Mental Health Awareness Week

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. I’ve thought really hard about posting this, because there’s still a lot of stigma around mental health (keep reading for more ground-breaking observations like that), but in the end, that’s why I’ve decided to share. There’s still stuff I’ve written and then cut back out – because I’m not ready to share everything, and might never be – but I wanted to put something out there, because the more people that share, the more that people will feel able to. And that’s such a good thing to break down that stigma.

I’ve suffered from depression and generalised anxiety disorder since I was about 15. I went to my first counsellor when I was 16, and went on anti-depressants for the first time when I was about 19. My entire life since that first episode has been coloured in some way by my mental health. There isn’t a single day that I don’t have to think about it and use one of the tools that I’ve learnt along the way, and I have to check in with myself regularly to make sure I’m taking care of myself properly, both physically and mentally. It takes work to stay on top of it, but it’s so scary to think I could experience those darkest days again, so I put in the work in the same way as I exercise and eat vegetables and don’t smoke to look after my physical health.

I have an awesome life; anxiety and depression will always be factors, but with the work to manage them, they rarely stop me. But this is what my experience has been in the past, and there are bits in there that still pop up frequently; smaller things that I can deal with by journaling or exercise, or bigger things that I know are warning signs to take action, from a short stint back in talking therapy to trying medication again.

Depression and anxiety are, for me, totally different. Depression is physical. It’s literally, physically painful, and it stops your body working in the way you want and need it to. It stops me getting out of bed, and it makes me weak, and it stops me sleeping. It has me hiding, crying in the toilets at work for absolutely no reason. It makes everything an enormous effort, and one that I have no desire to undertake. It’s had me literally pinned to the floor in the past, trapped under the weight on my chest and crawling in my own skin trying to stop myself from suffocating in an endless, choking black fog. There’s no hope; no excitement; no drive. Everything is completely flat.

Anxiety, on the other hand, keeps me on my toes. It’s like having something on your shoulder, constantly pointing out the dangers and making sure you’re prepared for every bad thing that could happen. You’re ready for when someone says you’re too fat to be wearing that dress. You’re ready when someone says you’re too stupid to put forward that idea in a meeting. You’re ready when someone says you’re too boring for people to like you. You’re ready when someone says you’re too ugly to be successful.

No-one says those things. But you’ve got all your arguments and your reactions ready for when they do – because they surely, inevitably will.

On the bad days, anxiety stops me breathing properly, like there isn’t quite enough oxygen in the air. I find myself wringing my hands, trying to squeeze the energy from them as they shake and jig of their own volition. I can’t concentrate on anything properly, because my brain is on such high alert, ready to respond to whatever danger it thinks is coming. On the worst days, there’s nothing I can do but wait it out.

Work, for me, has been my saviour at times. It gives me a different focus, and forces my brain to think in different ways. Unfortunately the energy you need to put into the “I’m fine!” face is incredible; sometimes it’s all I can do to go to work and go straight back to bed as soon as I’m done. I’m fortunate to feel that way about work though; it’s made it easier to cope.

I’m lucky enough to have had access to help, and to have friends and family who are supportive, and have only become more supportive as I’ve been able to explain more about how it feels. Some might not always understand, but they’re still there – knowing that people will be there to help you when you need it has been one of the most important things in helping me cope (despite anxiety’s insistence that everyone thinks you’re making it up, that you’re self-indulgent and they’ll all have had enough and disappear soon). I’ve had friends come to courses with me to learn to deal with anxiety; my parents have let me use their home as some sort of makeshift rehab on numerous occasions; other friends have spent hours listening to me talk or sending me lovely cards and messages or travelling to see me when I wobble. All of those things help you feel less alone, which is one of the worst parts of it.

I’ve been on anti-depressants for over a year now. It’s the third time I’ve been on them, and the most effective. Each time though, it’s made a huge difference. They don’t make everything better – but they do give you the capacity to see and feel some of the good again, and that gives you some space to start recovering. I can’t describe how impossible it feels to question your thought patterns or go to a party or “just cheer up a bit” when even getting dressed seems to be an insurmountable hurdle.

I’m also on what I think is my fifth round of therapy. I could never recommend counselling enough to anyone having a difficult time emotionally (or, in fact, anyone generally); it sounds weird, that just talking for an hour can help so much, but it’s extraordinary. I firmly believe that a counsellor I saw in my twenties saved my life. Sometimes taking things out of your head and poking them around a bit with some independent encouragement and vision turns everything around and makes you see things in a completely new way. Some of that understanding has been fundamental in helping me to challenge some of my most negative thinking and avoid getting dragged down again.

It sounds mind-numbingly obvious, but last year I learnt a lot about holistic self-care, and that’s made a massive difference. I already knew exercise and eating well were hugely important, with weight-lifting the most effective treatment for anxiety I’ve found, but things like journaling, making time for reading, getting a decent balance of being sociable and taking time alone, finding opportunities for learning, and yoga have all helped keep all the physical/mental/emotional/spiritual sides of me in balance.

Mental health is still an incredibly difficult thing to talk about – it’s so much easier to understand physical health issues. I find it easier to understand physical health issues, and I know! But we need to talk about it, because too many people are still dying by suicide, and too many people are finding it near-impossible to get through the days, and they don’t have to because it can and does get better – even thought it never, ever feels like it at the time. Mental health is incredibly complicated, but that’s no reason to shy away from it. Cancer is incredibly complicated; we still do all we can to help people to get better. We need to talk about it more, and we need to invest more in treatments so that people can get the help they need. While I’ve had a decent amount of support through the NHS, I’m lucky to have been able to pay privately for a lot of my therapy, and to get it quickly; many don’t have that luxury, and they shouldn’t need to.

For those trying to support people going through a tough time with their mental health – just be there. That’s the best thing my friends and family have done; not trying to tell me what to do, just sharing their own experiences, and offering unconditional support, and not judging. It’s not easy to let people know you’re struggling, but it’s made coping so much easier. It’s something I can feel very fortunate about.

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