I have to rewrite the original post because I do not think I did a good enough job of communicating compassion. Also, I got a little confused at the end.
To be totally, emphatically clear I am not disputing the reality of mental health challenges.
I am directing this post to two possibly overlapping sets of people:
Group 1: People who have genuine mental health challenges
Group 2: People who may well have genuine health challenges, (or may not) but who have exploited or exaggerated their real or claimed mental health challenges to falsely justify poor behaviour.
The overall article is mainly directed to the second group of people. However this first post of the article is directed to the first group.
To Group 1:
To the first group of people I would say this: even if your mental health challenges are real and you have never ever attempted to exaggerate or otherwise take advantage of them and you would never ever dream of doing this, to the extent that you can take responsibility for yourself, you need to take responsibility for yourself. Some people really cannot take any responsibility for themselves whatsoever, possibly because they are locked into their own world. However if you can read this post and understand it, then I’m thinking that you can take some responsibility for yourself. Some people will coo over you and attempt to wrap you in cotton wool because of your illness. If you listen to them you might be tempted to fall into the trap of thinking yourself hopeless and helpless.
But I’m thinking that if you take what responsibility you can for your life, even if it is little, that might be the most empowering thing you can do for yourself. Do you remember the story of The Secret Garden? It’s just coming into my mind now. I’m only vaguely remembering the details but there is I believe that boy who is disabled, who has been told from a very young age that he cannot walk, he is delicate, he is bound for a lifetime to his wheelchair etc, but then the heroine comes and persuades him to take a few steps(?), and to everyone’s surprise he can walk. (Does he then fall while attempting to walk?! I forget!) This I believe is a made-up story but it still illustrates a very important point: if you believe what some people tell you about yourself and the inherent hopelessness of your situation, then you will not even try to metaphorically “get out of that wheelchair” so even if your body actually does have the physical capacity to walk, you would never know.
What I’m going to say next is incredible but true: believe it or not, some people have tried to treat me as if the colour of my skin/and or my ethnicity are an inherent disability which would reasonably prevent me from doing quite normal things. They may have stopped short of actually enunciating the following words, but the message they communicated to me was as if they were each gently laying a hand on my shoulder, and saying:
“Don’t worry, Tosin, (obviously) we don’t expect great things from you!” And then once again without actually saying anything they made it out as if they were relieving me of some great burden. “You don’t have to worry yourself about that, dear little Tosin!” But I want to worry myself about “that”, “that” is one of my biggest ambitions! In my experience, men do this all the time; that is, they act as if they are somehow “protecting” you by separating you from your most strongly held ambitions, usually by taking on these things themselves (and thereby also claiming for themselves the inherent credit or financial rewards). With men though it is not necessarily about ethnicity, it can often be about gender – or both.
Apparently there is a term for this. It is called “benevolent patriarchy” or “benevolent sexism”. Here is the thing: I have seen some men use this “benevolence” to mask regular malevolent or “hostile” sexism. And they were so transparent with it too. Seriously, whom are you trying to kid?! Other men though, are actually sincere about it. Apparently they sincerely think that it is their gallant male duty to protect any woman that they know from the slightest threat of greatness breaking out in her life. And if they would listen sincerely then surely the matter could be resolved. But some men either won’t listen because you know, they are happy to “help” women but to listen to us is an entirely different matter; or because of cognitive dissonance their own “gallantry” shouts so loud every time you speak as a woman that they simply cannot hear you.
This is all the more striking when you are vastly more qualified for these ambitions than they are, which has happened to me on more than a few occasions. One of these days I am actually going to come out and enunciate these following words:
“Listen, I have not asked for your protection! If I was going to ask someone to protect me, it would not be you!”
But back to mental health challenges: you might think that these people coddling you are looking out for you, protecting you, doing you a favour. And yet I put it to you that you will be doing yourself the far bigger favour by taking whatever responsbility you can for your life, metaphorically exercising whatever strength might be in your legs.
What might this look like in terms of mental health challenges? Well mental health challenges can span a very wide range of symptoms, just as with “physical health challenges”. There are anxiety disorders, bipolar, clinical depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorders and so many other distinct expressions of mental illnesses or challenges. Furthermore as with any disease no two patients will present the exact same way with the same condition. However I’m sure that as with any disease, everyone has good days, and everyone has not so good days.
So use the days when you are stronger to plan for the days when you are not so strong. If you can, ask yourself: “What do I tend to do/need in my not so strong days? How can I provide for that? I think of myself as being extremely weak in X area. However, how could I exercise and thereby increase whatever strength I do have?”
A trick I use for myself in certain things I’m struggling with is this: think of the condition as being separate from me. So you could say: “This is not me, this is the illness. The true me is (list out all the things you are). The true me aspires to be (once again, list this out). However, this illness makes me (list this out). How could I outwit this illness?”
You know what? I believe that self-belief is an incredibly powerful force. I have read a few stories about people who were born extremely disabled and technically incapable of achieving the great things that they later did achieve – and achieve they did, and they managed to make these things look effortless and these are things that would have been amazing for anyone to achieve, regardless of disability. For instance the composer Beethoven, the great Ludvig Van Beethoven was admittedly not born deaf but he did become completely deaf 15-12 years before he died. In those last 15-12 years he still managed to compose and even play works, (however he stopped performing publicly). Or how about Stevie Wonder, another noted musician, who is blind, and has been blind since shortly after birth? Apparently according to his Wikipedia page linked above he was even a child prodigy which is the first I’ve ever heard about that. And unlike many other child prodigies he managed to keep his greatness moving into adulthood. Apparently no-one ever laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, and said: “Don’t worry little Stevie, (obviously) we don’t expect great things from you! You just go and sit there in your little blind corner!” – or he simply did not listen to anyone that may have tried that. (Perhaps it was a woman!!!)
I know that for many of us our self-belief is a hugely limiting factor regardless of illness. I strongly believe that for many people what truly disables us is a lack of self-belief – and many of us are equally disabled by that, regardless of actual physical or mental impairment.
Ultimately I would even challenge you to make up your mind to triumph in life, not merely in spite of your illness, but even because of it! Perhaps this thing has been given to you as resistance for you to fight against, and you are not supposed to be weighed down by it, but rather strengthen your muscles of emotional strength against it, until finally you can leap right over it?!
The second half to this first section of this post argues the following: I believe that for many people even with genuine mental health challenges, actions taken or not taken can exacerbate these challenges. This is where my favourite analogy of “playing in the snow without a hat” comes in. Even though I have acknowledged that there are people who suffer from genuine mental health challenges, the world of people does not divide into “people who suffer from mental health challenges” and “everyone else”. We might not all have the same predisposition to certain mental illnesses, whether this predisposition is caused by genetics or environment or other factors. However as our bodies are all capable of getting physically ill so I believe that we are all capable of having our own struggles with mental illness, perhaps to differing levels of severity; in fact I was reading a post that argued that mental illness is in fact a physical illness as it is caused by physical issues in the body (not always in the brain, the gut is apparently a big driver of mental health!) Anyway this part to this post I will have to write later (by God’s grace)!