It’s Time to Talk Day and World Cancer Day today, which is doubly significant for me.
A few years ago, in my final year of uni, I was diagnosed with stage 1 testicular cancer. Treatment was relatively simple: I had the offending article removed, and a bout of chemo, all in all a short but highly unpleasant treatment before I was declared cancer free. But the effects on my mental health would last a lot longer.
I couldn't shake the feeling I was no longer whole
I had struggled with depression before, but the following two years were the worst. I’m aware that people experience depression differently and for me it meant constant nagging feelings of loneliness, despair and complete inadequacy. I'm not typically one to get sentimental, especially not over redundant organs. But nevertheless sometimes I couldn't shake the feeling that I was no longer whole.
These feelings were compounded with a sense of guilt. Why should I have felt that way? I was healthy now, my illness and treatment barely affected me, and on the ward I made friends with people who had suffered for years and had lost hope. I felt guilt over my depression, and because I had pulled through and they had not.
My depression manifested in anger. Extreme rages triggered by silly pointless things, where I would lose control, where I would commit acts of violence against myself.
Suicidal feelings were always in the back of my mind
I could not hide the anger and low mood from my girlfriend-at-the-time, however, I was able to hide the feeling of wanting to die. In this period of my life more than ever before, I experienced nagging, intrusive suicidal thoughts. I suppose suicide seemed like a solution to my depression and other problems – they became a habitual response, always at the back of my mind, sometimes creeping to the front.
I had always been a bottler, and this didn’t change. I didn't want people to worry about me on the one hand, or think I was weak on the other, and I felt it was in a way normal, something everyone must feel. At the same time, I didn't think my feelings were valid, so why should I complain?
Then last year I knew this had to change. I was going through some other personal crises, which made my depression worse. I had mixed experiences talking about it at first (my employers did not understand) but I’ll never regret opening up to my closest friends.
I'll never forget one conversation in particular
I remember one conversation in particular. For the past year, an old uni friend and I had started to become closer. He had moved to London, so we started spending more time together. Then he experienced an acute and severe illness while abroad over Christmas. We were there for each other that year, we bonded over sharing our different but yet similar experiences of ill physical health, or simply over chilling and video games. At that point when my mental health sank lower, I decided to tell him how I felt. I told him about my depression, and eventually about my suicidal thoughts.
I’ll never forget his words then: “Don’t be a dick.” Sounds awful, I know, but to us it was a perfect example of our glib sense of humour while really letting me know he was there for me. He was telling me, in a way he knew I’d recognise, that he needed me, and reminded me that I needed him.
We talked more then and since, but that was the point where I realised I had support in my friends, and that I could support them. That I wasn’t alone, that it wasn’t normal to feel that way, or something I should accept. I still experience depression, but I’m now more mindful, more aware of what’s going on when I feel inadequate or angry, that it’s not OK to hurt myself, in part because it will hurt others too. I’m still a bit of a bottler but I try to talk more about my feelings with my close friends, including my girlfriend, who is always here for me and supportive.
I’ve learned the value of talking about both physical and mental health experiences. This is why I’m talking for Greater London on Time to Talk Day. It’s a particular Englishism to ask “How are you?” without really meaning it, and to respond with “I’m fine thanks” automatically. But now I’ll try to answer honestly every time, and I’ll listen with all ears when I ask it of someone no matter what their response.
What do you think of the issues raised in Alex's blog?
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