Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"mental"... "health"... It's complicated. More than you think.

Dear People Who Are Concerned with Mental Health,

It's time for a break... to talk about language. We're going to talk about the word "mental" and we're going to talk about the word "health."

Let's talk about the word health, since that may be an easier bit to chew on right now.

The world is in an interesting place right now. We are very preoccupied, with our science and our technology, with changing the nature of human health - we want people to be as healthy as we can be for as long as possible. Today we consider disease, illness, or impairment as a lack of health, or as a state of poor health, or a state of "undesirable" health. No one wants to be sick, we think, since sickness causes pain and discomfort.

I agree that sickness causes pain and discomfort. I agree that some illnesses are so uncomfortable and so painful that cures are not only desirable, but desperately needed.

Furthermore, I think no one deserves to be sick. No one asks for poor health. Nor should anyone have to suffer poor health when a realistic means exists to resolve the health issue.


The truth of reality is that illness and infirmity and accident still exist. And to some degree I can't imagine any conceivable future where we humans will obliterate all illnesses, or where we would be able to "cure" or "resolve" all disabilities, or where we would be able to prevent all accidents. I can't imagine a world where humans would be perfect. And frankly, I can't imagine myself wanting to live in such a world.

Most of us believe somewhere deep down inside that illness is an unnatural state. We think, this is hurting me, this is a burden, it's not normal for such things to happen to people. Being unhealthy is not a normal thing to happen to me!

I often wonder where this line of thinking comes from...

You see, I think the opposite. I think that we people are extremely vulnerable, more so than most of the creatures who roam this planet.

I think that we just like to imagine ourselves as being invincible... so invincible that we should not be touched by the effects of biology, bacteria, viruses, and accident. And I think our technology instills in us a false sense of security; that we can overcome the effects of human vulnerability with a bit of science, a lot of ingenuity (and some luck).

I think these are the lies we tell ourselves when we step out the door to face a world of unknown dangers and strangers. These are the lies that help us crawl out of bed to face the threats of another day.

And I think, how arrogant of us, or perhaps how delusional of us, to think that we are beyond vulnerability. How arrogant of humankind, to think that we are above the effects of illness, accident, or whathaveyou.

Health, as it is conventionally defined, is an unnatural state, as far as I'm concerned.

And so let's redefine the word "health."

Health should not mean an absence of illness, accident, or infirmity.

"Health" as a concept should be: a state where a person is comfortable or has reached a place of relative comfort with the effects of their vulnerable human existence.

Let me defend my definition before anyone criticizes me for suggesting that it may be okay to allow a person to remain in a state where they are quite unwell with no support or relief. I really want you to know that I think all illness/accident/infirmity should be dealt with/treated/and supported. No one should ever live in pain or discomfort due to their health, especially if that pain or discomfort can be alleviated with care or support.

Let me tell you more about the spirit of where the definition comes from...

If we stopped thinking of health in terms of something you either have or don't have, then we might begin to imagine that all people, to some degree, have to live with things that affect their health. And I think that "health" placed on a scale is a more realistic way to frame the concept.

Really, can you honestly name one person who is 100% healthy in all respects?

I can't. All the people I know, in one way or another, live with things, like conditions, or diseases, or accidents, or even life circumstances, that affect their health.

And so thinking of health as an "either/or" concept - either you have it, or you don't - is simply a lie. It's just the wrong way to think about health.

When we think of health as either/or, then we come at an interesting place where we imagine we have to understand why some people suffer from poorer health. And then we wind up picking on people who are affected by poorer health. We think, "You are unhealthy (by my arbitrary standard). Why? What have you done to be unhealthy? Are you eating poorly? Are you doing unsavory things with your body or mind?"

And we use the concept of "health" to make people feel different from one another. We use health to discriminate.

And then we have to live in a world that is based on a false differential. We shape our world based on concepts of health that are either/or. Any person with a condition which affects their abilities can attest to the very practical difficulties of trying to conform to a world that is built for "healthy" people. Finding ramps for a wheelchair can be a problem. Some workplaces don't even have an elevator to ensure that people with mobility issues can get around. And these are just some of the most simple examples of the consequences of a society that is built around a narrow and polarized concept of health.

We use health to discriminate, when really, all of us are "unhealthy" in one way or another.

The things that can affect our health really do not discriminate. Disease, accident, and infirmity are what I like to call "equal opportunists." These scourges go after each and every one of us, in one way or another, with equal tenacity. Some of us are just better equipped, or have better resources to escape the ravages of these opportunists.

And so why not admit that health, or lack of it, is not black and white. There are a million shades of grey.

If we respected that all people have vulnerability in common, then perhaps our world would be a little kinder, a little more understanding, and a smidge more compassionate.

Perhaps, if we understood health as a matter of degrees, then we would build a world to accommodate all, instead of a select few who are able to skirt by pretending life is just fine and dandy.

I'm fine with that, living in the grey area. In fact, I'm more comfortable living with the knowledge that I'm vulnerable than I would be pretending I was invincinble. I'm more comfortable with this knowledge because I understand that I need to take care of myself, and that I may need to protect myself from the things (and people!) that would want to prey on my health. Understanding that I am vulnerable inspires me to take control of my body and the things that can have effects on my health.

Sadly, we live in a world where people imagine themselves to be superheroes. We live in a world of black and white, where really, we are all varying shades of another colour.

And I'm not so fine with that. I'm not fine living in a world that refuses to respect the human condition. I'm not fine living in a world that won't even accommodate the human condition.

Where are you on the scale of health? Black? White? Some shade of grey?

In good faith (and health),

PS. We shall talk about the word "mental" in the next post! Until next time!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sorry, the person you are trying to reach...

Dear Winter Flu, Viruses, and Blahs,

Please go away. I'm not here. If you call, I'm not picking up the phone. If you show up on my doorstep, I'm turning out the lights and pretending not to be home. You've showed up one too many times! You've outrun your welcome! I'm sick of you Bugs and Blahs! Be gone!

Readers, I've been sick for over a week now with a nasty virus that won't seem to let go, which is why I haven't posted in awhile.

Between the Winter Blahs and the Winter Bugs, I've been left dead-dog tired and brain-addled.

I'm going to crawl under my blankets now and take one more day off, and cross my fingers that I'll feel better tomorrow.

Hopefully spring will come soon, huh?

Wishing for signs of spring,

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thoughts on Death

Dear Lovers of Life and Those Who Could Care Less,

Suicide is a difficult subject for some people. It is a touchy subject. It is often a divisive subject.

Understandably so. The notion of suicide, that one would have a desire to end their life here on Earth, contradicts the very nature of our existence. The simple nature of our existence is that we are alive; our breath reminds of this and so too does our uniquely aware sense of human consciousness. Most of us will attest to a strong desire to remain alive for as long as possible, some of us will even express a desire to prolong our lives if we become able to do so.

Some people don't feel a desire to live, for whatever reason, and this confuses those of us who eschew death. Those of us with a desire to live a long life wonder what it is inside of a person that could make them want to move on from Earthly existence. We wonder if a person who wishes to die has lived through some kind of tormenting pain, whether or not they've experienced immeasurable hardship, or if they simply feel unloved or unwanted.

I have lived through suicide. Not my own, mind you. While I have wondered what life would be like if I were not here, I have never felt a compulsion to end the life I have made for myself here on Earth.

I lived through the suicide of my father and I learned some things about this unconventional type of death.

My father died when I was relatively young. He struggled with a condition that affected not only his mental health, but also his livelihood, his life quality, and all of his relationships. Schizophrenia had consumed my father's life and he suicided after a short battle with this disease process. He left me and my young mother behind to cope with his death and the challenges it presented.

As I grew up through the transition of adolescence, I began to wonder if there was something I had contributed to his death. Stress made the symptoms of schizophrenia worse. Had I caused my father stress? Did he want to die because of me?

I wanted to blame myself. In fact, I looked for ways where I could implicate myself in his death. I also looked for ways to blame other people. I even tried to blame his disease.

But I had an epiphany one day, some months after I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the condition I had inherited from my father. I realized that I had nothing to do with my father's death. I realized that no one really had anything to with my father's suicide. There was no cause. There was nothing to blame. And there really was no easy answer.

Having faced the same demons of mental health that my father had to confront, I came to understand some things about life. Moreover, I came to understand some things about death.

That pain alone would cause someone to want to die is a myth. It is also a myth that unfortunate personal circumstances or hardship would cause someone to end their life. It's a myth as well, that one would end their life because they feel unloved or unwanted. This latter belief is the most dangerous myth among those who survive a loved one's suicide, since it compels us to imagine that if only we had been more loving, we could have prevented a needless death. This latter myth is the one that imposes a deep sense of personal guilt and shame about suicide among those who are left behind.

In my experience, there is only one thing that keeps us humans holding on to this thread of existence that we call life: This thing is hope.

While some may scoff at the simplicity of this relationship between the desire to live and the desire to die, you need to understand the power of hope.

Hope means that you are able to fall asleep at night knowing that you will wake up to a *different* tomorrow. Hope means that not only can life change, but that you expect it to change for the better some time in the future. Hope means that you can trudge through a dreary present, if it will take you to a happier place in the days that follow today.

If you lose hope, you lose access to the promise of tomorrow.

When you are hopeless, your concept of the future becomes blended with demands of the present.

If your present is bleak, or overwhelming, and if you imagine the future to be nothing but more of the same, you begin to feel as though you are treading water, rather than moving on or along. While you tread water, you become exhausted, and may find yourself losing your will to live to see another day.

And that is what my father faced, I think. An immeasurable sense that tomorrow will be no better than today, whatever "today" looked like to him all those years ago.

Who wants to wake up with a feeling that their present circumstances are permanent? I know I certainly don't.

Admittedly, my current life circumstances aren't great. I'm still technically unemployed, living up to that wonderful statistic that dictates that about 80% of people with my diagnosis are unemployed or underemployed. I know that I will wake up tomorrow and have to confront the challenges of discrimination and social mythology. I know that tomorrow I may have to hear another story of a life lost to mental health problems. And I know that tomorrow I may ask, again, for meaningful support and an iota of understanding, and that again, I am likely to be ignored.

So why do I want to wake up to see another day? Well, I attribute my will to live to that hope. I know that tomorrow can be different from today. I know that the struggles I live with today aren't necessary, and that they are becoming more and more impractical as our treatments improve. I know that some day there will be social change, and that my struggles will be diminished. When that day will come, I don't know. But I know I want to be here to see it. And maybe I hope to participate in helping that day to come.

I hope that tomorrow will change and become better than today. That is what tethers me to this world. I think this is what tethers most of us to this life on Earth.

Would my father's circumstances have changed? I don't know. Likely, but he couldn't get close enough to that future to be able to see it.

Can I blame my father for his suicide? No. I can't blame my father for wanting to end his life any more than I can blame myself for wanting to live.

Do I think my father's choice to suicide was an easy one? Certainly not. My father understood that he was leaving behind his child and his spouse, and he indicated as much before his death. He knew he was leaving an extended family who loved him. He understood that he would be missed, and that all of us would be confused and hurt in the wake of his loss.

Was my father selfish in his choice to end his life? I don't think so. Selfish implies that my father would have imagined that his death was exclusively to his benefit. My father understood the consequences of his death, and had to weigh these with the life he was living. Frankly, I would think myself selfish to expect him to live a life that denied the truth his very pressing reality: that he felt hopeless and that he wanted to die.

My father's death was his choice. It was a choice borne of his circumstances, whatever they were, whatever sense of hopelessness they engendered. I understand the complicated feelings he had to endure while balancing out the things he had to live for with the sense of hopelessness that compelled him to end his life. At the end of the day, I respect my father's choice, despite the fact that I wish things had turned out differently for him, differently for our family.

My choices are equally borne of my circumstances. Thankfully, I have the benefit of hope and the promises of tomorrow to carry me through.


If you are a Canadian having thoughts of suicide, or if for some reason this post has made you feel uncomfortable, the Centre for Suicide Prevention has a list of local prevention centres and hotlines.

If you are a US reader who is having similar thoughts, 1.800.SUICIDE would be the place to call.

PostSecret.com is also a great place to vent about life and all its dirty details. (In anonymous secrecy, of course!)

Warm Regards,

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Exit Night, Enter Light...

Dear Wonderers,

Some people may be wondering why January 31st was chosen as the date for the annual Light In the Dark event. After all, in Canada, that date tends to fall right in the dead of winter, where the nights are long, and the days are far too short and far too cold, probably, for an activity like this.

The date, January 31st, was chosen because it is a fairly accurate metaphor for the state of mental health awareness today.

Sadly, even though we are in the 21st century - the age of technology and easy access information - so much of our public knowledge about matters concerning mental health is based on superstitions, pervasive negative mythology, and rumor. In the year 2009 the public is forced to rely mostly on information from popular media to learn about mental health and related issues.

I'm sure we all understand that while media has its benefits, it also has its bias. Today, we live in a media culture where the following motto reigns: If it bleeds, it leads. The most sensational stories make their way into the headlines of our newspapers, where we hear tales of wicked depravity blended with hints of mental malfunction.

We as spectators follow along with the likes of Britney Spears as her bipolar manifestations compel her to act out. As spectators, we read of cases of post-partum mothers, addled by hallucinations, who drown their children in bathtubs. We watch our TVs and webcasts in horror as a man allegedly affected by psychosis swings a machete in the air after he has decapitated a fellow bus passenger.

And this is what we know of mental illness. This is what our media informs us that mental illness is; graceless celebrities who self-destruct, horrific women who should be sterilized for their sins, and dangerous men who deserve nothing less than to die mercilessly for their acts.

Well, maybe the media doesn't arrive at these conclusions, but with their half-hearted attempts at reporting, with no follow-up, with no actual explanation for the events, and with no description of the collision of circumstances that caused the arrival of the newsworthy event, this is what the media allows us to believe. This is the flavour of "mental illness" that the media imparts - destructive, disturbed, untrustworthy... fearsome.

It is not the fault of the media that conditions of mental health and their related issues are as misunderstood as they are. As of January 2009, the government or any social service agency has yet to assume control of education and awareness relating to mental health. Where the government has the breadth of reach, power of oversight, and access to the most recent medical information, it is fairly reprehensible that our public conceptions of mental health are allowed to remain so skewed and so hideously inaccurate.

In the year 2009, the reality is that we Canadians still remain in the Dark Ages of mental health. In the year 2009, we Canadians remain absurdly unenlightened. This is one of the reasons why January 31st, one of our darkest and coldest days of winter, was chosen for Light In the Dark.

Yet there is more to this date, January 31st, than the darkness... There is more to the metaphor for why this date was chosen.

For anyone who is familiar with winter, you know that there comes a point in that season where you become tired of the frigid darkness; you become tired, and you begin to wish, sometimes even to plan, for spring.

And so January 31st was chosen also because it represents a wish: A wish to thaw the chilling effects of ignorance and move towards a warmer, more promising, day.

We want to move towards education and awareness. We want mental health education to become a priority among our government and its beneficiary agencies. A more educated public, and a more aware public, means that we will get to live in a world without fear. A knowledgeable society will be an accepting society.

Show your support for those living with conditons and issues that affect their mental health.
Show your support for education and awareness.
Show your desire for a more knowledgeable and accepting society.

Let your light shine.
Let our light shine.

PS. I lit my candle last night!