Dark Nights of the Soul

Ireland. The land of a thousand welcomes. Where the grass is green, the sun is rare, the Guinness is black (or ruby red, if you’re a purist) and the craic is mighty. Sure it’s a great little country altogether we have. Isn’t it?

Well, it is. For the most part. Unless you’re suffering from mental ill-health, that is.

Ireland, for all its warmth and revelry, its friendliness and humour, struggles to deal with mental health issues. As a population, we don’t really like the thought of anyone being “not right in the head”. We regard those who are “a bit touched” with pity, suspicion and even fear. We exude patronising pity for those who “suffer with their nerves”. We don’t talk about mental ill-health in the same way as we talk about physical ill-health, and if someone shows signs of mental “frailty” they are labelled, for life.

Come to think of it, talking about feelings on any level, apart from the most superficial, tends to be a challenge, particularly if you’re male. And especially not with other males.

Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in Ireland is the big increase in media coverage of mental health – and mental ill-health. Be it blogs, websites, articles, newspaper reports dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, this is an area which is generating more conversation than ever before – and not before time. Organisations like Spunout.ie, Headstrong, Grow, and Shine to name but a few of many, have been working to push these issues into the the public arena and popular discourse, and are slowly but surely building conversation, knocking down walls and very, very gradually reducing the stigma around mental illness. An initiative which has really pushed the boat out in terms of working to reduce stigma around mental health problems is
See Change, an alliance formed by over 40 voluntary organisations, state agencies, universities and youth groups including those named above. Their work has really impressed me so far, particularly their ‘Make a Ripple’ campaign, which comprised of stories by real people who have been affected by these issues, serves to remind us that mental ill-health is not solely the preserve of people we don’t know.

This isn’t a post about my own experiences of depression. I’m one of the luckier ones. In my lifetime, I’ve dealt with two pretty bad bouts of the blues, both severe enough to necessitate time off work and both harsh enough to make me wonder through the darkness of despair if life would ever look any brighter again and if I would be better off dead. I’m not going to write at any great length about how waking up in the morning during a period of depression is almost a disappointment… nor about the way it saps your energy and motivation, how broken sleeps provide no respite, contributing only to sustained exhaustion. I don’t intend to dwell on the guilt you feel for your lack of enthusiasm when nothing moves you. Neither will I write much about how, during a period of depression, you become your own worst enemy, locking yourself away, isolating yourself, distancing yourself from the people around you and focusing helplessly on the negative thoughts, feeding the selfishness of the illness until you are trapped in a spiral of misery so intense that all you want to do is go to sleep and not wake up.

No, for those who want to read about the experience of depression in depth, there are plenty of accounts out there, written by those souls courageous enough to share.Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve learned to deal with it. Every so often, another wave will appear, out of nowhere to wash me under, but as any bad surfer knows, sometimes it’s easier to duck beneath the wave and let it roll over you than standing up and trying to fight it. Acceptance has been half the battle, for me.

It does sometimes feel like a constant, exhausting fight, keeping the darkness at bay. A feeling I’m sure many a sufferer will identify with… but to live in fear is to let it dominate your life and I will absolutely not allow that to happen.

Sometimes though, it’s hard.

Everyone deals with things differently, and for me, I’ve always found the internet a ‘safe’ place to share. (That’s why I think Aware’s online support groups are a fantastic initiative.) As per the bio, I don’t much like talking about myself. I like asking questions more than I like giving answers, and I would struggle,  face-to-face to talk to many of my friend about this. Only a handful know that I ever suffered with depression, and it’s never really mentioned. I feel this is partially because, I think, having never suffered it themselves, they cannot empathise. Harsh? Yeah, probably.  And a bit unfair – given that we just don’t know what anyone else is dealing with in their own head.

But it’s no way meant to be derogatory. In my experience, there is a divide between “them” and “us”. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will comprehend, and those with no experience simply cannot understand. They can sympathise, but can’t empathise with the despair. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing, for them. I find however, if I say I’m feeling down, it’s awkward. After a while when it doesn’t lift, people become impatient, or bored. I’m not saying it’s their fault. Naturally, it’s frustrating for them too when they’re getting nowhere. But I sense the impatience, and knowing I am the cause stresses me and upsets me even further. Therefore, I just find it’s easier not to talk about it.

And I couldn’t, in a million years, begin to imagine telling my current employers. I don’t think there is any place for mental “weakness” in business, and I have unfortunately seen very real evidence of this.  I have imagined the conversation in my head once or twice, for laughs. A couple of recent initiatives which have approached the issue from the ‘preventative’ side though, like stress management courses and an emphasis on fresh air and exercise, are positive and ones that I hope are not just tokenism, and will contribute in a small meaningful way to the mental health of all employees who participate, whether they realise it or not.

It’s my hope that all the work being done at the minute by the organisations above can somehow bridge the gap between ‘published’ experiences and real life, and that the conversation can become relevant to all of us. That’s where the real challenge lies. And this is a challenge that needs to be taken on – from the top down. Any politician who actively promotes the issue of mental health is worth their weight to this country in gold. It’s all very well to say that it’s good to talk about these things. We can say that til we’re blue in the face. We know it’s good to talk.

It’s translating the rhetoric into reality, and dealing with mental ill-health in a positive manner when it affects you, or me or someone close to us, and actually talking about it when it happens – that’s what will ultimately show that we are winning this battle, and my fear is that it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. These organisations need to position themselves in such a way that they are accessible to those who have very little strength to actively reach out. And let’s encourage those of us who are stronger to look out for others. I fear that the disconnect remains, but only by working together (and looking out for one another) can we erode this “strong, silent” mentality and help make those dark nights of the soul a little less lonely.

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(Image: Morguefile.com)
 
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It’s the little things….

Today, we buried my cousin.

23 years old, and until Wednesday morning and the accident, full of life and humour. We’ll miss him more than I can write here.It’s been a rough few days, watching his family grieve. Grieving with them. What’s struck me however through the grief and the sadness and the exhaustion of the past three days is what a big impact the little gestures have.

Firstly, the amount of food that arrived to the house within hours. Trays and trays of sandwiches. Cake mountains. People wanting to do something… anything. Anything at all.

The younger group sitting up all night with him. To watch over him. The stories.

When they carried him out of the house for the last time, nearly thirty cousins, so rarely together, but at that moment together in raw grief, linked to each other for support formed an impromptu guard of honour to see him off. A protective semi-circle wrapping their arms around a broken family. Only wishing so badly we could do anything to take some pain away.

Thousands of people filed through the funeral home. When I say thousands, I mean we sat there for four and a half hours. Four and a half’s worth of people queuing up to offer their condolences. There were queues for miles. Today, those who sat in the front row have swollen, tender hands and wrists. (A tip. When offering condolences at a funeral, don’t squeeze too hard when shaking hands. Work on getting that balance between ‘wet fish’ and ‘vicegrips’ just right. It matters.)

The guard of honour of the local youth group, with which the family is so involved, from the end of the road to the church. They waited nearly two hours for him to arrive, then they walked beside the hearse with him to the church as the ball tolled. Hearing that bell toll…it’s such a lonely sound.

Today, strangers in the cars on the road pulled over as a mark of respect for the funeral. Those little things… Things that you’d never consider worth remarking on, took on a new significance. I never realised until now how touching it is to have a stranger ackowledge your grief. I know I’ll be doing that myself in future.. it may not help, it may make no difference. But it might.

It’s been a long three days. But there are far, far longer days ahead. Sleep well, Spud. We’ll miss you.

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(Photo: Morguefile.com)