Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mental Illness: The Intimate Reality of Human Affliction

The Almost-Invisible Man?
I mentioned "depression" in a recent post. I'm glad that I did, because it's always good to talk about depression... especially when I'm depressed. It's not really so bad right now. I've been much, much worse before.

There may actually be some fairly new readers of this blog who don't know that I'm disabled. I'm not happy about this, and I prefer to say that I'm "retired" (even better, emeritus, as I have been designated though I'm only 52 years old). I try to be as "able" as possible. If anything, I push myself too hard to do certain things (while, of course, rationalizing my laziness about not doing other things -- because disabled people don't stop being human beings and therefore sinners).

But the basic point remains. A long-misdiagnosed and untreated infection is now in remission but has left permanent physical damage (which is there in spite of the fact that I may "look great" when you see me now). I talk about this in a bit more detail in my book, which has been around now for five years (that time went by fast). The book is still selling because the great subjects of struggling with human illness and human suffering never go out of date. (The most noticeable difference is in my personal stories, above all the fact that the kids are older now. If you read this blog, of course, you know that.)

The greatest challenge, however, has been my lifelong struggle with mental illness. It was more difficult to write about this in my book, but in the end I decided that I really had to bring this out in the open. I knew too much about how hard this is to deal with, how much it remains an ongoing battle, and how poorly understood it is.

Depression. What kind of a name is that for a serious disease? Sometimes I wish it had been discovered by two German scientists with unpronounceable names. Then it might have been called something like Kruezenheimer-Schlotmichenmachers Disease. People would say, "Oh wow. That sounds serious." Instead "depression" sounds like you need air in your tires. People say, "Oh, get outside. Cheer up! Smile." Which is fine, but it's not even the beginning of treatment for the very real disease of "depression."

Ok... best gameface today! ? Maybe...
In fact, you can be outside climbing mountains, and acting cheerfully, and smiling all the time, and still be suffering from major depression. Yes you can.

I have a saying: Mental illness happens to "normal" people. There are people who look "fine on the outside" who have problems you can't begin to imagine. We try to classify this constellation of afflictions: I have Depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Because of the episodic and varying nature of symptoms, I'm on what could be called the "bi-polar spectrum."

I know that there is a lot of baloney that passes for psychology and psychiatric medicine. There is also a lot of truth. I have tried in the past (see my book) and I continue to try to articulate and communicate in a comprehensible way something of my own experience of suffering from the real things. But I don't think I can ever really communicate how horrible it is, how relentlessly awful.

I'm very hopeful, however, that the worst of all that horror is behind me. That's why I try to articulate it: I need to speak for the sake of the multitudes of people -- people you know and love -- who are in the middle of it right now. They can't speak, and though I can't really speak for them, I do want to invite others to share in the compassion that I have for them, that I have learned from my own pain.

This is something I am able to do.

Click HERE for my book
It has been a long ride for me. I have been blessed with good doctors and therapists. I know how difficult it can be to find the right medication (or combination of medications) that help stabilize the most essential features of functional living, without intolerable "side-effects." It's hard, but it's important because we must attend to the distinctively physical, neurobiological aspect of these illnesses.

Different treatments and regimens work for different people. Maximizing brain health is a necessary part of treating mental illness, but it is not sufficient. There is no "magic pill" that takes it all away, although we ought not to underestimate the remarkable improvement that medication can provide for many people, that can aid the coping and healing process.

Really, mental illness is teaching us something about the intimate reality of the affliction of the human person. Because it is "close" to the distinctively personal sphere of human life, mental illness is making us more aware of the need to treat the whole person.

The subject of any kind of sickness, pain, or suffering in human life is always a person. Through my own life I am learning how important it is to remember this, both for myself and for others.