According to the doctor, my ankle shows all the signs of healing. He said, “are you sure it’s not your skin that hurts?” This struck me as a most unusual question. The ache in my bone as I walk down the road is nothing like the pain of a bruise being pressed. Would I not know the difference?
I’ve written before about how a long-standing mental health issue is nothing like a broken bone. People have compared the two in the past, usually in terms of neither being something to be ashamed of, but also in terms of each being part of a process of recovery and healing. Having a mental health problem is not like having a broken bone because a broken bone has a time period after which it is healed. There is also a fixed, recognisable definition of “recovery” when it comes to broken bones. An X-Ray will reveal it. A full return to functionality will demonstrate it. In mental health, the picture is not so clear. Recovery can mean different things to different people, but it doesn’t have a defined image. Particularly with an ongoing mental condition, there is debate as to whether “recovery” is even possible. For example, my bipolar can be managed and treated, and I see these treatments as an ongoing process. For me, recovery is a journey without an end-goal. A journey I will probably always be on, one without a finish line. Bipolar is not like a broken ankle because there is no end in sight. Even if I never relapsed again, it would be a condition I always have. If bipolar had a physical equivalent, I believe it would be something like Type 1 diabetes- it can be effectively treated but not cured. By contrast, my broken ankle will (I hope) one day be better and, save another breakage, once I have recovered from it, that will be that.
But in other ways, having a mental health condition is similar to having broken a bone. When I wrote my angry blog about how bipolar was nothing like a broken bone, I had never broken a bone. Funny, isn’t it, how easy it is to make snap judgements about something you’ve never experienced…
My injured ankle is like my bipolar disorder for a number of reasons. At its height it was severely debilitating. The pain could be managed and treated but not magically cured. Though from the outside it may have been clear that things would get better, from the inside it certainly felt as though nothing would ever change. Days were endless, nights interminable. Like a depressive episode, my broken ankle was distressing, left me feeling hopeless and was difficult for anyone who had not experienced it to truly understand.
That lack of understanding is another similarity. There is a definite lack of understanding of things like the extent of the pain, the limitations it can cause in your every day life, and the fact that you do need allowances made for you when you have a broken bone. Friends don’t get that an extra five minutes walk on crutches is a nightmare, or don’t think to check that every café you visit has accessible toilets. And as demonstrated by the question above (“are you sure it’s not your skin that hurts?”) there is also an unwillingness on the part of professionals to accept that you might know best about your own health condition. That you, with your subjective experience, might have valid insight into the workings of your own body/ mind. Obviously I’m not a doctor. I wouldn’t try to fix or treat my own ankle any more than I should attempt to medicate my own bipolar (and let’s face it, I have tried the self-medicating route and it did not go well…) But I do know my own body/ mind and there are certain points at which I have felt that that knowledge was not respected. Whether regarding a physical or a mental/ emotional problem, I think it is important to acknowledge that people have an understanding of their own situations that shouldn’t be ignored (even if they aren’t necessarily “right”). Examples: if I say I am in a lot of pain, it is because I am in a lot of pain; if I say that I need help, it is because I need help; if I say that I am fine, I really might be fine.
The process by which my ankle is recovering echoes my journey with bipolar in a number of ways. Like recovery from an episode, the healing process was painful and drawn out. Even out of the clutches of the pain at its height, it was tiring (exhausting, even) and upsetting. I had to learn new ways to manage things, new strategies for coping. Crutches, plaster, all that… not so dissimilar from learning not to hurt myself, devising plans for how to stay well, who to contact in times of need, what to do if I felt unsafe, how crucial it is to take my medication regularly.
I also find echoes of the journey in the ways I am trying to rehabilitate my ankle and start running again. It requires patience, self-care and an understanding of my own limitations. What I can’t do is force my ankle to do what I want because I would like it to. What I don’t want to do is push it to its extremes and hurt myself in the process. What I can do is: not give up; work to strengthen it; give myself a break when it hurts too much. This is something I have learned to do with my mood disorder, too. It is something I think most people, with mental illnesses or without, need to learn. To treat their emotional selves with the same care with which they (should) treat their physical selves. And in that way, having a mental health condition is like having a physical injury… it’s about acknowledging that sometimes you need looking after.