When mental illness strikes, we experience loss. We have temporary losses, our health, our “sound mind”, our happiness. We also experience longer-term loss, like the loss of friends, jobs, housing, and the discrimination and stigma we face lead to many losses in our lives. When we are diagnosed with a severe mental health problem, one that is expected to recur, we lose a part of ourselves in the process. I know that when I was diagnosed, when it became clear to me that bipolar was not going to be a one-off episode, that it was something that would change my life forever, I experienced grief.
I think this is completely normal and natural, but no one really talked to me about it. My image of myself was irrevocably changed after my first illness. We all grow up with a certain idea of what is going to happen to us. For me, I expected to go off to university (which I did), graduate (I also did this, somehow or other) and then get a “good job” paying good wages, and I expected to marry and have children, and generally have the sort of life that my parents have. With diagnosis came a re-evaluation of my life. Both from that time, and from reflection later, I realised that my life would be different. I struggle to stay well in work, and have lost all but one of my jobs through my illness. I have had long periods off sick. I have been sacked, once, for admitting to my illness and bullied in another job because of it. I have had grand ideas about my future, which have been foiled by my illness, such as when I studied radiography (both boring and made my moods start swinging about) and when I was a hospital health care assistant (triggered a nasty episode).
I have also changed my ideas about marriage. It started with thinking that really, when I am ill I am not nice to be around and how fair would it be to expect a man to put up with that, and that then combined with certain issues I have regarding sex and a sexual assault to make me basically decide that dating/marriage is not for me. It also affected how I view having children, in that I am aware that mental illness is thought to be part genetic and I would not want to put another through my illness. Fortunately it is a moot point because I developed PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) and it is unlikely I will have kids anyway.
What I’m trying to say is that having an illness changes us in many ways. I have spoken before about my belief that God brings good out of bad, and that in terms of my illness I believe he has brought good things in me out of a bad situation. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I have lost something. I have lost the image I had of myself, I have lost the confidence and freedom in myself that I didn’t even realise I had before my health deteriorated. I can measure how I have changed by the changing expectations of my parents – they once told me I must not work in the bar trade, because it was too “low” a job for a graduate with a good education, but now they expect a job role which is less taxing and has less responsibility than they first expected.
I grieved for my ideal self. I felt, and still do feel sometimes, sad about this future I had planned, which will never happen. For a long time I felt very guilty about feeling this way, because I kept saying to myself “why are you so self-pitying”, “you are being selfish”, “just get on with life” and similar sorts of things. Thinking about it a little more I believe that grieving the person you can no longer be is perfectly normal, and even healthy. That person may never have existed, but she was a big part of my life, and it is like she has died. I don’t know, but I’d imagine that this is a similar sort of experience that physically disabled people go through, grieving themselves, and I think it is part of coming to terms with your disability.
Although I believe the verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) and I do believe that my illness works for my good in a way I cannot yet see – and maybe will not understand until I see God face to face the other side of death, I still think it is normal to grieve the self that was not mentally ill, and I still believe it is also normal to be angry about the loss of that self.
Too often in newspapers and magazines disabled people (whether physically or mentally disabled) are supposed to be “saints” who do not feel angry about their disability, but are supposed to be brave and inspiring and wonderful. Of course, that is as big a stereotype as the current “all disabled people are workshy scroungers” trope. We who have disabling conditions (and yes, with some difficulty I include myself in this) are just normal people. We are nice, nasty, arrogant, humble, horrible and pleasant; it is foolish to assume that everyone is or wants to be “brave” or inspirational. We run the risk, when we stereotype people in this way, of invalidating what is a perfectly normal response to illness or injury, which is anger and sorrow about what has changed in our lives. We are not the same person after something like that, and I for one do not think it is wrong to protest, and especially for us to grieve for ourselves.
I want to end on a good note, which really is to reaffirm that God has a plan for us, even if we cannot see it now, and that he loves us, and is by our side when we suffer. Perhaps not sufficient words to convince someone who does not believe, but these are truths I hold to. I would like to finish with some words by Paul…
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
and Augustine of Hippo:
Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who wake or watch or sleep tonight,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend those who are sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to those who are weary;
bless those who are dying;
soothe those who are suffering;
pity those who are afflicted;
shield those who are joyous;
and all, for your love’s sake. Amen.