Who you calling crazy?
Imagine being paralysed to a point that living your day to day life becomes a constant struggle and challenge. Imagine that a simple task that you do on any given day becomes an obstacle and causes great anxiety. No, I am not referring to being physically paralysed or having a physical impairment but rather the crippling impact of dealing with serious mental health problems.
I find it difficult to speak so openly about this issue as someone very dear to me has been struggling with bipolar disorder and a severe form of anxiety since I was relatively young. This someone happens to be my mother, an absolutely incredible and resilient woman and the most generous and kind-hearted person I know. I respect her so much for being able to deal with her illness for so long and putting up with all the people who have constantly degraded and disrespected her, and still continue to do so.
I decided to write about this, not because I wanted people to feel sorry for my mother or myself, but rather to create awareness and make people understand the complexity and serious nature of mental illnesses and the incredible impact they have on one’s life.
It has been an all-consuming illness for my mother that has made it difficult for her to lead a so-called ‘normal’ life. I also feel it is an obligation on my part to counter the ignorance and dehumanisation that is associated with mental health issues not only in Pakistan but around the world, including Lebanon and the US. The final straw for me was reading the article called ‘Celebs with mental disorders: Lock up the crazy‘ which was published on The Express Tribune website on February 17, 2012, but later removed.
I could probably write a whole book filled with the amount of experiences and stories I have in relation to dealing with my mother’s mental illness considering I am one of the very few belonging to her support system. However, I will focus on a few points here that I think will resonate with people.
For one, I want to touch upon the topic of the ‘loony bin’ or ‘madhouse’ that people love to casually refer to, in different contexts, and the ‘crazies’ that go there, not to mention the ridiculously stereotypical and unrealistic portrayal of mental institutions in movies. It frustrates me when people talk about mental health institutions and people who are admitted into them in such a demeaning and inhumane manner. How many of you have actually been to at least one mental health institution in your life? My guess is not too many.
Whenever my mother has had manic episodes from her bipolar disorder she has needed to be admitted to a mental health institution. I must say it is nothing like what you see in the movies nor is it similar to the fabricated image that many people have in their head and often refer to. It is no different from any other health institution. The physical building itself looks like any other hospital, and the people over there are seeking treatment, not screaming at the top of their lungs – violent and out of touch with reality.
Something that people forget to recognise is the vast variety, complexity and severity of mental illnesses that exist and the way they impact people in different ways. I will not deny the fact that when my mother experiences a manic episode, she loses herself – becoming hyperactive, unrealistic and even experiencing hallucinations. However, this only happens on rare occasion and for shorter periods of time. During the treatment, she is able to recover from the episode and stabilise her mood.
Additionally, our family is from Lebanon where mental illness is awfully misunderstood as it is in Pakistan and even to some extent in the US. Unfortunately, my mother has had an extremely difficult time dealing with her illness and has lacked any type of support system from our extended family as many of them do not understand her condition nor do they have any sensitivity or recognition of it. Even worse, many of them have constantly put her down and failed to recognise the severity of her illness and the need to be supportive. For example, she has been told she is worthless and completely crazy- lucky my father has stuck around with such a person for so long, complaining for the sake of complaining, making it up that she has a problem, and much more. Their mentality (and many others from our country and background) and the way they deal with the idea of mental illness and those suffering from it is just horrible. It is a taboo to the extent that people pretend it does not exist nor is it a serious matter.
Mental health professionals and services have been more than disappointing even in the US, where there is this extreme obsession with medication that has frustrated us for many years now. I will not deny that the medication helps to keep my mother’s bipolar somewhat stabilised, but in general, all the medications do not make her happy nor do they take away the daily struggle that is associated with mental illness. Additionally, the medication has several side effects. It has negatively impacted my mother’s concentration, memory and energy levels. She has had a great deal of trouble learning new things, like how to use a cell phone for instance, which seems like such a simple task to many of us. Overall, there is great need for coping mechanisms, support systems, extreme patience, encouragement and much more beyond just taking medications.
There is one incident that I have never been able to forget. It was during a visit to the mental health institution, while my mother was recovering from a manic episode, that my father and I met with her psychiatrist and asked him what could we do to help her get better.
“You just need to accept that your mother has these problems. She is like this and always will be,” was his response.
Talk about a slap in the face and lack of constructive criticism. The way he told my father and me that my mother was never going to get any better instead of encouraging us to cope with the illness infuriated me beyond words. However, I never let this inadequate and insensitive psychiatrist stop me from continuing to support my mother, day in and day out, and boost her self-esteem, spirit and worth.
To this day, mental illness is extremely misunderstood by many around the world, but I want to emphasise that it should not taken lightly or disregarded by anyone. It is just as bad – and in some cases even worse than- many physical diseases. We still have a long way to go before people recognise its seriousness and the struggle the ones suffering have to go through.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.