Tag Archives: stigma

The “broken leg” question

Today, on Doing Defies Depression’s Facebook page, I posted:

Question: Which would you prefer – a broken leg, or an acute episode of depression?

It’s a question which has been floating around for years, but it never hurts to run it past a new community and get their responses.

At the time of writing, that post had reached 698 people and had 25 comments, not counting replies to comments. I told you we had an active and engaged Facebook community!

It didn’t surprise me that 92% of respondents said they’d prefer a broken leg; after all, these people had some experience of depression. Most of the comments in favour of a broken leg cited the sympathy and understanding that those with an injured limb will experience, as opposed to those living with the invisible ‘brokenness’ of an acute depressive episode.

For my money, the response of the day was:

Broken leg. People take you seriously with a broken leg. Why don’t you get out more? Oh sorry, I didn’t see your leg. Why don’t you get a job? Oh sorry, didn’t see your leg. Why are you so emotional? Oh sorry, did you want help with your leg?

although the comment saying “2 broken legs” had me smiling.

Of the two who responded that they’d prefer depression, one person’s reason was that a broken leg would prevent her from walking her beloved dog, and the other that a broken leg would prevent him from earning, which would lead to destitution, depression and homelessness (I’m paraphrasing).

Can my little question tell us much? Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth:

  1. People who have experienced an acute depressive episode would prefer physical pain over psychological suffering.
  2. People in the Doing Defies Depression community – who are far more likely to be living with depression than the general public – retain a sense of humour! Well done, DDD community!
  3. The belief in stigma and misunderstanding of depression is very strong. This is demonstrated in comments like “At least with a broken leg you get the appropriate help and support you need”, “Easy a broken leg … You don’t get comments like – you’ll get over it – pull your socks up” and “Broken leg. Like others are saying people take a broken leg seriously. There’s sympathy and empathy. Depression so few understand it or even recognise it in others.”
  4. Society in general, and workplaces in particular, have a long way to go until people living with depression feel understood.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in there. (Actually, I did have an original thought, but someone came and talked to me for ten minutes so *poof*! Out of my mind it went.) However, these responses highlight the need for greater education around depressive illness.

Out of interest: which would you opt for?

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Self-knowledge: a joke?

I think a good paper in fundamental physics shares some characteristics with a good joke: it has an unexpected take on a familiar idea, and yet in retrospect it has a certain screwball inevitability. (Benjamin Schumacher, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio)

As I read this quote, it struck me that self-knowledge also shares some of these characteristics. That’s been my experience, anyway.

One way our mischievous minds make themselves known to us is through the good old Freudian slip. My favourite is when you accidentally substitute one person’s name for another. Afterwards, I’ll think: what was it that induced that switch? I learnt this technique from a therapist some years ago, when I substituted the name of one professional for another. My therapist asked me to describe the person whose name I’d spoken and I used words like “tall”, “ineffectual” and “misguided”. The first was a physical characteristic which obviously linked the two, but as it turned out I realized my opinion of the person I’d originally been talking about was also quite low, although it was difficult for me to allow myself to think this at the time, because he was so highly respected in his field.

Another way is through the words which seem to pop out of our mouths during conversation. “I could’ve killed her,” we laugh – but then I think: OK, you’re laughing, but do you actually feel quite angry towards her? “I just want to eat you all up!” we chortle into a toddler’s belly – but are we perhaps objectifying the little child, seeing her as an object for our enjoyment? Or are our feelings of pleasure deeply entwined with our enjoyment of food? Sometimes the answer will be “No! You’re overanalyzing things” – but at other times, the analysis can yield interesting results.

Like Schumacher’s take on a good theoretical physics paper, both examples take an everyday twist of language and use it to reveal something unexpected about ourselves. It’s as though our language is like a piece of glass, turning in the air, and casting a rainbow on the far wall.

My therapy sessions are often punctuated with laughter as we notice what word I’ve used, what allusion I’ve drawn. “Did you notice that I couldn’t think of his name for a moment there?” I smile, as we’re talking about someone who’s hurt me in the past. Or my therapist will raise an eyebrow: “Dying for it?”

This week, I’ve really enjoyed hearing about Canada’s “Let’s Talk” day from earlier this week. It’s been wonderful to read so many people’s accounts of stigma and the language we use to describe and talk about mental illness. What I am saying in this post is that we can take the language we use to talk about ourselves and use it to gain self-knowledge … and sometimes laugh at ourselves in the process.

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The Urge to Over-Pathologize

Sometimes, those of us who live with depression or anxiety over-pathologize ourselves: we mistakenly attribute normal human emotions, reactions or behaviours to our illness, and this isn’t constructive.

It’s easy to see why we do it. We might be feeling having a low day, and we say something without thinking it through, and we beat ourselves up about it; but anyone can put their foot in their mouth, and lots of people feel awful afterwards – so there’s no need to go that next step and see it as further proof of our mental ill-health.

Or we might be feeling super-anxious about, say, giving a speech, and find ourselves feeling panicky. We’ve all heard that old chestnut about how some people fear public speaking more than dying – and yet instead of ‘merely’ feeling panicky, this almost-everyday event can turn into evidence that we’re labelled with a disorder, that there’s something wrong with us. Again, we’re causing ourselves unnecessary extra distress.

Don’t get me wrong, our feelings in these situations are valid (all feelings are valid); but what I’m saying is that we don’t need to keep using ordinary events to remind ourselves that we’re depressed, we’re anxious, we’re different from the rest of the populations. We simply don’t need to keep to keep banging our head up against that label. Sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, a fear is simply a possibly well-founded fear – both unpleasant, but both usual life events.

So my challenge to you today is to try and de-pathologize your self-talk for the next 24 hours. If you’re depressed or anxious (or even if you’re not!) examine anything which triggers destructive self-talk, and ask: is this something a “normal” person might realistically experience? Is my reaction really so far outside the range of “normal”? (Sorry for using the word “normal” here – I want you to interpret it as a non-judgmental shortcut for … well, you know what I mean.)*

I hope that this might become an exercise in self-compassion and kindness.

 

 

* Gavin – you can laugh now!

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The Real Danger in Extremist Polemic

Do you think that  allowing same sex marriage would usher bigamy and bestiality into our society? I don’t, but should it matter that someone else does – and receives a great amount of media coverage while stating their beliefs?

I recently mentioned Cory Bernardi, in the context of bringing some friends returning from overseas up-to-date with Australian current affairs. Bernardi is a member of the upper house of Australian Federal Parliament, a Senator representing South Australia. You can read about Bernardi’s views on his website, stamped with the slogan “common sense lives here” – common sense, that is, if you believe, for example, that “non-traditional” families raise more promiscuous and criminally inclined children; that wages are excessive, and that the fact that Australia’s government is secular (i.e. non-Christian) is responsible for our nation’s woes.

Today I want to share and expand upon the ideas put forward by Andrew Porter in his excellent article “The real danger in Cory Bernardi’s comments‘” which appeared on the ABC website on 7 January, 2014.

As Porter remarks, Bernardi’s comments linking same sex unions with bestiality and bigamy were not only “undoubtedly one of the most profoundly offensive contributions we’ve heard from a politician in living memory” but also alienated him from other conservative thinkers:

This was a bridge too far for some of his usual fellow-travellers, who range from the IPA to the always entertaining Australian Liberal Students Federation (who revel in being more idelogically “pure” than their Young Liberal friends) among whom Bernardi’s views on throwing off the yoke of the state earn him that most hallowed of Tory sobriquets, “sound”.

However, as Porter says, the real danger he poses is that “he shifts the goalposts on what we consider outrageous, and by extension, what we consider acceptable or unacceptable”.

Why am I writing about this in a blog usually dedicated to mental health? I believe that we need to be on our guard against such goalpost-shifting statements about mental health, both in the media and in our own discourse.

We, the mental health community, need to keep a weather eye on the way mental health issues are depicted online, on screen and in print. For example, if we watch a movie in which a person who is mentally unwell is demonized, let’s blog about it – share what we think was accurate in the film, and where we think it went astray. I heard some commentary about the movie “Shine” on Melbourne’s ABC 774 radio station along these lines this morning, which was wonderful.

We also need to take care when speaking about mental health ourselves. Now, I know many of us blog for therapeutic purposes – I’m part of that community! – and obviously I’m not speaking about when we are expressing our feelings, working through an issue, or sharing our experience of a crisis. However, when we are commentating on mental health, I believe we need to ensure we’re neither minimizing nor demonizing the realities we’re dealing with. We don’t want to become part of the stigmatizing machine; we want to be part of the cure, part of the reality check which will help others take mental health seriously.

Returning to Cory Bernardi: as you may have guessed, I’m not a fan. I believe his opinions are outlandish, dangerous, and do not have a solid basis in reality. Along with Porter, I believe that there is some danger in extremist polemic of that ilk. But do I believe he should be sanctioned for what he says? No. If there’s anything worse than a crazed conservative social commentator, it’s a martyred  crazed conservative social commentator.

What I do think is that faced with such extreme opinions, the rest of us need to speak loudly to counteract his influence, so that such views can be seen for what they are – so far beyond the goalpost of what is acceptable that they can be discounted.

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Ruminating

I’ve been thinking about friendship lately, and today, unfortunately, I have found myself ruminating on past hurts.

I moved to a new city a couple of years ago and immediately started up a business. I worked my ass off (oh how I wish that were a literal statement!) until my mental health crashed in June this year, and as regular readers will know, life has been somewhat constrained since then. All this means that I haven’t really had time to make many actual, real friends here. (Some, but not many.)

Today I have been thinking in particular of two people I feel really let me down when I was in hospital. I thought we had built a good, mutual friendship: we did lunch regularly, though not frequently; they put work my way; I was their confidant in times of need, and kept their secrets; I helped one of them find support when she started a new job.

So why, when I emailed to say I was in hospital, did they say they would not be coming to visit me? Not that they couldn’t make it this week; not that they would let me know when they could come; not any of the other myriad softer ways of letting me down. Would not. It’s such a damning refusal.

Ruminating like this isn’t healthy. I should either contact them and air this matter, or find a new way to think about it which doesn’t involve blaming me, or them. Failing that, I could picture putting these concerns into a box, locking it up, then imagine it in a place where I’ll trip across it later – preferably at a time when I am capable of a more healthy reaction.

But right now, it’s stinging. I cannot help but think that if I’d broken a leg, fallen down a cliff, even needed treatment for cancer, they would have come – or at least would have softened the blow of not coming. I cannot help but think it was the fact that I was in a psych ward which kept them away, and made it OK in their minds to discard me so completely.

Right: it’s time to get constructive. I am setting a timer on my mobile for ten minutes as I type this … done. In ten minutes’ time, I will put this matter from my mind for the rest of today, and when it comes nudging back, be disciplined in saying “thanks, but no thanks, mind! I’m not thinking about that, or feeling about that, right now”.

But, just as those ten minutes are counting down … what do I do  now? Do I want these people to be my friends any more? Do I cut them off completely, or relegate them to ‘acquaintance’ status? Am I engaging in black and white thinking? Can I give them a call in a few weeks’ time and just not mention the matter at all, perhaps only commenting if they bring it up? Argh … now I can’t wait for these ten minutes to be up.

Bloody stigma. I hate you. Go away.

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