Thursday, August 14, 2014


I have a wound. On my back; my lower back, where you bend and twist. It hurts. I’ve spent two days in bed and two days sitting because moving hurts, getting up hurts, sitting down hurts. Basically I am in pain a fair bit of the time. It started as a mole. I had it scraped by a skin specialist two weeks ago and that left me with an open wound the size of a one cent coin. Pathology came back. Not melanoma, but not nice either. He wanted to take more skin around it. My own GP was able to do it so I went to her. She cut around it and then had to pull the skin together to stitch it. At one stage she needed the nurse to hold the skin together while she stitched so my body was fighting against the idea that it was joining in this way. I have 9 stitches.

This all happened on Monday. On Tuesday the dressing was a little blood soaked so my husband offered to change it for me. I leant against the bench so the skin was as smooth as possible on my back for the new dressing. He started to pull at the old dressing. It didn’t hurt but it was an odd sensation. Suddenly though, I started to sweat profusely, yet I felt cold. Then I felt sick. “Get me some water”, “No, get a bucket… I’m going to be sick” “No, don’t put a blanket on me, don’t touch me.” He placed a chair next to me and I slid into it. I was holding my head over the bucket, convinced I would vomit. Then, very slowly my hearing seemed to be going. I could feel it drifting away, like I was moving but not moving. Everything felt far away. When would this stop? I wondered how this would end. Was I having a heart attack? At what point should I tell him to call an ambulance. Then slowly the radio came in range again. I could hear. I could hear him, his worried voice and calming strokes on my back…and I was present again. Did that really happen? My t-shirt was spotted with perspiration. My skin was clammy. Somehow I made my way to the bedroom and lay flat on the bed. The dressing was half off by this stage and with the support of the bed under me he was able to continue changing it.

I was reflecting on all of this this morning. I asked my daughter to help me dry my feet and put my shoes and socks on. My son asked to look at my back and recoiled, as he does, when he spotted a little blood on the bandage. He was gentle when he hugged me goodbye. My elder daughter enquired as to whether I could drive. They understand I’m a little incapacitated at the moment. My husband, bless him, is running around like a chook with his head cut off…doing almost everything in our household while I sit or lie, trying to will my wound to heal and not pull apart every time I move.

And the reason I was reflecting on this was because I’ve spent the week grieving for Robin Williams; a man I didn’t know personally, but a man who touched my life through his many gifts. I’ve thought a lot about mental illness in the days since he died. I know I’m very, very inadequately equipped to understand. Robin Williams didn’t have a wound on his body with a blood soaked bandage. He had a wound in his brain. No-one could see it. It makes it so much harder to understand. 

Last night during the news my 10 year old daughter asked me questions that seemed difficult. I didn’t shy away from them but it reinforced to me that our society responds to mental illness differently to other illness, not necessarily intentionally, mostly through lack of understanding. If he'd died accidentally, or as a result of a physical illness, the questions, still difficult, would have had more straightforward answers.

Why did Robin Williams die? He was very sick. It was called depression and it affects the brain. It made him think things about himself and other people.
Why do people get it? I don’t know.
Can you take medicine for depression? Sometimes.
Did Robin Williams take medicine? I don’t know.
Is the illness why he died? Yes, it probably was.
But they just said he hung himself… I know... the illness…. sometimes makes people…. do things….

I want her to know we can talk about it and people who have depression can be helped. Just as my back will improve in time, people with depression can get better. I want the conversation to be about hope. But sometimes the wound is so bad, or so deep, or so unfixable, that just like the worst melanoma, they don’t recover. And that’s perhaps why Robin Williams didn’t get better.

Lots of people are writing about mental illness at the moment, and I’m glad. I want to know what I can do and what we as a society can do. Yes we can listen, and many of us do and are more than willing to. I’m 99% sure I’ve said some things that are wrong. Not intentionally. I want to help. I want to understand. 

I’m sure someone with a mental illness could write those first few paragraphs I wrote above about my back wound, but about their mental wound. Would people be as understanding of their need to lay in bed, not move, be incapacitated? I think perhaps our society doesn’t accept that a dark, hidden, brain wound can be just as bad, or oftentimes worse, than a bloody, visible wound. I'm more than willing to tell you I'm sitting here in bed because I have a bloody, back wound. If I was sitting here suffering with depression would I tell you that? I don't know... Would I? The very fact that I question myself on that tells me that somewhere in my consciousness is a thought about not being open about mental illness. I seem to know that many people would choose not to share, because sharing means exposing something that our society has attached a stigma to. How do we shake that? How do we change that?

I'm not sure how to end this piece of writing. I feel pretty useless while desperate to help. I’m searching for something; some education program, some answer, some guidance, some way of breaking down society's way of thinking about mental illness; a way of thinking that is driven by fear... fear in so many guises. Fear we might hurt, or get hurt, fear because we don't understand, fear we might catch it or fear we might make it worse.

I don’t have a mental illness. I hope I never do, just as I hope I never have physical illness. But I want those who do to feel that they can lay their wounds open, and know that we’ll try to help them… if we can. We as a society need to be willing to do so. We need to stop this from being something that is hidden. We need to be fearless.

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