Nov 282014
 
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The Guardian/Observer announces a lovely initiative for Christmas (an initiative you can donate to here):

This year’s Guardian and Observer Christmas charity appeal theme is one of our most common and under-acknowledged health issues: mental illness.

One in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. For most it will be a mix of anxiety and depression; for a small number, it will be a more critical illness, such as schizophrenia.

And I suppose that “one in four” stat is actually more than you might think – I would suggest it represents twenty-five percent of all our lives, not just twenty-five percent of people.  The experience, then, in many ways, can directly touch much more than a quarter of us.

The article goes on to underline that:

It can affect anyone, from MPs and business executives to top sportspeople, from teenagers to new parents, prisoners to pensioners. It is, ultimately, the most ordinary of conditions. Many of us will know someone who has been mentally ill: family members, friends, work colleagues.

However:

Despite its prevalence, mental illness carries a taboo. We find it hard to talk about: unlike physical illness, it carries stigma and shame. Yet as the Time to Change campaign says: “The effects are as real as a broken arm, even though there isn’t a sling or plaster cast to show for it.”

I’ve spoken on these pages before about my own experiences of mental ill-health.  At the age of ten, I was whisked out of school with what was later diagnosed as epilepsy.  Then from the age of about thirty to the age of about forty I was free of any such manifestation.  Ultimately, in 2003, I was diagnosed with one of those critical illnesses Alan Rusbridger highlights – in my case the variant called paranoid schizophrenia.  I write more on this matter – and the doubts I have about the exact truth of the diagnosis – in this post from 2013.

My crimes – if that’s the word?  Well.  What drove me to a paranoid reaction was writing a blog around the time of the Iraq War, whilst living in Spain, unemployed and running out of money and the wider means to support my family.  You can get a flavour of this blog – and other material I wrote around the time – at this unfinished project here.

I felt, at that time, that my computer and telephone lines (both mobile and landline) were being intervened.  I couldn’t think why, though I was heavily involved in a project of disruptive innovation whose aim was to take a Microsoft Office-compatible piece of free software to the country of my mother’s birth, Croatia.  That I believed myself important enough to be the object of such surveillance was – in itself – considered sufficient to diagnose me as clearly paranoid.

In the light of Snowden, and everything that’s rained since, it doesn’t actually seem so bizarre an idea now.  At least it doesn’t to me.  (But then maybe that’s a sign of continued ill-health!)

I was living in a country where many people were primarily against the Iraq involvement and conflict; I was looking to become an online publisher; I was aiming to cross boundaries and frontiers of thought in terms of violence; I even once said I’d be prepared to die for my country – this latter thought most out of character, as in character I’m generally quite a coward.

Though my insignificance then – my continued insignificance these days – hardly makes it likely that I was anything but stressed out of my mind, there remains for me, even today, a small doubt in my mind that it was all my imagination and nothing more.

But as befits the place I’ve reached in my life, I no longer need the certainties that an explanation which wasn’t one of mental ill-health would provide me with.  I’m too happy with what I’ve got – the family, the love and the kindnesses which infuse my daily existence – to worry too much about the rights and wrongs of the matter any longer.

You’ll be glad to know I’m well recovered; happy with my life; totally functional; and positive about the future.

So why this post?  Why this rummaging around in a past you’d say – you’d probably say – I’m well shot of?

I am really minded to mention all the above because of one of the sentences in Rusbridger’s piece: “We find it hard to talk about: unlike physical illness, it carries stigma and shame.”

This, essentially, isn’t quite the problem.  Essentially, at least for the person with mental ill-health, or at least in my case, the issue is slightly different.

Let me put to Mr Rusbridger the following thought: I teach English classes online.  Let’s imagine he has a young twenty-something friend who wants to come to Britain to learn to speak the language.  Let’s say it will be to work in a restaurant or as an au-pair; somewhere in London perhaps; somewhere grand and exciting.

Not knowing my diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia still stands, he might be prepared to recommend my services.  But imagine the following: a) I felt obliged to reveal this information (even though I think there are issues around the original diagnosis and could point to UN documentation on such illnesses which indicates where the problem might be/might have been); and b) there were two online teachers of similar characteristics (similar methodologies, similar prices, similar professional histories, similar qualifications) – with only one small, though significant, difference between the two: the other teacher, with no apparent/admitted history of mental ill-health; myself, with this apparently terrifying-sounding (but now totally benign) paranoid schizophrenia.

Yes.  Admitting such things, in the face of other people’s stigma and shame, is brave, worthy, courageous and to be recommended.  But would it lead me to find it easy to continue being recommended as a teacher – or, indeed, writer, blogger and/or “para”-journalist of sorts – if the editor of the Guardian had to justify to a twenty-something friend (and/or their parents) that he’d recommend an epileptic, paranoid schizophrenic over a someone who had no such impediments (or who admitted to no such disadvantages)?

What I’m saying, you see, is that the problem isn’t the stigma and shame mentioned – not as far as speaking out is concerned, anyway.  The problem is that, for me as a self-employed small business in an online world where information spreads rapidly, the “Wow, Aren’t They Brave” perception (WATB) is frequently followed by the “Not For Me, Though” reaction (NFMT).

And so it’s not so much that people who have conditions like mine are ashamed of speaking out: rather, from experience and the simple intuition that life brings, they’re all too aware that the majority of people will say in public quite one supportive thing and do in private quite another with their wallets.


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