Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mental Illness - are we really in control or are we at the mercy of our minds?

It's been a rough few weeks in the news when it comes to mental health stories, and anyone out there who relates in any way to the demons Robin Williams struggled with has felt it.

The reason his death has affected, and is still affecting so many of us is a simple one could be us.

Chew on that one for a while, nonbelievers.

There is so much rhetoric and argument in the wake of a high profile death, there are always those who chastise those who mourn, there are always those who question the motivations of the person involved, and there is always a vast abundance of people speaking openly about something that they so clearly don't understand.

For a few days, I had to make a conscious decision to step back from the updates and the news and the blogs and the rants. I had to make self preservation a priority for myself, which is something that I came to learn the hard way as I've walked the path I have walked in my life. Stories like his are so overwhelming to some of us that it is difficult if not impossible to shut it all out.

Our minds don't work like those who enjoy the luxury of complete mental balance and stability. We can't just shut off the computer or television and be done with something. We can't just distract ourselves and ignore that looming thing over there.

It follows us. It gets into our heads. It toys with us.

It all was really starting to get to I did what I had to do, which is essentially to remove myself from wifi connections as much as humanly possible, throw as many balls up into the air as I could to try and distract myself and do anything within my power to think about something, anything else.

It isn't easy, though there are a great many people out there who believe it should be.

Which brings me to this post here today. The one that has rattled around in my brain for days now. The one that I feel compelled to write even though I have no answers relevant even for myself, let alone anyone else. The question is simple and uncomplicated, the answer anything but that.

Are we, the people who struggle with mental illness at the mercy of those diseases or do we have a choice?

I know, right?

Talk about a loaded question...

What made me really start to think about this were all the people who made statements about how Williams chose to commit suicide. I don't know that anything that happens in those darkest moments could legitimately be construed as involving actual choice, if I'm being honest.
I've been at the mercy of my thoughts, wholly incapable of controlling them at times, and it is absolutely terrifying. I can't say with any degree of certainty that decisions I made in those moments were rational ones. They were anything but. They weren't based in any realistic perception of my circumstances, they weren't thought out, they weren't any of that. They were irrational. Period.

Post partum depression soundly kicked my ass and taught me some lessons I never wanted to learn. I hid it for over a year before I just couldn't do it anymore, flirting dangerously with psychosis at times. Ultimately, I did get help and admitting I needed it was what pulled me out of that place...but not everyone gets help, and even those who do aren't always saved in time. Some mothers kill their children. Some mothers kill themselves.

Is any of that a choice, per se? I don't personally think so, only because I've been there myself. 

When I have had panic attacks, reason and rationality fly out the window and I go into full blown fight or flight mode. I'm focused, quite literally, just on breathing each breath and then the next and then the next. There is no amount of education or help or focusing or whatever that will get me out of it. Medication may work, though it just knocks me out. I have to ride it out for however long it takes, no other option.

Is any of that a choice, per se? I don't personally think so, only because I've been there myself.

When PTSD set up residence in my brain, it screwed with my life in almost every way imaginable. The triggers, the nightmares, the insomnia, the irritability, the paranoia. All of it affected me every single moment of every single day. I couldn't make any of it go away on my own, lord knows I tried. Trying just made it worse.

Is any of that a choice, per se? I don't personally think so, only because I've been there myself.

The idea that we are at the mercy of these conditions, at least at times, is unsettling to say the least. We live in a society that assumes that we are all in control of ourselves at all times. We dwell in a health care system dominated by HIPAA, a law that presumes that we are. We are so focused on independence as a society, so very threatened by the idea of that independence being threatened, that people are reluctant to seek help far too often because of the possibility that any of that could be jeopardized.

In my own situations, I made choices that helped me. I sought help for PPD. I sought medication for the panic attacks and have worked to find ways to manage my anxiety in the hopes of avoiding them. I deliberately sought specific therapy to work through my PTSD. I made choices. I had choices.

Those choices did not, by the way, cure the things wrong with me. They enabled me to live a semi-normal life again. A life with them, but not dominated by them.

Which is the best that we, the people who struggle with mental illness, can ever really hope for. We can hope to quiet the doubt and the shame and the self talk, we can hope to be functional, we can seek therapy and medications to help that process...but we can't ever just make it go away.

We can't.

No matter how hard we try, no matter how much we will it to be so. No matter how badly we want it, how much we want to be better for other people, be better for ourselves.

We can find balance, we can manage things to whatever degree we are capable, but it's always there.

In any discussion about mental illness like this one, I always come back to the parallels with conditions of the physical being, those widely recognized and accepted by not just the medical community, but by society in general.

When a cancer patient is given a terminal diagnosis, we don't tell them to just cheer up and things will get better. No. We understand that these are the cards they have been dealt.

When a person with diabetes struggles to control their blood sugar, we can offer encouragement to them in that fight, but we know that no matter how hard they try, it will never go away.

When a person is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we don't encourage them to suck it up and just make the best of their situation, we don't question the legitimacy of their diagnosis.

But it happens every single day with mental illness.

And it needs to stop.

My name is Kelly. I am a writer, a wife, a mother. I am wandering around this planet without my parents now. I am intelligent and articulate and a complete goofball. I am a doula and a photographer. I have endured post partum depression, anxiety and PTSD, but they do not define me any more than any of the rest of the things about me do.

I am a person, not a diagnosis. I am worthy of support and love and patience and understanding. I am deserving of a health care system that cares as much about my brain as the rest of my body, and I will fight for a society that does just that for as long as I live.

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