[Trigger warnings for mental health]
Yesterday, I spent 40 minutes answering questions about my life, my habits, my thoughts, and my feelings. I was more honest than I am with most of my family and friends. At the end of the appointment I was told that I am displaying “moderately severe” symptoms of depression and “severe” symptoms of anxiety. Hey, at least I aced the PTSD test! With a score of just 24/88 I’m barely displaying any symptoms at all.
Now, I am struggling with the identity shift that has come with a mental health diagnosis. I’m not just grumpy and neurotic. This isn’t just a slightly charming personality trait. I am formally, clinically, depressed and anxious.
I was surprised at my reaction. Even though I have offered support to friends with mental health problems without (or so I thought) judging them in the slightest, I guess I felt that I was somehow above them. I was the person who had their shit together, and who other people (the kind of people who didn’t have their shit together) came to me with their problems. In short, I have been a bit of an arsehole. And I might have carried on being an arsehole, had I not married someone who has their shit together even more than me.
Outsider perspectives can be helpful. Apparently it’s not normal to wake up every morning feeling sick with dread, to arrive home from work/seeing friends and collapse into bed with exhaustion from pretending to feel something that I don’t, and to burst into tears with the sheer frustration of it all approximately once every week.
So I went to my doctor, who didn’t think it was normal either. In fact, he said “Well it’s very clear that you have a serious problem.” My heart almost stopped in surprise. What? Is it? I was just here to humour my husband. Yep, I was still being that arsehole.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to ask for help when we needed it, and be honest about the fact that we need help. There would be no judgement, there would be no shame. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. We have all internalised a load of crap about our mental health.
2013 was a shit year for me. I started it off making plans to emigrate to South Africa with my boyfriend. I would be living the dream – doing freelance digital communications somewhere sunny with a pool. We shipped our stuff, he went first to get a job, and we skyped every single day. Until we didn’t. Until he vanished and my life unraveled. I only knew he was still alive when I opened my credit card bill to discover that he’d not only taken my dream life but most of my savings as well. And then my Grandpa was ill for about the first time in his life, but nobody could work out what was wrong. And then the organisation I worked for decided my job wasn’t necessary any more. And then they worked out what was wrong with Grandpa, and it wasn’t good. And I had to say goodbye to one of the people who I loved most in the world, who had inspired my interests and made me who I am today.
I breezed through it all with extreme arrogance and a few too many glasses of wine. “I’m fine!” I assured people. “I’m the kind of person who’s just good at laughing at themselves and moving on.” Heartbreak and betrayal became anecdotes for the pub. “You’ll never guess what! He didn’t just run up several thousand pounds on my credit card, I found out today that he hadn’t paid his rent for six months, so now I have to cover that too!” “So you know that ISA that my grandmother has been paying into since I was born? I’ve just been forced to spend it! How hilarious!” “You know, I’m actually pretty lucky that this redundancy is only the third worst thing that’s happened to me this year. It puts all this work drama into perspective when you drive to your hometown at the end of the week to watch one of the people you care about most in the world die.” Yep, a complete arsehole.
I even had the arrogance, when I friend confided in me that she was talking to a therapist following her break-up because “I really don’t want this to screw me up” to think, “That’s great she’s doing this. But I didn’t need it. I deal with things on my own.” Flashback to 2013: I spent 90% of my free time either out drinking or shut away on my own obsessively crocheting a blanket (the other 10% was mostly spent in hospitals). I took up smoking. I had sex with people I didn’t find particularly attractive just to prove that I could. Flash forward to today: can’t get out of bed, crying all the time. Kate, do you think you might want to stop being quite so smug?
Seriously, why do we insist that we’re just fine?
I had difficulty answering the doctors questions about how long things had been going on for. It’s been difficult to extract “symptoms” from “who I am” because some of them have been going on all my life. If you’re someone who knows me in real life, you might recall that I would run away and have random crying fits (something I’m now fairly certain are anxiety attacks) as far back as primary school. I vividly remember shutting myself in my Grandparent’s attack because I felt too awful to face my sister and my cousins.
I thought this was normal. How do we know what isn’t?
I guess we find out what’s normal, and what we might be able to get help for, by talking about it. Which is pretty fucking scary, and why I’m writing it down instead of saying it.
So here it is. Guys, I think I might have been a bit of an arsehole. I’ve spent my whole life pretending to be the strongest person who everyone come to for help. (I love being that person – please don’t stop!) But I need to admit that I might need a little help too. I’m going to spend the next few months (years?) figuring out what might help me, whether that’s talking therapies, drugs, or something else, and fighting to get better like I’ve never fought for anything before. I usually don’t talk about things that I’m going through, but I can’t help but notice that this hasn’t served me so well in the past. So I might talk about this. Maybe a lot. If it makes you uncomfortable please tell me not to talk to you about it, I won’t be offended and we can talk about kittens or clothes or Charlie Cox’s abs. In fact, I probably want to be distracted by all those things. Keep talking to me about them.
But if I take a little longer to reply to your texts, ignore your tweets, stop commenting on your blog, or seem a little off with you, it’s not that I don’t love you. I really love you. But I’m finding life a little difficult right now. As I guess a lot of you are too. So let’s not shy away from this. Let’s be open and honest about our struggles and our needs as well as the things that are making us happy (did I mention Charlie Cox’s abs?). That’s the world I want to live in.
Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s really easy to support being honest about our mental health in theory. I donated to Mind, I signed petitions about mental health provision, I read people’s blog posts about their own mental health struggles. All while thinking that I didn’t have a problem. Discussions of mental health were fairly prominent in my life but I didn’t think any of it was about me.
Even now, I am thinking that I must be making it up. If I can write this and make flippant comments and laugh at my husband’s awful jokes, then I can’t be as bad as the people who have real mental health problems. Even when I am told, my a medical professional that I have severe anxiety, I still think “I am at least able to leave the house most days, so I don’t deserve the time the NHS are giving me”. I think I am taking resources that could be used on somebody less fortunate than myself. Is this a charity workers arrogance that “I am not like the people I help”. Let’s go back to this world I want to live in, where we are all in it together. There are no staff and beneficiaries, only people.
I have so many thoughts to get down on paper, but this is probably enough for today. This is just the start of being more honest about how I am. I hope that it might help somebody else be more honest (if only to themselves) about how they are.