Through the looking glass: Cheezies in bed

On February 12th, Bell Canada challenged Canadians to talk about Mental Health. Of the over 96 million who texted, tweeted and shared on Facebook about Mental Health, I was not one of them. Not because I don’t believe in the cause, or encourage awareness, but rather because I do and I think the people around me are exhausted with the conversation. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I struggle with depression. The issue isn’t feeling embarrassed, or shameful about conversations, the issue is more, what to say about it. “So, I suffer with depression.” Cue crickets.

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Now I suppose the postulate is that discussion raises awareness to the point of it no longer being an awkward conversation, but if we look at it rationally, (tongue in cheek) we fear what we don’t understand, and thereby, with great emphasis, avoid. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of not having to make their bed everyday simply because they don’t get out of it, honestly, I think you’re the one who’s not normal!

Here’s the thing – I’m one of the fortunate ones who gets to come out of the depression occasionally. I don’t live there; I visit. When I’m on my visits, nothing any ‘helpful’ soul might try to impart is going to suddenly click in my head and cause me an instant epiphany followed by the ever elusive euphoria they so desperately want to give me. In my times of clarity and bed making, I can look back and see the darkness. I can see the chaos and self-depreciation. I can see all the things that no one wants to talk about. I understand it, and I don’t want to talk about it. I have talked about it. Talking about it is depressing. You want to take the wind out of someone’s sails? Describe depression. If you do it right, by the time you’re done, you’ll both want a drink, or a bag of cheezies. Maybe both.

As a society we have crafted creations to mask what offends our senses. Perfume to cover an offensive odour. Spices to mask the taste of an animals flesh, or worse, tofu. Music to mask the noise around us… or the silence. I chose the sirens of an ambulance to drown out the chaos. And for a while it worked. It’s tough to feel sorry for yourself when you’re the shoulder for someone who’s handing you their dying child. It’s not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone having a bad day visit their local burn unit. Sometimes it made me worse. You’d be amazed how well we can twist things to make ourselves the worst living creatures. “I’m so horrible. Here I am feeling sorry for myself when they’re enduring this. I’m so selfish, and stupid, and ugly, and….” People who suffer from depression are some the most brilliant people I know. Not me of course. Just everyone else.

Given that the not so hot topic is Mental Health in general I would be remiss in limiting this article solely to Depression. My education over the years has helped diagnose everyone around me with one thing or another. In my own immediate family I have determined everything from Tourette’s to Asperger’s Syndrome. And I’m sure any psychiatrist would concur. In my career I have also seen some solidly blatant examples of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety disorders, and phobias. In fact, I have seen so much of it that I am almost convinced that the small percentage of society that doesn’t experience any ‘variation’ of the norm is actually more indicative and representative of generalized disorder than those who do. Read that ten times fast. And maybe grab a bag of cheezies to help you through. I submit, your honour, that it is I who is normal, and the voices in my head agree. I mean, who defines ‘normal’ anyway? Humans are an ever-evolving species. Maybe the variances in our mental function are to be the new norm. Maybe I’m not as odd as you think I am. Maybe you’re the oddity. If we dig deep enough, I’m sure everyone would fit one diagnosis or another. After all, someone so callously and flippantly remarked to me once, after numerous family issues including an emergency hysterectomy, “You don’t corner the market on health issues, Jennifer. We all have shit.” Suffice it to say, we’re not friends anymore. I had clearly outlived my usefulness and they “decided to cut [me] loose.” But I’m not bitter; I’m buying stocks in karma.

Regardless, I believe the critical factor is how effectively you can navigate life because of or in spite of whatever perceived or diagnosed mental impairment you may possess. When the mental impairment reaches a point of no longer being able to function productively as a human being, does that then satisfy the criteria set forth by society? If so, Howard Hughes flew (pardon the pun) in the face of that. Despite his compulsions he functioned, arguably quite satisfactory, in society due to his financial prowess. Humans are essentially selfish. Not maliciously of course, it’s in our DNA. We have no choice. So, the amount of time I invest in you is directly proportionate to the amount of fulfillment I am achieving, either physically, emotionally or financially. Call it a symbiotic relationship. And, the amount of artifact I’m willing to endure is also entered into the fulfillment equation. The people who surrounded and supported Howard Hughes, endured or ignored the artifact due to the fulfillment of the relationship they enjoyed. People who have nothing tangible to offer society are at a marked disadvantage when it comes to how well they can function based on their impairments. As unfair as that may be, it is simply fact. And that is by no means a slam to those who have money. I’d happily pay someone to make my bed and buy me cheezies.

So for those who struggle to find direction, we will talk about it. And talk some more. Pardon my skepticism, but I don’t hold out a lot of optimism on it becoming as open and common a discussion as a broken leg. Much like terminal illness or venereal disease, we don’t like to talk about them because they make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. If things can’t be fixed, we’re at a loss as to how we can help. If we can’t help by way of advice, financial or physical assistance, thereby fulfilling a sense of purpose, the relationship is no longer symbiotic, it’s out of balance and we’re left sitting on the ground on a one-sided see saw while everyone else is on the merry-go-round. I never liked see saws. My fear of breaking my coccyx on the ground when my partner bailed always held me back. And merry-go-rounds make me throw up, so I tend to avoid those to.

Here’s what I hope for: I hope that we can recognize a mental health disorder as something that is not fabricated in the mind of attention seeking individuals. I hope that we can recognize it as valid a medical condition as heart disease or cancer. I hope that an anxiety attack can be met with the same compassion and attentiveness as a seizure. I hope that we can see it as malfunction of the chemicals in the brain, rather than a weakness of mind, body or spirit. I hope that sharing your sufferance with depression is met with the same level of respect and concern as divulging clogged arteries in your heart.

Here’s what I know: I know that my own thoughts, fears and double speak exhaust me. I know that no one can drag me down, insult or demean my existence on this planet more than I can. I know that I feel judged and scrutinized and that alone will keep me from talking about it like I should. I know that when my mother told me about my grandmother’s ‘episodes’ of depression I felt vaguely normal and a little less alone. I know that when my son was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder coupled with clinical depression, my soul was fractured in a way that no bone could emulate. But I also know this: When my son taught a drama class at a school where he endured bullying by students and teachers alike, and was applauded and praised for his skill and passion, I felt my soul knit slowly back together with hope. I know that when my husband calmly tucked in bed beside me, held my hand and wiped the black streaks of mascara from my face, I felt loved on a level without condition, and understanding didn’t matter. I know that I am loved and I love. And I know that I refuse to pull the covers up on my bed to make it up. I fold the duvet neatly at the foot. I don’t want to hide the chaos it holds. I want to set it free.

Jennifer Barry is a writer for The Spectator Tribune

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