December 23, 2011

Time to Change blogger Katie ElliottAlmost exactly a year ago, an extraordinary thing happened to me.

It was a gloomy, cold December and I was really, really unhappy. I’d like to be able to say that feeling unhappy was the extraordinary thing, but that wouldn’t be true. Looking back, I can spot a recurring pattern of mood swings which began when I was about twelve, but it took until my mid-thirties before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started to understand what was going on. By last winter, I had lived through many depressive episodes and I was finding them increasingly difficult to deal with. All those years of thinking myself a bad person rather than an ill one had taken their toll - I had learned to be intolerant and critical of myself, which only ever made things worse.

On top of that, I was experiencing a dose of festive anxiety - the sinking feeling that comes from convincing yourself that everyone else is perfect and in control and you’re not. Surely I’m the only one who just missed the last posting date yet again? Surely I’m the only one who just yelled at their partner and stormed out of the house, locking themselves out in the process? Surely I’m the only one huddled amongst the crumbs on the kitchen floor, crying and hoping her kids won’t find her? Have you ever seen Nigella Lawson do that on her BBC Christmas special? Exactly.

All in all, things were shaping up to be pretty miserable. I’d fallen out with some of the people I loved most. I was tired of roller-coastering from crazy schemes and sleepless nights to depression and anxiety over and over again. I didn’t seem to get on with any of the medication I tried. And I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to hang in there if this was how life was going to be.

One day, despairing and lost, I found myself doing something I’d never done before. I started talking about how I felt with someone I barely knew.

I didn’t mean to. If I’d thought about it in advance I would have stopped myself. I’d had experiences before of opening up to people and it going wrong - I wouldn’t have had the nerve to consciously risk that again, especially when I felt so bad. But I didn’t think - I just spoke and everything came flooding out. How I believed myself to be impossible to live with. How I was scared that I was unfit to bring up my children. How I was so very tired of it all.

It was then that the extraordinary thing happened.

The person I barely knew, who probably had lots of other more important things to do, listened. She didn’t judge or pity me. She let me speak until I’d said all I needed to say and then she told me about her experiences. She didn’t have a diagnosed mental health problem herself but she still understood about mood swings, about anxiety, about perfectionism, about all sorts of things. And yet she seemed really normal and lovely and not at all like me.

Something in the experience of letting myself be completely vulnerable, of being listened to and then confided in, changed everything. I felt accepted. And as I did so, something switched in my brain. For the first time I can remember, it occurred to me to accept myself.

Since then, life has felt very different. The mood swings still come and go, but what has changed is that now I’m a little kinder to myself. Being kinder has helped me to get stronger. And as I’ve grown stronger I’ve talked with more and more people and listened to their stories and realised that I’m not alone in experiencing the things I do. Which has meant that I’ve been able to accept myself a little more, and be little kinder and get stronger and on and on...

I’m lucky. I found someone to listen when I most needed it. But many don’t. Many are right now feeling isolated and scared to reach out for help because mental health issues are still so difficult to admit to.

For that reason, I have promised myself that I will do everything I can to work towards a society in which we can all speak openly without fear of discrimination. A society in which it is as easy to ask for help for mental health problems as it is to get a broken arm fixed.

I’ve started a project called Meet Me in Winter which is bringing together thousands of people from around the world. We’ve made a single and a music video to raise money for charities including Mind (one of the two mental health charities who run Time to Change), and we’re getting people talking about mental health issues. If you go to the website, you can watch our video and see how that one small but extraordinary moment of kindness has made a big difference, not just in my life, but now in many others’ lives too.

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