Mikael Hattingh

Is being a jerk a mental illness?

Illustration by Mikael Hattingh

Trigger warning: readers who may find the topic distressing are advised this article addresses suicide and mental health. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please seek professional help or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

 

The most common thing a suicidal person hears is: “It will get better.”

Unfortunately, this means nothing to the person standing on the edge of that proverbial bridge – or, in my case, roaming around train tracks or stumbling upon unique ways to get through an artery. Because in our minds, stepping away from that precipice will surely only make things worse, and we look at the people telling us it gets better like they’re the ones who aren’t thinking straight.

Strangely enough, these people are onto something. From the most concerned and open-hearted friend down to the insidious troll on some online forum (whose words of advice to me were “Be happy, you weak sh*t!”) they all end up being right: it does get better.

Damn them!

Like anyone, I hate being wrong. Even admitting that it gets better, I feel like I’m betraying my own kind – like some sore loser who can’t concede defeat, bitterly extending a limp hand to congratulate everyone who ever ‘told me so’, in spite of the fact that not taking your own life is a victory and no one has actually said “I told you so.”

I should express at this point that a sense of humour towards suicidal feelings can be a lifesaver to the person feeling them. And the cheaper, and blacker it is, the stronger the antidote.

But while it does indeed get better, nobody says that you’ll come out the other side of the suicidal-Tsunami a beautiful, fluttering butterfly.

I’m currently in what I call ‘My Jerk Period’.

In real life I use a much harsher word than ‘jerk’ but I’m trying to keep this relatively inoffensive. And I use this title to both excuse my out-of-character behaviour and as a crutch to assure myself that this is indeed ‘out of character’.

For the most part I’m much happier. But no matter the emotional weather of the day, I feel constantly crowded by a sense of shame for what happened last year and for scaring the hell out of the people I love.

I can’t and do not apologise for a feeling I didn’t ask for, yet some days I can feel like a dog on a leash being lead to look at the piss-stain it left on the rug.

I’m aware that this all in my head. People want to see me make a full recovery, even the most traumatised and exhausted of my friends. But I have paranoid ideas of how others must think of me now that the suicidal-Tsunami has passed and I’ve since become even more of a recluse than I was before.

I used to be a very open person, but these days I dread simply being asked “How are you?” I’d rather point and say “Behind you – a thing!” turn and run than register that look of concern in someone’s eyes, regardless of the fact that my transparent deflection is clearly more unsettling than honesty.

Overall, a sense of identity has been lost and in the process of relocating it, I am alienating those around me.

hattingh25jan14

Last year I took great solace in understanding that my suicidal feelings were a symptom of an ‘illness’. I saw mental illness as a bright, shining explanation as to why I felt the way I did and it assured me of a medical remedy. However, through researching suicidology (it’s a thing) alongside my own experiences, I gathered some personal convictions regarding the medical treatment of ‘the urge to die’.

I believe attaining a sense of personal identity and purpose through cognitive behavioural therapy is of far greater value to the suicidal person than merely balancing mood with medication and trying to eradicate some mysterious ‘illness’.

Medication may help some, but in my experience, viewing myself as ‘ill’ clouded my understanding of who I was as a human being. By adding a drug to the mix (that made me zone out completely) I had no hope of forward thinking.

As I researched mental illnesses, it was also alarming to find that I didn’t acutely match any of their descriptions and none were so simple as to say, ‘It just makes you want to kill yourself.’

Similarly, as I try to understand the post-suicidal phase I have shifted into, my research hasn’t turned up a condition to excuse me being ‘a generally difficult person’.

As I come to a conclusion, I begin to wonder if calling myself a ‘jerk’ has locked me into yet another misleading mentality?

Perhaps I should add my bitter, mumbling voice to that chorus and tell everyone who puts up with me (and are probably about ready to shoot themselves too): it will get better.

For help with issues of a personal nature please contact www.lifeline.org.au or http://suicideline.org.au/

 

Mikael Hattingh

Mikael Hattingh is a writer, illustrator and filmmaker living in Melbourne. He finds his work repeatedly concerned with issues of the home, childhood, mental health and the crisis of masculinity, and he explores these themes with honesty and black humour. While on his way to the lush and promising world that is the Australian film industry, another favourite thing for him to do is not go to parties.

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4 Comments

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  3. Mikael Hattingh said:

    Thank you, Polly! Its good to hear your thoughts on CBT. It can be an unpopular view but I truly believe it and I would encourage others to seek it out over medication. At the very least I would encourage people to seek this sort of help before rushing to a pill. Your mind is worth the journey and the exploration and the healing.

  4. Polly Rose said:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Mikael. I particularly appreciate the reference to CBT versus medication. I agree with you and think that behavioural therapy such as CBT, or mindfulness based CBT as a better option than medication for depression wherever possible.

    Understanding the aetiology of your own metal illness makes you the expert on your own condition. The more we understand something, the better equipped we are to deal with it.

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