#MentalillnessEducationFail

Saturday night I met with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years. He was travelling and happened to be in town for business. During our conversation I discovered that his girlfriend has depression. Of course this sparked my curiosity and interest! His main complaint was that she was less interested in sex. This began about a year and a half ago. They had maintained a 9-year relationship, of which several years was long distance between different countries. They saw each other every 6 months during that long distance period. Now they have been living together for a year. When I asked if he will marry her he replied, “Maybe next year, maybe never.” Apparently it all depends on the sex.

My friend revealed that his girlfriend used to cut herself. She did it once last year and instead of being supportive, he reprimanded her. “Who is this helping? You? Me?” he asked her. He recognized this as a form of “self-punishment” but does not understand it. I suppose that out of fear for getting another reprimand, she hasn’t done it again. But it’s just like me! I can relate. Horizontal not vertical cuts along the forearm. She’s Japanese and I’m, well, let’s just say, American. Depression transcends cultures, as do behaviours. When I first cut myself at the age of 16 I thought of it as a perfectly normal yet novel idea. I didn’t know that other people did this. I had never heard of it. And I don’t think that this young woman has any idea that she’s not alone. Instead, she is suffering alone in a non-supportive environment.

“She has mentioned wanting to see a psychiatrist,” my friend said. He claims that she has “free choice” and can do whatever she wants, yet he tells her with firm conviction that he does NOT want her to see a psychiatrist. I told him that he is doing her a disservice by telling her to not see a professional. I explained to him that, in relationships, one person wants to please the other, and that in not wanting to make him unhappy, she is choosing to not see someone for medications. “It’s her choice,” he maintains. “Yes, but it’s not her choice if you’re telling her to not go,” I said. “What am I supposed to do? Lie?” he strongly remarked. After that, I shut up, but I wish I would have continued, not that it would have made any difference. I wish I had encouraged him to lie to her, for her own sake. Tell her you want her to go see someone. Or at least support her. She’s depressed and self-harming and not on any medications. She lives in Italy, completely isolated from her Japanese culture, barely speaks the language, has almost no friends save the foreigners in her language class. She doesn’t work, doesn’t want to, goes to class for three hours a day and then sits on the couch for the rest of the day. She doesn’t get out. She’s there only for him, because she wanted to maintain the relationship, rather than having it end due to the distance. She’s shy. She “pretends” when others are present and maintains that she can “only be herself” around him. He doesn’t like that side of her and prefers the compliant, yes-saying, agreeable version of her, the fake version. He doesn’t like the “real” woman. Not to say that this relationship is abusive, but it is skewed to favour one side as the dominant side, which is a disadvantage to her. I can relate all too well. I remember the days of my relationship when I would smile although I hated my life, and the fact that most of my entire life for more than six years was a complete performance. I was on stage and I was the best actress ever. I should have received an Emmy. I made the jump of moving in with my ex-abuser only to “save” the relationship, at the expense of my educational goals. I know this scenario. I have lived it before.

I explained to my friend that depression is a real, medical illness. That it changes the brain chemistry. “It’s not like she has cancer” was his attitude. I told him that psychotropic medication will help her become less depressed. However, he is afraid she will become “addicted” and that she’ll have to take the medication for the rest of her life. “The medication is not addicting,” I said, “It helps alter the brain chemistry, and she may not have to take it for the rest of her life.” It’s not habit-forming. It’s not an illicit “drug”, damnit! It’s real, legitimate medication! My sense of urgency wasn’t coming across, and it’s not like I have frequent contact with this person. I tried, I really did, but I was up against a wall of prejudice toward mental illness.

He wants her to “deal with this on her own.” Those were his words. He doesn’t want her to see a professional and doesn’t want her to take anti-depressants. “I have depression. Have her contact me. I could help to let her know that she’s not alone.” I pleaded. “I want to help her!” His response? Stonewall. “She won’t open up to you since you are friends with me.” Turns out she doesn’t like his friends much and given the option to stay home or go out with his friends, she prefers to stay home. Did I mention he is an alcoholic and smokes marijuana? She might have picked up on his alcoholic tendencies, as she helps him polish off a bottle of wine each night, not to say that she might be drinking one glass and he the last three, but she does not smoke weed and he doesn’t force her to. Thank goodness for that. So if she doesn’t like his friends, he just assumes she won’t want to talk to me. I’m still going to encourage him to give her my email address. I want to help her. I feel as if I’m her only lifeline because I’m the only person in her life (though I’m not “in” it) who understands what she is going through.

I told him that her hormone cycle can also have to do with the depression. “No, that’s not a problem,” he said. “She’s horniest when she’s on her period,” he proudly proclaimed. I told him that “being horny” has nothing to do with depression. She could be having all of the sex that he wants her to have and still be suffering from depression. What changed in the relationship? She stopped wanting to have oral sex. “She had no problem for the first few years doing this, so why is this all of a sudden different?” he rants. She says she wants to have babies, and says to him that if she’s not satisfying him sexually, that he can find someone to fulfill that need for him, as long as she never knows about it. He attributes this attitude to the Japanese culture, where it’s common for older, married men, to have younger mistresses outside of the marriage. Luckily, he’s not into that. He’s with her because he only wants to have sex with her.

Then there’s my story. I tried to explain to him what I went through during my marriage. I couldn’t tell him everything, partially because of the shock factor, but also because I had this inkling that he just wouldn’t understand. I simply told him that I was raped a lot during the six years of my marriage. “How is that possible,” he asked. Apparently, and to my disappointment, he belongs to the population of the world that doesn’t believe marital rape is possible. If you’re married, you’re entitled to sex. I explained to him that the rape was traumatizing. “But why didn’t you want to have sex with him?” The only answer that I could come up with was that he was cheating on me. “He was sleeping with other women,” I replied. “Oh,” he said. That he understood. He understood that I didn’t want to sleep with my ex-husband because he was sleeping with other women whilst we were married. That didn’t mean I wasn’t having sex with him. I couldn’t explain to this friend that I had become a prostitute during my marriage and that my husband was “pimping me out”. I couldn’t explain to him that it was considered to be an “open” marriage and that we were both having sex with other people outside of the marriage.

“He wasn’t that attractive,” my friend reflected. “I know! Another friend told me that recently,” I replied. “She said that I was much more attractive than he was! Why didn’t you tell me?” “You wouldn’t have listened,” he stated in a matter-of-fact way. “I met him when I was 16 and he was my very first boyfriend. I didn’t know anything else.” I explained. I told my friend that in 2008 my ex-husband sent me to Europe for a month to visit family in England and friends in Italy. At that time this friend was living in America studying at school and we weren’t in contact. The reason my ex sent me there was that he needed to “focus on work.” Whereas that may have happened, he also acquired several girlfriends in that month and complained about having to break up with them when I returned. “But how could he have gotten so many girls if he wasn’t attractive?” asked my friend. “Unless he was paying for them?” “Yes, sometimes he paid for them,” I replied. “Prostitutes. That makes sense,” he said. And he shook his head. “Why didn’t you say something to me?” my friend asked. “We weren’t in contact! I had no friends. Nada. Niente. Zero. I was socially isolated,” I responded. “Not even your family?” he asked. “No! I didn’t even talk to my family then,” I desperately expressed myself. “I had no one. No one. They were all his friends and his contacts.”

This friend of mine, he isn’t without his own issues. He regularly drives drunk and said he has never been pulled over for it, because he “doesn’t make mistakes” while driving drunk. He’s only gotten a ticket once, and that’s for speeding when he was living in the U.S. In Italy, you don’t spend a night in jail for drunk driving unless others are involved in an accident. And they certainly don’t do random check points. They only ask you to pull over if you’re breaking a law. He used to drink all day long. “I’m not an alcoholic if I don’t admit I am,” he said proudly. When I met him he was in his early 20’s, living off of mom and dad like a “mamone” (mama’s boy, typical for Italian men) and he would have a shot of alcohol with his morning coffee. These days he only drinks at night, not during the day. He drinks a surprising 8 to 10 shots of espresso per day. He can have a shot of coffee just before bed and still be able to fall asleep. My friend also doesn’t consider smoking marijuana a problem. He does it regularly and it’s definitely not legal in his country. But “everyone does it anyway,” he says. He has also had multiple surgeries in the last several years for a tumorous growth in his abdomen. The first surgery was a noninvasive procedure in which the doctors killed the organ and skin cells. He ended up having an open wound for 10 months whilst he waited to regrow the dead skin after they took out his tumor so that they would be able to sew him up again, because the first set of stitches broke since there was no viable skin. In subsequent surgeries they cut out all of his right side stomach muscles, and because the left side muscles have nothing to attach to, they have bunched up and caused an abnormal lump on his abdomen under his skin. His stomach is not behind muscle and is directly touching his skin. He will have to have another surgery. See? He understands what it’s like to have a physical illness. He understands having to be on medications and what it’s like to be down for months at a time. But he doesn’t understand depression. He only understands physical illness, not the illnesses of the mind. I believe this is a pretty common stereotype. There’s even mental illness in his family. His mother used to take anti-depressants and she just “wasn’t herself” when she was on them, he said. As a result, because it made her sluggish and lethargic; she is no longer on the medication because she didn’t want to “live like that”.

I suppose I’m angry. My TalkSpace therapist pointed that out; I didn’t notice it on my own. I’m angry that this supposed “friend” of mine will not and cannot understand what I live through on a daily basis, what makes my life so hard. It’s not like I have cancer or some other debilitating physical illness. Some people just don’t understand illnesses of the mind. They are just as debilitating as severe physical illness. It is to be taken seriously. You go to the hospital to get a broken arm fixed, so why not a broken mind?

I’m upset on behalf of his girlfriend because I cannot imagine living in an non-supportive environment like that. I cannot imagine having to deal with this on my own, without the support of my psychotherapist, my psychiatrist, my friends and my family. It’s just not fair. It doesn’t have to be that way. She could be getting the help she so obviously needs. Instead, she is suffering, alone, in a foreign country where she doesn’t even speak the language. It’s not fair and I want to do something about it.

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