“The first step to getting better is wanting to get better”

I agree. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t want to get better. But at the same time, I think this has become a platitude that gets passed around mindlessly without really thinking about what comes after the first step.

I think it comes from good intentions, from wanting to give people a little push to have the will and the motivation to get better, maybe wanting to help them believe that getting better is something they can aim for. But when you’re in the depths of mental illness, this can feel like the burden of getting better is solely on you, like your recovery depends only on your will to recover.

I remember being told this. I remember wanting to get better, and I remember slowly losing all hope. It’s not that I didn’t want to get better, but rather, that I couldn’t get better.

The days leading up to my suicide attempt, people around me were encouraging me to get help. Call a crisis number, go to A&E, go to the GP. The last time someone said this, my reply was “you have to want to be helped in order to get help. I don’t want help. I don’t want to get better. I’m just hanging around until I decide to end it. Maybe in a year, maybe tomorrow. I’m just waiting for the day and I want to be left alone.”

And did I mean that? No. Not at all. I wanted to get better, and I desperately wanted to be helped. I was telling my GP and mental health nurse how I was feeling, I was going to A&E when I felt I was a danger to myself, I was calling the crisis number, I was using all the coping skills they suggested and none of them were working. It was the lack of appropriate help and support that led me to give up, to accept that wanting to get better wasn’t realistic, to then believe that maybe it was my own fault and maybe I just didn’t want to get better. After all, if I really wanted it, I’d be trying harder. Right? Not only was I thinking this, but it was also the message I was getting from professionals. Sometimes you stop seeking help not because you don’t want to be helped, but because no one is truly helping you.

I know the first step is to want to get better, but that in itself doesn’t get you better if you don’t have access to the resources to do so. It’s not just pure willpower that pulls you out of the symptoms of mental illness. The message is all good and well, but I think we also need more messages about what comes after the first step, and more acknowledgement that just because you have accessed help, doesn’t mean it’s actually helpful. Sometimes you don’t get better and you play a part in that, but so many times the lack of progress is mostly due to a lack of appropriate help and not a personal fault. And far too often we’re made to believe it is our own fault because we’re not trying hard enough or we’re not “truly accepting” the help we get.

I’m tired of the oversimplification of mental health and mental illness into platitudes and cutesy pictures about going for a walk and taking a bubble bath.

Father’s Day

The last time I saw my father for Father’s Day he was at the bar. That was the place to find him. I didn’t like going in there, but I went in to say Happy Father’s Day. I don’t remember his reaction or what I did after.

In a way, I never really felt like I had a father. I never lived with him. Most of the time I spent with him was out of obligation. His presence wasn’t comforting, it ranged from awkward to threatening. I knew how much he had hurt my family.

As a kid, it was black and white for me. I didn’t see the nuances of how some people become bad people, I just knew they were bad. There were many times of wishing he was different, wishing we could be like other families. At one point I hated him.

But there were good times. He taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to play chess, how to identify animal tracks. He’d record home videos where I’d pretend to be a news presenter. He’d tickle me to make me laugh and he’d let me paint on his back with sharpies. He showed me his small collection of fossils and he took me to the little mountains bordering our town to show me the marks previous water currents had left on the rocks. He taught me not to litter the countryside. He taught me to leave bugs alone even if they scare me.

When he was kind, he was kind.

When I found out he had taken his own life, I couldn’t cry. I felt numb for a long time. I was also told not to discuss this with anyone because suicide is something shameful, so no one should know. I was alone with my already existing suicidal thoughts and now my father’s suicide, while the ones who should’ve supported me instead questioned my ability to care about or to love people.

It took me a couple of years to actually start grieving. At this point I was around 16 and I blamed myself for my lack of previous grieving, for my lack of understanding the complexities of his personality and his actions, for not trying to build a relationship with him. I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for not reaching out when I did feel like reaching out but felt it was the wrong thing to do, or felt it went against what was expected of me. But I was a child and I can’t blame myself for not looking past his abusive behaviour to see the childhood trauma, the alcoholism, the mental illness.

It was only after my own diagnosis that I found out he most likely had bipolar disorder too. I didn’t know him well enough, or long enough, to notice this.

From the moment he died, I was certain that would be how I go as well. It was the moments I was the most suicidal in my 20s that made me feel closer to him, experiencing first-hand the suffering and desperation that pushes a person to that point in a way I couldn’t fully understand in my teens, despite already having suicidal thoughts.

I would never justify any of the bad things he did, or convince myself it was inevitable for him to end up that way because of his upbringing, that he had no choice in doing the things he did. But as many people with mental health issues do, he never had appropriate support or help to move towards more positive and healthier behaviours.

I wish I could go back and talk to him, try to have a relationship with him. The people he hurt forgave him, it’s not up to me to carry that resentment when it wasn’t mine in the first place. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really think there was a potential for him to move past his bad actions and become a better person.

He left no note for me. I have very few memories with him, and so many of them are negative. I only have two pictures of him from when I was very little. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. At times it felt like I hadn’t lost anyone at all. Can you lose someone who wasn’t there?

I now hold on to the good memories I have, and I let the negative ones remind me of who I don’t want to become. I may have inherited this dysfunctional, self-destructive brain, but I don’t have to become the same person. I hold on to the knowledge that he was ill just as I have been, that just as I was emotionally neglected as a child, he had a probably even worse childhood. It just so happened that life took us down different paths through our illness.

I still have frequent dreams where it turns out he’s been alive all along. But the past is what it is, and I can’t go back and fix it. I don’t know if I can miss someone who wasn’t that present in my life, or if I just miss the ideal of him, or the ideal of a father.

I just wish things could have been better for him. Not just for me to have a father, but for him to have a good life.




One year alive

Today marks a year since I tried to die.

It’s sunny and hot, which I appreciate after all the rain. I saw a crow taking a bath in some of the water left from the rain on a roof. I had a nice cold decaf coffee after work. Did some studying, did some knitting, had some lentils for dinner. Life gradually became normal. Mundane, in a good way. Not perfect but close.

I’m happy to be alive. Lucky, really. Forever grateful to the friend who managed to get me help in time.

I’m ashamed that I did it, ashamed of what I put people through, and ashamed of what I sometimes can’t help but see as weakness.

I’m angry at the system. Had I not nearly died, I wouldn’t have had any help. I would’ve died, if not on that day, soon after. It took two suicide attempts and getting hospitalised to get a diagnosis I could have gotten in the community two years earlier if a psychiatrist had paid attention to what I was describing.

I’m angry at the “you’re just not trying hard enough”, the “have you tried splashing your face with cold water? if you don’t try those things of course you’ll end up in A&E again”, the “maybe go to the beach, have some fish and chips, to me it just sounds like you’re stressed”, the “what you have cannot be treated”, the “you still haven’t tried to kill yourself so you’re not that bad”, the “think how lucky you are, how can you want to die when so many people have it so much worse”, the “no, I don’t think you have bipolar disorder”, the “it just doesn’t seem like we can help you.”

I’m angry not just at the individual people who don’t seem to be competent enough to work in the mental health field, but also at an underfunded and short staffed system where even the best of people often lack the time and resources to provide the best care.

I’m grateful to the hospital. I had a good psychiatrist who saw I had bipolar disorder right away and started me on medication, supportive nurses and healthcare assistants who made me feel safe and cared for, occupational therapy staff who helped me find coping skills that actually worked for me and got me participating in activities, and a psychologist who allowed me to see my resilience and good qualities instead of only seeing the moments where I was weak. It was all that help that enabled me to do the work to turn things around.

I choose to focus on the gratefulness and the appreciation of being alive. Anger and resentment won’t change the past, but I’m still disappointed at the state of mental health care.

How many people live feeling miserable, how many people die, only because they don’t get the help they need no matter how much they try to access it? How many people are made to feel as if it’s their own fault they’re like that, as if they’d be all good if they just tried harder?

I could be dead, and I’d be just another body adding to the statistics, another “what a shame, but what could we have done to prevent it?”

Listen to patients and service users. Treat us like the unique individuals we are. We’re not perfect textbook cases. If you give me a list of coping skills and I tell you they don’t work and I still feel suicidal day in and day out, perhaps consider the failure is on your part and not mine.