I see them regularly, snaking through the traffic, passing lorries on the driver’s blind side, gliding through the lights as they change to red: cyclists with no lights in the dim light of the early afternoon, of the pitch black 5pm. Silently, I fume, confronting them in my mind with visions of what they are risking. Death, or worse. The dribble of saliva, the tremor in the hand, the rich, golden hue of the colostomy bag. Darkness visible. There is no excuse. A set of lights costs as little as £10 – batteries included. There’s so much we can do to make us safer on the road. There’s so much kit: helmets, hi vis clothing, the aforementioned lights. Stay clear – always – of lorries and buses. Wave your arms about to let you everyone what you’re about to do before you actually do it. Like car drivers do with their indicator lights.
There is so much good advice out there. In fact, with so much of it readily available it’s a wonder anyone has mental health problems, really.
Let me count the ways: eat a healthy, balanced diet, avoid alcohol, get up at a regular time each morning, pay attention to personal hygene. Then there’s talk about your feelings, keep in touch with friends and family, ask for help, accept who you are, take regular excersice (preferrably outdoors), do something you are good at and care for others. And there are all those pictures of happy, smiling people on mental health websites.
Is this really true? Does it make a positive difference to do these things? Yes and no. Yes, they are habits of well – balanced people leading fulfilling lives, both physically and mentally. So, copy these habits and … what? It’s a cure? A return to The Land of the Living?
Or, maybe, they are utterly counter – productive. How so? After all, this advice can be found everywhere, from leaflets in doctor’s surgeries and offices. in forests of self help books. Parts of the internet are practically groaning under the weight of this guidance. Here’s the thing. All these things do promote wellness. But they also serve to underline, in no uncertain terms, how useless we mentally ill folk are. Some of us can’t bear to answer calls from friends, walk the aisles in the supermarket, much less actually prepare a meal. Sandwiches, day in, day out. Glasses of milk and biscuits – so much tasteless sugar.
Self – acceptance, the most devious of all the elements of good mental health. In the mind of many of us, at our lowest, at our worst, this spells the dissolution of all hope in any kind of positive change. A useless waste of space is who I am. The world would be better of without me. Once we accept this, it’s a long, hard road back to a life worth living. The business of living takes so much effort. The equation just doesn’t seem worth it.
And yet they insist so that these are the things we must do to get better – to be more like them – all those psychiatrists, social workers, G.P.s, nurses, support workers, and, yes, peer workers like me. Is it just the envy that stops us, or is it the effort, the sheer amounts of energy it takes to rearrange our faces and press on into the light?
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)