by Sheila O’Shea
I’m a pretty introverted and self-contained individual, which are not always the best traits to have when dealing with mental illness. To really handle your symptoms and flourish despite them, you need help from other people. Help can take all kinds of forms, so let me introduce you to three people—who were not my therapist or psychiatrist—who helped me in three different ways with my mental illness.
For most of my twenties, I shared a living space with a woman I met through the fandom of an underrated pop group. We stayed together even as we moved from place to place each time our rent was jacked up above our working budget. We had a lot in common in terms of music, art, and movies. And we both had mood disorders, though mine hadn’t been diagnosed yet.
When you’re in the thick of a depressive fit, the strongest urge is to lock yourself in the bedroom and hide from the world. My roommate would coax me out (and, I likewise coaxed her out) to go on adventures in the wilds of Atlanta. We saw an indie rock band that integrated Indonesian instruments into their performances. We helped paint a hearse into a multicolored art car. We watched someone bang rocks together as performance art. We got each other out of the house and found things to boost our moods.
My mother is an eminently sensible human being. When one is in the throes of hypomania, it’s good to have eminently sensible human beings around. Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my mother was my reality check against the more outlandish notions I would come up with during the upswings of my moods. She talked me down from ill-thought-out ideas for businesses, and convinced me that racking up massive charges on my credit card so I could go to Las Vegas on impulse was not the best financial decision.
After the diagnosis, she was vigilant about monitoring my moods to make sure I didn’t slide into another depressive fit. She’s known me all my life and is familiar with the shifts in my demeanor (even when she didn’t understand what they meant) so when I would come over on Sundays, she would look me over and tell me when I seemed depressed. I can’t think of a time when she was wrong. From there, she would nudge me to take care of myself—eat properly, maintain good sleep habits, and exercise. Having my mother catch me at the top of the depressive cycle, when I would still be in denial about it, kept me from slipping down into darker places.
We met through once-a-month meetings around a common concern. We got to know each other gradually, and when I stopped going to the meetings, we kept in touch and would get together for lunch periodically to have spirited discussions about the state of the world. We had plans to meet for dinner one fine summer evening, but then I landed in a mental hospital and had to call her and explain that I wouldn’t be able to meet her that night. I’d arrived with nothing but the clothes on my back, the shoes on my feet, and a bag where I carried the things I took to work, and I told her as much. She looked up the mental hospital and found out that visiting hours were that very day, so she offered to meet me. She drove a rather significant distance and not only visited me but brought clothes and toiletries. It was such a relief to see a familiar face in that isolated place, and her gifts allowed my stay to be a little more civilized.
There are a lot of ways to help people who are dealing with mental illness. They can be as simple as a listening ear or a warm hug, and they can be as complex as offering material support. Whatever you do, be sure to meet them where they are and give them what they really need, instead of what popular opinion says they should need. Whatever you do to help, it can make all the difference.
Sheila O’Shea is a writer, recovering poet, and one of the first graduates of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. She acted in Theatre Gael’s production of Waiting for Godot, sang on the album The Mod Mod Sounds of Middlesex, and DJed for Emory’s college radio station. She’s currently working on The Ten Thousand Flowers Project, in which she draws flowers and gives them away to people, with the intention of drawing and giving away ten thousand of them. She’s halfway through and still going. You can find out how to get one at http://wonderbink.com/10kflowers. She also works as a freelance copywriter, with an emphasis on narrative marketing. You can find out about her writing services at http://sheilawrites.com.