is look after a friend of mine. She has had some problems over the last few years, and it’s that kind of thing I’d like to talk about.
It’s not an easy subject though.
If she’d had cancer, or been in a severe accident, it’d be no problem people understanding the problem. But it’s not, it’s mental illness, and that’s a very different thing, at least as far as people’s reactions to it are concerned. You see, when you are mentally ill you very often do not look ill. You look normal, you just don’t act normal. People have a tendency to think that you are doing it deliberately, or are crying for attention, and it’s not that at all.
What happens with mental illness is that your brain, the most complicated organ in your body – in fact, the most complex thing we know of in the universe at large, barring none – is not working properly. It’s broken, not working properly. The worst thing is, you may not realise that anything is wrong; after all, what you use to recognise changes in things is your brain, and that’s not working properly. You think everything is fine, or at least that the way you are behaving is reasonable in the circumstances.
You literally are not yourself when you are mentally ill, but a lot of the time people do not see it. That’s perhaps why we shun the mentally ill, or don’t treat mental illness the same as “real” illness. It is real, it can kill people, but there are not many easy cures and few truly effective treatments.
In my friend’s case it was severe depression. She came out of a bad relationship after putting everything she had into it, only for the asshole to dump her. She was shattered, she had nothing, and she was heartbroken; emotional pain is the worst kind of pain, because you can’t take a painkiller for it or do anything to alleviate it. Being low after something like that is natural, but the depression can be self-perpetuating: when you are low for a long period of time, it seems to change something in the brain’s chemistry that means you stay depressed, locking it into a kind of vicious descending spiral. I’m not a doctor, but I understand from what I’ve read that clinical depression isn’t just being down, which is natural, but an imbalance in the brain chemistry.
At any rate, my friend made a very real attempt at suicide.
That shook up a lot of people, me especially – I was the one who called the ambulance. What shocked me were the reactions of people.
“Why didn’t she think of her children?”
“She’s just crying for attention.”
This about a dedicated mother who always put other people ahead of herself, and never wanted the limelight. They knew that, they knew her, but the condemnation still came. It was easier to condemn than see that she was in so much pain that death seemed like the only way to make it stop, that her self-esteem was so low that she believed her children would be better off without her. Maybe it was easier to condemn than realise that maybe for things to get that bad, they’d let her down.
I’ve had my own brush with mental illness, some years ago; I knew that the person who was trying to swallow a bottle of pills was not my best friend but someone else. I knew she needed help, and all the condemnation would only make her feel worse – and I knew that I’d let her down to let things go this far.
So of her friends, some turned their nose up and left, some couldn’t handle it and had the decency to say so, and left, and I gave up on full-time writing and claimed carer’s allowance to look after my best friend, and a few other friends rallied around and lent their support.
It’s been a long, hard slog. I’m not the best mental health nurse, to put it mildly, but I could be there, I could listen, I could not condemn and I could take all the pills out of the house and get her to the doctor and ensure she took her medication and only her medication. I could take her food-shopping and try to make sure she ate properly, and I could hug her when she cried. I could work with her other remaining friends to get her out of the house and doing things. But mostly, I listened as she talked herself out on every subject that was hurting her. Eventually, after many ups and downs, she started talking herself out of being down. She started asking why she’d invested so much time and energy in a man who was a self-hating jerk, why she loved someone who essentially didn’t love themselves and had probably never truly loved anyone else in their life.
And she started getting better.
She started acting like my friend again, and better than before as she found herself once more and living again. There are still bad days now and then, and there are times when she feels low, but these are less and less common. She has new interests, and has started her own business (which I’m helping out in), and while it isn’t making money yet might grow into something, who knows? She isn’t fully out of the woods, but the light is streaming in at the end of the tunnel.
I’m sharing this to say something to everyone out there: when someone you know isn’t acting like themselves, it may be because there is something wrong. If they try suicide, it could be that they are in so much pain that death seems like the only way out. So try and be there for them, if you care about them. You don’t have to have a medical qualification to listen, after all, you just have to be prepared to give up a little time. It really can happen to anyone, weak or strong, and it could happen to you too.