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Life Is Not An Arrival

by David John

I am 48 and have suffered from a mental illness for 26 years. Some doctors have called it 'schizophrenia'; others aren't sure. Some think it's a form of depression. From my mid-twenties onwards, I was in hospital for several weeks at a time, averaging about once a year at first. I was at 'rock bottom' in 1982, then the gaps between admissions gradually got longer; it is now 9 years since my last stay in hospital.

I still suffer from worrying, abnormal thoughts, and do not always find it easy to find the right words in communicating 'face to face'. However I have now 'accepted' my illness, and live my life around it, largely managing my own medication. The doctors and mental health teams are very good and I have no complaints about the care I've received in the community.

I feel that to say a mental illness 'goes away' or is 'cured' can be misleading. I believe that this is because, (1) it involves a 'magnification' of the difficulties everyone faces, and one would not expect a 'normal' person to become completely free of problems or mistakes in thought, speech and action, and (2), there is a perceived difference between 'normal' and 'ill' people because an ill person has mentally 'dropped out of' the 'normal' interactive flow of society. Psychosis, 'labelling', treatment and medication are part of one's past, and thus can never fully be eradicated (although the future can certainly be much brighter). In an episode of illness, the problems become so acute and painful that the only (partial) release is in crisis, i.e. breakdown, and a longer term lessening of the problems then hopefully becomes possible through hospital care, medication, group therapy etc.

As self therapy, I believe it is a great help to learn to accept and live with the illness, to 'work around it', manage our medication if doctors are agreeable, learn how to relate better to others, go for the good things in life and to a good extent be accepted within society once again. I believe, as probably most people in this country do, that the greatest power in the world is love, and my Christian faith helps me greatly: I believe in Jesus as the personification of love, but as a friend rather than a somewhat disheartening figure of 'perfection'! He was not a follower of a set of rules, but was and is totally alive, and helps us to follow our own true path to love, and accept ourselves as we are, period! Nothing to hide, agonise over or alter, just telling one's Maker the truth, and asking him to be your friend, just as you are. If one has hurt someone else, this needs to be put right with them if possible, but perfection does not exist in this world! Your true, imperfect self is the important thing.

To seek for wisdom is to look for the greatest treasures in life. Insights, and lessening of the pain the illness brings, only come gradually over days, months and years, but they will come if you seek your own true path. The journey is the important thing, and learning to cope with the inevitable problems each day. Thinking that one has 'finally arrived' is disastrous (it's happened to me many times!). Some of the things that cause 'neurotic guilt' should, in my view, be limited or moderated, rather than 'eradicated', which is often unrealistic. To me there are two disastrous paths to follow: greed and asceticism, which I think are closely related; but if you're like me, and tend to both, I've found that accepting yourself as such, and trying to follow a slightly more moderate way, is the best way forward (i.e. say 'no' sometimes to both!). Go for the things you need and enjoy, e.g., in my case eating three cream buns might be OK, but six would definitely be problematic, because (as occurs in an extreme form in anorexia) my psyche would immediately react, and I would start trying to live a perfect, miserable life where cream buns are concerned! The vicious circle of denial-binge-guilt-denial etc. is best broken by saying 'no' to denial, but it's a very hard nut to crack! It takes years to learn to love and care for yourself more, but it's great to have more control over your life. You often have to force it, e.g. laying in the bubble-bath longer when your guilt is telling you to get out and do something 'useful'!

I hope this is helpful to others in 'Voices Forum'; although we are all different. We have to believe in ourselves, keep trying strategies, and remember it's always darkest just before the dawn. As I believe in life after death, I also believe that for each of us our own special rainbow's end awaits: yes, for us, mentally ill people; but underneath, and in spite of (or because of?) all the pain, each a beautiful diamond in the making!

David John