It’s ironic that on Mental Health Awareness Week for 2018 I’ve been signed off sick from work. It wasn’t intentional but it is symbolic. People suffering from mental health problems push themselves too hard for too long trying to pretend that things are OK, pulling a shroud of secrecy over their lives in the hope that people don’t find out how they’re really feeling.
Objectively, there is no shame in being depressed, or anxious, or overwhelmed by stress, but these states of mind create a sense of guilt which can be all consuming. It comes from nowhere and you can’t put your finger on why it’s there. Why should I feel guilty about something which is hurting me? I didn’t ask for this. No-one asks for this, and yet here we are. It happens, and it’s becoming more and more common. The prevalence of it in the workplace, amongst friends and family and partners, is really surprising to me. Until now, it has only ever been my problem.
My experience of depression and anxiety has been long term, damaging, undignified and ugly but ultimately ended with my recovery. It took place over several years and at times it felt futile and pointless. Years of medication use left me with health problems and terrible anxiety after the ten month withdrawal process. Returning to life un-medicated was overwhelming and uncomfortable, like stepping out into blinding sunlight after being in a dark room. I don’t know how I persevered, only that I think I knew that a difficult recovery was still better than being ill.
Slowly, I began to build resilience and hope. I gained a huge amount of personal insight through counselling and talking therapy, which I think is one of the most important things a person can engage with when they’re suffering. I began eating properly, looking after myself, seeing my friends and making new ones. One night, after two years of recovery, a close friend told me that I was finally like myself again. I had been ill since the age of 17, and now, at 25, I had recovered.
And now it has come back. There is nothing more frustrating and soul destroying than a relapse for someone who has spent years recovering and had a brief glimpse of what it’s like to be well. To have that taken away from you feels unbearable. Suddenly my symptoms were returning; fatigue, poor concentration, an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness. My sleep was becoming disrupted, waking at one or two in the morning and staying awake for several hours. My appetite waned, causing a viscous cycle of fatigue, low blood sugar and worsening mood. The anger, which I’d always thought was irrational and stupid, also returned. I was so frustrated with what I saw as my useless mind, which so quickly became overloaded and seemed to grind to a halt.
What does a depressive episode feel like? Everything feels relentless, suffocating and hopeless. I am afraid of being judged by people for being ill and so I withdraw, and the depression feeds on that secrecy. I feel lost and powerless, ashamed of mistakes I made and for being back in this place. Everything is too bright, and too loud. I am frustrated that I haven’t found a way to manage this, either this time or the last time or the time before that, and I blame myself for that too. Emotions feel too big and I feel too small to hold them. The depression hangs heavy over me and the anxiety is like a wailing siren behind my eye, stopping me from feeling safe and keeping me in a constant state of alertness and stress. I worry about what I’ll lose this time around and what I’ve already lost. It’s the most isolating position a person can be in, because it’s all inside my head.
That’s why I’ve written this and why I’m sharing it. I can’t be bothered with the secrecy anymore because it eats you up. There is no shame in feeling this way and there are a lot of people and organisations pushing to reduce the stigma around mental illness. I was one of them four years ago, and I’ll be one again now. There are people who will read this and will recognise their own experiences in mine, and there are people who’ll read this and won’t be able to comprehend how horrible this feels. For the people who are suffering – keep going. Pushing through and seeking help isn’t easy but it’s worth it. Talk to people. See your GP, and if they’re unsympathetic book straight in to see a different one. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re imagining it, or that you’re weak. Being brave never feels brave at the time. You will feel relief again. You will feel OK again.
For the people who aren't suffering, be aware of your friends, family and colleagues. Has someone become quiet recently, and withdrawn from you? Are they picking at their food or looking tired and drained but not giving an obvious reason for this? Don't feel you need to pry, just ask if they're OK. Ask if they'd like a cup of tea or a chat or to go to the cinema. Tell them you're there for them if they need you, and repeat that enough to make them know you mean it (we never believe it when people tell us the first time). People will open up to you when the feelings become less heavy, and to be with another person who is being kind will often do that. When they do speak to you, listen to them and allow them to be frustrated and resistant to the idea that things will change. These feelings are exhausting and they do make things look like they will never get better.
The best way to break down the shame and the isolation for someone is to be there, to be sympathetic, and to remind them that they will get through it. Often just knowing that there is someone to lean on if they need it allows people to start the process of getting back onto their feet. To support someone during a period of mental ill health is one of the most powerful things you can do, and something you should be proud of.