My first job in the mental health field was as a Residential Social Worker at a mental health hostel for young people. There was one person living there who had – to put it bluntly – bad teeth. It was my job to accompany him to his dental appointments at which he underwent multiple extractions. The reason that he had bad teeth was due to a year’s worth of severe self neglect following the death of his mother.
The week before I went to my G.P. and told her what was wrong with me back in 2001 I went to her with a foot infection I think I was trying her out, to see if she was any good before returning to tell her about my mental health. While I did keep brushing my teeth (they’re not exactly sparkling white) I ignored my feet.
They continued to feel itchy, the skin flaky.
Bad teeth and poor podiatary are not a bar to recovering one’s mental health but they are external signs (if hidden in my socks). And that’s the thing about mental illness that comes up again and again – it’s not visible so it attracts less sympathy, concern and consequently is simply not taken as seriously. Recently I heard someone say of depression ‘well it’s not breast cancer.’
That hurt. Suffering is not a league table. If it hurts (physically) it hurts. If it hurts (mentally) it hurts. And most of all, if it could kill you it could be mental or physical.
It’s often said that mental illness is a ‘hidden disease’, and that’s true to some extent. But sometimes it’s just because we may prefer to not look too closely at give away signs, such as poor self-care, as mentioned above, or self – isolating – not returning calls, not engaging in previously enjoyable activities.
In Bi Polar Disorder the symptoms can be very noticeable indeed. Signs of hypo mania and full – blown mania characteristically mean the making and carrying out of grandiose plans, impulsive behaviour such as rash spending sprees leading to mountains of debt, or dangerous sexual behaviour. In the hypo manic (less severe phase of the cycle) a person may talk rapidly, be full of ideas, switching from one topic to another without an apparent connection.
These kinds of symptoms are most certainly visible – and most difficult to treat.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic, Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms Misery swelters.
Surely we have perished Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
- Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
- Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)