Category Archives: mental illness

When Body Art Meets Mental Health

Getting a tattoo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, for some it’s the perfect way to express themselves to the world around them. For some, it’s a spur of the moment decision. For others it’s a carefully considered choice. One thing that I have discovered on my ‘tattooing journey’ is that once you opt to get tattooed, it can be difficult to decide just exactly what to have permanently inked on your body. A favourite quote? A picture of your pet? Something tough? Something meaningful? Something funny? Something big? Something small?

I often get asked about my recently acquired tattoo ‘sleeve’. As a man in my forties, I joke that if you look at it in just the right light, from just the right angle, you can read the words ‘mid-life crisis’. This is not actually true… on either front. There are no words in it, and neither was it the result of a mid-life crisis. I prefer to call it my mid-life realization (although I’m having trouble getting my family to adopt the new terminology).

It has taken me 40 years to realize that I suffer with a cyclical mental illness. I have experienced recurring depression since at least my teenage years. The details of my journey with depression can be found in my other blog posts, however, long story short – I decided to have my tattoo reflect aspects of my experiences with mental illness. Here is how:

tattoo

  1. The circles on my arm reflect the cyclic nature of my mental illness, reminding me that it can come back at any time and that I must be on the look-out for warning signs.
  2. The two mandalas represent my two biggest episodes of depression. After both episodes, there has been an discernible calm in my life where I appreciate things again and I am no longer depressed. At these times, there’s an overwhelming sense of my life starting a fresh.
  3. The triangles (which make up the pattern between the mandalas) represent the three key phases that my mental illness has thrown at me. Picture at each point – mania, depression, and the calm in between.
  4. Finally, a line flowing all the way through the tattoo shows how life carries on with all of this happening around it.

That’s it. I’m happy. Happy that I’m not depressed right now. Happy with my tattoo and the ‘mid-life realization’ that it represents. Happy that I’m in a place where I can talk openly about my mental health. I hope that I don’t need to get any more mandala’s tattooed, but only time will tell. I do have another arm!

 

Check out more designs by the awesome artist Raimundo Ramirez here.

The Difference

I have had many episodes of depression, but two of them stand out among all the others. These two put me out of commission for about six months each. They both involved suicidal thinking, complete loss of appetite, and a general ability to carry on with everyday life. There have been other episodes in between them, but they were not as significant.

While both of these major episodes of depression were similar in severity, the more recent of the two was a much different experience. Overall, I felt more supported during it, I made a fuller recovery from it, and most importantly, I learned more from it. The following points highlight why I think this latter episode was the more positive of the two experiences:

  1. I accepted that I was depressed.
  2. People close to me understood that I was depressed.
  3. I started medication earlier.
  4. I went for more extensive counselling.
  5. I told people around me that I was suffering with depression.
  6. I talked about my experience to anyone that I thought would listen and potentially understand.
  7. I took time off from work to help me rest and recover.
  8. As I recovered, I actively made time to engage in activities that I usually enjoy such as writing, drawing, exercise, and music.
  9. I saw a psychiatrist (OMG we need more access to them!).
  10. I had already had the first/earlier experience, which helped to build acceptance and increased my determination to pursue treatment.

 

It’s too bad that I couldn’t have arrived at where I am after just one experience. There have been many, but this highlights the difference between my two most major episodes. Good luck. Hang in there and feel free to get in touch. #depressionsucks… more than people realize.

Sowing Seeds of Acceptance

At the age of 42, I now realize that I have suffered many episodes of depression over the years. However, I have only now learned that depression is what I had. Those times were confusing. There were moments when, I wanted to end my life. I made major life changes in an attempt to find happiness. I blamed things, events, and people around me for the feelings inside me, instead of understanding the real cause. I didn’t know what was happening. I hadn’t been taught what to look out for.

As much as I’d like to blame this all on a lack of education, a failure of society to prepare me for the possibility of mental illness, there’s another factor at play too. It’s acceptance. Even once I was told by someone else that I might be depressed, I couldn’t accept it. “That’s not something that could happen to me. I’m just sad, and there are reasons for it.” Little did I know that the reasons were likely to do with activity and chemicals in my brain rather than just things going on in the world around me.

“That’s not something that could happen to me. I’m just sad, and there are reasons for it.”

I was around 27 or 28. Just days earlier, I had ended a pretty significant relationship (8 years or so… most of it common law). Depression was crippling me. I had returned to our house to collect some belongings. There was a note waiting for me. The note was not from my (ex) girlfriend, but from her mother – Anne. I’d had a good relationship with Anne. She was (is) a very caring and genuine person. She had always been kind to me and I trusted her opinion on just about everything.

I opened the letter. As I read it, I felt every word with the vividness that I’ve only ever experienced during depression. It’s like all of your nerve endings are exposed and your regular feelings (well, just the sad ones actually) are magnified to the point of being unbearable. I cried openly as I read it. Sobbing and wiping tears from my eyes to read each word. Towards the end of the letter she suggested that I might be depressed. It was there in ink… “depressed”. I don’t know if the statement literally took my legs out from under me, but I do remember sitting on the floor by the end of the letter, crying so hard that I couldn’t find my feet until the crying passed.

“Towards the end of the letter she suggested that I might be depressed. It was there in ink… depressed”.

I honestly believe that part of me knew that she was right, but the rest of me couldn’t accept it. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t understand what depression was. I simply couldn’t accept that it was something that might happen to me. I marched on relentlessly. I went through hell, and found happiness again. But eventually, depression came back.

I’ve learned that I do suffer from episodes of depression. I hope that I have learned enough to navigate my future around it. I’ve learned what medications help to make me well again and I’ve learned what life choices help to keep it at bay. I think that the letter from Anne marked an important point in my life. In many medical and therapeutic appointments, I’ve talked about reading that letter. I’ve talked about how I look back and know that Anne was right. She played an important part in getting me to where I am today. She sowed a seed. It was the seed of acceptance – the seed that guided me, at least in part, to where I am now. I accept that I sometimes get ill and that the illness is depression.

“I accept that I sometimes get ill and that the illness is depression.”

I thank many people for helping me to be the person I am today. I am well right now. I was able to get the help I needed, but to get it, acceptance was a key factor. I think that for many people, we cannot accept that we have depression when we first hear it. Maybe it’s because we still lack a definitive test that tells us we are depressed. Whatever the reason, I believe that once that seed is sown, acceptance is in our future. Thank you Anne for sowing that seed.

To others out there, don’t be afraid to use the word depression to a friend who you think might be ill with it. Perhaps you will be that person who sows the seed, that leads to acceptance, that then leads to the cure… and in the cure lies happiness.

Happiness is everything.