Further to my postings about my mental illness, there are a couple of things that I’d like to add.
If you’re unlucky enough to suffer from a mental illness, you may find that it takes awhile before you fully accept your condition. In my case, it took me about three years before I accepted my illness. For others, it may take more or it may take less time. Everyone is different. This is obviously not something that can be rushed. However, acceptance of your illness is critical to your path to recovery. It’s certainly something worth fighting for.
Something that helped me accept my condition was my refusal to accept the label of ‘schizophrenia’ without unpacking it in further detail. When you’re diagnosed with such a condition, you need to lift the lid and analyse exactly what it entails. Once I did so, I realised that it wasn’t quite as bad as it sounded, and I found the courage to carry on. Don’t allow a label to define you and certainly don’t accept a label without dissecting what it involves first.
When you have a mental illness, it can be hard to look at things positively. This is especially true if you suffer from depression as by its nature, you will tend to have a negative outlook on life. But always remember that no matter how bad things are, they could always be a lot worse. Also, there are people in the world who are much worse off than you. I have never done drugs, which helps a lot. Drugs change the chemistry of the brain. My condition could be a lot worse if I had done drugs. When I was hospitalised, I met and befriended some other patients, including a girl much younger than me who heard voices. She still heard them, despite being on many different medications. While psychotic episodes are terrifying, I am grateful that I don’t hear voices as it sounds like a problem that is much worse to deal with than psychotic episodes, which can be treated with the medication which I was prescribed.
Humans often attach labels on things. The term ‘schizophrenia’ sounds scary but when I lifted the lid and actually examined how it impacted upon me, I realised that it wasn’t as bad as I originally thought. One of the hardest things for me to accept is that my condition has affected my memory and cognitive functioning with each psychotic episode. However, I have to focus on what I am able to do, rather than what I am not, which includes practicing law. I have discovered gardening, which was great therapy for me during such a difficult period of my life, including one of great sadness when my father passed away. For awhile, I operated a small nursery out of home and therefore learnt how to run a business. I developed a gardening blog and became very active on social media, which was a huge learning curve. I have since turned my gardening blog Anita’s Garden into a platform called In the Circle, which enables me to share my thoughts on different topics in the format of a lifestyle magazine.
While my condition has changed the course of my life dramatically, I found the courage to carry on. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m always looking for alternatives so I don’t feel that I’ve had to make too many compromises or miss out on too much in life.
I would like to offer some further thoughts on coping with a mental illness. As I have explored in the first series of posts in this section, you have to work very hard to train the mind and flip everything around so you look at things from a positive, or at least a pragmatic perspective. Often you have to rely on your mind and think your way out of your problems, or perceived troubles!
If you suffer from a mental illness, there is a high chance that others will find out about it. This is the nature of living in a community where you are surrounded by other people. Others will notice changes in your behaviour and you will have to account for any absences such as time off work or periods spent in hospital. During a particularly acute phase of illness, I was hospitalised. Fortunately, this has only occurred in one instance to date, as I was able to be cared for at home the rest of the time. The receptionist who works at the mental health ward of the hospital I was staying at told a lot of people in the Indian community about my hospital admission and condition. When I recovered, I felt so humiliated, because having a mental illness attracts so much stigma amongst Indian people, especially when you’re a woman. Not to mention that any chances of getting married to anyone within the community were completely ruined. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I was so worried about what they thought about me. To them, I’ve always been a piece of trash anyway. Mum was raised moslem and Dad was raised Hindu, so I’m neither here nor there. I’ve never really been accepted by other Indian people for this very reason. I didn’t really have much of a chance of getting married to anyone within the Indian community, even without a mental illness. That made me feel much better and I was able to dispose of any shame I felt in this regard quite easily.
Despite my earlier title of “it’s all in the mind”, I’d like to correct myself. It’s not quite all in the mind. The soul, or human spirit, is important too, in learning to live with a mental illness and in life at large. My multiple conditions – schizophrenia (including slight bipolar), depression and diabetes – really threw me into the fire. I felt like my spirit had died, I had lost my sense of humour and I could never be happy again. For years I knew I had to sort my shit out but I just couldn’t pull myself together. Over time, I discovered that the mind, body and soul are all rather extraordinary and have a tremendous capacity to heal. Whether you believe in the fact that humans possess a soul or spirit, surely everyone must believe in inner strength which emanates from within. This is what enables us to pull ourselves together and get back on our feet again after our defeats. I consider this one of my greatest allies, along with the strong support of my parents and friends, in my journey through mental illness to date. It is this which gives me the power to think, to feel and to believe. This brings me back to the positive mantra which I have forced myself to develop, that I am determined to deal with the obstacles that my mental illness presents.
I would like to add a few more tips about how to cope with schizophrenia.
Although it can be difficult, it is possible to re-enter the workforce. I was fortunate that my old law firm in New Zealand accommodated me with my conditions and offered me the support I needed. I had been out of the workforce for a long time, particularly during the acute phase of my illness. I didn’t dream that it would be possible to practice law again, let alone in a large firm like the ones I had been accustomed to working for during my career. I was very lucky to reconnect with a partner who I had developed a good relationship with during my summer clerkship while I was a law student and he was happy to have me in his team. Being back in legal practice helped me to re-establish confidence in myself and get back on my feet again. I was lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, many of whom had been friends of mine at law school. I still have a wonderful relationship with the firm which I hope to maintain in the future. It is a real testament to how caring and accommodating corporate entities can be, not just towards their existing staff members but also in the broader community.
As I have mentioned previously, there is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. There are people who will look down upon you. In dealing with this, I remember something that a friend of mine from a church I used to attend once said to me. She has six children from three marriages, which is something for which she often felt judged. In dealing with this, she told me that if people wanted to judge her, it was on them, and not on her. I applied her attitude to my own situation and it made me feel much better.
Dealing with a problem such as a mental illness made me very present-oriented. It’s also important to look to the future and try and be as positive as you can in the circumstances. Life doesn’t always go exactly according to plan. I’ve learnt that you need to adapt and be able to accommodate the unexpected. Sometimes, you just have to make the best of a bad situation. Instead of feeling so ashamed of my condition, I’ve learnt to feel proud of my journey. Instead of feeling frustrated by the way it has limited me from doing what I want in life, I’m always looking for alternatives so I don’t feel I’m missing out too much or have to make too many compromises. One example is training. Exercise has always played an important part in my life. Being on and off medication means that my weight tends to fluctuate a lot. I’ve learnt to work around this and simply do the best I can in the circumstances. I have managed to compete in quite a few 10k running events notwithstanding my condition, which is something that I feel very proud of.
In my darkest days, I desperately wanted to end my life. My condition prevented me from practising law, which made me feel incredibly depressed. I contemplated committing suicide in various ways but what worried me was that it might not be successful and I would end up worse off than I already am. Then I discovered that there is a way that you can end your life effectively and with dignity. As featured in the book and movie Me Before You, the Swiss organisation Dignitas enables people to end their life with a lethal injection. However, if you have psychiatric issues, this avenue becomes quite difficult. This is so typical of the law. As discussed previously, it’s very circular. To add to that, it always traps you! While I have made the decision to learn to live with and accommodate my condition as best I can, I feel frustrated that this avenue is blocked for a lot of people who suffer from schizophrenia. Many people have told me that it's not the end of the world, but they don't suffer from it themselves and really know what it's like to live with it on a day to day basis.
If members (or ex-members like me) of the international arbitration community wanted to end their lives in this manner, I wonder if they would end up writing their own psychiatric report. Most experts are absolutely hopeless. Moreover, the patient is in a far better position to explain what is in their mind than anyone else, including a psychiatrist.
I’ve had to learn how to laugh again. And that includes laughing about my condition. No matter what happens to you in life, you certainly don’t want to lose your sense of humour.
Opening up about my health conditions, while deeply personal in nature, enables me to leave a legacy for others, especially those who I don’t know. This is particularly important for me as I don't have a lot of money to leave behind. As discussed in my last post, there is a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness. I’m certainly not popular among health professionals in terms of the treatment plan I have decided to follow, but I think this comes down to the fact that we view the field of medicine very differently. To me, the discipline of medicine is a construct, much like law or history. This means that it was created and has evolved over time; it isn’t a given. Indeed, there is always new research into different illnesses and the development of drugs to treat them. Drugs are artificial substances which react differently among patients and they do contain side effects. If you suffer from several conditions like me, you may find that you’re better off without them because they can cause even more problems. I’m fortunate that I’m able to manage my conditions most of the time without medication, but I acknowledge that others may not be so lucky. Going back to the point I made in a previous blog post, medicine is governed by the field of law. Patients do have rights, including the right not to take medication. But in some circumstances, the state may intervene and impose a treatment plan on the individual out of necessity.
In my last post, I opened up about the three conditions that I suffer from: (i) mild schizophrenia with some bipolar; (ii) depression; and (iii) type 2 diabetes. In this post, I’d like to share a bit more of my journey which may give some hope to other sufferers of these conditions and their families.
By comparison with other conditions such as cancer, mental illness has a lot of stigma attached to it. Being diagnosed with schizophrenia caused me to lose my dignity and really affected my self esteem. Being hand-cuffed by the police when I went wandering around the neighbourhood during a psychotic episode was very humiliating. I began to really hate myself, especially after I was hospitalised after this particularly bad psychotic episode. Eventually, I realised that I can no longer carry so much shame for something which isn’t my fault. This was the key to setting me free. I’ve learnt to look back and laugh about some of my experiences, even though they weren’t even remotely funny at the time. My experiences have brought me down a notch or two. Some humility isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
Like many people who suffer from schizophrenia, I am single. Relationships are difficult enough without bringing mental illness into it. The key point is that instead of looking for someone to love me and accept my condition, I need to learn how to love myself inspite of my condition. Managing my condition is all-consuming so I came to the conclusion that I'm better off alone.
Working through your problems so you can overcome any obstacle can be a really tough mental exercise. Whenever I struggle to find the solution to a problem, I always remember what my Equity and Restitution professor at law school used to tell us: the answer is in the question. To this day, I’m still not quite sure what this means. The way I have interpreted it is that sometimes you have to really think outside the box and come up with some creative solutions to your problems. Remember that real raw intelligence is where you can always come up with a solution no matter the problem, just like Yale have said in the powerful and moving article “Transcript v Potential”. To me, this goes to the very heart of education, which is about more than merely having a good job and earning lots of money. What is the point of dedicating so much of your life to learning if you can’t use your knowledge to resolve your own problems in every day life? Don’t forget that we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing with us, just like the Bible says. Don’t worry if you don’t own a house or are struggling to get by from day to day like me. The most important thing is that you have to keep working, just like Dempsey said, so you can overcome obstacles and continue to make progress in life.
In trying to find a way forwards, you will find that you are constantly weighing up different factors. In the end, you have to do what you think is right in the circumstances. You will probably find that there isn’t a precedent to follow and you have to delve very deeply to resolve difficult issues. I have been in this situation regarding my health. I suffer from three different health issues: (i) mild schizophrenia with some bipolar; (ii) depression; and (iii) Type 2 diabetes. Over time, I’d like to open up a bit about how I have tried to manage these different conditions so I can carry on and lead a healthy and full life despite the ongoing challenges I face from these illnesses. In a nutshell, medication hasn’t worked particularly well for me. My background in law helped me to understand exactly why and find a better way forwards.
Some time after I was diagnosed with these conditions, I felt this strange sense of déjà vu, as if I had seen this situation before, but where was the question. It took me back to the Dissertation that I wrote for the Honours component of my law degree. In that research paper, I analysed the three main interests upheld by defamation law as conceptualised by the legal scholar Robert Post. It became apparent that there is tension between these concepts and they cannot be easily reconciled. While the medication I was taking for schizophrenia and depression stabilised me they caused an enormous weight gain and eventually led to type 2 diabetes. I was diagnosed with a fatty liver and was experiencing tightness in my chest. Generally speaking, I felt incredibly unwell. In the interests of my overall health, I came off medication. Overall, I feel much better but I do run the risk of recurrent psychotic episodes, which occur from time to time. My medical issues reminded me of my research. I can only manage these three conditions; they cannot not be reconciled perfectly much like the three interests protected by defamation law.
While I admit that I suffer from depression, I also remind myself that how others behave towards you can affect your mood. It’s not just you, it’s everyone else. As I have said before, it’s therefore fine to distance yourself from others who are upsetting you, even if they are family members. Be careful though. If you distance yourself from others, mental health specialists will be quick to point out that you are isolating yourself and that there is therefore something wrong with you. It’s for this reason that I challenge not only psychiatry as a field of medicine but also the law of psychiatry, where the state has a lot of control over individuals. And as my public law professor told us at law school, there is always a risk that people in a position of power may abuse the exercise of that power.