“I wear my mental illness as a badge of pride” – Mental Health Q&A

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Interview by Cameron Watson
Answers by Adam McLeod

Tell me about a little about your experience with mental health?

My first experience with mental illness was when I was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 13 or 14. And the strange thing is even though I knew it was coming, by the time I read up on it, it was only a good thing. It didn’t change anything and in a lot of ways it made life a lot easier for me. Still, when I got that diagnosis, I cried like a baby. Proper bubbling, snorting, movie crying in a way I have only ever done one other time in my life, and it was the strangest thing.

I think it’s just because to get the confirmation that “Yes, you are different” is a strange thing. Even though I knew it was coming it threw me off. Then after a couple of years the panic attacks started. That was fun. That started out as generalised anxiety disorder then later became obsessive compulsive disorder. It just makes every day so much more difficult because a lot of the time I can’t focus on what I need to focus on, and I can’t do the everyday things. It’s almost like playing everyday life with the difficulty turned up to max.

What are your coping mechanisms for it; do you take medication or speak to someone on a professional level?

Sometimes I take medication, sometimes I don’t. I’m not at the moment but I feel I need to. Sometimes you need a bit of a hand. I’m trying to cope without it now that my life is back on track and going really well, but life is so difficult to handle without it so I am going back on medication tomorrow. I don’t speak to anyone professional about it though, no.

I find that with obsessive compulsive disorder you are being attacked by your own thoughts, and so talking to someone about it brings them all back and gives them more power than they need to have. I would rather not do that, even though people say that “You need the help”. But I feel that I don’t. I’ve seen that with some people it makes things worse and it’s the same with me. While I’m coping with it I feel that I don’t want to, when I start to not being able to cope with it I might.

With the panic attacks it comes down to distraction. There’s no real way to stop or get rid of them apart from just stopping thinking about them. You kind of need to throw your mind into something else and for me, being a maths student, it’s not the worst thing in the world. If you go and look at a really complicated equation you start with that and go “What do I need to do from here? How do I do it?” This occupies a big part of your brain. Conversation as well. You need to think about what you’re saying and what the other person is saying, as long as you aren’t talking about something that is going to hurt you more.

How supportive are your family?

My family are very very supportive. My dad has no real experience but he tries so hard to help. My Mum understands – she’s been obsessive compulsive for 25-30 years and passed it to me and my sister. She tries to help, but a lot of time you want to help others so badly but you can’t due to your own pain, which is how my Mum is. The worse thing about it is knowing that I’m upsetting others because I’m in pain. I remember when I was hurting my mum because of a panic attack I had. There’s a lot of people who try to help but at the end of the day they can’t.

Did you ever consider yourself a burden?

Oh, of course. All the time. I think everyone’s a burden though at some point. Sometimes I think “You’d be better off without me” but then the pain of me being away will be worse so that’s what makes it difficult. You feel you’re causing so much trouble by being there, but you will cause so much by not being there and sometimes I feel that it will be easier if I wasn’t here.

Is university the longest time you’ve been away from home and does it making it harder coping without family?

Yes, being at uni is the longest time I’ve been away from home. I used to tour on the road but I would only be away for around a week to a week and a half and I think it’s easier being away. I can distance myself from some of the stress. I can say okay, I’m away from this environment. Sometimes it’s easy to blame your feelings on something and god knows I do that a lot. It’s hard not having family around, but by the time I moved out I was relying on them less and less.

Do you find that there is a lot of support at university?

Yes and no. It depends on what you need. I find that the student support at this uni to be lacking. On a smaller level though the department are amazing, I spoke to my personal tutor yesterday and she is fantastic. There is support there but it’s hard to get it and hard to see it from an outside view.

What representation do you think is in the media for autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and do you think it’s good?

There’s a lot of good stuff. I am really happy that The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time has got to be as big as it is. I read that before I was diagnosed and identified with it so much. He’s very extreme and mine is a little milder, but it helped me so much. Autism in general is covered fairly well but there is a lot of negativity. That mainly comes from my field, which is science.

Also OCD is covered so poorly. It’s mainly seen as oh look that person is obsessive compulsive, look at them wash their hands again. That isn’t me at all and the last person who was supporting me the last time I was at uni thought she understood OCD because she previously had someone with it, but because I was on the complete opposite spectrum she accused me of lying about it. A lot of the time people don’t understand that there is such a huge spectrum that isn’t covered.

Do you have anything else you want to add?

I think I wear my mental illness as a badge of pride. My mum always says to me that what I have is probably the next stage of evolution which I think is true. But it does feel like someone has taken the colour out of life. It’s not an overstatement to say that mental illness literally changes everything.

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