My journey through the Fog, and then into the Abyss, gave me much experience with what mental health is. Beyond academic knowing, I now had a sense of what it was like to not have complete control of your life, to be hijacked by your feelings, moods, unconscious behaviour and motivation, [assuming we ever actually have any ‘control’]. But did I really ‘know? Like empathy, ‘cognitive knowing’ and ‘knowing’ are different things: can you really appreciate mental health problems/mental illness if you’ve never experienced it?
What is mental health? And it’s opposite, mental illness?
According to the U.K. Surgeon Journal (1999), mental health is the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and providing the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.
Hmmm, my two years in the fog, and in the abyss, left me a little short on some of these criteria. If I wasn’t aware of it myself, I suspect many of may friends noticed.
The term mental illness refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders – health conditions characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior associated with distress or impaired functioning.
Mental health problems, manifesting symptoms of mental illness, might arise due to stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, death of a loved one, suicidal thoughts, grief, addiction, ADHD, self-harm, various mood disorders, or other mental illnesses of varying degrees, as well as learning disabilities. They may be episodic or chronic.
Perhaps I never had, or have, nor hopefully ever will have, true mental illness. But it is apparent that I had mental health problems. What I had was an exhaustion of my coping capacity. We all of us who are nominally mentally healthy, i.e., not mentally ill, have coping mechanisms, learned from an early age, which allow us to deal with life’s exigencies. Over time our brains develop capabilities to diagnose incoming environmental stimuli and events, learn successful predictive responses, and direct our bodies to respond. When those responses work, the brain is content; when not, it is momentarily confused and attempts a new response, and if this works, learns from it and adds it to its predictive repertoire. When the brain’s circuitries are overwhelmed by unrelenting incoming new events for which its usual responses are inadequate, it may become arrested, and it hurts. With luck and time the brain finds a new response mechanism and recovers, but it may also need some help.
I was overwhelmed, and I needed help.
What were the aspects of diminished mental health I had experienced? Well, obviously limerence. And maybe this excessive fantasizing over a lover, or even a potential lover, is rooted in attachment needs. Attachment Theory in adults suggest we feel comforted when our attachments (romantic or devoted platonic partners) are present and we feel anxious or lonely when they are absent. Such relationships serve as a secure base that help people face the surprises, opportunities, and challenges life presents. Regrettably, I often felt that Marlene and I were not on the same age when it came to our life goals, and as a consequence, my marriage with Marlene was missing the support I needed as I faced my own life challenges, but maybe this wasn’t altogether Marlene’s fault, and maybe she felt the same way. With Marlene’s death I lost a partner and whatever attachment we had; I felt acutely the void but also the opportunity to find a new partner who would provide that loving support I felt I lacked. Emily was the solution. And then she wasn’t.
With the shattering of attachment security I experienced the twin mental scourges of depression and anxiety. Luckily for me, not Anxiety Disorders or Major Depression Disorder, which are chronic, but ‘merely’ Depressionand Anxiety.
When Marlene died I probably suffered moderate depression: impotence associated with her long journey to her inexorable end, and then sadness and loneliness upon her death. But it was not ‘true’, disabling depression so much as ‘normal’ symptomatic grief. I was distracted from the worst of it because of Emily. But when the series of crises from the breakup with Emily plunged me into the abyss, involuntary ideation of suicide, lack of appetite and energy (depression) and manic moments of sleeplessness and hyperactivity (anxiety) were the result. I hit bottom with a mental health crisis (‘nervous breakdown’) and this resulted in me getting the help I needed: meds. Over the next four months or so I stabilized and then began to wean myself off the medicinal crutches. But the lessons were not lost on me:
- that [short-term] mental health problems may be similar but are not the same as [long-term] mental illness;
- that the debilitating effects of the illnesses are real and serious;
- some people with chronic mental health problems may need life-time support. e.g., may never be able come off their pharmaceuticals, just as for people with other chronic illnesses (hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes);
- we must not stigmatize people with mental health problems any more than we would physical health problems.
I will forever appreciate these conditions in ways I never did before and will make sure others learn from me wherever I can.
My main line of defence proved to be the medical profession – the emergency clinic doctor who was there at the crisis, and then my own family doctor. I had professional counseling as well , but not for my mental health per se. It was for grief initially, and then with a relationship counselor to try to unravel what I was looking for in a long term relationship, and perhaps why the ones I had been in were not the best for me. Neither of these counselors were capable of helping me with my depression/anxiety. But the extent to which even limited talk is better than none, they played a role in my recovery.
Did I have a problem with women, as my grief counselor suggested? Probably not, or at least not more than most healthy males have with the fairer sex, was the view of my relationship counselor, herself a grounded woman. Our delving into attachment theorygave a basis for understanding this life need for forming and sustaining a mutually supportive bond with a significant other. I had hoped I had found that bond with Emily. I guess I was wrong. Coupled with some sessions I had with a psychologist a dozen years earlier I know my source problems and my triggers. Blame it on Mother! That doesn’t necessarily mean I have my issues [with women] completely under control, or will make wise choices in future.
Quite apart from attachment needs, the problem for me, and perhaps most humans, is dealing with loneliness, itself a potentially major factor in poor mental health. Some of my friends [mostly female!} believe they do not need an intimate relationship (with a man or a woman), they are content living alone. Some might argue that living alone is preferable to living in a loveless, and lonely, relationship. But for me I needed a close companion to share life’s journey with, its joys and sorrows, and for me that also included a romantic partner. I have many male friends, some close, but none to share life’s journey with, nor certainly my bed. And similarly many female friends with whom romance isn’t an option. Hence my adventures in on-line dating, itself a challenge for protecting a fragile ego.
More alarming in my journey with mental health challenges was the speculative assessment (not a real diagnosis) that perhaps I had Borderline Personality Disorder and this was at the root of my struggles with relationships and coping. Nonsense, said my efficient and pragmatic GP. You’re depressed, and you will come through this.
I think he was right. I hope he was right!
In some theories of consciousness, increasingly supported by direct observation though fMRI, synaptic function operates completely independent of our ‘conscious knowing’; consciousness may in fact be all illusion.
a state of low mood and aversion to activity, affecting a person’s thoughts, behavior, motivation, feelings, and sense of well-being and may feature sadness, difficulty in thinking and concentration and a significant increase or decrease in appetite and time spent sleeping. People experiencing depression may have feelings of dejection, hopelessness and, sometimes, suicidal thoughts. It can either be short term or long term; it is a normal temporary reaction to life events, such as the loss of a loved one
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by somatic complaints. Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and worry, usually generalized and unfocused as an [involuntary] ‘overreaction’ to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing. It is often accompanied by muscular tension, restlessness, fatigue and problems in concentration. Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat; anxiety involves the expectation of future threat. People facing anxiety may withdraw from situations which have provoked anxiety in the past.
Especially Haven and Moore, 1987