Blogger Fiona Kennedy discusses her journey with mental health
When I first started writing for this series a few months back, the tagline, ‘Living with Mental Illness’ made perfect sense to me, because I believed I was living with an illness. This belief was based on years of attending psychiatry, taking medication, being a little too selective in what I was reading on the subject, and simply falling victim to a widely-held belief. I disregarded anything that challenged my view, and in fact tended to get really irate and frustrated when I came in contact with people who believed otherwise.
With the benefit of intensive, focused therapy, I now know that what I was calling ‘my illness’ was in fact a set of symptoms – severe, debilitating and very real symptoms. Rather than those symptoms being indicative of an illness over which I have no control, they were in fact indicative of problems that needed to be addressed, both in my past, and in the way I was living my life.
Let me try and explain a little. I mentioned in some of my previous articles that I’ve been working with a psychologist who has a very different outlook on treating mental health difficulties; the belief that the standard 50 minutes once a week isn’t sufficient, that contact between sessions is permitted, and most crucially, that reflection, and time spent alone with our thoughts, every single day, is an absolutely vital part of the process.
I resisted this idea very strongly initially. Who was this person to challenge me on something I knew to be true? I had doctors, drugs, years of therapy, on-going trouble with my mental health to back me up – I had a mental illness. I could try changing my lifestyle, I could try medication, I could try therapy, but ultimately, and I genuinely believed this – borderline personality disorder and depression were something I had.
They were part of me. They would never go away, they would always have to be managed. It was horrendous to believe this to be true, but at the same time, there was relief in it. Being able to point to a clinical diagnosis meant it wasn’t my fault, but, it also meant that it wasn’t within my power, not really, to do anything about it.
What’s different now though, is that while I still know it isn’t my fault, I also know it is within my power to do something about it. Unfortunately, there’s a huge, huge caveat here, and this is the one that will trip most people up. There’s not a hope in hell I could have done this on my own. There were seemingly minor (from my adult perspective) incidents in my past that were tormenting me every day.
I needed to find these, talk about them, and above all, feel the emotion that was connected with them, because they’re what were causing the problems for me – it wasn’t illness, it was emotions belonging to long ago that I had never truly felt, and so they were, for all intents and purposes, stuck. These emotions came out at all the wrong times – my disproportionate ‘borderline’ reactions to events were in fact the reactions that a child would have in a similar situation.
I knew they didn’t make sense. People around me knew for sure they didn’t make sense. But none of us could explain where they were coming from, or why the longer it went on, the worse it got, and eventually became known as depression and bpd. I came across an article today that summed this up beautifully:
‘All consciously-felt human drives stem from unpleasant feelings. Thirst drives us to seek water; hunger, food; hypothermia, warmth; hyperthermia, coolness; danger, safety, etc. Sadness and despondency are no exceptions. They drive us to seek change, and have been serving the species well since prehistoric times.
But – as is the case with all the above examples – when a drive is not acted upon, for whatever reason, the unpleasant feelings worsen. Just as unrequited hunger and thirst increase in strength, so the depression drive when not requited deepens.’
I’m keenly aware as I’m writing this that there are people reading who are going to be absolutely incensed at what I’ve just said. I get that, I would have been just as incensed this time last year. It seems preposterous, and downright arrogant, to suggest that any of these issues are within my, and by proxy, your, power to fix. But, they are. With help. I cannot stress that part enough – with help.
I don’t know where we can go from here. Medication can’t ‘fix’ negative emotions. They’re there for a reason – they’re letting us know that there’s a problem that needs our attention. But without the kind of support and guidance I’ve had the last few months, I would never, ever, have been able to reach this understanding.
I’m not trying to belittle anyone struggling with mental health problems, or to make anyone feel guilty for taking psychiatric medication. When we reach crisis point, our choices are extremely limited. Right now, medication is the first port of call for so many people. I’ll be the first to admit that it helps, to a point, but the change I’ve seen in myself this last few months since actually letting myself feel my emotions, is phenomenal.
It’s forcing me to reassess almost every aspect of my life, which is challenging, for sure, because there are some things that have to change that I’ll really struggle with. Conversely though, I know more about myself than I ever have done before.
I don’t have a mental illness. I have a brain, just like everyone else, one that has evolved over millions of years and is struggling to cope with many aspects of modern life. My brain was doing the best it could for me. I just needed someone to help me slow down long enough to hear what it was trying to tell me – not that I have a personality disorder, but simply that I was living my life in a way that was never going to work for me.