What Is Wrong With Us?

I’ve had a bugger of a cold this week. I wish my legs ran as well as my nose does. I’d be running five-minute miles and two-thirty marathons. I’d also be a lot more attractive. There is nothing quite as unsightly as a man who’s left his snot faucet wide open desperately looking for a fresh tissue.

(That’s probably not true. I thought of at least half a dozen more unpleasant sights while I was writing that sentence. Ask me about them some time when you’re feeling strong.)

I’ve gone through three big boxes of tissues and filled the wastebasket twice over with the detritus of my virus. It’s all soggy tissues and crushed and empty lozenge blister packs in there. It’s really quite unpleasant to look at and I can’t imagine it’s much more pleasant for anyone else to contemplate now I’ve mentioned it.

I felt really quite ill for the first half of the week. I’ve been very tired; off to bed well before ten at night and sleeping for nine or ten hours. The last time I felt as poorly as this was last AprilĀ  in the week before the Manchester Marathon. At that time, I passed out at home on the sofa and couldn’t do much at all to prepare for my race. I missed that race, of course as I have so many others.

I passed out once before. I woke one night feeling really odd when Anne was away in Wales with some friends. I went to the loo, spent five minutes heaving and sweating, threw the contents of my stomach up into the pan and then blacked out. I came to some time later with Harry knocking on the door, asking me if I was all right. I wasn’t completely coherent. I desperately wanted to go to sleep there on the floor but something was telling me that I should get up, move around, get to bed, at the very least take off the sodden dressing gown which was very nearly not staying wrapped around me. Ewww…

Pus and snot and blood and shit and urine aren’t often fit topics for dinner table conversation. They’re not fit for the sensibilities of a lot of people and I’m sorry about that but I’m preparing an argument and I had to do it. So, while we can’t often talk about pus and snot and all the rest we can’t ever talk about mental illness.

I read Andy Baddeley’s blog post this week about his depression and performance anxiety. It resonated so strongly with me. The most important thing in his post is that he felt he could talk to his friends about his depression.

People who fight cancer are now seen as heroes, warriors against an implacable and nearly invincible foe. People fear cancer because it’s a nasty disease. Nearly everyone must know someone who has died of cancer. Fear means that people don’t want to talk about it but slowly, slowly, attitudes are changing. Prognoses for many cancers are improving as a result of research and better cancer care. People are living with cancer now and not just dying from it and that means that people are willing to talk about it more.

The same is not true of depression or other mental illnesses. I can guarantee you will never, ever read a tabloid headline about a schizophrenic hero overcoming the the odds to fight against their disease. Never. Not ever. Papers will publish pictures of mums with cancer but without hair being brave and awesome and being mums. Race For Life is a fantastic phenomenon which has given many women the running habit and it’s a fundraiser for a cancer charity. I can’t imagine that Run For All The Sad People would have the same impact and not just because I’m crap at naming mass-participation fundraising events. It’s not about the name, it’s about our attitudes to mental health and those who lack it.

We are even more afraid of mental illness than we are of cancer. Mentals are mental after all, aren’t they? They get locked up because they kill you, don’t they? Bollocks, complete bollocks. The trouble is that the popular conception of someone with mental illness is the axe-murderer. I think this is because we don’t talk about our own mental illness when we have them.

Mental illness is not rare nor is it always severe. Most people with depression for example have the psychiatric equivalent of a bad cold or a mild dose of flu. It’s not pleasant but it does pass. The cruellest thing about mental illness is the isolation that goes along with it. It’s seen as a weakness or a failing. Nobody sees flu or Ebola or heart disease as a character flaw. As Andy says in his blog, nobody wants to admit to failing so we keep our mental health issues quiet. We go into seclusion when what we need is the help, support and love of everyone around us. You can’t catch depression from a depressed person.

There is something wrong with our society. I hope that we’ll see more blog posts like Andy’s in future to dispel the nonsensical shite that clings to mental health issues. If more powerful people like Alastair Campbell talk about their mental health then we’ll see that it’s not about weakness or failing it’s just about being well or unwell.

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