My Grandma has always been my best friend. I remember as a young child, I would go to her house, play in her garden and run down the street as soon as I heard the ice-cream van. She would get a 99-flake and I a bubblegum screwball ice-cream. This continued for years and nothing seemed to have changed, except that every now and then, she would forget what day it was, or forget an item from the shopping list. But to be fair, I do that at the grand old age of 22! As time went on however, she would forget more and more things. She never knew what day it was any more, and she would have no recollection of buying that ice-cream about two hours earlier. Then one day, things became more serious. She had forgotten that her meat was in the oven, and so the fire-brigade turned up to a rather smokey kitchen. Luckily, she wasn’t hurt and the kitchen just needed a good clean. But this prompted social services to intervene and that’s the first time that the word “dementia” was mentioned. This thing, this illness, began to steal my best friend from me. She still looked like my Grandma and sounded like my Grandma, but it was like a watered-down version of the Grandma I once knew. Nevertheless, I still loved her and I knew that this wasn’t her fault. She was ill and so she deserved as much respect and love as she did before she had dementia.
Then a few years later, another illness crept into my family’s life. This time, it began to take over my life. It stole me from my friends and family. Its name was anorexia. Anorexia told me that I wasn’t worthy, it told me that everyone would be better of without me and that I didn’t deserve to eat. As time went on, both my mental and physical health deteriorated and I was admitted to an inpatient unit. This was a tough time for my family. The lives of two people they loved were being taken over by two very powerful illnesses, one with arguably less stigma attached to it than the other. You see, most people could see that dementia wasn’t my Grandma’s fault, but when it came to my illness, some people believed that it was a choice.
One person who didn’t, however, was my Grandma herself. In a way, dementia has taught me a lot about people’s perception of mental illness. One thing dementia did was to simplify my Grandma’s perception of the world in general. She couldn’t really grasp the concept of me having a mental illness so instead, she was simply told that I was ill and in hospital. And so she reacted as she would if someone had a physical illness. She showed me love and compassion. She wrote me letters. Every day, she would ask my mum how I was doing. She visited me in hospital. The way she treated me and spoke to me never changed. She NEVER judged me. She made me feel accepted, valued and loved.
One thing that kept me in the grips of the eating disorder were feelings of guilt and shame. Anorexia was a way of coping with these feelings. But when I was made to feel guilty and ashamed of having the illness, it led me to rely even more on the eating disorder as a coping mechanism. What my Grandma’s reaction did was to help to break that cycle of guilt and shame so that I felt less of a need to rely on the illness. Granted it wasn’t that simple and there were many ups and downs throughout my journey, but this really did make a huge difference!
So hopefully you are able to see that a person with a mental illness should be made to feel accepted, valued and loved, just like everybody else. Maybe my Grandma’s reaction should be a lesson to everyone that an illness is an illness, mental or physical, visible or invisible. By being non-judgemental and treating the individual as a person, you can really help them during their recovery. Stigma surrounding mental illness, including eating disorders, is a barrier that so many people face, and one which can hinder a person’s willingness to be open, to accept help, and to fight for their recovery. So please know that, like physical illness, mental illness is not a choice. With the right support, however, recovery from a mental illness is 100% possible!
Onwards and upwards,