What’s wrong with people these days?
In the final blog of this year, I want to talk about the issue of mental health. It’s not exactly festive or cheerful, but it is important. Over the last 2 years many of us have been exposed to stresses, confusion, and internal struggles that, without a pandemic, we might have avoided. Some have been through personally challenging situations that they had no prior warning of and have found themselves ill-equipped to cope with. The pandemic is creating a vast amount of mental health problems that will take many years to deal with, and we probably all need to be aware of, and plan for, this silent problem in our midst.
Anxiety and depression are cruel mistresses. In many cases they take years to emerge. You don’t realise. Then they play tricks with your mind. You laugh and shrug them off, believe you will be okay, not knowing that you’re already in, way over your head. They are, of course, illnesses. Nobody chooses to feel this way. And once in, you find yourself in unchartered territory. You sort of know that you should talk to someone. But even though you should, you don’t want to, because of the shame, embarrassment, and a disbelief that anyone would be able to help you feel any better. To speak to your doctor is also a challenge. In a time when people are dying, vulnerable, or having vital treatment put back, then to try and explain that you’re feeling a little low’ makes you feel pretty pathetic. So, you don’t, and you say nothing until sometimes it’s too late to say anything.
Those close to you want to help you feel better. They want to help identify the catalyst, in the belief that if they can eliminate it, or reduce its effect, then you will feel better. They will try and capture that ‘thing’ or offer well-meant advice, which is supposed to make you raise your eyebrows, turn the frown upside down, and somehow not feel quite so bad. The problem is chemical, technical, and possibly cyclical, linked to all manner of repetitive events in our lives which we thought were just ‘life’, but were actually chipping away at our mind and our ability to reason. Even worse, we feel guilty about feeling like this. Ashamed that we can’t cope. Feeling bad, for feeling bad. We pretend we’re okay and react poorly when challenged.
The pills that are prescribed are usually inhibitors. This means the good chemicals that keep you stable or ‘up’ are maintained in the brain, so you suffer less mood swings, which helps you to feel better. There are varying possible side effects. One of these is that the pills have the power to numb you. You can have an argument and instead of feeling anger you feel nothing except an entrenched stubbornness. You can watch an emotional film which in previous times would have had you gripped with angst, but you feel nothing, or you feel much less than you might have done, and you wonder why? You might engage in actions or choices or make decisions that you would previously have questioned in yourself, but the pills hardly allow for that level of imbalance, or reflection. So, as well as trying to recover from your mental health issue, you are also trying to function under the influence of pills, or if you won’t take them, booze, illegal drugs, or other things will become essential to you, because you want something to remove this heavy burden. Coming off the pills is also tough, because like any drug, there is a withdrawal, sometimes worse than the condition that started you off in the first place.
There is professional help – much of it free but quite limited, and plenty you can pay for. The uncertainty of not knowing what you will uncover can also be distressing. Of course, your condition may link back to childhood trauma – or it may be a more recent event, and it may take a few sessions to get to that connection. Also remember, identifying and uncovering something, doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with it. You’ve just begun a process of deconstruction which may lead you to accepting something, or no longer being affected by it.
It’s a well-known fact that many comedians are also quite depressed when not performing. Frankie Howerd, who died in 1991, performed virtually the same one man act for over 50 years. When he wasn’t performing, he was known to be morose, depressed, and bad tempered. The performer needs to perform. It’s another type of addiction. You crave the excitement of having to deliver for your audience, and when you can’t, it depresses your mind as it is used to the pulsing adrenaline required to do the act. I knew an actor who was similar. When he wasn’t working, he lost himself in the drink, because in that disconnected place, he could perform to himself in his mind’s eye and everything he said to that invisible audience was entertaining and inspiring. When he was working again, he threw off that fear and uncertainty. But when he was back at home, the demons re-emerged, and the delight of acting work, which fools you into thinking another job will soon come along to maintain and grow that excitement, is quickly replaced by crippling doubts and financial worries. He was once sitting in a pub feeling sorry for himself nursing a small beer, when an American actor came in, shook his hand, told him his luck would change, and the next day it did, when he landed a job. That’s the kind of story that restores our hope and makes us believe in magic, and at the same time, it’s also tempting us to believe our lives may always be like this, leaving everything to chance and magic, when the alternative is literally and actually far more depressing. Uncertainty is worrying, and continual uncertainty increases the worry until we can find something to actually stop it. The last two years has tormented many of us with huge levels of uncertainty.
There was a time when these issues, which we still know so little about, would mean you could be packed off somewhere to recuperate and recover your mind a little. I’m talking about a hundred years ago or so, as long as you had a bit of money. There’s something in that. To go somewhere, a change of scene. To sit somewhere beautiful, in clear sunlight, with a slight breeze, to appreciate all that is the essence of oneself, and the preciousness of life, even for a few moments, would be a great luxury. That experience, the realisation of recovery, not linked to drugs or psychology but pure appreciation of our current existence, is one I wish you all this Christmas. Take a few seconds to reflect on the last 2 years and perhaps decide on one, tiny, small step to take in the New Year, either for yourself, or for those around you who may well be suffering in silence. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?
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