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Colouring Outside the Lines

“I won an Oscar, for ‘The Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer. And that was one of the worst nights of my life. I should have been…

“I won an Oscar, for ‘The Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer. And that was one of the worst nights of my life. I should have been exhilarated but I was depressed. And I thought, you know, this is, there’s something wrong. I’m not happy. So, I went to a psychiatrist, and he said, ‘You have bipolar disorder. You’re a manic-depressive.’ And that’s when I first learned about it. But meanwhile I’d done a lot of bad things. I’d walked out on a lot of successes that I could have had. And I finally knew what was wrong.”- Sidney Sheldon, The Other Side of me.

One of my teachers once described people with mental illness as those who coloured outside the lines. Do you remember those beautiful colouring books we were given as children to improve hand-eye coordination and to keep us busy while adults attended to other priorities? You remember how we were told to colour within the lines? Do you remember how as you grow older; your colouring gets better and stays within the confines of the drawing? Well, for people with mental health issues, that line is often blurred or sometimes does not exist and so, they colour outside the lines.

Many a times, when I meet people with different types of mental health issues, I ask them to describe their symptoms to me. Their symptoms are intriguing, and I admit, a small part of me wants to compare my thoughts, delusions and mindset with theirs.

A young man I was managing for depression once told me that the antidepressants I gave him had coloured his life again. Prior to that, his world existed only in hues of black and white. Another woman in her forties described her emotions as too ‘raw’. She laughed too loud, cried too hard and felt reactions much more than ordinary. She would cry while watching the news and become unnecessarily angry on someone’s behalf. When she was diagnosed with type I Bipolar disorder, she felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders and after six months on medication, she reported ‘feeling a numbing calmness all over her body’.

There are many myths, misunderstandings, stereotypes, and attitudes that surround mental illness, especially in Nigeria. These result in the judgement, discrimination, and isolation of people with mental illness, as well as their families and carers.

The death of someone I knew cordially, and whom I knew suffered from mental illness, nudged me into the realm of self-reflection. He had suffered for a long period of time. Sometimes talking out of point, other times silent in his own world. Often, I would see him casually pop into the psychiatry department and I would wave at him, somewhat ashamed, as if I had discovered a dirty little secret.  He struggled to pay his bills. His wife left him. Family relatives abandoned him. And gradually, friend and colleagues began to forget him.

Afterall, mental illness is often a chronic illness.

Guilty feelings often plague me. Was I among those who isolated him? Did I unknowingly keep our relationship too formal, limited to waves and cold greetings because I did not want to associate with him? Is there something I could have done more? How can we help the patients, relatives and people around us? What about ourselves?

Sometimes, while rationalizing our behaviours, our mind whispers to us: ‘are you the only one? If his family can abandon him, then why can’t you? Why are you carrying his or her problem on your head like gala? Are you God?

However, whether it is a friend, parent, wife, or husband with mental illness problems, caring for someone who struggles with their mental well-being can be difficult. Especially if you have never personally had a similar experience, it can be challenging to relate to how this individual is feeling and therefore empathize.

What’s more, mental illness is often easy to conceal early in a relationship. Whenever I am managing patients with depression or anxiety disorder, I often ask to see their spouse if they are married. In some cases, the individual is high-functioning and can temporarily keep a rein on their symptoms, especially in a new relationship. The person they are dating may not even realize they have a mental illness or understand how that illness may affect the relationship over time.

A woman I met years ago came to me for professional advice. Her husband was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in Lagos, shortly they married. Sometimes he was non-communicative and would not talk to her for days and then just as suddenly, would turn into the nicest person for the next few days. He was also widely paranoid- his friends were sabotaging him at work, his brothers hated him, his wife was stealing from him and the straw that broke the camel’s back was when he accused her of trying to seduce his driver. The husband blatantly refused to a psychiatric consultation and so she wanted to know if she could divorce him.

While loving someone means you are choosing to support the individual through their struggles and accept their mental illness, you also must remember that you are not responsible for the individual’s condition. Ultimately, only that person can choose whether they want to seek help and learn how to properly cope with their symptoms and be accountable for their actions. Recognizing can further clarify when to walk away from someone with mental illness.

It was a tough decision she made. But in the end, she is happier.

The man on the other hand, has married five more wives serially after her, with all of them not staying beyond two months. He still insists that he is mentally stable.

Let’s face it, living with a mentally ill person can be downright difficult. In many cases, a loved one takes on the role of the person’s main caregiver, which can be a lot of pressure. What tends to happen is that the person’s role as the individual’s friend, parent, or spouse shifts to a caregiver, which puts other qualities of the relationship, like affection, intimacy, and having fun, on the back burner. The individual with the mental illness may also become overly dependent on their caregiver, which can make the relationship seem more like that of a nurse and their patient rather than a friendship or marriage.

It is common for people who are caring for a mentally ill loved one to become frustrated with being the caretaker. Oftentimes, when these feelings are unresolved, it can lead to a lot of resentment. If you find yourself resenting or seeing them as a burden, then it may be time to look for other caregiving accommodations for them and take a step back so you can remember how your relationship should be.

Every day I see people caring for their parents who have dementia and I try to process all the things they must be going through.  It can’t be easy. I watch people bring in their sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers with different symptoms of mental illness but with the same fear. Doctor can it be cured?

I always say the same thing to them: With the right kind of help, treated appropriately and early, most people recover fully and have no further episodes of illness. For others, mental illness may recur throughout their lives and require ongoing treatment. This is the same as many physical illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. Like these other long-term health conditions, mental illness can be managed so that individuals live life to the fullest.

Mental health illness is no joke, and sadly has come stay. Therefore, we should learn to accept them. And because, there will always be people who colour outside the lines.


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