Last week was Depression Awareness Week and the Blurt Foundation started #whatyoudontsee on Twitter. Sufferers of depression were invited to express what they feel and experience as a result of their illness. By the end of the week tweets were coming through at a rate of ten or more an hour, from all sorts of people, and from all over the world. They are still coming. (Go look.)
I’m comfortable that I know pretty well what so-called mental illness is like. I’ve had many odd internal experiences, have repeatedly lost the ability to look after myself and needed to put myself into others’ care, have felt the stigma and the shame and at times have perpetuated it as well.
Even with this knowledge I was overwhelmed by what people posted.
The quantity was enormous. But that wasn’t it. In fact the sheer volume had its downside: as the tweets came and came I found myself flicking past them, taking each one less seriously, categorising them automatically as ‘more of the same’.
So I started consciously to try, as the tweets came through, to stop on each one, to stop and to wait and to remain aware of the depth of each individual’s experience.
I was overwhelmed by what people said:
#WhatYouDontSee is the decades and decades of desperation living with a bipolar I can’t get under control stretching ahead of me.
#WhatYouDontSee is the people who have walked away because of their lack of understanding/their fear of depression, & the stigma attached.
#WhatYouDontSee the utter exhaustion.
#WhatYouDontSee is going through the side effects of medication – insomnia, dark thoughts, hot sweats, shaking, nausea & anxiety.
Each one of those tweets is from an individual. Decades of desperation. Being deserted. Being ashamed to say what you are suffering from. Being exhausted, always exhausted. Submitting to the side effects – to all that long list of side effects – because the alternative of going untreated is worse.
I also contributed to the thread, and that surprised me: I’m not someone who does that sort of thing. My mode is to observe, to judge, to make notes. But this was something I had an emotional need to be part of. I tweeted what recovery is like: what it is like to feel the warmth of the sun again; what it is like when friendships deepen; what it is like when hope returns.
Of course, as in any mass movement what was posted was a mixed bag. Some tweets were self-pitying. Some were clichés. Some will have been unhelpfully triggering for other sufferers. Some had bad grammar. Some were exaggeratedly emotive. But that is understandable, and it was surprisingly rare.
Mostly it was bravery that shone through; bravery and a stalwart acceptance of illness. There were mothers hiding their tears from their children. There were men and women hiding physical scars under layers of clothing. There were employees dedicated to their work despite all they were experiencing internally. There was courage through shame, and fear, and loneliness.
And in the suddenness of the relentless outpouring of mass pain from a group of usually-silent individuals my mind made the connection to soldiers returning from war. I thought of traumatised men trying to say aloud what they have seen and heard and done, to describe the horror of their experiences to those who do not, who cannot, know. I thought particularly of the demobilisation after WWI, of shell-shocked men returning in their millions and having to swallow down their suffering and get on with normal life.
Briefly I reacted against that analogy. It sounded melodramatic to me. I nearly deleted it.
But then I thought about why going through a war is so terrible, what the results of that are. PTSD, isolation, depression, flashbacks, addiction, broken relationships – these are the things that war brings. These are the things that people with mental illness are already suffering from.
Odd, isn’t it? War traumas feel horrific to us in a way that ‘normal’ mental illness does not. Perhaps it’s easier to apply ‘horrific’ to the exceptional and not to what is around us every day.
I won’t create an analogy that living with a mental health issue is like living in a war zone – that does feel melodramatic. But I will say this:
We all know we need to bear witness to the terrible effects of war on soldiers and civilians alike. For a week we also bore witness, 140 characters at a time, to the terrible effects of a particular set of invisible illnesses. It was an incredible week.
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