If there’s one thing that I detest, it’s the phrase ‘mental health’. The very words ‘mental health’ seem to imply that everything which falls under that particular umbrella is medically ‘an ailment’, something which can be treated, and, above all, seems to imply that the healthcare profession understand it. That it is an ‘exact science’. To some extent we are all supposedly responsible for our health – getting enough exercise, not smoking etc. – but this idea of responsibility is a problem in relation to mental illness, as it translates to some kind of failure or weakness in the individual. I have always felt this way about my own condition, however, a new friend made the following comment to me that I hope will loosen the burden for a few of us out there:
‘...But it’s not our fault.’
As someone with a brain that dances to a slightly different jig, I feel like I know what I’m talking about – on the occasion that I have taken my medication. I have been through the proverbial NHS mill, my first visit to the GP concerning my mental health was in primary school after my mother twigged that a suicidal seven year old wasn’t entirely normal. This appointment was apparently concluded with the immortal words, ‘children don’t have depression; she’s just manipulative’. Fourteen years on, and no psychiatrist has ever given me a solid idea of what is ‘wrong with me.’ The nearest I have come is my most recent psychiatrist’s timid diagnosis of Borderline/Histrionic Personality Disorder (BPD) peppered with some severe depression and the charming acronym EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). I am a recovering anorexic and bulimic - though, if you have any experience of these delightful conditions, you will know that we are always going to be ‘recovering’. ‘Recovered’ anorexics are a rare breed.
It has taken until adulthood, and rightly so, for me to be recognised as BPD, as before the age of twenty the behaviours exhibited cannot be purely attributed to BPD because they are often characteristic of ‘teenage hormones’. Now, BPD is a sticky wicket as far as the healthcare system is concerned as it is often labelled ‘untreatable’. This is not strictly true, as a book I have recently read clarifies (this was on one of my intrepid adventures into the Health Sciences Library, a cultural treat for any Arts Undergrad). According to the book, ‘Borderline patients are impulsive, unstable and destructive...and this has resulted in a widespread reluctance to treat them’. It also implies that many healthcare professionals do not consider personality disorders to be illnesses ‘hence do not accept that they are their concern’. For the most part, it’s down to us to do the dreaded deed, and ‘help ourselves’, which is beyond difficult, and I will not profess to have a firm grasp of how to go about doing it. The first stage, however, may well be acceptance. What I, and others with mental illnesses have perversely discovered, is that our illnesses often have silver linings. Stephen Fry has famously said that he wouldn’t be parted from his Bi-Polar Disorder, as the mania has led to moments of such creativity that they are almost worth the galling and inevitable depression. I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, and as I frequently remind myself - ‘it’s never dull’.
As a first year – albeit a twenty year old first year due to ‘gap years’ (spent primarily on counsellor’s sofas or on scales at the local hospital) – I have found starting university to be quite problematic socially. This is probably due to the fact that we Borderlines are notorious for our ‘marked shifts from baseline mood to depression...recurrent suicidal and self destructive behaviours...identity disturbance, uncertainty and clinginess from real or imagined abandonment’. We also tend to cry a lot and be sexually promiscuous. Sterling qualities we all look for in a new friend, I’m sure you would agree. Part of what has inspired me to write this article is the hostility and isolation, ‘real or imagined’ that I feel many freshers will be facing at this time of year, never mind freshers with mental health problems. It’s bad enough meeting hundreds of new people who you may or may not have anything more in common with than your potential BA certificates, but when you have ‘slightly too much glitter in your veins’ as I like to put it, the whole process is nigh on hellish. I can only describe my own problems with any amount of integrity, as there are so many things out there, from OCD to Schizophrenia, that it would be difficult to do them any justice in just a few hundred words. So, if you think back to the first few weeks of your course - you know that annoying guy in your seminar group who talks ten to the dozen? Or that quiet girl who always seems to have just been to the gym (again)? Please don’t be angry or annoyed with them, there may be a lot more going on in their cerebral cortices than is entirely helpful to them. What I am trying to say is, on behalf of everyone out there who goes wappy if they forget their little yellow capsules, I am not going to apologise for being the person I am. As is the case with many other ‘girls interrupted’: we’re like marmite, love us or hate us, we’re doing our best. This staying-alive-business isn’t as easy as it looks.