Hello friends, and Happy 1st February to you. It’s #TimeToTalk day here in the UK, an initiative led by two mental health charities, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Time to Change is a movement that aims to tackle the shame, isolation, and stigma that people suffering from a mental health problem can face.
On this day last year I made my first public post about my own mental health problems, and at the age of 35, that was a long time coming. I talked about how I’d felt in the years prior whenever I saw other people talk publicly about their struggles; I was always uneasy and (if I’m honest) envious of their bravery. I suppose I never actively felt ashamed of my own struggles -or not with any self-awareness- but I was simply never encouraged to see my own formative experiences as “not normal”, or traumatic. I was always encouraged to keep calm and carry on by people who, I’m sure, had good intentions. A mantra of my youth was “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. This means that there is a lot I’ve never examined. There is a lot in my past that I’ve never labelled as what it really was (domestic abuse, trauma). That might seem insignificant, but it’s not.
Today I’d like to talk a little bit about how far I’ve come in the last year, and how “keep calm and carry on” can shove itself up its own arse. I’d also like to talk a little about how difficult can be to self-advocate and to get the treatment you need, particularly if you have always presented as fairly ‘normal’, or high-functioning.
Content warning for mention of suicide and self-harm.
spring 2017 : a reckoning
In the spring of 2017 my Mum was rushed into intensive care. She was critically ill for quite a while; I finally reached a breaking point and took time off work. My Mum rallied, and her condition improved. But she was hospitalised again in the early hours of 3 September 2017, and passed away later that morning. I wasn’t expecting her to die, and I suspect that she had kept the ultimate seriousness of her condition (failing heart, failing kidneys) from most people; she had, after all, chosen the songs for her funeral already. Like me, she was always very guarded about her weaknesses, presumably because her life had been so tough. I had consequently learned to guard my own weaknesses, and I continue to fight that instinct. (It’s hard.)
Little insights like these are so valuable. Why do I trust no-one to take care of me? Why do I struggle to form and maintain close friendships? Why have I so often gravitated towards inappropriate partners, and why did I let them treat me so badly? Why do I retreat emotionally, hiding myself away, and never ask for help? Why do I have a child-like relationship with money and food, using both for comfort? Why am I prone to such dark, desperate periods of depression? And why have I turned all my hate and anger inward during such desperate times? Why have I sometimes believed with all my heart that the lives of the people around me would be much improved if I was not in them?
Talking therapies are so vital to our own understanding of the whys and hows of our own world, and the way we live in it. So much can be untangled with the right tools; ones that we won’t necessarily already have in our emotional toolkit. When I was younger I dismissed counselling outright. I figured there wasn’t any epiphany I hadn’t already experienced. I knew that my Dad had been a vile, evil person. I knew that I’d been treated terribly by him. I knew that my Mum and I had a complex relationship that hadn’t been solidified or strengthened by our common enemy, but the opposite. I knew that I had been diagnosed with severe chronic depression at 15 years old and that it impacted my life significantly.
Looking back, I tried so hard to hide my pain and distress. I coped privately, through desperate measures. When I broke down in an A-Level class at college, I was sent to the psychology teacher (who was also a trained counsellor). She promised to help me, but it was the last day of term, and she forgot. When I was referred by my GP to a psychiatrist, he looked at my self-harm cuts and scars and told me they weren’t so bad. He discharged me. When a boyfriend took me to A&E one night because he was worried I might hurt myself seriously, we waited for hours. I felt ridiculous, and eventually I just went home.
I feel like I ought to take some responsibility for being passed over so many times. I was very good at appearing functional. I was very good at pretending that I was coping. It was all that I knew.
I never asked for help: asking for help was indulgent and pathetic. What could anyone do for me, anyway? I knew the facts of my past. I knew the facts of my present. I knew I was depressed and that I was taking medication. There was nothing more to know. I was a grand master at keeping calm and carrying on. My suffering was entirely private. I felt safest in my cancerian shell. Hiding from danger and hurt was a trick I’d learned at a very young age.
I wonder if maybe any of this resonates with you? Well, if so, I’d like to share a few more recent experiences; baby steps towards healing and some sort of peace. A little closure would be nice. Who knows?
The last 18 months or so have been a perfect storm of circumstance in a way; I’ve suffered health problems, cognitive impairment, been through a relationship breakdown and two house moves, two job changes, one bereavement so devastating that the emotional consequences were immediately compartmentalised, packaged away to deal with another day…. Another family bereavement that would have been terribly sad all on its own, even if it hadn’t occurred two months and a few days after the loss of my Mum.
Whilst the circumstances have conspired to create a burden too painful to bear, my life has also been blessed by a certain stability and closeness that I’ve never experienced before. A patient, compassionate, and wonderfully supportive partner, and a stable home environment. I can’t overstate how precious this safety net is and has been. This solid, stable foundation is one I can use to finally keep steady while I tackle the towering inferno that is my own fractured, damaged, and neglected mental health.
Although the time is right, and I am willing, getting the help that I need has not been easy.
I cannot afford private counselling, so in the spring of 2017 I began a battle to get my name on a waiting list for long-term high-intensity therapy. To work through everything I had never worked through before. To begin a meaningful journey of healing. I spoke with my GP who referred me to the mental health pathway. I lost track of the number of questionnaires I completed and phone consultations I had. They incorrectly assigned me to a CBT counsellor; my first appointment was actually just a consultation, and I went out of my way to attend on the morning of my Mum’s funeral, because I didn’t want to lose my place on the waiting list. Dutifully dressed all in black, I poured my heart out, and he sent me back to the beginning of the queue for long-term talking therapy.
Four months later I finally received notification that I was due the correct consultation. I had to complete it by phone at work. The 50-minute long call was painful and upsetting; I took my phone and huddled behind a building adjacent to my office as hailstones lashed down and talked about my earliest, vivid memories of some of the domestic violence I witnessed when I was less than 3 years old. I’m told that’s pretty normal, to remember traumatic memories so vividly – even such early ones. Scars on the psyche.
I finished up the call, fixed my make-up, and went back to my job as a senior project administrator in a research institute, and no-one noticed a thing. The outcome of the call wasn’t even, finally, a regular appointment. It was another referral to another service and another waiting list. Around nine months have passed since my first, nervous insistence that I be referred for long term counselling by my GP.
Lately I have also felt the time is right to talk more seriously about the various medications I’ve been prescribed in the last 20 years. I’ve never spent more than 10-15 minutes more than once every 6 months talking through my mental health and whether the medication I’m taking is actually appropriate for me. I currently take two medications long-term for depression and anxiety, and attempts to wean me off them in the past have gone rather wrong rather quickly. I do believe that medication has saved my life, and that it has kept me very close to functional for a long time. I dip under and over that line (functionality) but I am often hanging on by a thread, which is a painful and debilitating way to live. I am running twice as hard, with twice as much weight on my back, to cover the same distance, and I don’t think I can do it much longer.
So I also made an appointment to talk to my GP about medication, and about a proper referral to a proper psychiatrist to talk through a lot of my cognitive and supposed anxiety symptoms; I believe that my diagnosis might be a lot more nuanced, and I’m finally ready to be firm in my request for appropriate treatment.
During counselling consultations, you’re asked a pretty standard set of questions. One of them boils down to: what is stopping you from acting on any suicidal or self-harm feelings or urges right now. Essentially: what is it that keeps you going? This feels like a trick question. It’s like a barometer of how badly you need help. It’s always been hard for me. I’m so tempted to cover up, to say that I’m fine, I’m functional, I keep putting one foot in front of the other and taking life an hour at a time and so I must be fine. But see, I am still running twice as hard, with twice as much weight on my back, to cover the same distance, and after 36 years I’m so very tired.
Though life has been indescribably hard for months now, I mostly enjoy lucidity and perspective. Mostly, I remain in control of my thoughts and feelings. Mostly. But I know those lies that mental illness tells us. I once wrote about that very thing. I know that which is unthinkable: that sometimes we have descended so far into the fog of depression, we are so possessed, that to do harm to ourselves is relief, and to do the ultimate harm to ourselves can feel like giving a wonderful gift to others. But when I’m asked that question – what is it that keeps you going? – I can answer honestly that I want to be well. I want to live a full, happy, and productive life. I want to take care of myself and take care of others. I want all of that, and I’m ready to ask for help. Really ask for help.
ask for help
I rounded up my last #TimetoTalk post with a recommendation to ask for help. I didn’t know, at the time, what the next year had in store for me. I didn’t foresee the journey I’d take, and where I would be 12 months later. Even now, at 36, I look back one year and see naivety. I’m finally ready to push forward and to put the work into healing. I always felt there would be indeterminate time to work through my childhood and its complexities, and maybe talk (for the first time) honestly and openly with my Mum about how traumatic those years were for me, and ask a lot of questions that I’ve never asked before. I won’t now get that chance, and to know that is devastating, but I accept that any closure will not look like I expected it to.
So I finish this post with some -I hope not too severe or sanctimonious- words of advice: please consider demanding help if you need it. Please don’t minimise your own suffering. I’ve done that for far too long. I suspect there is magic to be found in healing, and I’m finally ready to begin. Not just that, I think I am ready to fight for it too.
All images are from Pixabay.
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