Maybe this needs to Offend you...

Most people love a wee rant from time to time. Whether it's potholes you could skinny dip in or Starbucks running out of caramel sauce for your tall, skinny, extra hot, extra foamy macchiato, we love to vent to anyone who will listen. Consider what is to come, my vent.

It's one of the things that angers me most in this world and has hindered my development at various stages. It's the stigmas and stereotypes around mental health and the quite frankly shameful opinions and "advice" that stem from them. Is it really any wonder people don't come forward with their struggles? That they suffer for so long? By themselves. To struggle in these areas is presented as somehow shameful. Well shame on you if you're fueling this culture. And maybe you don't even realize it.

Picture the scene. I walk into the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. I go through the wards and I find someone who has just had their cancer diagnosis' results returned. And it's not good news for them. Could you really imagine if I were to go up to them and say "Here mate, shake it off, try a bit harder and you wouldn't be in this situation." It's absolutely nonsensical and completely insensitive, of course I wouldn't. Yet some people genuinely believe depression for example, because it's not a "real physical illness" in their eyes can just be shaken off. A few antidepressants and a new walking regime, happy days you're sorted. What planet do you live on?

Our minds are at the core of everything we do. Our movements, our relationships, our decisions, our capacity to perform simple tasks. They're essential to our survival. My eating disorder and depressive thought patterns for example, they used to affect every single facet of my life. Physically, emotionally and spiritually. It's not like a broken leg where you can still have a high level of physical and emotional function irrespective of that injury. There's a clear recovery plan, a recommended physio schedule and appropriate rehabilitation. Mental illness is much more complex. You are in essence treating every fibre of a human being's existence. Kinda hard to shake yourself out of it wouldn't you say?

Before I say anything else let me put out another disclaimer. During my struggles many people have reached out to me with all kinds of advice. I've been fortunate in that way. I am genuinely grateful for the heart behind every single one of your efforts. I really do believe your hearts were and are in the right place. But... Truth and helpfulness are not always the same thing. People with mental health problems can struggle to think and process rationally and see the good intention behind words. Sometimes all we hear is what we perceive you are saying. Within mental health perception is everything. If I perceive that I am fat you can tell me thousands of times that I'm not but my perception almost always beats your assertion. Just how it is.

What is to come may offend you. You may have been the one who said this to me. You may have said these things to others or are doing so at the moment. My heart is not to make you feel guilty. But to encourage you to think again before giving such advice. This is too important and there is to much at stake to be careless.

Furthermore each of these statements or actions have been said to me and I have found them unhelpful. I'm assuming that most sufferers would feel the same. That is where you have to gauge the individual you are seeking to help and then compare their context to what you are saying. Some may have a less negative impact than they did on me. Some more. There's no magic formula for this stuff.

"You just need to have more faith to be get better."

This has been a popular piece of advice that I have been given. In essence you could say it's probably true. But do you hear the hidden suggestion behind the statement. The premise is that if I'd had more faith I wouldn't be suffering depression or an eating disorder. If I had more faith I'd DEFINITELY be "fixed" sooner or later. Simply not a given. Faith is not at all a remover of suffering. This also shows a failure to recognize my own current stance of just not knowing in regards to faith. I gotta be honest. I'm not sure. I'm sorry if it offends you.

"You have so much to be thankful for, you shouldn't be depressed."

Again this statement is 50% true. I do have a lot to be thankful for. Yet to trivialize my struggles and suggest that I've just forgotten all the good stuff, that's quite frankly insensitive. Shows you just don't get it."I understand exactly what you're going through Darren, I had a 'down time' too." This statement made me so angry. Don't you hear how audacious it is. To suggest that having a 'down time' means the person understands my context, my unique set of circumstances, my own thoughts, doubts, insecurities and everything. That's bull. I'm writing this blog and I have suffered. But I would only have a small idea of what another bulimic male was going through. His family's different, his patterns are different, his frustrations etc etc etc. I can empathize and I will have more insight than most, but just be careful in presuming that your own experience means you understand someone else's suffering. Can come across very presumptuous.

"You're being selfish. You have to try harder for your family's sake."

Statements like this helped get me to the point where I genuinely believed that my family would be better off if I was dead instead of having to  deal with my eating disorder and depression. Truth is I couldn't control the thoughts I was having, how low I was feeling, I couldn't eat. I was trying with all the strength I had to just survive. To just hang around at all. Never accuse someone who struggles with mental health of being selfish. They're not behaving how they are because they're selfish. If that's the advice you have, then please don't even bother speaking to them.

The final one is not a statement but rather an action. It's happened so many times I've lost count and it drives me insane. I know it's awkward and you maybe don't know what to say because we live in Kilkeel and we suck at being real and letting our guard down. But if you wanna know how I am. Flipping ask me. Not my parents, or my sister or anyone else. I'm still here. I'm approachable, you can ask me. Because it feels sneaky, and as if you think I'm incapable of coping  or something. Truth is the only person who knows how I really am is me. It's the same with anyone. Other people only know what we tell them or show them. If you wanna know how I really am then you just gotta ask me. I don't bite and after 4 years and starting a blog you'll get the truth.

If I've offended you, ask yourself if you needed to be offended? My heart is in that being offended you'd re- evaluate how you approach mental health in general and those suffering. You could be forgiven for thinking there's not much left that we can say or do Darren. Do we just do nothing? Absolutely not! My next blog will just be sharing some advice and actions that have helped me and I think are sound principles for anyone trying to assist someone suffering.

Thank you so much to everyone who's read these so far and to those who have encouraged me in any way. I appreciate it more than you know and I'm trying to get back to each of you. Feel free to challenge stuff I say. After all that's what this whole process is about right? Normalizing conversation around mental health.

Thank you, Darren

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Darren Shields

Healing through Honesty

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