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​Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Pictures courtesy Mark Lyndersay

Picture courtesy Mark LyndersayMy name is Marcia Tinto and, in Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m going to talk about my own mental health.

I was born in San Fernando but came to live in Port of Spain when I was five. I was considered privileged, although we had no money. I went to Maria Regina Grade School. And did all the things people who have money do. But there was the opportunity. I think I have been blessed – fortunate, rather – to be exposed to so much of our cultural diversity, our sociocultural differences, ethnicity, religion.

Secondary school was St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. I never thought I had a “Corn-vent accent.” Until I started working in the public service in my late 20s. Before that, I worked with Newsday, before that, I taught, before that, I was away studying.

My mother was a librarian at UNDP for over 30-something years when 70 per cent of the staff was international. I always had friends from different countries, children of the expats. So my vision is very global.

When I was abroad, I never really missed the “Trini things” because there were so many other people to meet, so much to explore and find out more. Quite a number of us would go abroad and gravitate towards the West Indian communities, but that was just not me.

My mother was a single mother but more Catholic than the Pope so she never got divorced from my father. At the same time, she was miserable and took it out on me. That may have some impact on my mental illness. I do see a psychiatrist. I go to Gerard Hutchinson and I have been on medication since 1989.

I call myself a nomadic Catholic. Don’t tell me to go to church every Sunday. I follow Mass on YouTube.

I would agree wholeheartedly with BC Pires’ proposition that almost all religions were started by men for the purpose of subjugating women. I was practicing Wicca, which Catholics would think scandalous. But in paganism – a word I cannot stand – you see the divine in everything in nature.

Had I not been diagnosed while at Barry University in Miami, it would not have happened. Because, when I told my mother, she was appalled. She said, all these Americans want to do is give you drugs! You might be a little free-spirited and “own way” but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you! She would never have accepted the fact that there was mental illness.

Back then, they never said bipolar. They said manic depression. I was having some roommate problems. A lot of students went to Florida for sun and fun, spring break all year round. So, while I’m trying to study to maintain my GPA, my roommate is partying. We spoke about it over and over but she never took me on. One night, I was studying and she had friends over. And dorm rooms are small. She told me her parents were paying for the room as well. The blood just rushed to my head. She was bigger and taller and I just jammed her to the wall and started choking her. Her “friends” fled. Our suite mates came flying in and both had to pull me back. I was thinking I’d be deported, lose everything, the end of me.

I was quite shamed by my behaviour. There were thumbprints around the girl’s throat. So they said I needed to go to the psychiatrist to be evaluated. I went to a lovely little woman from India, Dr Chitra Bhandari and she evaluated it as manic depression. That’s how it all started. I would have been bipolar B.

I work to relax. Which is horrid. I don’t think I’m ever relaxed. The only time I’ll sleep is when I take sleeping pills.

A lot of people who suffer with depression don’t have a good relationship with water. A simple thing, like having a shower [can be crippling]. Of course, once you get into the shower, you don’t want to leave! But just the act of getting into the shower is an effort for me! And, as I get older, it’s even more burdensome.

One of the good things with my mother is she would say, “No matter what’s going on with you [on the inside], put on your lipstick and get out there!” This is the worst you’ll ever see me. ‘Cause, once I’m out that door, the mask is on. I’m very sociable. I laugh. But, deep down inside, I’m dying. But nobody will know that ‘cause I’m not going to reveal much to people. Because it’s just more frustrating.

We talk about noncommunicable diseases very openly and I say to people, in the same way you are hypertensive and must take a blood pressure tablet every day, you take your mental health medication every day. But a lot of people start feeling better and stop taking the medication. Or they listen to others who say, “You can deal with it on your own!” That’s just not true. It’s a chemical imbalance.

When people say to me, “Oh it’s all in your head!” I say, “Spot on!” It IS all in my head!

Having mental health issues is not a death sentence. You’re not doomed! You can live with it. You need to manage it obviously. Medication is not a panacea. You will still have your very dark, dismal-dismal days. Where you feel like you want to die.

I have had and will continue to have many thoughts of suicide. Maybe religious people will say it’s the Devil telling you to end your life but it’s about self-worth. “You’re a waste of time. You have no children! Blah-blah-blah!” The things society says you need to have make no sense to you. Nobody’s going to care whether you’re gone or not.

The divine wants me here for a purpose. I don’t see it. He or she alone knows what that purpose is. ‘Cause, right now, I’m totally lost. I just take it as it comes.

People don’t know how bleak it can get and how courageous people who face mental health issues are. On those dark days, I I sit and I cry. That’s why I work all the time. My job takes me all over the country, weekends as well. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been doing it for so long. When I’m finished, I feel fulfilled. I’ve helped somebody. But when I have nothing to do, that’s when it starts happening. I try to keep as busy as possible.

Comedy doesn’t help. I’m very cynical so sarcasm does nothing for me.

If BC Pires says it must be very difficult to be me, I reply, “Yes. It is.” I try a lot of things. I’m into the politics of every country and I love sports. Those are my outlets: having arguments about every single spot.

My Catholic faith and my spirituality keeps me centred in prayer. Even when I have my dark days, I know that life doesn’t end. Pictures courtesy Mark LyndersayAlthough I might feel, “This is the end!”

I think my mother had mental illness as well. But back then, there was no admitting that there was. She had a really hard time with my father. I talk to my father now. He’s going on 91. And I’ve been able to forgive him. Mum passed away 23 years ago.

With physical illness, people are receptive to what you have to say. With mental illness, no one wants to hear. When people joke with me and say, “Girl, you mad, yes!” I say, “Yes! I am! Completely! My psychiatrist has about three full files on me now!”

I’m supposed to love soca. I’m sorry, I do not love soca. I’m unpatriotic. I’m into rock and heavy metal. Led Zeppelin, Metallica, AC/DC. Nirvana. The Rolling Stones. I love Dire Straits. I like calypso music. But not soca. You wouldn’t find me with a soca playlist.

I get, “You’re not a black woman! You think you’re a white girl! Listen to yourself talk.” I don’t really care what people say about me anymore. You live to please people – but are you pleasing yourself? I don’t care what you all say.

It’s not at all easier to form relationships with people with mental health issues.

Romantic relationships are off the books with me. I’ve always been upfront: I’m bipolar. I’m on medication. “That’s fine! My mother is on medication!” And, after, that’s exactly what you’re going to be attacked with. We were created to have companionship but the kind of work that I have to put into a relationship… I’ve given it a rest. Perhaps when I’m 70 I might fall in love. It’s not a priority now. I need to keep myself as stable as I can.

Bipolar is part of who I am.

People are always shocked by suicide because those who want to commit suicide never talk about it. “He was such a happy boy!” We need to look for signs as parents. Don’t be concerned when your child is sulking. Be concerned when he’s really happy and gung-ho about every single thing! I think people are at their happiest when they actually decide to. That’s when it happens. And people are traumatised.

I’ve been told about children who come into hospital [having attempted suicide]. An eight-year-old stabbed herself in her gut last year. They couldn’t save her. But we don’t talk about that. I don’t think Trinidadians will ever come to terms with assisted suicide. They can’t even come to terms with mental illness.

When I think about suicide, I either pray it out. Or cuss it out. I do both.

Right now, I’m NOT happy about Trinidad and don’t even want to stay here. Especially working in the public service for the past 28 years. I keep saying I want Bajan citizenship. I love Barbados and Barbadians, which is not typical for Trinis. I would go there tomorrow.

If BC Pires asks me if Bajans love me, I reply, well, I don’t know. But I love them! I love the Bajan openness and the pragmatic approach Bajans have to things. And I love being there. If BC Pires says Bajans are not renowned for their love of Trinis, I say that is very true.

To me, a Trini is a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitan. With such a wide frame of reference in terms of culture, ethnicity. My maternal grandmother came from China. My great-grandfather was Hindu. There’s so much in me and I embrace it all.

Trinidad and Tobago is the land of my birth. But I always felt like I was looking on here. As opposed to participating. I can and do participate but there is so much more to us. And we’re not promoting that. Because we have so many resources, we focus on the things that make us happy. We never like to come to terms with reality. Don’t worry, be happy. Although I worry a lot.