This is how it is

This week is mental health week here in Australia. There’s been a bunch of stuff happening at my work – free boxing and Pilates classes, posters up everywhere about committing to take time out for yourself, seminars on organisational awareness (whatever that means) and how to look after yourself if you’re caring or someone with mental health issues.

I would have liked to have gone to that last one, but it has been one of the harder weeks at home. My partner suffers from depression/anxiety with I suspect a bit of PTSD thrown in. He’s been through some terrible things in the past decade, and suffered losses that aren’t fair and don’t make sense. So we have good weeks, good months even, and then we have bad ones. And it’s a bit like a storm – you get through the worst of it, the pounding rain and thunder and lightning and all of that, but even when it’s mostly done, the drizzle and grey skies can carry on a while. We’re in the quiet, grey-sky period now.

He has a lot of trouble sleeping. At times his sleep has been completely chaotic. It’s not chaotic at the moment, but he is in a night-time cycle: up all night, falling asleep just before dawn. Which makes it hard for him to look after our baby boy on the days I’m meant to work.

It is great, in so many ways, that there is increasing awareness and openness about mental health issues. There’s a growing sense that mental illness should be treated like any other illness: if you break a leg, people are sympathetic. There’s not a stigma around it, or a sense that it’s your fault and you should just pull yourself together and get on with things.

But managing mental illness in the long term presents very particular challenges. At times of crisis, mental illness fundamentally alters the way you relate to the world around you, and the people around you, and yourself. And to follow any course of treatment or management is not a simple process, but involves a person being prepared to change on a fundamental level.

I’ve had a lot of well-meaning people suggest, in various ways, that my partner should just ‘get over it’. Every time he goes to see a GP about the physical symptoms he experiences they want to prescribe him anti-depressants. And maybe drugs would help. But the thing is, what if the pain he experiences is the one thing that allows him to make some sense what has happened to him? The loss itself is senseless. But taking the pain from it as well might remove all sense of meaning, of order in the world.

Surely some things should hurt. And who am I or anyone else to say how much, or for how long?

I don’t know.

Of course, I wish it didn’t hurt. If you live with someone who struggles with their mental health, at times your heart will break for not being able to make it better. At times you’ll just be pissed off with them, or bored of it all, or too tired to care. You’re human. It’s okay. If you’re still there, it’s because you love them, through all of it.

One thing I have discovered is that my happiness is not contingent on his. Maybe this is selfish. But a morning walk in the sunshine can make me happy. The connections I feel with friends and colleagues make me happy. Reading something beautiful or intriguing or challenging makes me feel like life is worth living because there is always so much to learn and to experience. Listening to music I love makes me feel free.

My work is holding a ‘well-being expo’ in a few weeks where people are invited to bring along an example or make a display of something they do in their life outside work that improves their wellbeing and their ‘work-life balance’. I’m thinking of requesting a table and taking my laptop and putting some posters up about nanowrimo (National Novel Writing  Month), though nanowrimo is less about balance and more about total immersion to the point of insanity. The truth is, putting words on a page is fundamental to my wellbeing. My stories might never see the light of day but they bring me a kind of satisfaction that nothing else does. Writing gives me a space that is truly my own, but that also allows me to feel connected in a meaningful way with people and ideas and the flow of the world. And hey, if nothing else, I could use the writing time.

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