Loving a Legacy
November 19, 2020 10:00 am Published by Dave Scholes
The topic of mental health, mental illness and everything in between came crashing into my life about 20 years ago. My life experiences have resulted in a variety of perspectives on the topic – as a professional, a carer, a fundraiser and a user of services myself.
In 2011, I was bereaved by suicide when my older brother Ian took his own life. For the ten years prior to this, we had an intense relationship where – without either he or I realising I was doing so – I took on a great deal of responsibility for his emotional wellbeing. When Ian died, this background impacted enormously on my grief, my guilt and on patterns of behaviour which developed. With the benefit of insight which can only come with time, I have realised that it is as much my relationship with Ian when he was alive as the trauma of him taking his own life which continues to impact on me.
Dave, founder of Mindsight, was one of Ian’s best friends. They met at University, lived together, were in a band together and bonded over banter about the North / South divide and 90s indie music on (ever so occasional) nights out. When Ian died, his death of course impacted his friends with just as much pain and confusion as it hit me. Our journeys are all different, but the pain of loss, the endless questions and the feelings of guilt are the same, even though they may manifest in different ways. When Dave got in contact to tell me about Mindsight and how Ian’s death has inspired its development, it felt such a genuine and meaningful legacy. There are aspects of Mindsight which shout so loudly of Ian. It also just so happens that the Mindsight ethos of flipping the focus on mental health has come into my life at a time when it has particular resonance.
I have blogged about mental health and bereavement by suicide since 2015 in my blog Beyond the Black Dog. However, earlier in 2020 I went through a significant emotional crash which resulted in me taking some time off work and re-evaluating some aspects of life which I felt were no longer helpful for me. Blogging was one of these areas. It became apparent that by blogging and willingly, proactively immersing myself in the world of mental illness and suicide bereavement that I was preventing myself from separating from grief, and meant I was actually re-traumatising myself regularly. The standpoint of my blog meant that I focussed on the pain of mental illness and the worst case scenario, rather than the hope that recovery is possible. It was too much, and I made the decision to stop blogging for a while. Taking a step back was good for me over the next few months , however I missed writing and there were times when I felt compelled to blog again but was worried about being drawn back into a world where everything can feel quite dark and hopeless. Dave getting in contact was a nudge I needed, and it also helped me to flip my own focus and navigate a way through some of those difficulties.
I have found at times that services which seek to promote wellbeing have upset me. An odd sentence, but bear with me. Ian’s mental health problems were terminal. There is no flowery way of putting it – they were as serious as they could get and they caused his death. At points when I have been struggling with a huge weight of depression, combined with grief and trauma, I felt that services promoting wellbeing treated the topic just too flippantly for me – “life is what you make it”, “you have the power to choose to be happy”, “write a list of three things you want to achieve this week to improve your wellbeing” … and so on. After losing Ian, I could not connect with these messages, and found them gratingly simplistic and even hurtful – both in relation to him, and to my own feelings. I suppose what I wanted was a cure for mental illness, rather than the offer of a cup of tea and a life-coaching approach. What my break from blogging has offered me has been a step back and a breather from the intense world of mental illness. This has allowed me to widen my perspective and acknowledge that the topic is not always linked with suicide – that it needs to be addressed on a multitude of levels and that genuine cultural change needs to happen if, as a society, we are going to collectively and individually improve our mental wellbeing; very much the Mindsight ethos.
I think back to myself in my early twenties, barely an adult myself but caring for a sibling who was desperately ill and desperately secretive about this. At this point in my life, how much would I have benefitted from being supported to look after my own wellbeing in a meaningful way? It seems so simple to me now, but at the time I was studying to be a nurse, working part-time to fund my studies and trying to look after Ian. The only way I knew how to cope was to squash everything down, right to the pit of my stomach, to make room for some more stuff – whether that was an assignment, a visit to Ian in hospital, or an extra shift to earn a bit more cash. Of course I had friends around me, but very few who knew about Ian because I felt I would be betraying his trust to discuss what was going on in depth. They looked after me as best they could, but in reality I did not let anyone very close at that point. It makes me sad to think that if only I had been able to look after myself better and build a bigger support network at that point in my life, my journey once Ian died might have been very different. I carry with me to this day behaviours and deeply ingrained beliefs that I developed when Ian was alive – not necessarily healthy ones – and these are very, very hard to unpick and begin to reverse. When I was that young girl muddling through and squashing everything down into a big tight bundle of worry and sadness and guilt and responsibility, I would have benefitted so greatly from the cultural shift which is central to what Mindsight is working to achieve. If only there had been more of a proactive and accepting culture at that point within society in general, at the university where I was studying and at my workplace. And likewise for Ian, who was very poorly supported by his employer at the time when things first began to get difficult for him. He felt a huge pressure as a male to be ‘strong’, to attain the life goals which he saw his peers achieving all around him, and to avoid dampening the mood and the banter by admitting he was struggling.
The culture which Mindsight is seeking might have been fundamental in things turning out very differently, for both Ian and for me. And that is why I am proud to be a Mindsight Ambassador and I am proud that I have been able to flip my own focus. I am proud to be blogging again and I am proud that I am able to look beyond my own small world again. I cannot change my circumstances or the sadness of what has happened in my life, but if I can help someone else to avoid some of the difficulties I have faced, then, most importantly, I am very proud to be able to do that.
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