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let’s humanize the term ‘mental health’

image and text by UndergroundIn the States, this month is BPD Awareness Month. Here in Canada, this week is the Canadian Mental Health Association‘s 61st annual Mental Health Week.

Along with awareness events taking place throughout Canada (though none that I can find yet here on Vancouver Island), there have also been several articles and reports on the news about the Mental Health Commission of Canada‘s recent proposal for Canada’s first ever Mental Health Strategy, entitled Changing Direction, Changing Lives.

Reading the articles, I began a train of thought on the question, ‘What is mental health?’. So, in honour of Mental Health Week, here’s what I have to say:

Why mental health matters to everyone:

Mental health is the well-being of human beings. Our ability to feel connected, of service, and part of something greater than ourselves; our ability to experience fulfillment and provide for ourselves; our ability to establish a sense of belonging and feel like a valued member of community; our ability to lend a hand, and reach out for one when needed; our capacity for diversity, our resiliency in the face of adversity; our ability to establish and maintain balance of work and play — all of these, as individuals, communities and the planet.

I’m going to play with a controversial stance here and say that I don’t believe in the government as being responsible for these things. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the proposed $4B would be a bad thing at all; but, at some point, it is the people of a society who must make a change in the accepted norm, and the criteria for success. The government’s role is to inspire such changes in its people.

The contained and self-sufficient family is a failure. The norm of productivity, aesthetic beauty, and material things as criteria for success is a failure. These things are making for great suffering, epic depression, loneliness and estrangement.

People are estranged from their families, by geographical location, death, violence, lifestyle, religion and abuse; estranged from their communities by shame, ignorance and stigma. Counseling replaces the meaningful heart-to-heart conversations we used to have with friends and family members; support groups become the modern-day spiritual practice that brings us together to remind us of our common condition and the bigger picture of why we are here.

In each and every one of us there are aspects of this term mental illness. It is when these aspects begin to seriously and adversely affect the abilities listed above that our needs for these things in life begin to be realized and addressed. Those with the label of a mental illness remind us of what we are all feeling by magnifying it.

Mental illness is the illness of society, not the individuals diagnosed; it is the indicator of a society’s lack of humanity. No government can compensate for this deficiency.

(from the CMHA:)

One in five Canadians, over the course of their lives, will experience a mental illness and what that ultimately means is that every single family in Canada will in some way be affected.

There is nobody in Canada who can stand up and say, “Not my family, not my aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents, children, siblings, spouse or self.” And yet the reluctance to talk about mental illness, to acknowledge it openly, to treat it as a form of human suffering like any other illness, relates in part to how threatening this set of illnesses is to our sense of who we are. Mental illness cuts across all age, racial, religious, or socio-economic categories.

The Impacts Are Staggering:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by the year 2020, depression will become the No. 2 cause world-wide of years lost due to disability. That’s a profound impact.
  • The number of suicides in Canada is almost 4,000 people a year. For people aged 15 to 24 in Canada, suicide is the No. 2 cause of death.
  • Mental illness is the number one cause of disability in Canada, accounting for nearly 30% of disability claims and 70% of total costs.
  • Mental illness costs the Canadian economy a staggering $51-billion a year, and each day 500,000 people will miss work due to mental health problems.
  • Each year employers and insurers spend a whopping $8.5 billion on long-term disability claims related to mental illness.
  • Mental health disorders in the workplace cost Canadian companies nearly 14% of their net annual profits and up to $16 billion annually.
  • The unemployment rate among people with serious mental illness is 70 – 90%. There is a 60% drop in family income when a breadwinner is diagnosed with mental illness.


the worst things to say

Natasha Tracy’s list of worst things to say to a person with a mental illness, from her article Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say at her blog| Breaking Bipolar:

  1. Snap out of it
  2. There are a lot of people worse off than you
  3. You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
  4. You’d feel better if you got off all those pills
  5. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
  6. Go out and have some fun
  7. I know how you feel
  8. So you’re depressed, aren’t you always?
  9. This too shall pass
  10. We all have our crosses to bear

Natasha’s personal favourite is We create our own reality.

The one I would ad to this list is We all feel that way sometimes. This is, of course, and like all the others in this list, coming from a loving and well-meaning place — in this case, that I am not a complete wierdo, not so different, not defective, since what i feel is not so different from others; but then, what is the point of a diagnosis? Doesn’t that mean that while I have the same feelings as others, they are more intense and last longer and this is the disability? The effect of this phrase is that I feel shame, guilt and confusion. Oh, if everyone feels that way, and I am the only one who is needing support around this, I must be a real loser.

My own mind begins a relentless loop of shaming put-downs, which often resembles the contents of Natasha’s second list, of the inherant messages in the statements above:

  1. They could choose not to be sick if they really wanted
  2. Their illness is not serious
  3. They have no “reason” to be ill
  4. Their treatment is wrong
  5. They’ll be better off from it
  6. They would be fine if they would just “go out”
  7. Their illness is minimal
  8. Their pain doesn’t matter
  9. They should just wait for the pain to end
  10. Their illness is just like anyone else’s problem
  11. They choose to be sick

And here we have arrived again, at the old corner debate of weak vs. ill. Do i need a big kick in the ass and to just “stop listening” to the thoughts and feelings I have, or do I need to accept that it’s not as simple as that, forgive myself, and lead my life accordingly. Again and again, I see that the kick in the ass theory can have disastrous consequences. That I am so hard on myself that few sane people would survive a day in my brain. That I have accomplished a lot with the kick ass technique, but that it has further damaged my brain and almost cost me my life.

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, and as Natasha speaks about also in the last part of her post, others are not so lucky as to write about it. Death by mental illness is a real and prevalent threat — a lot more prevalent than a lot of people are able to see.

I’m going to finish by recommending another one of Natasha’s posts, about the best things to say to someone with a mental illness. More people need to know these things. People with mental illness, or in trauma recovery, are far from minority status in the world. The status quo is the new minority.

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tami green

I first watched Tami Green’s videos on YouTube several months ago, but recently found this video of her congressional briefing on Borderline Personality

Disorder. I found it when I mentioned Tami in my recent post ‘mending attunement, standing fully in my place‘ and realized that although these talks are some of the best, most accurate information I have found on BPD, I had not posted any links to them here on my blog — ! So, to get you started, here’s Tami in her courageous early days of recovery. Thanks, Tami. Underground.

LINK: Tami Green Congressional Briefing


the gift and the curse

Black Water Dragon by Glenda Anderson

Black Water Dragon by Glenda Anderson

What comes out in my writing this Sunday is a slice of my dragons and how they play out in my life.

Last week, I added on two classes that I hadn’t been doing regularly before. I have also been planning a return trip to my old digs to wrap things up there, which has been a process in itself (would have to make a separate post).

What that meant was that by the time I got to Friday, and the social event I had been looking forward to all month, I was completely exhausted, and had to stay home. The exhaustion lasted into Saturday, and I realized that it’s a trigger for me when I feel too tired to go through with social plans because I am exhausted. My exhaustion is like the flu; I need to treat it like I am physically I’ll, which I still have a very hard time accepting. I have to spend a lot of time on the couch, or napping. Just eating and sleeping are about all I can manage. I can’t concentrate on creative projects, or even reading sometimes.

By late Saturday afternoon, I felt cooped in and began craving connection. I reached out to a couple of folks, but got the additional trigger of everyone being busy or also too tired. My Sponsor (CoDA) likes to distinguish between those ‘willing, but not able’ and those ‘able, but not willing’ and in my case, it is actually almost always the former.

I often find myself in this place of craving company, having people to call, but no one being able. After years of this experience, I feel quite daunted by it — a little scarred, really. Like there is something wrong with my life, which there truly is, if I keep repeating this experience over and over again.

'Like Two Ships Passing in the Night' by Dan-ah Kim

'Like Two Ships Passing in the Night' by Dan-ah Kim

I don’t know why. It’s like the timing is all off. When there are opportunities, I am needing time alone to process and rest; when I am ready to go, no one else is. The despair I feel with this pattern is more than I can truly let myself feel at the moment. I have gotten very good at passing the time by myself these days, continuing to justify it by being in recovery from the amount of stress I put myself through before this year. And that is true — the amount of pressure and strain, sustained for so long, is astounding to think of, and that someone — anyone — would have survived it. I don’t think I am even being dramatic, and that’s unusual. All the major and recognized stressors of life were present in mine for over 2 years (career, job, marriage, and living arrangements), so it is understandable that I am experiencing fairly frequent and severe exhaustion.

But it is also part of what I am beginning to call the Gift, which is essentially being more sensitive and living on a deeper level than most. I am beginning to meet others with this gift — many of us being survivors of trauma. Honestly, I’m not sure which comes first: The gift or the trauma, but i don’t tend to care.

Maybe it is part of an explanation of why it is hard for me to make connections. I am different from the status quo, and I always have been. This processing time I need, my ability to become over-stimulated so easily, the detail and depth with which I engage with tasks and relationships, and the creativity that demands to be integrated with it all somehow; the fact that my best functioning hours are between 8PM and 2AM, the amount of time it takes me to wake up and become ready for even the simplest conversation.

Clipart Illustration

Clipart Illustration

Sometimes I feel lazy because I cannot participate and/or accomplish as much as other people; because a 9-5 M-F workweek would kill me (I know this from experience, and I mean this quite literally). And, sometimes I feel like a loser because I do not make friends easily, people who have not been through recovery don’t understand me and think I’m wierd, and because I end up spending a lot of time alone, which is the dragon of all dragons and the subject of this post.

So there is the gift of vibrant (if transient) creativity, intuition and intelligence, and the curse of not fitting in, not being productive in the traditional and generally-acceptable meaning of the word, and of loneliness.

My sponsor asked me in our last meeting how I feel about being gifted. I said I didn’t like it, and that I experienced it as isolating; and both of us looked at each other and knew that this is my work in this life. To live the gift and thrive with it. I realize that calling oneself gifted, or seeing oneself as being ‘special’ is a recognized ‘unhealthy’ core belief in many schools of psychology. As of today, I’m just not sure what to make of this, how to reconcile it with how I feel in the world. I certainly don’t use the word to imply that I am better than anyone else; it does not come from a sense of arrogance, just recognizing that I don’t fit in and that I have talents for things that are harder for the status quo to allot value to.

The questions burning in my heart this evening are how to thrive in the reality of me. How to feel connected and accepted in the world, how to find a sense of belonging, and balance; and if I am not productive in the traditional sense of the word, then how am I productive? What do I produce? What do I contribute to the world, and how do i turn it into a sustainable way of living?

I’ve been entertaining the notion lately that what might be commonly known as an illness may just be a different reality, with value and benefits of its own. What if society found a way of harvesting the value / productivity of this reality, instead of labeling it as a disability? What if all the  (however many) millions of people in the world living on disability funding began seeing the value of our “condition” — what if there is a practical purpose in the world for being this way?

A friend of mine who is a long-time recipient of assistance expressed to me recently how she felt like a hypocrite — hating the government and yet being dependent on it. That many people tire of hearing how we get to flit around doing yoga classes and expressive art therapy, and after nearly a decade, and continued symptoms that prevent her from working etc., she felt a growing sense of guilt for all the self-care activities she does. My response in the moment was to consider my own situation (on assistance since May, but not yet long-term disability status):

Im realizing (/rationalizing) that all these things (yoga, voice, movement) serve to open my vessel by generating joy in me. Seeing as how my life was so devoid of this for the last few years, i think i am doing some catch-up work too–remedial joy-making. At any rate, it’s just what I’m meant to do right now. Maybe the Universe works through the system (government subsidy) to support us in generating joy, opening up the universal flow in the world. Maybe we are sent here to do that.

Maybe we are sent here to open the flow of balance, well-being and creativity in the world, to compensate the whole for all the current depravity of the working class; maybe that is our unacknowledged purpose. Maybe things could be different if the common point of view were changed. Maybe if the accepted work week were 25 hours per week instead of 40, the canyon between health and illness would not be so vast, or exist at all; the cost of health care would return to balance with all of us, and disability assistance would cease to be necessary. What if we all found purpose and value.

When I write these things here on my blog, when I create images and words, share my gift of movement, voice and music in an amateur, community-minded setting; make my own journals and crocheted clothing, I feel my sense of purpose and connection return to me, I feel the inspiration to be alive return to me.

That is the truth of now.

Luv, Underground.

journal cover by me (unknown image sources)

journal cover by me (unknown image sources)

meandering (unknown)

meandering (unknown)

no one has managed to convey this aspect of identity confusion as well for me as the post that is linked below.

the image to the right also illustrates the phenomenon well; although it’s title implies that we are aimless, which actually couldn’t be more opposite to the truth, for me.

anyway, once again, I am relieved to recognize myself in another’s writing.

sometimes the best mirrors are in each other.

Constant career changes – the BPD unstable sense of self and identity.


inwards vs. outwards: no one is better, no one suffers more

I came across a bdp discussion forum last night discussing the notion of the Quiet (or Inwards) Borderline. A post there expressed disagreement with bdp subtypes, and criticism of the notion that Quiet Borderlines either a) Suffer more than “outwards” and / or b) Are somehow less ill or easier to deal with.

painting by tammera

painting by tammera

Some of my writings here on this blog might inspire similar reactions, as if I am demonizing outward bdp and making saints of inwards.

I don’t think it’s useful in any contemplations of bdp to compare levels of suffering — that is completely subjective, and impossible to ever really know or compare.

I think there are indeed many outcomes of the underlying patterns that define bdp, but those underlying patterns are the same in all of us, and we all suffer greatly with them.

Some of us turn our suffering inwards. In my case, it can be impossible for those around me to know what is going on for me until I become desperate enough to let it show; and in my case, I must decide to do so. Consequently, I often feel like I am a fraud, “dramatizing” my feelings in order to receive support that maybe i don’t deserve. Am I over-dramatizing or minimizing my experiences? It is a different reality in every day, or every moment at times. I feel the chronic aloneness, emptiness, self-doubt and fear of abandonment of any borderline; and my sense of confidence, status, personality and role in the world are as unstable. I am inconsistent in mood, energy and personality; which is often devastating to my relationships, and perpetuates my aloneness, self-doubt and abandonment fears in an endless cycle.

In my experience of being an inwards borderline, no one would say that I am a difficult person. I think what some might think (though they would never say it) is that they do sense something a little unsure or unstable, something i am hiding from them, and they therefore do not deem me trustworthy, and are not very comfortable around me. There is a sense of caution, like there is something dark and scary beneath the surface that is scarily subtle and ominous enough as to make people quietly and sneakily distance themselves from me. No one would think that I am mentally ill and may just require a little extra patience, support and encouragement; they just think i’m a little “off” and aren’t really drawn to get to know me too well. Some of my friends are probably saying this is a load of crap, but my recovery depends on my own ability to validate this experience I have, intentionally let it show and receive the treatment that I need around it. I have to choose and work at living more honestly in the world to escape the endless isolation that swallows me whole. It is the degree of this, the intensity to which i feel it, and my ability to hide it that qualify this a dangerous, precarious and pathological reality. The hardship of this outcome of bdp, and the common misconception on the parts of friends and mental health professionals, is the assumption that because I can control what I show, I cannot truly need treatment. This leads me to thinking that I am a fraud, until I read about others this way, and the term “quiet borderline.”

compassion painting

the heart of the matter of living

While the quiet borderline (in my experience) experiences subtle social isolation, invalidation and abandonment by the mental health profession for not being “ill” enough; the outward borderline, it seems to me, experiences overt social isolation and abandonment by the mental health profession for being “too ill to treat.”

Both borderline outcomes end up feeling the same thing–isolation, hopelessness and unworthiness. Both suffer. Both require and deserve radical acceptance, compassion and support. One is not “better” than the other; and one is not more treatable than the other.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Please comment!

Love, HJ

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what and where is emotional memory?

I have come to realize that when i say i have no skin, i am referring to a loss of emotional memory.

emotional memory

emotional memory

It can take me half the day to remember: what I am excited about, what I want to do today, what I was processing the day before. Sometimes I can’t remember my relationship with others I have just met — the feelings or thoughts that connected us. Names, places, directions, projects, creative muses and other details are often lost.

I sometimes have to remember / reinvent myself all over again to some degree on a daily basis.

It fascinates me that I could experience this for half my life without realizing what was happening, forging on instead, hoping to “positive think” it away.

It is not poor self esteem or lack of confidence; it is an elusive sense of self, a robber of continuity and a saboteur of consistency, organization and reliability.

I once had a roommate with whom I became aware of this only as far as to dip my toe in it. I was able to vocalize to him that each time he or I would walk in the door, I would forget that he was in recovery, forget all the wonderful connection we had found and perceive him as the “cool kid” in school. I would put on my witty, funny, “cool” face until we managed to connect again. Then I could remember that we were together in our journeys.

Upon hearing this, my roommate promptly walked into his room, scooped up several shelves worth of his self-help books, brought them out and un-scooped them onto our dining room table. For the next several weeks, our dining room table continued to wear that heap of reminders for me, so I could look at them and remember our connection on a daily basis.

When I google “emotional memory, borderline,” I see plenty of articles on selective memory — recalling events inaccurately in self-preservation; but I have not found anything yet on the experiences I’m talking about here.

BPD seems to be such a new diagnosis that this can be the case. Another example of how little is known so far is the one page I am able to find on the notion of the Quiet Borderline, and the fact that the APA’s current DSM does not even acknowledge bpd subtypes. (Links to both these pages are listed on the right).

Fragility by Dawne Olson

Fragility by Dawne Olson

I have been speaking of “not having my skin on” for several months now, but have only just had the revelation of the phrase “emotional memory.”

I look forward to hearing from others who may relate.

Blessings, HJ