So I graduated yesterday, I wore my cap and gown feeling so incredibly proud. Not necessarily because I got a degree but because of what that degree stands for. My BSc Honours in Mental Health Nursing means I get to register as a nurse and do a job I love every day and this means so much more than the qualification itself. It means even more than this to me though, it means society has given me another chance, having already lost a career and a business to my own mental health difficulties this made my graduation yesterday especially poignant.
What I have struggled with as I entered the final furlong of my nursing degree and since I have qualified is that well meaning people with the absolute best intentions keep telling me how inspirational they find my story and how I have ‘turned my life around’. They say this suggesting that my remission, or period of recovery if you would rather is something I have achieved through hard work with the implication that illness was somehow a choice. What they don’t appear to recognise is that I live with a mental illness which I have managed all my life and continue to manage daily. It is four years since I had a significant relapse however that is not to say there haven’t been wobbles in between.
I haven’t turned my life around any more than anyone with a serious physical illness does as they enter remission, because neither becoming ill nor remission were my choice. My illness is biological in nature usually with no obvious trigger. When I have been depressed I have been known to dwell on the aspects of my life which have required psychological work however this doesn’t alter the true biological pattern of my illness.
The more people who say to me about how I have done so well and turned my life around the more it upsets me, it reminds me that I could and likely will relapse again in the future if I make that prediction based upon my history. It makes me wonder if those same people who tell me how inspirational they find my current position will view a relapse as a failure on my part? I hope not but I don’t think most understand the impact of the language they use when saying this.
I have worked hard, I have put an enormous amount of effort in to get qualified as a nurse and for that I warmly accept the congratulations which have been offered but with regard to my period of remission? My belief is that would have happened anyway. My personality structure is one which envelops determination hence why I opened my business after I lost my first career to mental health stigma, after losing the business as well to my cyclical illness if it wasn’t for nursing I would have likely still retrained and done something else.
I do work hard every day to stay well, I am fastidious about ensuring my sleep pattern remains as regular as possible, I try to eat a good diet, I have an awareness of when I need to take a break and not overfill my diary which I have a tendency to do. These things no one sees. These are things that those close to me may notice a change in me if I don’t adhere to as my own self imposed rules. If I don’t monitor all those simple aspects then it becomes visible, my obsessions and compulsions become more pronounced, my sleep pattern disturbs and I suffer with disabling levels of anxiety. That isn’t relapse though, that is my life and what I manage every day. I tell you this not for pity but to remind those who have told me that I have ‘worked really hard to turn my life around’ that they have got it wrong because that’s not how mental illness works. I work hard every day and during periods of relapse have to work even harder but then the stakes are higher then I’m not working hard to get to work each day I’m working hard to stay alive. Enduring mental illness is exhausting.
So the uni bit is over (for now anyway!) and I am doing a job I love, hopefully making a difference everyday to the lives of others living with mental illness in a similar way to the nurses who have offered support to me have done over the years. My confidence is still low in that I have lost so much to my periods of illness that I am almost afraid to allow myself to enjoy nursing too much in case this is taken away too. I’m hoping time will be the only healer I need on my confidence though as I begin to realise that the nursing profession has embraced me and my lived experiences with open arms and is willing to let me stay so for now and hopefully the long term future #HelloMyNameIsClaire…