Wednesday, 23 April 2014

How do people react when someone 'comes out' about mental health issues?

I wrote this post in draft a while ago when I was very angry but I have expanded it and removed the expletives. I haven't changed the points because even though I may seem unsympathetic to the difficulty of being in a situation where someone discloses to you that they have mental health problems, the frustration of the person doing the disclosing is no less real just because it might understandably be an uncomfortable subject for person receiving the information.

The good thing about my current state of having given up on life in a big way, is that I don't see the point in hiding it from people anymore so when I talk to people I haven't seen in a while or new people and they ask me things, say; how work is going... I will just tell them I've been out of work for a while because I have mental health problems/depression. If they run a mile that's fine. I will have succeeded in pushing someone else out of my life... and if they don't run a mile, well at least I won't have to pretend I'm a normal person with them. And it is surprising how many people will then confide in me that they have had mental health problems too. 
There are various reactions really and having reflected on this briefly, I have noticed that these reactions could probably be categorised into groups where a person's reaction may fall into one or more category. The types I have noticed (so far) are:

Awkward Turtles
Denying Doofuses
Nosey Parkers
Frustrating Fixers

Awkward Turtles are those who initially look like they wish the ground could swallow them up. They may struggle to form some sort of response and when they do respond the content could come from any of the other groups in its approach but seasoned with awkwardness in tone and expression. Subsequently they may avoid you or act strangely around you forever onwards. For example, my Father in law. I only told him I was depressed because he put me on the spot about why I was off work on sick leave. There was a painful silence and his face turned a peculiar shade of crimson. He then asked if I knew what caused it. I gave a brief explanation and said it was a complicated condition of which depression is just one aspect and he then changed the subject completely. Now when I see him talks to me with a tone one might use if someone has just died and asks: “How are you feeling?” or "How are you feeling now?" instead of “How are you?” which pisses me off big time because it's highlighting to others in the room that there is something 'wrong' with me and the 'now' suggests that he is waiting for me to get better.

I get angry and say: “How are you feeling?” which probably just confuses him more because he means well. He just doesn't get it. Besides, it's not really any of his business how I'm feeling and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't know where to look if I actually told him how I am truthfully feeling. I don't think he really wants to know either so why ask?

Denying Doofuses are the people who can't accept that you are ill and wish to tell you that you are not. Or can't accept that something might have caused you to become depressed. I believe they do this to protect themselves. Some people, like my Mother in law for instance, have a need to believe that everything in the world is wonderful and evil doesn't exist. My mother and mother in law both tick this box. My mother, we have talked about in recent posts so I won't go on about. She just can't accept that her efforts weren't good enough and me being mentally ill makes her feel like she has failed so she needs to deny any 'nurture' issues and convince me that it is all my 'nature'. My mother in law doesn't deny that I am depressed but she blatantly refused to accept that I had anything but the best childhood because I am a 'nice' person when I told her that my parents weren't exactly brilliant. She has a need to deny that anything bad even exists in the world. This was very distressing when it happened. 

It's hard to have gone through a process of accepting that the past happened after having blocked out so much of my awareness of the neglect and abuse for many years, to then be able to verbalise it in some small way and immediately be told it didn't happen and have someone tell me that my parents didn't do anything wrong when they don't know the details. And then even if given some of the more 'easy to accept' details, like basic needs not being met, for that person to still reject what I am saying and refuse to hear it. These Denying Doofuses are just protecting themselves and I understand why someone might need to do that but it still makes me so angry. Child abuse happens. Could it be prevented or stopped in many cases if adults didn't need to protect themselves by denying it?
Nosey Parkers are the ones who are not just interested in a supportive way, but are just plain old morbidly curious past the point of considering what might be appropriate or inappropriate to ask someone. My mother falls into this category as well. She feels that it's OK to ask me every detail about my mental health just because I told her I am depressed (again, only because I was asked directly why I am not working)... Who did you see about it? What did they say? What medication are you on? What dose? etc etc. It wouldn't occur to her that I might not want her to ask me these things. I find it extremely triggering to be honest. My mother violated boundaries she shouldn't have when I was a child. I am very protective of my boundaries now. I keep her at a distance because any sense of her imposing on me brings up a lot of feelings that are extremely difficult to handle. The worst kinds of feelings. Ugh. Let's move on swiftly...

My friend P also falls into this category. She knows that I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, although she hasn't met parts as far as she knows. I've told her before that I don't want to be asked 'what caused it?' yet she just can't help herself. Her curiosity about 'what happened' to me outweighs her concern for my well being and she repeatedly hints at, comments about or just outright asks what it might have been.

Then we have the Frustrating Fixers. Fixers are a hard bunch to deal with because they really do mean well and may actually have a good understanding of mental health issues but just can't hold back from telling you how you can get over 'the depression'. One friend advised me that if I eat healthily and exercise I will get better. I spent my whole life trying to do that. My mother in law seems to think the sunshine will be the answer to all my problems. A bit of sunshine wouldn't hurt but it certainly won't fix what is broken in me. I have been going to a support group recently and here I am provided with all the advice anyone could want, from 'cut out caffeine' to 'the past is in the past'. Some of the advice Fixers give can actually be spot on, but I find fixers irritating because I don't like being given advice when I haven't asked for it; it verges on denial of my feelings and it sort of merges into the Nosey Parker category for me. It also makes me feel hopeless and worthless because it feels like I am being told I'm doing it wrong and should try harder. That's what I interpret it as. There are exceptions when advice can be welcomed. I am usually more receptive to advice from my therapist, T (usually) and in the moment, Adam can be helpful but that is more 'encouragement' rather than advice. If I am lying in bed at two in the afternoon and Adam encourages me to get up and dressed, this is helpful because it is encouragement when I need it.

I don't invite people to try to help me and again, I am protective of my boundaries and those who want to tell me what to do jump over that line, plus can easily offend. I mean, maybe I do need to make sure I get dressed every day, but I don't want to be told that. I already know it. It is not the knowing of how to go about functioning that eludes me; it is the ability to bring it to mind in the moment and then having the desire, motivation, presence of mind and energy to do it that is lacking. I could write the self help manual for depression myself. It's not the knowing, it's the feeling like there is value in it and being able to do it in the moment and someone at a support group telling me I should get up and dressed in the mornings is not going to help me the next morning when I'm lying in bed feeling hopeless about life. I am aware that for others, advice is very helpful. It just presses my buttons unless it's the right person at the right time.

My instinct when people act this way is to just agree and act like they are being useful but being how I am lately, I might respond that I don't really see the point in doing anything because I don't see the point in living. This is obviously going to make things awkward and it's a defensive response (even if it is true). I spent a lot of my life not being allowed to feel anything bad about things I should have felt bad about. Now when people give me advice to help me feel better, a big part of me feels like they are telling me I am not allowed to feel this way. I am protective of the reality of how it is now. I am very sensitive to any suggestion that this didn't come about for a good reason and frankly, at the moment I just think I need to feel bad. Why shouldn't I feel bad? I mean, in a way, my whole life was a lie I had to believe at the time and now I don't but I need to feel bad for all that has happened.

Last but certainly not least are the  Accepters, plain and simple. These are people who aren't freaked out by your information, don't feel they have to understand it or fix it or change you. They may know all about it or may not know the first thing about mental health issues but it doesn't matter because they react the same way that a person might react if you told them you had a bad kidney or a knee problem. It's simple. I like the experience with these people. The ones who don't feel the need to start giving me advice on how to get better but just talk about it frankly, the same way you might share experience or conversation if someone said they had a bad leg and you had also had a bad leg or knew a bit about what it's like having a bad leg. You might be a bit sympathetic but you wouldn't change how you treat that person really, except perhaps not asking them to climb a mountain with you. But you wouldn't really think of them much differently. That's how it should be with mental health, but it often isn't. They might ask questions but none too invasive and they don't feel the need to provide any sort of pathetic sympathy or graveness in their tone. To them you are still pretty much the same person you were to them five minutes before you told them you have depression or whatever you have; they just have a bit more information than they did then. They might think differently of you in some ways, but not in a negative way.

The other day I was talking to a girl I've met a few times and she was asking how I'd been (I couldn't remember why but she asked in a way that suggested she knew I'd had difficulties) and when I said I'd been off work with depression recently she was really great. She was sympathetic, in the same way she would have been if I said I'd been off work with a broken leg. She was an Acceptor through experience I suppose because she told me how she'd had struggles with anxiety and we were comparing notes. She didn't try to advise me but she did talk about how it is for her and the difficulties in her thinking and in this way, I felt good because of being able to share experience and she had empathy. We both talked about the things we do to try to overcome our daily issues and the hurdles we experience. Neither of us was telling the other what to do but it was a positive conversation and I was the same person in her eyes and she in my eyes, just someone who I now knew more about and could relate to even better. She said if I ever want to meet up for a coffee and a chat to let her know. I wish there were more people like this in my life. Funnily though, I am reluctant to meet up with her. It was a positive experience to interact with her and I almost feel I should leave it at that so that there is no risk of it being ruined. It feels good just to think about this nice person who doesn't know much about me but knows a bit and was OK with it. I guess I'm scared if she got to know me in much more detail she wouldn't like me anymore.

So those are the kinds of reactions I have encountered so far. Maybe there will be more. Maybe you have experienced others. Maybe people's ways of responding to mental health can change over time. My husband's responses these days might go into a further category for those who are so drained by the continuing state of depression that they can only seem bored, disappointed and deflated. But that's another story.

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