I remember the first time I vocalised and admitted the fact that I was struggling with depression and anxiety. Following seven years of sporadic periods of chronic anxiety and panic attacks induced by both smoking marijuana as a teenager and my parents’ break up, I was at university, 22 and suffering a reactive bout of depression triggered by the break-up of a tumultuous relationship.
The university referred me to a counsellor and during my first session, I cried and cried. I felt incredibly exposed and ashamed about how I felt and for the way in which I was dealing with anything disrupting my life and mental health. He ultimately delved very directly into my childhood, where my issues and insecurities may have stemmed from. My father’s affair and subsequent parental divorce, the breakdown of my family unit and loss of my childhood home, my own striving for aesthetic perfection (after being put on a pedestal to perform and entertain by my well-meaning parents), my body dysmorphia disorder and my anxious outlook on the world stemming from an over protective parent all arose.
It was a minefield of information and facts, which were both overwhelming and numbing. Slowly I started to process and understand how immediate circumstances, upbringing and ingrained deep-seated damage all contributed towards the way I felt in general, and how I reacted to certain situations. Fifteen years later, this is still a work in progress!
Talking about my mental health made a huge difference
Many of my early mental health conversations actually took place with my wise, incredibly open and beloved late grandmother, following my counselling. Not only were we very close, she was also not a direct parent and slightly removed from my household so she could give me a more objective viewpoint. Despite our 58-year age gap, she had the mind and attitudes of a person of my age and even though she never professed to having suffered from much emotional strain in her life, she was an empath and very interested in psychology / anthropology. She listened and gave measured, kind advice and allowed me to talk without interruption.
Because of how this made me feel, I am now especially keen to encourage others to talk, and embrace the benefit of being open and unashamed. Just by being open, intuitive, sensitive and encouraging, people without mental health problems can provide a safe platform for others - friends / family / colleagues - to open up when may not have done so if nobody had recognised their behaviours, signs and symptoms. I always reach out if I sense or see that someone is in need, and give them the option to talk to me if they so wish. I know how important and meaningful this is to some who feel they do not want to burden others with their ‘problems’ having been on the other side of it.
I still get bouts of the black dog and I feel it is important to recognise if there are any catalysts or triggers (including hormones) and this makes it easier to understand and thus to work through. Talking in small social groups, a phone call with a friend or writing down how I feel all help me to ‘emotionally vomit’ or ‘do a wee out of my eyes’. I draw these humorous yet strangely accurate comparisons to being poorly with food poisoning or a bug, or needing the loo – the toxins need to exit the body in order for you to begin your physical recovery. It is no different with emotional illness. I refer to the latter particularly when people need to cry and try to stifle it. It is important to listen to one’s body. Humour and self-deprecation often help me to help others and myself… of course considering another person’s boundaries and approaching things with discretion and sensitivity.
Trying to break down a mass of issues into individual challenges rather than perceiving things as one huge lump of problem also really helps.
There has been far too much stigma attached to admitting we are struggling with our mental health, let alone opening up enough to talk about it. It is positive to reason out and rationalise things with others; and ourselves - verbally or written. This is especially important when people are not struggling with a mental health problem to be educated and familiarised with the concept; the reality that so many have to live often form an hour-to-hour basis just to get through. There are still barriers to mental health whether it be ignorance, lack of information and understanding or lack of first-hand experience but I am confident that day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year this is dissipating within society.
Now I have opened my can of metaphorical brain worms, I will never seal it again.