It was only a few years ago that I came to the conclusion that I was suffering from a mental illness.
At the time, I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been not to have realised it sooner. Adolescence had obfuscated everything in a maelstrom of hormones and doubt. It’s difficult to know what is ‘normal’ for you when even your body and voice are changing.
”I sat in front of a stranger and told her secrets that I had never shared with anyone.”
I worked it out, eventually.
I noticed patterns in my thinking that had defined the quieter moments of my childhood. Irrational fear, compulsive prayer and hours of rumination had been my ‘normal’ from such a young age that I hadn’t thought to question them.
One particularly crappy winter, I trudged to the local GP surgery in search of answers. I sat in front of a stranger and told her secrets that I had never shared with anyone.
“There is a sense that I will never truly be free of [my diagnosis], and I think this is where the common ground may be for a lot of us.”
Years on, as a student and a recovery worker, I am often tempted to view client experiences through the lens of my own. I have to remind myself that I have been pretty lucky, and the things I have had to put up with often aren’t comparable at all. Diagnoses cast different shadows for different people, and I can usually keep mine at bay. However there is a sense that I will never truly be free of it, and I think this is where the common ground may be for a lot of us.
Many people with mental health problems will never be ‘cured’ in the traditional sense. Quite often it becomes something to be understood and managed over a lifetime, as is typically described within the recovery model. It’s in this struggle that we find our shared experience, even if our challenges differ in severity and form. I think there is something to be said for recognising this commonality in practice; a tool for when we struggle to empathise.
“As student nurses we have to be mindful about superimposing our own experiences on others, but it is an understandable temptation.”
As student nurses we have to be mindful about superimposing our own experiences on others, but it is an understandable temptation. However that isn’t to say that our own challenges, past and persisting, can’t be used as a basis for empathy. To have sat in front of a doctor, nurse, councillor or therapist and told them your deepest fears is an experience worth drawing upon.
Christopher Elley is a current first-year mental health student nurse