Anna, January 29, 2019

Just being present for someone struggling with their mental health can  be enough - Anna

I remember the first conversation I had about mental health. I didn’t mean to: I must have been about 13, and I’d not been feeling myself for weeks, but I had no idea what was wrong with me. My school friend remarked that I had been quiet recently and didn’t seem myself. Back then I didn’t really know what mental health was and I certainly didn’t put a label on what I was feeling. Now in my late twenties, it’s a relief to put a label on it – and to be able to go online and read stories of others’ experiences.

As a teenager, I battled anxiety and depression, but I never really understood what was wrong with me or what I was going through. If I didn’t understand then how could I voice it? I was on the verge of an eating disorder (if not, did have one), I suffered from OCD, self-harmed, and I wondered what the meaning of life was. But I would never have thought to talk to school friends about this or even teachers. For years I pushed it down.

I suffered badly with depression during my first year at university, when I felt unbelievably lonely and struggled with my coursework. During this time, the only person I could properly confide in was my mum and that was it. I used to beg for her to stay on the phone with me until midnight, just so I could hear her voice and not have to be alone with my thoughts. It was really hard for me not to have her there physically.

I’m not sure that some of my first-year university friends knew how to deal with me. It wasn’t that I needed people necessarily to say the right words or give me a hug, just being present for someone struggling with their mental health can be enough. For example, leaving them a cup of tea outside their door or cooking them a nice meal; it’s the small gestures that count.

Luckily, as I reached my mid-twenties things began to change – a couple of my friends who were just as secretive as me started opening up, and sharing their mental health battles. Messaging me over Whatsapp, they would tell me of the therapy they were trying and whether they thought it was working. It has been really insightful and definitely helped me think about what therapy would suit me.

While I’m happiest talking about my mental health with my mum in person, I still find it hard to talk openly with my friends. There’s pressure (on the rare occasion) I meet up with these particular friends who live far away to make the occasion cheery and talk about our highlight reels, so I’ve never felt able to go into detail about my mental health with them in person. I find that conversations with friends are generally easiest over messaging. At least via message there are no awkward silences or interruptions.

But like anything, mental health is not simple. Mine comes in waves. My battle in recent years has been harder to open up about it – as it’s depression and anxiety caused by trauma from an abusive relationship, which ended a three years ago. In fact, in hindsight, I believe I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s been hard to tell friends about what I suffered because I’m scared of not just being judged over my mental health, but being victim-blamed. I do often feel isolated, like friends don’t fully understand exactly what I went through. They just think he was a shitty boyfriend. It also doesn’t help that we live in a society where sexual assault victims are often disbelieved and discredited.

With some lifestyle changes I have started to feel a lot better in myself recently. I do yoga every week, see a therapist regularly and try and do daily meditation. It’s been a long journey towards recovery, but I think I’m slowing getting to a more positive place. I might have more down days to come, but I’m determined to build a strong mindset, so that when the shadows do come back I’ll be ready to fight.

Since my school days, I’ve been able to be more honest about my mental health with my friends. But I still feel like I can’t go into that much detail as I might scare people away. Whenever I talk about mental health with friends and family, I skim over my problems and feelings. For example, I’ll just say ‘I’m feeling rubbish today, and I have no energy to socialise because I feel down’ rather than ‘I cried myself to sleep last night, self-harmed, and let the shower water run over me while I sat down crying’. Even with my mum, who I’m most honest with, I still leave out some of the truth.

Being able to talk about my mental health is a good thing, but I shouldn’t have to gloss over the hardest parts of my experience for fear of judgement. I’d like to be able to talk about all of it, without fear.

I have felt in the past that talking has pushed people away. For example, I once messaged a friend, who I’m incidentally no longer friends with, with the simple words ‘I feel so depressed today’ and she read the message (two blue ticks appeared) and ignored it. But, weirdly she had shown support at other times. The fact that some friends have been inconsistent has only served to make me feel more low. Rejections like that have made it incredibly hard for me to trust people; I take the rejection quite personally. Nevertheless, I take comfort from my close relationship with my mum who I’ve always been able to share, perhaps, 90% of my battle with. But there’s still 10% I keep in my head because I’m worried that saying some things out loud makes me crazy.

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