I’m one of the lucky ones. Mental illness enslaved me when it locked its sturdy chains around my hands and feet in the late 1990s. But I fought back – strongly and fiercely. Not only against the curse of the illness itself, but against the curse of the stigma it uses to plague its victims.
Having now built a successful new life from the ruins of my old one, I can honestly say I owe it all to coping strategies. For several years I have got on with my life and not consciously employed coping strategies, because they have become second nature to me.
A good coping strategy means we can all better manage our day-to-day struggles without constant input from mental health professionals who play a major role at the beginning of our illness.
But it was very different when I was first diagnosed. For around a year I had no idea what was happening to me, and soldiered on, as I suspect a great many of us do. Eventually my mind reached overload point. They say Friday the 13th can be unlucky. But I regard that day in 1997 as the exact opposite. That was the day when it seemed my world completely fell apart, but was actually the day I recognised my illness when I was away on a business trip.
I was suicidal, and rang the Samaritans. Without being dramatic I can safely say that phone call saved my life that night.
There followed the inevitable counseling, but nothing seemed to do the trick. Eventually, my counsellor decided I needed to be admitted to hospital, and so I became a voluntary patient at a private psychiatric clinic. Well, voluntary at first. During my ten weeks there I was sectioned for 28 days, and a nurse was assigned to never be more than six feet from me for around four weeks.
My life was at rock bottom. My family never thought I’d work again…in fact at one point they never thought I’d leave hospital.
Those dark days turned towards dawn and the light began to shine on me. Thanks to the love of my family and the dedication of superb mental health professionals, I learned how to create effective coping strategies and actually changed my whole outlook on life. Before my diagnosis I was an overly ambitious perfectionist, keen to please everyone and get everything absolutely spot on. That, coupled with the fact that three people who were very close to me died within a few months of each other, drove me over the edge.
During my treatment it was found I had suppressed memories from my childhood which became repressed. With everything out in the open I was on the way to recovery. And once I was discharged, my coping strategy became all about casting off the things I no longer needed in my life, including corporate success and the stress that comes with it. I returned to my first love of writing, and now work as a novelist and Public Relations writer, and have my own fortnightly magazine column.
To me, coping strategies are highly personal, and you need one for every situation that can cause difficulty. For example, I realised that if I were to continue seeking perfection in my work and myself, I was destined to fail, and would, in all probability face an even longer spell as a hospital in-patient. So my coping strategy for that was to accept compromise, both from myself and other people.
Whenever a deadline approaches I ask myself what is the worst that can happen if I don’t meet it? Occasionally I need to burn the midnight oil, but in the olden days it was a daily occurrence. Now, time and again I miss deadlines and no-one worries. Least of all me.
I have also learned how to handle the stigma from some quarters facing anyone with mental health issues. Social media is a double-edge sword for this, and, in my opinion, requires its own coping strategy. On the one hand social media is a positive, empowering tool, connecting us with others who can support us through the difficult times. On the other hand, it can be used as a medium of evil and vileness, with people posting less than helpful comments. After initially choosing to defend myself robustly against untrue, negative comments, I realised that was simply inflaming the situation, as my aggressors seemed to relish the anguish they were causing me.
So another coping strategy quickly came about – to simply ignore the attacks. That works for me. I don’t know whether they continue their vile attacks, but in all honesty I don’t care.
And that’s the secret, not only of handling how the stigma is perpetrated by the darker side of social media, but coping with the stigma in the “real” world too. You can’t make everyone see the truth. You can’t make everyone be kind. You can’t turn everyone into a decent human being. So don’t try too hard. Enjoy the successes you have, and enjoy your family, friends and supporters. And ignore those who revel in giving you grief. In other words, ignore the ignorant.
So, while I have numerous coping strategies for individual aspects, which have just become part of my psyche now, I have one overall philosophy: today, I am very much my own person, going barefoot most of the time, which I find is a powerful influence on my mental wellbeing. The physical connection in this way with the planet that supports me gives me inner peace.
Stewart Bint is a novelist, magazine columnist and Public Relations writer. He lives with his wife, Sue, in Leicestershire, in the UK, and has two grown up children.
While writing, his office companion is his charismatic budgie, Alfie, or his neighbour’s cat. But not at the same time.
When not writing he can often be found hiking barefoot on woodland trails.