The other night I was cycling home and I spotted a cyclist ahead of me. No lights, no hi vis jacket. He was practically invisible. I caught him up, and as I passed I turned to him and said, ‘please be careful – you’re practically invisible.’ He acknowledged my comment, I stepped on the gas and went on my way.
As I made my way home I thought about the invisible cyclist. My first reaction on spotting him ahead of me was one of annoyance, like he was letting the side down, somehow. Drivers would add his example of unsafe cycling to their list of complaints – not about him – but about all of us. Sure I was concerned for his safety, but I took it personally.
But my thoughts soon turned to sorrow for what that cyclist personified.
Mental illness can make invisible cyclists of us all. What I mean is – of course he was putting himself in danger, of course drivers (and fellow cyclists) are right to get stirred up when this happens. But there’s something else that this cyclist brings to mind, and that is the inability to seek help, take that help when it is offered and follow all the good advice that is out there – from complying with medication, getting exercise, eating well, following a routine etc, etc…..
In modern parlance – among mental health workers, and those of us who are sufferers – the term is ‘unwell’. If someone is off sick, in crisis we describe ourselves as ‘unwell’. It’s an attempt, I guess, at reducing stigma; people who have ‘flu, a urinary tract infection, or liver failure aren’t subject to the stigma that people with mental health problems are. While I recognise the attempt to ‘normalise’ mental health problems as on a par with illnesses and medical conditions I have misgivings about the term: psychosis, suicide attempts are not a high temperature.
Far from wanting to over dramatise mental health problems, I hesitate to use the term ‘unwell’ for fear of trivialising serious mental health problems. For me, the danger of such a low-key approach is that the same people who think of us as dangerous will simply begin to underestimate what we have to cope with.
The point I am trying to make is that what makes us ill, by its very nature means that all the good advice, motivation to recover, to feel better is what makes the irresponsible cyclist such a symbol of what makes recovery from serious mental health problems so potent:the inability to participate in one’s treatment (medical or otherwise) is part of the illness itself.
from Paradise Lost (Book 1)
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
till urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.
John Milton (1608 – 1674)