Mental illness can affect anyone
Updated: Nov 8
"I’m no longer afraid of the dark. I am afraid of not finding the light."
We are here today to be a part of a conversation about something that insidiously, and indiscriminately, shows up in the lives of millions worldwide.
Cunningly, and without prejudice, it can knock on the door of the incredibly wealthy, and the dirt poor.
The very old and the very young.
Those who call themselves Kiwi or American; straight, cis, bi; black, white, of colour.
Those who are gainfully employed, and those who may be struggling to work.
This is a problem that can strike anyone.
It blights millions of families and ruins countless lives.
I am talking, of course, about mental illness and the vast challenge it presents in the world around us.
From personality disorders and post traumatic stress disorder, to depression and anxiety, mental illness manifests in so many ways.
Bipolar. Depression. Schizophrenia. Suicide.
These are words that have traditionally been taboo, and many feel uncomfortable just hearing them – let alone talking about them.
I know this, because I am unwell.
Over the years, I have been diagnosed with more mental illnesses than I have already mentioned, but you can’t see it by looking at me. I don’t have a cast, a wheelchair, or a breathing tube. Because my illness is an illness of the brain – one that can cannot be seen.
Fortunately, I’m blessed with not only a best friend, but a person I can count on to be there no matter what.
For me, that’s Sophie.
An enormous amount has happened over the years to both of us: good, bad, wonderful and everything in between. Unfortunately, many of our life experiences have been soaked in tragedy. Sophie's oldest brother, Ben, tragically took his own life. That is why we’re all here today - standing together - to try and find strength in each others’ pain and journeys and move forward together in a way that means that lives like Ben's can be saved, with a lot more awareness, compassion and understanding.
Ben, like millions of others, was deeply affected by mental illness, and heartbreakingly he lost his battle with schizophrenia in 2009. He felt so isolated and so alone that he felt that he had no other option than to end his own life.
As a fellow sufferer of mental illness, I have not yet lost my battle. I'm hanging in there, some days fighting constantly with my own mind to stay alive.
I will be 30 next month and I’ve been unwell for as long as I can remember. Mental illness has played an enormous part in my life, and the struggle is relentless. It certainly doesn’t get any easier as you get older. I have lived a life of chaos and destruction, impulsive behaviour, addiction and pain. I’ve lost someone I loved very deeply; I’ve hurt and confused the ones that love me. I’ve used every escape mechanism I could in order to not face the pain of my past. I’ve seen more psychiatrists and psychotherapists than I can remember. Been on every psychotropic drug you can get. But I’m still not ‘better’. I probably won’t ever be better.
I had a nervous breakdown in February of last year. I was quickly sectioned under the Mental Health Act and placed in a psych ward. Little did I know how long I would be living here for.
Many things happened last year as the months flew by, but the one I want to share is this:
In July, I tried to hang myself. I was very close to succeeding. Two minutes more. 120 seconds and my lights would have gone out forever. Even saying this I feel shame.
But I shouldn't. Would I feel shame if I was standing here having fought cancer?
Fortunately, I was given another chance. And at first, I was so mad about that. So full of rage that I hadn't succeeded. Still in hospital, torn apart from a torrent of overwhelming emotions, and reliving my whole life over and over - wanting to be gone so badly.
But then the mist lifted and little by little, over the next few months, my thoughts thawed out and I realised that I was grateful for being saved – and that I did actually want to live. Since then, I’ve fallen in love, been showered in love by all of my people, seen in another Christmas and New Year, and here I am at this incredible festival. Alive.
This day is in loving memory of Ben. He wasn’t saved. He succeeded. And as painful as that will always be, we have to remember that he is now out of his own pain.
Mental illness can affect anyone, but it is more openly talked about in some sections of society than others. For many, they sit silently in the face of adversity. This has to change. For people to talk about it and get help, we need to work to find a common language and understanding. If it isn’t recognised, it is as if it doesn’t exist. People pretend they are OK; family and friends turn a blind eye; nothing happens until it is often too late.
A change of culture has happened with illnesses that have previously been taboo: from cancer to AIDS and a number of other sexually transmitted diseases. But it hasn't yet happened as much as it needs to with mental health.
The World Health Organisation claims that mental illness is the leading cause of sickness and disability in the world.
You cannot cure anxiety just by staying calm. You cannot recover from depression from just being positive. You cannot cure anorexia nervosa just by eating.
We're not alone in our suffering, but we have to come together and hold onto the thought that we are not defined by our illnesses, our diagnoses or the judgments of the societies that deem us a little too different to properly accept us.
We are defined by the person we create for ourselves, alongside mental illness. You cannot heal a lifetime of pain overnight. We all need to be patient with ourselves. It takes as long as it takes to rebuild yourself. I’m no longer afraid of the dark. I am afraid of not finding the light.