It's Mental Health Week in Australia. To draw attention to this important event we asked writers to contribute some of their own thoughts and stories. This article comes in reply to another Patrick wrote on Monday: How it Feels to Live With Borderline Personality Disorder.
I usually don't talk to strangers on Facebook, but the last few days have been different. I've spent the week talking to people the world over about mental illness, and what my recent piece on the topic meant to them.
It's amazing how kind people are outside of the comment section. Strangers are telling me intimate secrets, describing their struggles, railing against stigma, and asking me for advice. It's weird for me. In my ten years as a writer I've mainly worked as a pisstaker or a pisspoor poet—no one has asked me for tips regarding my Media Watch spec-fic. For a manic egotist, it's an oddly humbling experience. All I can say to these people is "hang in there" and "you are not alone" and—most importantly—"you're right, it is shit."
The message I get most frequently saddens me and encourages me in equal measure: "how can you be so open about this? How can you share this? I am afraid to tell my loved ones, let alone the internet."
I don't have a good answer.
As a kid, my nanna had a sign on her front door that read "DO NOT DISTURB! THE PERSON INSIDE IS DISTURBED ENOUGH ALREADY!"
That was my jumping off point.
When I was 20 I was the editor of my university's student newspaper. A younger writer submitted a very honest and empathic article about their struggle with depression. I'd been diagnosed with bipolar, BPD, depression, and anxiety when I was 14 yet I'd never talked about it with anyone. The diagnosis was emasculating. It was shameful. It was isolating. Most frighteningly for me, it undercut my fast talking Buggs Bunny personae: "oh, you're like that because you're manic." I wanted to believe I was like that because I was brilliant.
But reading this young writer's piece on depression changed me. My shame eroded. Suddenly, the other writers at the paper were talking about similar diagnoses, similar battles. By naming it, the ghost lost its power—the horror show became more a haunted house once it was shared amongst friends.
Still, the idea of treatment and medication terrified me. I was a compulsive writer and performer—I was scared pills would zombify me. It took my girlfriend and her seemingly infinite pools of empathy to get me to ask for help. So much progress hinges on the kindness of very rare souls.
One of the great horrors of mental illness is seeing it swallow up your identity. I am uneasy writing about it for that very reason: I don't want to be the guy that writes mental illness articles. Outside of the cascade of bullshit that is battling the black dog and his scraggly mates: I'm no expert. I cannot reel off harrowing statistics nor can I provide answers to everyone's how and why. I just know what it's like to have your hand on a hot stove, and I'm able to put words to it.
I wanted to wrestle—I don't say defeat because I can't win—my mental illness by outing it. I started to recognise it as a part of my make-up, but one I could cordon off with safety tape reading: "work in progress." It's me but it's not all of me. The genius of the phrase "the black dog" is that it allows you to imagine an other, and that allows you to develop a relationship. If you can project it, you can negotiate with it—but the ability to do so can only come from frank and caring talk.
I now approach my mental illness with a casualness. I discuss it at dinner parties, with workmates, with friends, in my standup, here. I want to make it a banal conversation. If someone rolls their eyes and thinks "not this dull shit again": great. I want to repeat it ad nauseam, so that anyone who feels uncomfortable with themselves and their diagnoses will one day be at a point where they can discuss it like they discuss asthma or arthritis.
Silence is the killer. In Australia, our toxic notions of masculinity, strength, and ANZACery make the mentally ill feel unwelcome. We tend to comfort those who have to tolerate the mentally ill more than we do actual sufferers. The "she'll be right" attitude is shit and will remain shit.
I want to tell people that it's ok to feel angry and you shouldn't feel guilt for feeling slightly screwed over. Things are out of your control. The embarrassment you feel is a false construct. Those who turn it back on you are quite frankly pricks. Hold your head high and be proud for surviving, but don't be ashamed if that survival is hard.
The people who reach out to me all have one thing in common: isolation. They feel alone. Even those in loving relationships or those surrounded by friends and family feel abandoned. The experience is cruel like that. By writing about this stuff so openly I hope to create a small sense of community. I don't hate the phrase "nutters" because it makes us sound like a roving schoolyard gang.
I don't like readers' messages because I like praise: I like them because the gentle comfort of connecting with someone across the world who understands feels good. These are toxic times, and gentle words and gentle knowings are a scant resource. Take them when you can, they'll get you a little further down the road.
Hi, how are you? I'm Patrick Marlborough and tasks like doing the dishes make me hyperventilate. Making eye contact is like being stabbed by a Phillips-head. Day time TV literally makes me nauseous. I compulsively imagine eating my dog's shit. I can't filter my conversation: I may call your mother a cunt and mean it.
Do you ever feel the same? Let's talk about it.
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