I understand it’s quite fashionable to talk about one’s mental health problems. I’m all for fighting the stigma around mental health, but part of the issue with talking about mental health like we talk about physical health is that is removes most of the nuance surrounding mental health conditions. I think people who suffer from mental illnesses should be allowed to say they are sick. I think they should be allowed to access the same health services as those suffering physical ailments. And I think they should be treated with the same gravity as someone suffering a long term physical illness. But I also think nuance is important in the discussion.
There’s a distinct difference between feeling depressed for a few days and battling suicidal thoughts for a few years. There’s a difference between the baby blues and prolonged post-natal depression. There’s a difference between concern over a big work presentation and debilitating anxiety. And like the general public has learned to recognise the difference between a sprained ankle and torn ligaments, the public ought to be privy to the differences in degrees of mental health concerns, and the circular causes that perpetuate certain mental illnesses. Every statistic and study and in the world won’t necessarily help the average, mentally healthy person come to grips with the complexity of what an unhealthy individual faces. That is why stories matter.
Mental illness is not untreatable, however, as a patient it can feel as though the future is bleak because it takes time, commitment, and experimentation for an individual health solution to be reached. The common remedy for most mental illnesses is a combination of good sleep, healthy eating, physical activity, routine, social connection, medication, counselling, and some kind of mental rejuvenation habit like mindfulness or meditation. To a healthy person, it seems like this is a manageable combination of factors with a little bit of dedication.
So why does a mentally unhealthy person have so much trouble managing?
Well, imagine the 8 things listed above are physical items you have to hold. Healthy people will find a way to cradle them in their arms, or just put 1 or 2 things down if it’s too much to hold all of them. The mentally unhealthy have arms made of overcooked spaghetti. So we stand in front of the very things that will help us improve our situation, with no way of knowing even how to move our arms. And so, we despair. How are we ever going to get better? We can’t move our spaghetti arms.
It’s not unusual that well-meaning people tell us sick folk to ‘just try to get up’, or to ‘have a green smoothie’, or ‘go for a run’. All good suggestions, all things helpful to overall well being. But you’re a step ahead of us, healthy people. We have the spaghetti arms thing going on.
Some people carry on as if they don’t have spaghetti arms, and these folk are one step behind again. First they need to be able to accept their slippery appendage situation. And this isn’t easy, especially when for your whole life, you’ve had normal arms, and you look at everyone around you with normal arms and you wish for all your life the spaghetti arms weren’t a thing. But they are a thing, and some of us have them.
This is one of the many reasons it can be so frustrating to hear stories of people who have successfully managed their mental illness. They say the same things helped them: exercising regularly, sleeping well, eating healthier food. I’ve found myself reading success stories thinking, “I KNOW all this, but I just CAN’T!” I haven’t learned to work my pasta arms. I hear these things and it makes me feel like I might never get better, which exacerbates my condition.
We need you to be patient as we learn to accept our new wobbly-armed existence. And as we learn to hold all the pieces in place with our wobbly arms, one baby step at a time. And for all my spaghetti-armed buddies out there, be kind to yourself. Sometimes you’ll hold it all together. Sometimes you’ll drop everything and have to start from the beginning again. But on those days, just wave your spaghetti arms high in the air with me. You can count it as exercise for the day.
The ‘what’ might be very similar between people when it comes to recovery, but the how is going to change from person to person. All the spaghetti arm stories matter. They’re all a little bit different.
On the days when we’re waving our wavy arms in the air, we have to be kind to ourselves. Most of us have some kind of coping mechanism we resort to. I’m a big fan of chocolate.
I tried really hard to eat less chocolate, by investing in Chocolate tea. And hear this: it’s a great tea. It’s a strong black tea with cocoa husks in it. This means it tastes like black tea, but comes with some added sweetness and an aftertaste a little like you ate dark chocolate half an hour ago. It’s a terrific tea. A little bit of milk makes is creamy, but I like it best all on its own.
But when you are looking for a block of chocolate, don’t put those expectations on the tea. It will not deliver. If you’re like me, some days you can’t substitute the big guns.
Enjoy with: spaghetti-armed chums