Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘friendship’

Consequences

Recently I wrote about being reported to the NSPCC and consequently Children’s Services in these two posts: The Letter and The Letter – part 2. If you don’t have time to read them, the short version is that the NSPCC received 2 anonymous reports from someone who was concerned that my and DH’s mental illnesses meant that our children were at risk. Children’s Services investigated and quickly concluded that the reports were groundless. That, I hope, is the end of the matter.

Except that it isn’t, not really. Although I choose to believe that the reports were made due to genuine (albeit misguided) concern rather than malice, knowing that someone has read my blog and my tweets and concluded that I am an unfit mother, DH an unfit father, has been profoundly distressing. For me it has caused heightened anxiety and stress-induced insomnia, DH is struggling with an abrupt plunge into low mood. I hope that in time these will pass, and of course the children are still entirely unaware of the whole situation and its effects, and will hopefully remain that way.

I have always prided myself on being open and honest about my mental health, both here and on Twitter. Stigma is increased by ignorance, and by speaking out I hoped that in a small way I could help reduce that stigma and the alienation that many people with mental illnesses suffer. But to have that honesty turned against me and wielded as a weapon has been a horrifying experience. I’ve never hidden the fact that I find blogging to be an extremely therapeutic way of dealing with my illnesses, both mental and physical. I have also found a wonderful support network on Twitter, where I can be honest and speak of my experiences to those who understand and empathise as well as to those who really have no understanding of what mental illness can be like. In return I’ve been able to offer sympathy, advice and comfort to others who struggle with their mental health. But I’m not sure that I can continue to do so.

Despite our swift and complete exoneration by Children’s Services, this experience has left its mark. I no longer feel safe blogging and tweeting honestly about how I am, how my day is going, how DH is. Even as I write this post I’m wondering whether it will be turned into a stick to beat me with, whether it will prompt yet another report to the NSPCC. I have lost my sense of safety, of refuge, and of course that means that I have lost my online support network. This is no trivial thing; in the past the support I’ve received from individuals online have literally made the difference between life and death. But now that’s gone. I feel watched, I feel harassed and I feel as though my honesty has endangered the happiness and wellbeing of my family.

I don’t know whether these feelings will fade as time passes but I certainly hope so. I will miss the catharsis that blogging can provide and I will miss being able to interact with the mental health community in a meaningful way. It’s been very important to me that I speak out about mental health issues and I hope that I will be able to again, but for now my voice has been silenced.

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Is honesty the best policy?

When you meet someone new, how long do you wait before you do it? Do you do it? Or not? I’m talking about taking a deep breath and being honest about your mental health.

Despite having had mental health issues from childhood it’s only in the last year or so that I have begun to be honest with friends (and some family) about the extent of my illness. This is largely due to to the Time To Change campaign and discovering the incredibly supportive and vociferous mental health community on Twitter. But I’m still fairly cagey about it, mostly through a lifetime’s habit. I’m still prone to self-stigmatise and feel (needlessly) ashamed or embarrassed.

Now that my daughter has started school I’m coming into contact with a lot of new people. Some of them I’m becoming quite friendly with and I’m starting to wonder whether, if the opportunity arises, I should casually mention something about my mental health. The main reasoning behind this is that I have days, or sometimes weeks, when despite being fairly stable thanks to my medication I just cannot face seeing people and being sociable. Or there are days when I’m profoundly uncomfortable being out in public but I can cope just chatting on a friend’s sofa. It might be useful for new friends to know this in advance, so that my occasional last-minute cancellations, nerves or reluctance to commit to a meet-up aren’t misconstrued.

However, I’m profoundly nervous about being honest as I have a deep-seated fear of rejection. I’ve already lost a couple of previously close and well-loved friends because they simply couldn’t cope with my problems. And if they, who knew me so well, felt the need to walk away from me then what’s to stop a relative stranger from doing the same? Mental illness is still remarkably stigmatised and misunderstood despite 1 in 4 UK adults having it, and I have no wish to become the playground bogeyman (or bogeywoman if you prefer!).

Interestingly I recently came across the NHS Attitudes Towards Mental Illness 2011 Survey Report. According to this report:

12% of people agree that it is frightening to think of people with mental illness living in a residential neighbourhood;

12% of people think someone with mental illness doesn’t deserve sympathy;

16% of people believe that one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and will-power.

These may be relatively small percentages, but as someone who is mentally ill I find them worrying. People don’t wear helpful t-shirts with the slogans “I’m educated about mental illness – talk to me!” or “I’m ignorant, don’t open up to me!”. I have no way of knowing whether the person I’m having regular coffee dates with falls into category A or category B.

I sometimes wonder whether perhaps it would just be safer and easier to keep things to myself, to lessen the risk of rejection and stigma. But the thought that torments me is that there’s no way of me knowing whether the person I’m friendly with falls into category C – someone else with mental health issues. Maybe they’re struggling with the same dilemma that I am. After all, we don’t wear helpful t-shirts either!

On the whole, I think I need to take the risk and be honest. I owe it to myself to not be ashamed or afraid of what others may think of me. I owe it to all the other people with mental illnesses to be open; to stand up and be counted, maybe even to educate. My mental illnesses (I have several conditions) impact most areas of my life and so they’d be a fairly significant secret to keep.

I don’t worry about telling people that I have degenerative disc disease and need to use a walking stick. I shouldn’t be worried about telling people that I have mental illnesses and need medication.

Friendship – offline vs online

“Friend” is a word with so many nuances. A friend can be someone you meet for coffee occasionally or someone you’ve known for years; someone you chat to about anything except the important things or someone who knows your deepest darkest secrets. I used to have many friends but these days I have only a few, despite having many acquaintances. My mental health problems seem to get in the way. I struggle with meeting new people, I struggle to meet the people I already know. Even worse my illness surreptitiously destroys friendships like a tree that rots from the inside out; I only see the decay as it collapses and dies.

Over the last decade in addition to my amazing husband I have had 4 wonderfully supportive, close friends with whom I could be utterly honest and lean on when I was struggling. Now I have 2. The others abandoned me, telling me that my mental illness was too much for them to cope with. One told me that she was fed up with giving me advice that I didn’t follow and that she felt I wasn’t trying to fight the depression. She had her own problems and in a way she was right – at that time I was fighting as hard as I could but I was still drowning, still wishing for death every day.

That kind of thing must be hard to deal with. I don’t blame them for leaving me but it does make me sad that I am so difficult to be friends with. And it makes me reluctant to be honest about how I really feel. How can I trust anyone? Why be truthful if it just drives people away?

Ironically some of my best support these days comes from virtual strangers online. These people have never met me, they don’t know my real name and in most cases I don’t know theirs. But they are kind, supportive and non-judgmental, and they have held my hand through some dark times. When I was suicidal with PND and the first friend abandoned me it was posters on Mumsnet who supported me, talked with me and helped me see that there were other choices. It’s no exaggeration to say that they saved my life.

These days most of my social interaction is on Twitter, where there is another amazing community of people who are kind and supportive. There are many that I would call friends despite having never met them. I turn to them when I am struggling and don’t want to burden my husband or family; they have never let me down. And I am so grateful for them.

Here’s to you, online friends. You know who you are and you are amazing. You, DH and my 2 trusted friends are the reason that I’m still here and still fighting.

Thank you.

An open letter to my friends

There are few questions that make me quake as much as a simple “How are you?”. My automatic response is to say that I’m fine, I’m ok, I’m doing well, whether I am or not. It’s like a Pavlovian response and it’s the same no matter who’s asking. I consider myself to be a fairly articulate woman; I have 2 degrees, worked as a forensic scientist and as an analyst for part of the Foreign Office. My blog posts seem to be quite well-received. And yet there are days when I really struggle to communicate with people on even the most basic level.

A dear friend may send me a lovely chatty message via Facebook and I want to reply – but can’t summon the mental energy. The words won’t come out. Another friend may call for a chat and I find myself racking my brains for something to say. Face-to-face encounters can be awkward as I try to maintain a semblance of normality but can constantly feel the panic rising in the back of my mind.

Social media has been a godsend. Facebook helps me keep in touch with friends who live far away, while Twitter and Mumsnet both have very supportive communities. Weirdly I can spend ages on Twitter or Mumsnet, talking with virtual strangers and dipping in and out of conversations. Facebook is a bit trickier as it houses people who know the real me instead of my more confident online persona. Sometimes I can chat to friends for ages on Facebook but sometimes I freeze up for days at a time.

The other question that strikes fear into my heart is “Do you want to meet up?”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a pretty sociable person and I’m fortunate to have some wonderful friends. But no matter how optimistic I am when arranging a social visit, the closer it gets the more nervous I become. Some days I can force myself to just get on with it and go, and I’ll generally have a good time. But some days I just cannot make myself go. It’s so stupid. I can chat superficially with the other preschool parents while we wait to collect our children, but I struggle to meet a friend for coffee.

I need to get this under control so here’s my plan. There are a few playgroups in the area that I can take DS to, it’ll be good for him to socialise with children his own age. Even though the thought of it makes me about as comfortable as jabbing pins in my eyes, I need to screw up my courage and do it. So that’s next week’s task. This week’s is to take DD to a friend’s house after preschool on Friday. She really wants to go and her friend’s mum is a good friend of mine. Yet already I can feel the unease roaming about in the back of my mind, no matter how much I try to squash it.

If you’re a friend who gets exasperated with the constant stalling and excuses as to why I can’t meet up, I’m sorry. I will try harder. But please understand how hard it is for me at the moment; the medication is controlling my cyclothymia but as yet my anxiety remains untreated and at times it is overwhelming. So don’t take it personally if I drop off the radar for a while or cancel on you. As the saying goes: it’s not you it’s me.

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