Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Life can be lonely for people with mental illness
Jan. 4, 2008

I have a layman’s understanding at best about mental illness as a medical condition, but years of experience in how it plays out in real life.
You meet a lot of people living with mental illness when you work in the media. Those in the throes of an acute stage of illness often think their only hope is to get their story out there. So I’ve had many conversations with people carrying that label, and made a lot of shifts in my thinking as a result.
The more I’ve seen of mental illness, the less certain I am of what it is. But I do know it’s a damn difficult thing to live with, particularly in a world with little time for anyone who can’t keep up. It can also mean a life of terrible loneliness.
I’ve had a dear friend for about six years now who has been a remarkable tutor for me, including waiting patiently for probably the first two years of our acquaintanceship while I worked my way clear of defining her only by her illness.
With five decades of personal experience with the local mental-health system, she’s also a fount of knowledge, having lived through the gamut - from the locked-up, drugged-up days through to the group hugs of the 1970s, then on into the lean, mean 1990s and beyond. Her stories captivate me.
You’ll hear people tossing around that line about how we’re all one paycheque away from homelessness, but that really is true for people with major mental illness. However much effort they put into being well, it’s never going to be easy, and many will struggle for a lifetime to find the love and friendships that sustain the rest of us.
Worse still, anyone with serious and chronic illness has no choice but to rely on governmen to help keep their head above water. That’s a risky proposition at the best of times, but especially challenging in a period when governments are eager to shirk the responsibilities of caring for people.
Well over half of the people living on Victoria’s streets are mentally ill, and thousands more are living so close to the streets that one more bad break is all it’s going to take. My friend was in that latter group once and still would be were it not for all the hard-won things in her life that keep her well - good housing, good care, good friends.
But it’s a tough life just the same. Just ask Sharon Johnston, another woman with bipolar disorder who recently vented to me over a cup of coffee.
Like my friend, Johnston has an affordable place to live thanks to a mental-health rent subsidy. But the subsidy is slowly being whittled down - from $270 a month once upon a time to $225 now, and soon to $200. Those are big changes for someone on a disability cheque, and she’s scared and angry about them.
On and off a laundry list of medications through her 20-plus years of mental illness, she’s frustrated at not being able to afford the nutritional supplements she’d rather be taking. She’s worn out from counting every dime.
But Johnston’s real complaint on this day is not so much about shrinking subsidies and medical merry-go-rounds, but about a community that just won’t let her in. She feels it most poignantly at times like Christmas, when her acquaintances retreat into the comfort of their own families and she’s reminded of how very alone she really is.
“I may be warm and comfortable in a restaurant right now, but in society I’ve been homeless and out in the cold just the same,” says Johnston, 45.
We all need to feel connected, and for people with mental illness I think that is often the critical difference between who falls to the streets and who doesn’t. But a sense of self-worth - of purpose - is also vital.
For my friend, it comes through art, which has helped her through some of the most chaotic periods of her life. It feeds her soul even when everything else is going sideways.
Johnston uses music to manage, having played trombone for many years and studied music at university. “At this time of year, I always make sure I’ve got my guitar and trombone close at hand,” she says.
On this particular day, Johnston is angry at the world, but acknowledges that’s part of her illness. She knows her intensity tends to scare people away, which in turn just leaves her feeling even more isolated and angry.
She’s working on a gentler persona. “I’m telling myself that the trombone doesn’t always have to play double forte,” she jokes. “It can also play quietly and sensitively.”
She’s grateful for the Friends of Music, a non-profit that brings together people with mental illness to make music, and for friends at church. One of them gave her a necklace of tiny Christmas lights, which she shows me with pride. But she desperately wants friendships that extend beyond “a quick hi-bye” at the Sunday morning service.
“I do have some good people in my life, but they go away. I need people who could take me out for coffee now and then, or just pass some time,” says Johnston. “I feel like I always have to be working so hard just to stay happy.”

1 comment:

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