After my ‘supposed’ nervous breakdown in 1980, I was confronted some five years later by a former journalistic male colleague from the early the early 1970s who claimed to his wife, (whom I had never previously met) that “I wasn’t a bad journo until I went psycho”! We were introduced at a mutual friend’s wedding (I hadn’t even seen him during those five years) and how could I respond to his comment? Certainly, his perspective was profoundly painful; I bit my lip, glanced away from him and then turned to his wife who looked suitably embarrassed and remained silent. I quickly excused myself from their company. The only positive I could take from that brief encounter is that at least, he had said it to my face instead of behind my back as others I knew had too often remarked.
But it was a comment that has shaped the subsequent years of my life since 1980; the cruel and denigrating stigma that stings those who’ve sadly experienced some form of mental illness in their lives. Indeed, one psychiatrist I consulted in the early 1980s told me strongly not to tell anyone about my breakdown because of the stigma involved. He didn’t realise, despite me telling him, that I had been reasonably well known in Melbourne’s media milieu and that it didn’t matter whether I told people or not; the painful reality was as that colleague had said at the wedding and I hadn’t even seen him in all those years since 1980. The truth was it was common gossip, albeit of the malicious kind in some journo circles, and the really hurtful aspect of it all was that NO-ONE was ever interested in the truth of what had really happened to me. I was just dismissed and discarded on the scrapheap of unemployment and poverty, a loser, a failure to be pitied and condemned even by my own family who never inquired about London, the TV station where I had worked or all the comments directed at me at that time as I outlined in the blog – WHOSE MENTAL MADNESS? People I thought my friends also turned their backs on me, and I soon found out what people thought of me. The hard way; more and more rejections from jobs I was very well-qualified to do, people not returning my phone calls and only silence at the other end of many emails I sent. I was on my own; and as difficult and painful as it has been, I only had two choices – I could kill myself and seek refuge in sleep forever or I could strengthen myself to withstand the sadistic cruelty and sense of aloneness I had to learn to put up with. Yes, I did think about suicide for a few weeks; but deep down, I didn’t want to die; somewhere inside me there was a life force far stronger than those self-piteous reflections I indulged in all too often, and a sense of self-belief, however fragile it seemed, that I could work it out and understand what happened to me, even if no one else cared about the truth.
Yes, I eventually managed to find some employment, in publicity which I hated, (often for meagre earnings and such a belittling and humiliating position), but even in these workplaces, people knew about my breakdown without me even saying a word about it. There were odd comments in every workplace I’ve been in about phones, paranoia and even – you want to be famous! Whenever I confronted people saying these things, when certainly I had never said a word about any of it, I was walked away from or else lied to. So what could I do? I realised there was NOTHING I could do; I had resigned from some jobs only to find I stayed unemployed again and in my last position in PR for a TAFE, I stayed for seven years under much duress until there was a restructure of the Communications Department and I was retrenched. That was nearly five years ago and I was in my late 50s and needless to say, I’ve been unable to get another job since. Even to work in retail. There were so many things said to me at the TAFE that someone, somewhere, had spoken to someone who knew I’d been unwell before, I’m not sure that’s the reason I was retrenched (others were too) but people lied to me and I was the best publicist from all the Victorian TAFEs obtaining more publicity across the media than any other. Moreover, I had replaced two full-time people and achieved twice as good results as both of them on my own. It just didn’t make sense. But I had learned over the years to think – it’s THEIR problem; there’s nothing I can do except work hard and do my job as best I can. But the real issue is this – what so many people think of mental illness! Media reports are full of words about the stigma, the disadvantage, the isolation and marginalisation of people with mental health problems; and too often, news reports focus on all the negatives – the violent crimes perpetrated by schizophrenics, the homelessness they experience and the poverty they too often dwell in. Not to mention unemployment as a chronic state of being. Or else they’re supposed to take on really lowly jobs as kitchen hands or baristas as if that’s all they can do. What of their minds? Oh well, they’re fucked in the head and good for nothing else! An all too pervasive attitude I’ve encountered all too often by people who don’t know that I too have experienced mental illness.
There have been so many times I’ve wanted to scream – say something positive, encouraging, optimistic, (of course, if you’re a celeb it’s an altogether different outcome) about people with these issues- report on all those people who work well on anti-depressants, who are bipolar, schizophrenic, (and I know quite a few of them) who live as others do – but no, we are bombarded by the bastion of bourgeois banter that insists on maintaining the stigma shrouding the truth about so many people with mental health problems. Some say more and more people are COMING OUT saying they suffer from depression, and yes, that’s true including some well known politicians and actors, but for most of us mere mortals, the stigma persists as I know only too well. Too often, perpetrated by the very psychiatric, psychological and wider medical professions who of course, we believe naively, should know better. (as well as some in the legal profession and unions who regard these doctors as infallible. As they too regard themselves. And didn’t Hitler think that of himself too as one biographer put it) (Am I so wrong or deluded (of course) to call them fascists?) And the tragic consequence for many of the people suffering from mental illness, is that THEY too believe the stigma; they think they’re incapable, hopeless and worthless so the circle of despair and disadvantage only perpetuates itself. And if you DARE to believe in yourself as an intelligent, responsible, capable and confident human being, if you DARE to confront their medical expertise and authority and judgement, then, of course, you’ve got delusions of grandeur, you’re insane, manic, psychotic, and can’t ever be trusted again. Once mad, always and forever mad! Written off as useless for the rest of your life!
Why? What lurks underneath this stigma, what crippling social belief pattern so cruelly continues to punish thousands of people who are already suffering with their own pain? I’ve reflected on this question for a very, long time and the only word that jumps out at me time and time again is FEAR! People are scared of mental illness, frightened of the behaviour of these people, however unjustified and irrational these attitudes are. It matters little if there’s been no evidence of violent or criminal antics of mentally ill people, it matters little if they appear as most people do (however aberrant their behaviour can be), the fact is that people who’ve had a mental illness are always suspect, always mistrusted, always suspicious of because of course, you never know when they might snap and lose control, after all, they’re NOT like the rest of us who are so sane, normal and ordinary. They are misfits, objects of pity, it’s only medication that can keep them on balance, can shut them up because who wants to listen to the raving rants of a psycho? And furthermore, are these people scared of what might just lie inside them, how precarious is their so-called sanity so that it’s much safer for them to push the mad people away, out of sight and out of mind! I just don’t want to know! They too are the vulnerable ones, they too are the weak ones who can’t confront their own fragility and have to put a wedge of fear between themselves and these people. Of course, that fear is unspoken, unsaid, unrecorded, even denied, but you only have to say one wrong thing according to their way of thinking and you’re psychotic again, experiencing another episode if you don’t agree with them or kowtow to their power and self-righteousness. And it’s that nebulous fear that sadly permeates the lives of so many people who may have experienced mental illness. Just the other night on the news was a heart-breaking story about a couple of Indigenous young men who needed mental health care but there was nowhere for them to go so they were being kept in prison, for as long as four and five years. The Northern Territory Government was trying to build premises where they could go to receive proper care instead of being incarcerated in jail but in Alice Springs, the community didn’t want the premises to be near where they lived. The Government had to build one kind of care facility next door to the prison which was a long way from any social community and isolated in the desert. To me, that really sums up the prevalent attitudes across this country. What can you say but tragic?
I don’t know what I, anyway, can do to shift the stigma that abounds, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how you work or live after you have a quasi-breakdown you are never trusted again. No matter that you did nothing untoward to anyone, no matter how ‘normal’ (whatever that really means!) you seem to be, no matter that you socialise as others do, you are stigmatised for the rest of your life, by family, friends, and work colleagues, always skating on thin ice as they wait for it to crack under you. I can only go on and live my life by trying to withstand the hurt that some still throw at me, by ignoring it as best I can and acknowledging it’s their problem, not mine. It’s now them I pity, for their fear, their insecurity and their power trip. I can only try to be a good friend to those who still want to know me, stigma notwithstanding!