Hannah Jane Parkinson on Mental Health and Mental Illness

Not long ago, I read an article in the Guardian Magazine and I really wanted to share it with you guys. Hannah Jane Parkinson writes about her experience with mental illness, the conversation around mental health, and how we can make real change happen. She doesn’t pull any punches, which can make it hard to read, but that’s exactly why it needs to be out there because even though we are making progress around mental health, there’s still a long way to go. And that’s what this article is about. I really recommend reading the whole thing (you can find it here) because I just cannot do it justice without posting the entire article.

The whole article is important but here are some of the most important points:

“We should normalise the importance of good mental health and wellbeing, of course. Normalise how important it is to look after oneself – eat well, socialise, exercise – and how beneficial it can and should be to talk and ask for help. But don’t conflate poor mental health with mental illness, even if one can lead to the other. One can have a mental illness and good mental health, and vice versa.”

A very important point as it’s so easy to blur the two together.

“Like the rest of the population, I instinctively love the NHS, from the junior doctors to the consultants to the community psychiatric nurses. But, really, if you asked me right now? I hate the NHS. I hate the thin film of skin on its bones. It is incompetent and ailing. I used to blame the system. Mostly it is the system: those never-ending cuts and closures; the bureaucracy; the constant snafus of communication; the government’s contempt for staff.”

This is such an important issue to talk about. I feel exactly the same way. I love the NHS and I’m so grateful that it exists: it has literally saved the lives of several of my friends. I would fight to the death for it. But when it comes to mental health and mental illness, it’s incredibly lacking. I saw so many people who either couldn’t help me because of how the system works or wouldn’t help me because they didn’t understand, or even know of, what I was struggling with. And I know many people who’ve had the same experience. It’s a really upsetting, difficult situation and there’s no simple solution.

“The truth is: enough awareness has been raised. We – the public, the health professionals, the politicians – need to make our words and actions count for more. First, the Conversation needs to be more inclusive when it comes to rarer conditions, and to people whose voices are less loud. Second, we need to recognise that posting “stars can’t shine without darkness” on social media might piss someone off in the midst of desperation and that, actually, anxiety can be a normal reaction and is different from general anxiety disorder, a serious condition. That feeling down is not the same as depression.

Then, action. Donate to Mind; volunteer as a Samaritan. Vote for politicians who aren’t going to decimate our National Health Service or who support policies that lead to greater incidences of mental health problems (because it’s not just physical; society and environment plays its part).

What does the government need to do? Hire more staff, and then more. Enough staff to provide a service that meets individual needs. That means better working conditions and pay, and not piling all funding into a single type of therapy or care path. Clinical commissioning groups need to spend money earmarked for mental health on mental health. Prescription charges for long-term conditions should be reviewed. Funding and research must be increased.”

One of the things that, I think, sets this article apart from others I’ve read is that it includes concrete steps that we can all take. So often, articles talk a whole lot about how we need to create change but then they finish without actually telling us how to do it. I finished reading this article and felt empowered, like I could actually make a difference when, usually, the situation makes you (or, at least, it makes me) feel overwhelmed and hopeless.

These are some of the big points made in the article. But as I said, go and read the whole thing. It’s a really important piece of writing.

It’s taken me a really long time to write this out because the article talks about issues that make me really emotional and because there are so many quotes that I could pull out and talk about. While our experiences of mental illness are very different, there were so many things in this piece that I related to, this one maybe most of all:

So I am a newspaper journalist – for now. But I don’t know how long for because the illness might grip itself around me so tightly that it cuts off everything I love and hold dear, and my ability to lead a normal life.”

Thank you, Hannah Jane Parkinson, for writing such an important, moving piece.

I Finally Read Reasons To Stay Alive By Matt Haig

So, I was having a particularly difficult day and I found myself online, reading articles about depression and looking for insight. I even found myself googling ‘reasons to keep going,’ not in a suicidal way but because I was in the midst of all these overwhelmingly huge, complicated, and awful feelings and I felt like I needed some clarity, a straight answer to a very big question. You probably won’t be surprised to know that I didn’t find one but I realised that I was essentially searching the title of the book that was sitting on my bedside table: Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig. I’ve had it on my to-read list for months but I haven’t had the concentration or motivation to actually read for about a year. Maybe I was finally desperate enough that I was able to push through that. Maybe it was influenced by my recent change in medication. Who knows. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything affects everything.

I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about this book. There was so much hype around it and everyone I know who’s read it has recommended it to me. I expected to love it but like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Oh god, she’s going to criticise the crap out of this and I don’t wanna know,” please give me a chance and hang in there a little bit longer. These are just my thoughts, good and bad and different. Hopefully I’ll have something useful to add to the discussion around the book.

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The first thing is that I love Matt Haig’s writing. I find it easy and natural to read but also powerful and evocative. And there were parts that made me laugh; I found the continuing comparisons to having various body parts on fire very amusing. He’s a very engaging writer. I like the way he talks about depression, frank but empathetic. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • “There’s no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are.”
  • “If your leg is on fire, it is not selfish to concentrate on the pain, or the fear of the flames. So it is with anxiety. People with mental illnesses aren’t wrapped up in themselves because they are intrinsically more selfish than other people. Of course not. They are just feeling things that can’t be ignored.
  • “The main thing is the intensity of it. It does not fit within the normal spectrum of emotions. When you are in it, you are really in it.”
  • “Depression can be exacerbated by things being all right externally, because the gulf between what you are feeling and what you are expected to feel becomes larger.”
  • “People say, ‘take it one day at a time.’ But, I used to think to myself, that is all right for them to say. Days are mountains. A week was a trek across the Himalayas. You see, people say that time is relative, but it really bloody is.”
  • “Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.”
  • “I stared at a cherry tree and felt flat. Depression, without the anxiety. Just a total, desperate flatness.”

I think that descriptions like these would be particularly helpful to those who haven’t actually experienced depression but are trying to understand what it’s like for someone they know or someone they love.

And in a similar vein, I think he describes the seriousness of depression incredibly well: “Depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other disease.” We all talk a lot about how serious depression is but it’s not often that someone can so succinctly get the message across.

This, I think, is my favourite quote from the book:

“Most of the time we do not feel the near-infinite nature of our physical selves. We simplify by thinking about ourselves in terms of our larger pieces. Arms, legs, feet, hands, torso, head. flesh, bones. A similar thing happens with our minds. In order to cope with living, they simplify themselves. They concentrate on one thing at a time. But depression is a kind of quantum physics of thought and emotion. It reveals what is normally hidden. It unravels you, and everything you have known. It turns out that we are not only made of the universe, of ‘star-stuff’ to borrow Carl Sagan’s phrase, but we are as vast and complicated as it too. The evolutionary psychologists might be right. We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.”

I’ve described depression as having a black whole in my chest and this quote reminds me of that. When I’m deeply depressed, it feels like ‘a whole universe’s worth of darkness.’ It does. It’s that strong and overwhelming.

I also like the format of the book. Having not done much reading (because depression – and quite possibly my medication – dulled all the parts of me that made reading a book possible or enjoyable), reading a whole book was a very daunting challenge so having short, succinct chapters made it feel much more possible. It may well be a good analogy for how we tackle depression: trying to fight it as a huge, indistinct is such a difficult, exhausting task. Breaking it down into manageable steps seems like a better idea.

Now, onto the more difficult stuff. I have to say, I found the book pretty upsetting. There were several major differences in our experiences of depression and while I know, of course, that this is his experience of depression only that he’s writing about (which is absolutely his right), I ended up feeling like we have struggled with entirely different illnesses. That, I think, made it much harder to connect to the book. I mean, I’ve just talked about how much I liked his descriptions of depression and I do but while we have both really FELT depression, our actual experiences and the circumstances around having depression are completely different. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well. Let me give you the analogy of dog breeds: they’re all essentially dogs – they all have dog DNA – but they appear in hundreds of different ways. That’s how this feels to me. We’ve both had the DNA of depression, but where his is bulldog, mine is a German Shephard (I’m not gonna lie – trying to find two different breeds of dog that are very different without belittling either of our experiences by comparing one of them to a dachshund or a Chihuahua was a challenge).

The biggest thing for me was that I felt like there was this inherent implication that, after being depressed, you will never be that low again. Because you lived through it, because you survived it, or whatever, that you have this new perspective on the world that will somehow protect you from depression. It’s a belief that many people have but for me that is just not true. Each time I think I’ve reached the lowest point I can possibly survive, there’s always more. There’s always worse.

On a similar theme, he references another common idea, that feeling the good stuff is worth feeling the bad stuff: “You know, before the age of twenty four I hadn’t known how bad things could feel, but I hadn’t realised how good they could feel either. That shell might be protecting you, but it’s also stopping you feeling the full force of that good stuff.” Let’s say that’s true. What does that matter if the bad to the good have odds like 364 to 1? Is it worth it? I’m not sure. In my experience, the bad stuff is so much more devastating than the good is good. I’m not attributing this idea to Matt specifically but I feel like it’s worth commenting on. This idea equates the strength of good and bad emotions (something that is practically impossible), and suggests that it’s acceptable (and even expected) to feel really terrible, simply because you’ve had some good moments. I’m just really wary of anything that justifies struggle and trauma.

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About halfway through the book, he talks about how he overcame his separation anxiety when his partner needed him to, because she had to go to the hospital with her sick mother and someone had to be at the house. I found that really hard to read, because a lot of the time, for a lot of people, that’s not the case. For me, that’s not the case. Anxiety, depression, mental illness… they don’t go away just because you need them to. I wish they did and, if I’m honest, it just made me feel more pathetic. I can’t help thinking that it would’ve been more helpful if he’d mentioned some of the times it hadn’t been like that and then said something like, “I don’t know why it was different this time.” Just to represent that problem, to give it context. I mean, I’m making an assumption that there were moments where he couldn’t overcome his anxieties but I think it’s pretty safe to say of anyone who’s struggled with severe anxiety for an extended period of time.

The chapter ends with, “needless to say, they came back,” in reference to his paralyzing anxiety that something would happen to his partner and her parents while not in his sight. This is something that I struggle with on a daily basis but my fears not coming true hasn’t ever dulled those fears. Instead I feel like my time – my run of good luck – is running out. You can only throw heads so many times, you can only be lucky so many times before the inevitable bad thing happens. In my experience, anxiety isn’t rational and can’t be managed as if it is.

He goes on to say, “I had reasons to force myself to be strong…” which, I have to say, irritated me. We know that depression and anxiety and so on are illnesses and are therefore out of our control. It’s not logical. You can’t reason with it or simply will yourself out of it. In my experience, my reasons keep me going for a while, get me through what I need to get through, but then I crash, often lower than before. It’s great and important that he found that motivation and I don’t want to take away from that I just don’t think it’s as straightforward as that.

“…To put myself in situations I wouldn’t have put myself in. You need to be uncomfortable.” I hear this expression all the time and I HATE it. I hate it enough to put the word hate in capital letters. I am ALWAYS uncomfortable. I cannot remember the last time I was comfortable in anyway, whether it be emotionally, mentally, or physically. Maybe my ASD makes it impossible to be comfortable. Maybe there’s another explanation. So, how does that fit into this formula? I don’t know the answer. And what if there’s no good in it, no purpose? What if that’s all there is? I don’t know the answers to those questions either.

“People often use the word ‘despite’ in the context of mental illness. So-and-so did such-and-such despite having depression/anxiety/OCD/agoraphobia/what-ever. But sometimes that ‘despite’ should be a ‘because.’ For instance, I write because of depression.” I don’t disagree but I’d like to propose an addition: and. So-and-so did such-and-such and they have depression/anxiety/OCD/agora-phobia/whatever. I have struggled with identity stuff for a long time – probably from my BPD and the late diagnosis of ASD (which obviously does affect everything I do as it is something I was born with) – but I’d like to think that I am not who I am solely because of my mental illnesses. A lot of people say that their experiences with mental illness have made them kinder, more compassionate and thoughtful people and that’s amazing but I don’t think they give themselves enough credit. Everything we become we were always capable of becoming and the circumstances and coincidences that start those chain reactions shouldn’t get all the glory.

Despite the parts of the book that I struggled with, there were parts that really spoke to me. There were several quotes that I related to so strongly that my chest physically hurt when I read them:

  • “The weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. The only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased.”
  • “In a world where possibility is endless, the possibilities for pain and loss and permanent separation are also endless. So fear breeds imagination, and vice versa, on and on and on.”
  • “So, if [the universe] catches you smiling, even fake smiling, then – well, that stuff’s just not allowed and you know it, so here comes ten tons of counterbalance.”
  • “Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, an intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure.”
  • “He was looking at me like I was my former self. How could he not see the difference?”
  • “I was scared of the quiet. I was scared, I suppose, of having to slow down and soften the volume. Scared of having nothing but my own mind to listen to.”
  • “And we are scared of our own crumbling, and the crumbling of others.”
  • “If the stone falls hard enough, the ripples last a lifetime.”
  • “Feeling. That is what it is all about.”

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Ultimately I have mixed feelings about this book. I can see why people love it and why people find it helpful. And I think, had this been my first experience of depression, it would’ve helped me too. I would’ve found it inspiring. But I struggled to connect with it and I found that very upsetting. Maybe it’s my fault for reading it when I did; maybe I was too depressed for anything to help. Maybe, if I’d read it when I wasn’t feeling so completely hopeless, I would’ve had a different experience. Maybe I would’ve felt the differences less and the similarities more. I’ll never know. But regardless, I’m really glad that it’s helped people. Having your struggles and your experiences validated can change everything. As Matt says in the book: “There is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.” That, right there, is why I write this blog.

I hope this was interesting and I hope I’ve managed to represent my emotions about the book (reading it was a very emotional experience), rather than blindly praising it or bluntly criticising it. Despite struggling with the book, I love Matt Haig’s writing and he is one of my favourite people to follow on social media; I have great respect for him. I’m really looking forward to hearing him speak on Tuesday and to reading Notes on a Nervous Planet when it comes out.

A Short(ish) Note on Thirteen Reasons Why

Ever since I started this blog, it’s been on my list to write something about  the TV show, Thirteen Reasons Why. I’d intended to write something really in depth but time got away from me and now the new season is coming out. And frankly, it’s been done. But with the new season being released, I want to write down some of my thoughts before new storylines and new characters stir all those emotions up again.

There has been a lot of controversy around this show. It’s been criticised for failing to mention mental health and how that likely influenced Hannah’s actions, and most common are the complaints about its graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide and how it could incite others to do the same. These are all valid points and things that I wish the show had handled better but I don’t want to get too far down that rabbit hole here; as I said, that’s been done and done much more eloquently than I could do it (some examples here and here). But I want to say this: seeing stuff that I struggle with, seeing it out in the world and outside my own head, really helped me. Yes, I found the suicide scene (and many others) distressing and, to a certain extent, triggering but it’s not that simple: I remember watching it for the first time and feeling completely overwhelmed by so many emotions that it took a lot of thinking to untangle them. But it was ultimately a positive experience for me because it made me feel understood. Our stories are different but what Hannah was feeling really resonated with me, like we were on the same frequency. I’m not suicidal (although I have dealt with suicidal thoughts at various times) but I can understand the intensity of the emotions that lead Hannah to that decision and seeing those emotions depicted was a clear sign that I wasn’t alone in that. That was hugely important for me.

I also want to say that it was kind of a relief to me, to see suicide shown so starkly, with no weird camera angles to hide the violence of it. There is so much stigma around admitting that you feel suicidal or that you’re dealing with suicidal thoughts so to have that taboo broken so forcefully felt almost like an opportunity for a fresh start. I’m talking more emotionally than anything else, and only for myself. This is such a complicated, personal issue that I would never want to speak for anyone else. But for me, the more people don’t talk about something like this, the more the pressure builds and the more difficult it is to talk about it. For completely understandable reasons, the reaction is dramatic if you bring up something like this but what if we could discuss it without that pressure? With the respect it’s due of course, but without the pressure. Wouldn’t that be better? Obviously that is too much to put on one TV show but it’s something to aspire to. I’m not claiming to know how to get there or suggesting that this show be the blueprint but for me, it helped with my processing of this incredibly complicated emotional issue. Again, I am only speaking to my emotional reaction to the show. If you felt differently, that is absolutely valid. We’re all in different places and react to things differently; what feels okay for me may not be for you and vice versa. I’m just putting my experience out there.

I could ramble on because I have a lot of feelings about this show and there are a lot of layers to those feelings but I’ll stop there. It’s got its problems, of course, but it made me feel less alone with my mental health and that is something I’ve never had from a film or TV show before. So above all else, I’m grateful for that.

Now, to watch Season 2.


(Blog Note: I’m sorry the posting schedule has been all over the place. As you guys know, my life has been pretty hectic recently but I’m hoping to get back to posting more regularly next week…)