Making sense of the Mess – Living with a mental health diagnosis

By Claire Graham

I wanted to expand on a subject I touched on in my last blog post which is available to read on this site. If you’re diagnosed with a physical illness, I can guarantee that unless its something really esoteric you’ll find someone that is comfortable talking to you about it or knows someone that lives with it. For instance, if you get a diagnosis of diabetes its a fairly common condition. Most people will understand eating well, monitoring glucose levels, medications, check ups, getting the circulation in your feet checked and extra eye tests. If you’re diagnosed with a mental health condition, would you be able to discuss something you can’t fully accept or process, let alone see?

Let’s start with explaining that everyone lives with mental health. It’s what makes you, you. It’s your consciousness. It helps you make sense of the world. Its your thought processes, cognition and how you enjoy your life. That grey electrically charged meaty lump in your skull controls all sorts of bodily functions without you having to think about it. It’s really rather clever. However, when your brain isn’t being helpful or clever this can cause problems and can lead to mental ill-health. It’s important to point out that mental ill-health is a spectrum. On one end of the scale there’s stress. We all get a bit stressed. Maybe we’re late for an important meeting or we’ve got a deadline to meet. Normally we can handle a little bit of stress day to day. With me so far? At the other end of the scale are the serious mental health conditions that can be life long or even life endangering. We’re all somewhere on this sliding scale. Now, if you had a bad cut in your arm that won’t stop bleeding you would get yourself to the emergency department and get it all stitched up and get painkillers. If your mind is making you feel like absolute shit, you don’t have any interest in anything and its making you feel frightened, hopefully you would go to your doctor and get treated. It’s all still pain and no-one deserves to suffer. End of.

Admitting there is a problem with your mind is still fraught with misnomers and stigma even now in 2022. We have these initiatives like Blue Monday and World Mental Health Day that are designed to “raise awareness”. We have celebrities who promote these so called special days and you know they could afford to immediately hire a private psychologist. The rest of us have to rely on an overstretched NHS and a doctor’s appointment, if you can actually get an appointment at a time to suit you. I’m sure its all well meaning but listen up, some of us actually have shit mental health 24/7 and one day every so often when we’re exhorted to “be kind” really does not cut it. It’s not enough. There simply isn’t the investment in mental health medical care that there is for physical illness. When I used to go regularly to the local mental health hospital I could see it evidenced in the tatty corridors, the very basic waiting room and the general air of cheerlessness. God, no-one wants to be in there but they could at least try to make that sort of environment more conducive to recovery and well-being. That is, if the resources were actually available. If you have even admitted there’s a problem to yourself then well done. That’s hard work and I’m proud of you.

Some years ago I was scrolling through social media as you do and I came across a paraphrased quote from an author called Cheryl Strayed. “Acceptance is a small quiet room.” Of course you’re welcome to interpret this in any way you wish. I personally think that acceptance is the calm room you give yourself when you acknowledge the cards you’ve been dealt with and start working out what to so with them. Railing against your circumstances is tiring when you’ve already got a battle raging in your head so please try not to. It’s energy you cannot afford to waste.

If you are diagnosed with a mental health condition by a medical professional, it’s perfectly okay. It is not your fault and there’s no shame whatsoever. There are so many emotions and questions that you cycle through before any of this makes sense. Overwhelmed. Self-hatred. Despondency. Anger, Denial. Sadness. Fear. Then we segue into: Why me? I’m hopeless. This can’t be happening. I’m at rock bottom. I can’t do this. What do I tell my friends/loved ones/family/colleagues? You can feel like you’re blindly flailing from one emotion to another about looking for the slightest crumb of comfort.

If you’re at that place right now, what I’m going to do is to give you tips all bullet pointed so that you don’t have to wade through loads of words. It needs to be kept simple when your world doesn’t feel that way.

  • If you’re in a consulting room and you’re being told what your diagnosis is, ask for it to be written down so that you can look it up later. I guarantee that you probably won’t be fully hearing what’s being said and it will feel like Miss Othmar in the Peanuts cartoons going “wah wah wah”.

  • Ditto any prescribed medication. If you can’t make your own serotonin, shop bought is fine. The old jokes are the best, but its true. Take your meds. Don’t be scared to say if you have side effects – everyone experiences medication differently. For instance, I can’t tolerate Fluoxetine’s side effects at all (Prozac), Citalopram might as well be Smarties for all the good it does for me personally and I had to be quickly taken off Quetiapine because it gave me nightmares – I still need mind bleach for one I had about a well known UK Conservative MP. The one that looks like a haunted Victorian pencil. I can barely type that out without feeling bilious. My psychiatrist did not even argue when I told him what had happened in the dream. It totally ruined one whole Saturday for me with the flashbacks. IT WAS THAT SORT OF DREAM. Given I’d rather shite in my hands and clap than vote for the Tories it was about the worst thing your mind could conjure up.

  • Do what you can with what you have. If you need to take some time out to process this then fine. Do whatever self-soothing coping mechanism works. The world will not end because you can’t hoover/wash dishes/cook/do your hair.

  • Simple meals like soup or beans on toast are still meals or if your budget allows, get a ready meal or takeaway. Housework can wait.

  • No energy for washing? Stand in the shower and hose yourself down or if that’s even too much, switch it on and sit down. It will do. Bless the mess.

  • Do you want to know a wee secret? One of the few joys of being mentally ill is that you do eventually get to the point where you genuinely no longer give any fucks. When you’ve stared death in the face enough times mundane things cease to have much of an impact on your life really. I’m permanently in survival mode due to my mind being a war zone. Behold my field of fucks and doth see it is barren! I went to the supermarket in a black wax jacket, hoodie, band t-shirt, jammie bottoms, scarf and my army boots a few days ago because I didn’t have the energy to get changed. News Flash – NO-ONE NOTICED, STARED OR CARED. Top tip – men’s “lounge pants” have big deep pockets and if they’re fairly plain you can get away with wearing them out and about.

  • Read information on your mental health condition online when you’re in a better place to do so. Mental Health charities like Mind, Sane and Rethink have excellent resources available. Your mental health practitioner should have booklets available. A word of caution – the information presented is often very generalist in tone and not be totally applicable to your variation of your diagnosis. Also, some mental health information, particularly on social media, will present mentally ill people as broken with no hope of recovery or a good life. This is not the case. If it make it easier, get some questions together with bullet points to take along to your next appointment and if its possible get someone you trust to come along with you so they can hear what’s being discussed too.

  • If you find a good printable or shareable resource bookmark it and have it ready to give to anyone that might want more information on it. It will help them help you.

  • If your loved ones and friends don’t initially want to talk about your mental health with you, keep trying. Often its fear of the unknown that’s the issue here and they may feel overwhelmed. Give it time and be gentle. They’re probably not rejecting you but the situation you find yourself in and there’s a distinct difference. Going back to the point above, give them information to read and ask them if they have questions. Give yourself time, the world will adjust. A good sense of humour is crucial. I recall one colleague saying to my face “What if you suddenly go ga-ga-ga?” Really. I said “Don’t worry (name deleted to protect the daft), I’ll give you the wink first.” You will get silly comments. If someone tells me I’m mental these days I say “Sure am, and I’ve got the diagnosis to prove it. What’s your excuse?” When it comes to my mental health and other people’s perceptions I truly have the skin of a rhino but it wasn’t always this way. Call it sheer bloody mindedness and what the Scots called being “thrawn.” This is a type of dour granite faced stubbornness that’s hard to translate into English. With my immediate family, I had to resort to the broken record technique until they caved in. It was not my shame to carry because there is no shame.

  • What about your workplace? I plan to write a longer blog post about this specific subject but for now, remember you are covered by the Equality Act 2010 in the UK and your workplace has a duty of care towards you. If your workplace has an affiliated union, join it and if you feel you can’t tell your management, ask them to help you – they should be aware of the HR policies in place for disabled staff and yes, a mental health condition is an invisible impairment or disability.

  • There are plenty forums and support groups online you need support – I would recommend that you join one and just read through the posts already there before commenting to see if its a safe space and well moderated. Not all of them are so I would urge caution. However, it can be useful to connect with like minded souls if that’s appropriate to you.

  • Following on from this, find out if there are any local resources available to you. Ask your mental health care professionals about this or do an internet search.

  • It may also be useful to have a care plan if you go into crisis registered via your GP or psychiatrist. Mine is immediate admission to hospital because I would only bother someone if I was desperate because that’s how my mind works. If I call MHAS, I’m at the end of my total rope and afraid for my own safety. I’ve never had to call them but its there if I need it. I’ve heard differing stories about the care people get from crisis teams and I am aware that Borderline Personality Disorder patients like myself often don’t get taken seriously due to the rapid cycling of their moods. We deserve care like anyone else and if we say we’re desperate, we really are.

  • Have crisis numbers stored in your phone such as The Samaritans and also the number for your GP, psychiatrist’s office etc. This might sound basic but if you’re in crisis you do not want to waste time looking a number when your mind is melting.

  • I have one tip that might sound a bit out there but hang with me. Make friends with Sad. You’re probably reading this thinking “What are you on ClaireBear? Being sad is crap!” I learned long ago to accept that there will be bumps in the road that will come along and you have to learn how to ride them out. I think of my Sad as a really shit visitor that keeps coming around. She comes in uninvited, complains she doesn’t like your biscuits, you haven’t dusted in ages, your coffee isn’t good enough and is both demanding and impossible. However, she eventually gets fed up if you just ignore the attention seeking little cow and she will eventually do a flounce. Remember – its about acceptance.

  • Look for the Small Happies. Anyone that follows me on social media knows I’m all about the Small Happies. These are the tiny things in your day that make it all feel a little bit bearable. Did you meet a friendly dog out walking today? Was the sunset nice? Did you put on just the right t-shirt on to make you feel especially comfy? Did someone give you a little compliment? Was your takeaway coffee especially good? Did you hear a really good song on the radio that you hadn’t heard in ages? Do your best to find at least one and hang onto it. Just hang on. 

  • The last point is that you are still you and not your diagnosis. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating. I went through a phase of thinking “is this actually me or the BPD” to the point where I didn’t really know where I was or if I was up or down. You are still absolutely you. Your mental health diagnosis is there to detail what you live with for medical professionals to deal with and to try to make sense of it. I was told a long time ago that the best way to think of it is that they have to call your illness something to get you into the correct system. It makes it feel less personal.

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