So, did I mention that I’ve been in counseling since I was 16?
My mother had a degree in sociology, and was a big believer in mental health treatment. She realized that, whether I was diagnosed with a psychological condition or not, sometimes it was just good to have someone there to help you figure it out.
Back then, I was in the throes of diabetes non-compliance. I was struggling with the ‘why me?’ that every chronic and autoimmune patient goes through, especially after having survived meningitis. My monster was in a growth period as I ate whatever I wanted (maybe 5,000 calories/day) and purposely didn’t take the insulin I needed to break down the food. I also faked blood sugar readings on my meter. It was a very dangerous place to be, but I had to be the one to pull myself out. There was only so much she could do.
I needed professional help. The first therapist I had was nice enough, but he believed me when I lied – I’d perfected the art – and so, he was ineffective. I only went a year in college before major complications began surfacing. The first round was retinopathy (eyes) and neuropathy (nerve damage commonly called “diabetic nerve pain” in commercials). I was scared straight, and in an effort to help keep me there, the Joslin Clinic – the world’s gold standard for diabetes -- recommended a psychiatrist close to my college. I remember that the college supplied a van to take me to and from appointments. This one was good. Very good. It was in his office that I began to discover how my own brain worked.
After college, my mother was sick, terminal actually. After living most of her life with serious Crohn’s disease, she was going to die of pancreatic cancer. Under the circumstances, I thought it would be better if I continued counseling, but I’d moved away from my college town, so I started going to the first therapist I found that had the right background. It wasn’t what I needed – the therapist and I didn’t mesh well – but I didn’t have the time or energy to go looking for a better fit.
As an aside:the relationship between a patient and their counselor or therapist is a bit trickier than the one with their physician. With your physician, personality is important, but there are not many methods. Approaches to your condition, yes, but not methods. If the method your therapist uses is not right for you, it is hard to build the trust essential to dig into your psyche.
After my mother died, I called the Joslin Clinic. They had connected me so well the last time. They didn’t let me down this time, either. I knew in the first visit that it was going to be a good partnership. My first clue was that, when she asked me why I was there, and I said because of some issues around the diabetes. She called me out. She told me that I was using the diabetes as an excuse, that I was really there because of a lot more than that. I was taken aback for a minute. Thought about it. Realized she was right. A good start.
But it was the good end that sealed it for me. She told me that if I didn’t feel the appointments were working for me, she would help me find someone who worked better for me. And that was it. It’s been 16 years, and I know myself so much better than I did then. It’s a gift – to understand the motives behind my own behavior and be mindful enough to be the seat of my own power. Well, mostly, anyway. I – we – still have work to do.
But that’s me. My issues pale in comparison to the dire straits some of my friends have struggled with. I am close to people who have depression, thoughts of suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and more.
I was listening to a sermon last year in the synagogue I attend sometimes, and the rabbi spoke about the unreasonable stigma that still surrounds mental illness. There is a section of the service that allows us to speak aloud the names of the sick we are praying for, but he pointed out that people rarely speak the names of the person who survived a suicide attempt, or announce to their friends that their kid just got out of rehab.
Why not? There’s as much to celebrate in someone successfully being treated for mental illness as there is in someone surviving a heart attack. They can be just as fatal if not treated properly. There is a chance of relapse with both. Both can be hereditary, though neither is contagious. And often both are caused by an imbalance in the body.
I can only speak directly to my own experiences, so I will ask: What is the difference between a chemical imbalance causing depression and my body deciding that it is its own enemy and attacking until part of that body (my pancreas) is dead?
If there is a difference, I don’t see it. I think that people who survive mental illness should be just as proud of their hard work as I am when I hit my stride on my regimen.
But what I think isn’t going to fix the stigma attached to mental illness. Because that is the issue, isn’t it? It’s an artifact left over from a time when we understood much less about how our brains work, back when we were afraid that mental illness reflected the patient’s character or morals or that we would be tarred with the same intolerant brush if we got too close.
We know better now, or we should. It’s up to all of us, patients and not, to educate ourselves, raise awareness, and make it known that we don’t see mental illness as any different from the more “accepted” chronic conditions. May is Mental Health Awareness month, so it’s a perfect time to join the conversation.