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FIRST PERSON: Pink Crayon Octopus

One man’s thoughts on struggling with the stigma of  ‘mentals’…

Recently I discovered something about myself. I hate suffering from depression. Not because it has robbed me of confidence, friends, relationships and jobs. Not because taking anti-depressants has piled on the pounds nor because, quite simply, it is miserable. No, I discovered a new reason that I am reluctant to admit. My new ground for detesting my diagnosis, condition and current circumstances is really not very politically correct and probably not within the ethos of this website or any of the helpful mental health organisations I have come into contact with. The reason is; I am sick to death of ‘the mental’. I have had enough of nutters, loose lids, crazies, loonies and the mad as a badger’s birthday party. What is more, although I am aware that many would say I myself deserve such epithets, I am pretty tired of being lumped in with them.

Before you stop reading at least let me try and explain.

I have suffered a lot with depression. It has cost me much. As a result, isolation has become a major problem for me. Finding people to connect with and somewhere to go that is non-threatening has not always been easy. Constant advice from family or friends to get out more and suggestions that there must be somewhere you could go are no help. When they are proffered I am almost one hundred percent sure that playing in their minds is some scene snatched from an old film where sedated, pyjama-clad patients weave baskets to some gentle tune from a crackling radio. If it’s not in their minds, it’s certainly in mine.

So it was with some trepidation that, over the last twelve months, through the helpful sign-posting of MIND, I have engaged with a couple of groups.

Initially when I started getting to these groups, being in the fairly firm grip of melancholia, I was not able to, or perhaps chose not to, acknowledge some things. To illustrate what I mean, on my first visit to a centre whose remit is to help people ‘recover’ from variety of mental health issues, I was confronted by Agnes (not her real name). I was being shown around by a helpful member of staff and Agnes shuffled up and interrupted my tour. How can I describe Agnes? I do not want to be unkind, which leaves me narrow scope. She could have been, maybe, twenty years beyond my own forty-three or even the same age, I couldn’t really tell. She presented herself as a fairly well turned out ‘bag-lady’ and something in her manner suggested something wasn’t quite right – if you asked a kid to pretend to be ‘a mental’ they would probably attempt an impersonation of Agnes.

“Are you one of us? Or staff?”, she asked. Answering her own question she continued, “You look like staff.”

Wanting to show just how fantastically well meaning, right on and inclusive I can be I replied with a not quite emphatic, “I guess I’m one of you”. Obviously feeling my awkwardness, my guide added, “He’s going to be a fellow member.” Satisfied, Agnes scuttled away with her plastic bag. At the time I had no firm thought about the encounter but a seed that had been planted by some old movie started to grow and somewhere the image of the basket weavers flickered through my head.

Undeterred I went, and still go, to the centre participating with the music group. The group, as it turns out, mostly consists of the comfortingly angst-ridden and despair-filled, like myself. And for the most part, while I’m there, the basket weavers don’t enter my head. However, when entering and leaving the grounds there is a part of me that hopes that nobody I know sees me.

I also tried an art class. Brilliant! For two hours a week I could lose myself in what was basically colouring in for grown ups. When the course had finished, myself and a couple of fellow students met up at the local gallery to see an exhibition that consisted of works done by people who have had, or are currently suffering from, some kind of mental health issue.

Some of the exhibits were okay – not fantastic but pretty good considering they weren’t done by professionals.  Others were actually quite wonderful. You could see they were done by those discovering or rediscovering a talent. Then round the corner were some of the less well achieved efforts. Most memorable for me being a pink crayon octopus. I wasn’t quite sure how to take the exhibition as a whole but my overriding feeling afterwards was one of sympathy for the exhibitors who had produced reasonable and, in some cases, excellent work. I suppose if I had been one of them I would have wondered why they’d put my work up with the crap fish.

So this is the thing. When people find out you have a mental health issue they either look at you and think there’s nothing wrong with you or they expect that at some point you’re going to get all ‘Agnesy’. I can see why many do not seek out much in the way of support when your ports of call on your way to recovery often find you sharing a berth with the Agneses of the world. I want to be all inclusive in my outlook and I want to be more like a friend who used to say we’re all just people and we all got some kind of problem. But, as I recover and try and take my place in the wider world, I find some of the well intentioned help I receive, instead of building my confidence, often makes feel like a pink crayon octopus in a room full of masterpieces.

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