Why do you want a label?

Sometimes, people dismiss psychiatric and neurological diagnoses as “labels”. This is curious. Conditions pertaining to parts of the body are rarely, if ever, dismissed as such. Since when are stomach cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure ever called labels?

But labels, or, to use the proper term, diagnoses, can be enormously helpful.

Firstly, labels are useful for treatment. If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, but don’t have the official diagnosis, then it’s unlikely you’d be referred for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, and unlikely that you’d get your condition under control. The case is the same for OCD and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, depression and cognitive behavioural therapy, and just about every other psychiatric and neurological condition out there. When diagnosed with OCD, therapists taught me more about the condition, and after a while, I knew which thoughts were part of my illness and which thoughts were part of me. I was given the right medication, and with it, managed to get the incessant, intrusive thoughts somewhat under control.

Secondly, labels are helpful on an emotional level. The relief I felt when I was diagnosed with OCD was enormous. I had known for quite a while that I had the condition, but when I was officially bestowed with it by a psychiatrist, quite suddenly, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was plagued by intrusive thoughts and ruminations. Now I can connect with other people who happen to also be autistic, obsessive, compulsive and/or Tourettic, without feeling guilty that I do not have the official paperwork to back up my suspicions.

On a day to day basis, people don’t tend to announce their medical conditions. But online, some wonderful people decide to open up. I don’t have any real-life friends with autism or OCD or Tourette’s. But the fact that I can share similar experiences with people across the globe makes me feel less alone, and that, I would argue, can only be a good thing.

Books, Books, Books

book signage hanging beside white wall

I spend hours in bookshops, browsing the shelves, reading the blurbs, sometimes sitting down and reading whole chapters before placing the book back where it belongs.

I buy books frequently. But not as frequently as I frequent bookshops. That would bankrupt me.

For me, books are a form of therapy.

Some of the most cathartic books I’ve read have tackled the subject of mental illness head on, and I’ve usually read them when I’m coming out of a depression – just when my concentration has decided to saunter back.

When I was nineteen, trapped in the inertia of that stupid illness, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” wrote how I felt, word for word:

“It was not the thought that I was so unloved that froze me. I had taught myself to do without love.

It was not the thought that God was cruel that froze me. I had taught myself never to expect anything from Him.

What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity.

Now even that had flickered out.

How long I stood frozen there, I cannot say. If I was ever going to move again, someone else was going to have to furnish the reason for moving.

Somebody did.

A policeman watched me for a while, and then he came over to me, and he said, “You alright?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve been standing here a long time,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“You waiting for somebody?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“Better move on, don’t you think?” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

And I moved on.” 

I read this passage over and over again, amazed that a dead American man knew exactly how I was feeling. In my blackest days, I would find myself anywhere: in a supermarket, in a shop, at work in the pub, and find myself frozen, unable to move, energy sapped out of me entirely. It was exactly like the protagonist in Mother Night. I was experiencing what medics would dryly call “a lack of motivation”, or what I would call a total absence of anything.

In secondary school, we are told to stop saying that we like a book because we can relate to it, or dislike a book because we can’t relate to it. That, apparently, is beside the point. It isn’t academic. It isn’t literary.

I ardently disagree. Seeing your experiences, the best and worst, written down on a page by a person who never knew you, is a wonderful feeling. It’s like someone is reaching out their hand, grasping yours, telling you that you are not alone. It gives you hope.

Drinking and Mental Health

assorted-color bottle lot on shelf

There is one drug is the world that is, I would argue, more harmful than any of the others. Completely legal in the vast majority of countries, it makes you feel sociable when you’re shy, warm when you’re cold, and happy when you’re flat. Not only socially acceptable, but socially encouraged, it is nevertheless addictive and a cause of many a premature death.

What I’m talking about is, of course, alcohol.

It has been one month and four days since I have last had any.

I realise the counting of the days makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I just like counting. I was not, and am not, an alcoholic by any means. My body was not dependent on the substance at all. I did not get the shakes. I did not get the sweats. I did not get the cravings.

But, like a lot of people in the UK, my life entailed a lot of post-work drinks and pre-drink drinks, and it took me far too long to realise that this was no good. It wasn’t just that I was drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units a week, that alcohol can cause liver disease, cancer, pancreatitis, brain damage, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

It was that alcohol is a furious depressant, can not only interact with anti-depressant medication but cause depression: the condition I’ve been putting up with for years.

So, I made the decision to stop: to cut it out entirely for a least a few months, and see where it takes me.

Despite what I thought, I don’t miss it at all. I still go out. I still make memories with my friends. I still have half-hour friendships with strangers outside bars. It’s just that I do it holding a Diet Coke in my hand (yes, I know, not the healthiest of drinks, but whatever).

I cannot deny that my mood has stabilised since I’ve quit the booze. I’ve also lost a few pounds, and am far more productive than I was: reading and writing much more.

In some ways, it’s socially unacceptable to be teetotal in the UK. Drinking is so engrained in our culture, so celebrated as a way of life, that people look at you baffled if you are drinking just a fizzy drink on a night out.

I should know: I was a bartender for two years. People here like to get sloshed. A lot. If someone said they just wanted a Diet Coke at eleven p-m on a Friday night, I would be taken aback, and probably give them that shit for free, because soda costs bars pennies and if someone is not contributing to our drinking culture, then that’s only a good thing.

I’m planning on having a drink on my twenty-sixth birthday in July. I plan to savour the taste, feel the warmth extend to my heart and have it (most probably) go straight to my head. I won’t fall off the wagon: moderation is the way forward for me. I have had too many depressive episodes for my liking. If quitting the booze will help them subside, or better yet, disappear, then that can only be a good thing.

Nevertheless, I’m sure that quitting alcohol won’t “cure” me of my depression. I also need therapy, healthy hobbies, a direction in life, exercise and the right medicine. It’s just one step in the right direction: one step that so far, I’m very glad I made.