Saturday, October 16, 2010

Getting Through - Surviving Mental Illness 1


Mental health has for the last twelve years been not just one of my "hobby horses," but virtually an on-going obsession.  Hence, as any reader of these rather sui generis and peculiar posts will have noted, this abiding interest stems from my own personal encounter with mental illness in my own life at forty - that classic mid-life crisis-time when the familiar pattern of things goes awry on us or simply breaks down.  My last eight posts have dealt with a potted history of mental health by reference to the history of madness and of the growth of psychiatry as a response to that history.  This post is a more personal response to Tuesday's wonderful Health Plus section of The Irish Times.  This daily broadsheet is second to none in Ireland for the quality of its journalism and the ethics of its reporting to my mind.  Its supplements are of an equal standard.  However, such a paper needs little praise from me because quality always speaks louder for itself that all the plaudits could ever achieve. 

Personal Suffering

There is no substitute in life for personal experience no matter what we speak about.  A philosophical or theological look at suffering pales into insignificance beside personal experience and the moving human accounts of suffering.  As I sit writing this post The Late Late Show, Ireland's premier Light Entertainment show, hosted by Ryan Tubridy is on in the background, or, more correctly foreground.  He has just interviewed the sports journalist Liam Hayes who has revealed that he has Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, which, in his case, is a rather aggressive form of that cancer.  He spoke with great calmness, honesty and insight about dealing with this life-threatening disease.  We need such courageous media people to inspire the Irish nation with hope in these rather depressing times when we are bombarded with a very negative and depressing image of the fiscal and financial future of our wee country.  We also need couageous and strong human beings like Liam to give sufferers from cancer hope and courage to face the inevitability of all that is associated with that dreadful disease.

Personal Suffering and Suicide

Speaking of mental health, the rate of suicide, especially among young males, is alarming to say the least here in Ireland.  Our young men do not cope very well with their emotions or with the expression of them.  For this reason, I have long been involved in teaching a certain course on Life Skills in Transition Year in our school called Mental Health Matters.  This course covers what positive mental health is and how we can go about ensuring that we can promote it in our own lives.  It's an excellent programme and I get great satisfaction from teaching it because I believe it can and does make a difference.  Also it is significant, if not an unhappy occurrence of synchronicity, that Liam Hayes went on to reveal that his brother Gerard had taken his own life tragically way back in 1982.  I believe I saw a documentary made by RTE on that tragic event which featured his mother talking about how she coped with her son's suicide.  Liam revealed an interesting insight into the lack of dialogue typical among male family memebers on this tragic subject when he told us that in the twenty years and two months between Gerard's suicide and his father's death that they had never once managed to broach the subject with one another.

More than Angst

Tuesday's health supplement to The Irish Times I found very comprehensive indeed and a tribute to the meticulous research of its editor and contributors.  I have had for many years an abiding interest in philosophy and in the role of philosophy in dealing with life's troubles and problems, and with that I have been quite intrigued with existentialism and its approaches as outlined in the lives and writings of various philosophers whom I have discussed in these pages many times.  However, it is one's own personal suffering that puts even this existential angst into perspective, and, indeed, into the shade.  Having sat with the engine of my car running on Howth Pier some twelve years ago, wondering whether driving off that pier at speed to end the mental suffering I was then experiencing was the best way out has led me to depths deeper than I had ever thought I could have plumbed.  It also convinced me that I was so much stronger than I had ever previously believed when with the help of others - professionals and family - I managed to fight my way back to a balanced peace of mind from where a calm  positive love for life grew within me, and continues to grow, indeed..  What did not kill me strengthened me.

I did a lot of soul-searching, read a lot of literature on depression and other mental illnesses, went to therapy and counselling, did two years of a counselling and psychotherapy course, engaged in a lot of meditation and other complementary health programmes and courses, while at the same time never once jettisoning the advice and medical prescriptions of the professionals - doctors and psychiatrists.  I have found that it is both/and not either/or when it comes to talk therapy or psycotherapy on the one hand and psychopharmacology (medication) on the other.  The worst fault in my opinion is where people become very reductionist insofar as one or other of them may say: medication is the only way to go or still another that a sufferer should throw away all their tablets.  Both of these stances are extremes. What's needed is balance.

One of the most moving articles in the supplement is an interview with a nineteen year old girl who suffers from clinical depression.  I will quote some lines from this young woman's observations on this dreadful disease of the mind which in my opinion possesses the sheer lucidity of William  Styron's prose in his autobiographical reflections Darkness Visible which he published in 1990. This memoir, originally intended as a magazine article, chronicled the author's descent into depression and his near-fatal night of "despair beyond despair."  It also reminds me of the wonderful book on depression Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999) by the scientist Lewis Wolpert which I read soon after coming out of hospital some twelve years ago. This was turned into three television programmes entitled 'A Living Hell' which Wolpert presented on BBC2.  In this present article, which is an interview with the journalist Marese McDonagh, a young nineteen year old girl called Ruth O'Doherty tells her interviewer of her lifelong battle with this most silent of diseases - depression:

I'm friendly, outgoing and chatty.  Inside I am a mess and terrified of rejection... I think unless you experience it you cannot know... I was bullied... I started cutting myself when I was 11 or 12.  My arms are covered with scars.  I have done it all over my body.  I get urges to cut myself in different places.  Something in your head tells you,  you have to do it... I took an overdose when I was 13... When we broke up, all I could do was cry - I couldn't eat or sleep.  I was put on antidepressants when I was 13 or 14 and I am still on them.  The side effects are horrendous - the nausea, the lethargy.  I have been on antipsychotics.  They made me balloon and that made me feel even worse... But when I am depressed I don't have the energy to do anything... I feel so guilty about what I have done to my family... Unfortunately, it all came crashing down again.  I think I became immune to antidepressants and started hearing voices, getting panic attacks and shaking all the time...

I have come to terms with the fact that I might always need tablets and therapy.  I have never had a proper school life, proper friends or any normality.  My entire teenage years have been clouded with my depression.  I have very few happy memories of my teenage years.  Is that normal?  I don't know what normal is...  (The Irish Times Health Plus, pp. 6-7, Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010)
These words speak for themselves.  No commentary is needed.  Mental illness brings severe suffering.

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