Depression and anxiety is a part of my life. I recognise now that it has been for the majority of my life. But it took a long time for me to realise and accept this. I didn't want to be "ill". The stigma surrounding mental illness was built within me, passed down through generations of people "pulling themselves together". I'd hear some of those close to me talk about victims of suicide, they would reflect on stories they had heard and use words like selfish and crazy. I remember feeling so much empathy and pain at those words. I understood feeling like my family would be better off without me. Like there wasn't going to be a future that I could play a part in. I thought that was my fault, I thought I was “selfish” too.
It wasn't until I was 18 and at university that I knew it wasn't just "teenage blues" and I wasn't "shy and one day you'll grow out it". I had reached the point in my life where I finally felt some independence. It slowly dawned on me (with the help of a lot of online research, cheers Google), the sweaty, breathy unsuccessful attempts to walk through the door of my uni seminars and the eventual slow tearful walk back to halls, were not just because I was "shy". Neither was my "awkwardness” the reason I would have to ring my friends to come and open their front door, when I arrived at their house, for crippling fear of knocking and not knowing who could be behind it when it opened, having not planned out precisely what I would say and then freeze unable to articulate myself.
I would sleep through the daylight, not eating, not doing anything, just being trapped to the spot and drifting in and out of consciousness. That wasn't because I was "lazy". I wasn't just "heartbroken" because my boyfriend and I broke up. I was depressed and self-sabotaging, misusing substances and driving people away because I felt unworthy and broken.
Some of them did walk away but some stuck around and I'm thankful for both because I know it's difficult to support someone who is unable to admit there is something wrong. The fear of ridicule or claims of "attention seeking" made it feel impossible.
Right now I feel incredibly supported but that hasn't always been the case. It's been about 10 years from my initial realisation and I can see things are shifting slowly (due to campaigns like Time to Change). Mental health is being discussed on the news, people are coming forward with their stories and I no longer feel shame for my struggles but we've still got a lot of work to do.
It took me 10 years to build up the courage and support to get a diagnosis and start on a road to recovery but that wasn't for lack of trying. At times of crisis, I went to those closest to me, I broke down to them to be told to "get a grip" or "just try and be happy".
A couple of hours before I got my diagnosis I was asked by a relative "Are you sure you want to do this? It will be on your medical records, people will make assumptions about you, it might affect your job prospects". I was furious. It had taken so much fight and feelings of guilt to get to a point where I was ready, I’d felt I had the support of my family, that they finally took me seriously.
However, on this occasion, I'm glad they asked me that question because I defied it, it stuck with me and I found strength from within it. Now I talk openly about depression and anxiety. I ask the people around me how they are and then I ask them again. I still see members of my family wince when the neighbour pops over for a cup of tea and asks how I am and what I've been up to. I answer them honestly and await the awkward silence but I also see how proud they are of me for challenging that stigma and for how far I've come. I still dread those kinds of questions some days.
I want the people that have touched on those feelings of nothingness or pain, the people who feel it totally consumes them and the people who blow it off as us being "snowflakes", to know our feelings are legitimate, we all deserve to be listened to and we are all in this together.