Once, when I was in the middle of one of my worst breakdowns, probably the worst one I ever had in front of someone, I was told “come on, stop being silly, pull yourself together”. It wasn’t said unkindly but at the time I was heartbroken and even more distraught. Later, when I had calmed down a little bit and was pretending to sleep, I was angry and ashamed; I remember the burning of my neck and face with embarrassment as I tried to lie still and breathe calmly and keep the tears pushed down. I realised that the person who said those things didn’t say them out of lack of sympathy or cruelty but simply because she didn’t know what to do in the face of insanity. I still feel ashamed but I no longer feel angry (except maybe sometimes at myself). Now I understand.
I need to be braver when tackling my illness. I need to find a way to tackle the shame. I have been reading a lot about Carrie Fisher over the last couple of sad days and the matter-of-factness with which she dealt with her mental illness and I regret that more of us (myself included) cannot be more open and honest about our struggles. The discourse on mental illness promotes shame and encourages secrecy to an extent (a public figure may “reveal” they have cancer but more than likely will “admit” to having a mental condition, suggesting a reluctance to talk about it and a certain sense of abashment) and we don’t help ourselves in going along with the accepted means of dealing with mental illness: keep calm and hide it away.
Carrie Fisher (and others such as Stephen Fry) refused to toe the line. She refused to be cowed by the “stop being silly” school of thinking and wrote with intelligence and, most importantly, humour about her condition. Humour, I think is crucial in helping people to understand. There is a tragedy to mental illness but there is also a ridiculousness that is difficult to see when you are in the middle of a crisis but easy to recognise once you scratch beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, I am no Carrie Fisher. I don’t have the wit to draw out the daftness of my condition eloquently and helpfully. But I can be braver. I can be more open. I don’t make resolutions (other than the vague “I must lose weight at some point; maybe I’ll think about joining a gym; I should probably eat healthier” kind) but this year I will. This year’s resolution is to be more open, to accept that I have an illness and that I possibly always will, but to stop letting it define me. And even more than that, to try and help people understand. To be able to say “I’m not feeling well at the moment” and to be open enough to be able to explain those feelings that make me unwell and result from being unwell rather than hiding away. And to find away to reduce risking those moments when it all falls apart in company and the person with me understands so little that she has to resort to “stop being silly”. This is the time to stop being silly. To paraphrase Carrie Fisher: it’s time to be “sane about being insane”.