‘Are you working?’

The question, from a family friend, rings with accusation and expectation.

It’s not immediately obvious that I have a serious chronic mental illness. Of course, it wouldn’t be. It’s an invisible disease. People can’t see my brain ticking over constantly checking on reality, constantly monitoring my feelings, responses, perceived reality, my breakthrough symptoms despite medications. These are all in my head, not in colourful display for passers-by.

My immediate response is to dive for cover, normalise my situation. ‘Oh, not before Gracie’s in school.’

Wouldn’t it be great to work? To have a job with the respect and community standing it commands. Like I once had.

Instead, should I have explained the true reason to relieve my guilt? ‘I still battle my mental illness and cannot work, despite my regular attempts.’

Or should I explain as a warrior who challenges the well-meaning expectations of others?

One day a friend, who has serious physical health challenges and complications that she has explained to me, seemed to genuinely want to hear about my experience. I told her what it was like when my psychosis emerges.

Her response was that I needed to learn to breathe.

Seriously? After nearly two decades of psychiatrists, psychologists and an ever-changing cocktail of medications? And she has the solution?

She did not want to hear any more. For her, I was cured and my most despairing times easily fixed if I only chose to do so.

Because isn’t this the convenient story of mental health promotion? We/others recognise our symptoms, we are diagnosed, treated with medication, perhaps other treatments, and then largely cured, and we return to the productive life of work and community engagement.

It’s a pretty story. But not mine.

I suffered chronic clinical depression over decades and “passed”. And then psychosis struck me. I was running all over a capital city thinking people were trying to murder me. An initial diagnosis of depression with psychosis was given and stuck for many years. Later it was replaced with Bipolar I. More recently my psychologist has said to think in terms of symptoms rather than diagnosis. Other diagnostic terms are now used in relation to my symptoms: post-traumatic stress disorder, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder. Sometimes I struggle with the feeling that all I am is a bunch of symptoms and the rest of my personality has packed its bags and taken off to find less crowded quarters.

But I will not have my worth measured by those who judge and look for simplistic solutions.

I am more. I am a loving and caring mother, I am a helpful and concerned daughter, proud aunt, I am a supportive friend, I am exploring my interest in writing, and sharing my mental health experiences in the hope it will help others feel less alone, I am an animal lover, a vegetarian, a music lover, a fun cook.

There is no need to convince anyone but myself.

I am worth the effort to follow my own road toward mental health and will no longer judge myself by others who are largely unaware of the complex issues surrounding mental illness and health.

Something I learnt from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy was cheerleading. It goes beyond Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which says use the evidence to challenge negative thoughts. I can even say, maybe this situation is negative, but what would you say to your friend? You are your own friend. What will you say to yourself? ‘I am worthwhile for being me. We walk this path together.’

I will discuss DBT in future posts, but to provide more information now BorderlineBabbler discusses it in some detail.