Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Limboland Acceptance

It's been a real struggle of late trying to define who I am and what that means; where I fit, belong and am 'myself'. My battle with mental illness has been perpetually focussed on becoming well, not being labelled as  mentally ill and not wanting to stay within that section of society because I wanted to be 'normal'. I wanted to return to the world in which I started and be accepted and welcomed back into it as having been 'fixed', 'cured' and most of all 'not a problem' to others.

'Wanted' - past tense. After a couple of weeks of reflection I've realized I no longer belong in 'Normalville', but nor do I fit in with the permanently mentally ill either (I don't think anyone does). I belong in the Limboland inbetween as sometimes I am well and sometimes I am not. Both the severity and longevity of episodes of illness seem to have diminished over the years but, hand on heart I can not say I will not have another episode or that it could not be severe.

This only partially explains why I do not belong in either camp though for when I am ill I do not want to belong there, and when I'm well I don't feel accepted as being well. It's as if once you're 'defined' as having suffered mental illness you are branded for life unless you abandon all those you've known, form new relationships and never mention it.

I've found I can not be silent and believe it to be a denial of basic a human right not to express and share experiences that I have had and having been mentally ill is one of those experiences. In fact, my psychotic breakdown was the single biggest personal experience I have ever had and it change me irrevocably for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways.

Never again have I been complacent about being immune from insanity and I have since become ever watchful of not only my own well-being, but that of others too. I embarked upon a quest, unconsciously at first but latterly with full awareness, to try to find out what safeguards there are and what the essential elements are to make for a contented and happy life regardless of health.

These are things that those who have not suffered mental illness generally do not do because they largely reside in the world of blase complacency that I myself once enjoyed too. In their world they share their life-changing unfortunate experiences too; be it a major operation or illness, a divorce, a loss etc. It should therefore be no different for the mentally ill. I reserve my right to comment on experiences that have effected me but in commenting I have discovered not acceptance but stigma and prejudice along with the assumption that I must still be ill because I keep commenting on mental illness - those who are mentally well have no need to, being the assumption.

My contention is that because mental illness is such a taboo as a subject it needs to be an exception until greater awareness and acceptance is achieved although I own most of my life is not devoted to this cause either. It's an important issue that I remain passionate about but I don't believe it healthy for me to be consumed by any one thing.

In wanting to be accepted as I am I find I too have to be careful not to succumb to knee-jerk reactions myself. In order to achieve acceptance I firstly have to accept myself as I am, for if I can not do that how can I expect others to?

Secondly I have to accept others as they are which means accepting that they will not always understand things about myself as I may them wish to. This does not just mean acceptance about mental illness, but also my political views, my interest in art, pottery; my taste in clothes, food, music, books, films and all the rest. Acceptance is seldom instant and there is mileage in keeping the communication channels open as how else do we each learn about each other?

In campaigning against any stigma it becomes a complicated juggling act between voicing the difficulties in order to educate and create awareness and allowing others to voice their reservations and fears and in accepting where they are at any given point. That way we learn where we might be wrong in what we want as much as where others might be; and it's important to admit it if and when that occurs.

I believe it's a case of listening and challenging prejudice with facts and proofs one at a time as no one likes to find themselves to be a total idiot but are likely to concede errors in judgement if handled this way. They are not idiots anyway and are capable of working things out if they are given the right motivation to want to do so. It is and will remain a gradual process I fear; and one that shouting from the rooftops is not going to effect a positive change. Unlike other campaigns such as raising awareness on gay, black or women's rights, mental illness is one where actions like chaining ourselves to fencing is not going to help.

Last week I attended the Include 2011 conference at the Royal College of Art where designers work on projects to help disability and disadvantaged groups with ideas to increase their ability to function. This is a relatively easy task to embark upon when the disability or disadvantage is a clearly identifiable tangible need such as poverty, blindness or wheelchair access; but what, other than acceptance and opportunities, do the Mentally Ill need by way of assistance to feel and be fully included in society?

In a way we already have acceptance - people accept us as ill but often not as those who can achieve or be well. I am saddened when I hear of people accepting they are permanently mentally ill and that they need support; I don't like it one bit when I have to acknowledge that I do at times. It indicates to me a victim mentality and by accepting the classification of being permanently mentally ill we are all in danger seeing ourselves as helpless victims and playing into the conditioning of the broader society. There are a few exceptions as some people are permanently severely ill, but therein lies the problem - we are all tarred with that brush and it simply isn't the case.

I've found I don't want to be pampered, protected, nursed or 'looked after' by anyone, nor do I wish to perpetually do so for anyone else. Instead my desire is to be empowered to manage things myself as much as I can, and that is the only way in which I want to support others too. The less independent we are the more we run the risk of others controlling our lives, dictating what we can achieve and negating our own potential for doing so. If John Nash (the mathematician in the film 'A Beautiful Mind') had succumbed to just being looked after he would never have returned to lecturing nor won the accolades he merited. He merited them due to his skill in maths, not because of his illness.

I find I am ok with predominantly living in the Limboland between 'Normalville' and 'Madville', visiting both worlds every now and then. I do not reside there alone even though at times I sometimes feel that I do, but that feeling is due to my knowing my own identity and experiences to be unique - everyone's are.

An Exercise and Test
To conclude here's a simple exercise for all fellow sufferer's of mental illness to prove you live in Limboland too: List all the things you are 'normal' at. Capitalizing on what we are 'well' in helps us to become well and stay there longer.

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