When you tell people that you suffer from mental health issues, they often tend to deploy a throwaway comment: “You’re over-reacting.” “You just think you’re unwell, you’re fine, really.”
You hear them often, even from those who claim they understand what you’re going through; close-ones and friends are often the chief culprits. They mean well, of course, but if you choose to tell them who you really are, you can see it in their eyes: they either tiptoe around you or tell you to “grow up”. It’s hard not to feel weak in the face of such a response.
Mental health feels like this weird thing I can’t get over.
Of course, some friends can be incredibly supportive. The best responses are the ones where people take it at face value, as just another matter in conversation. Yet these are rare, and the stigma is such that you have to choose very carefully which friends you decide to tell your big ‘secret’ to. It shouldn’t be that way.
When you tell the wrong person and they react badly, it affects how you see yourself. You then start to wonder if maybe you are being dramatic, maybe you’re not ‘one of them’, whatever that might mean. But if you’re not ‘one of them’, then why are you such a mess? Why do silly little things that never used to bug you drive you absolutely crazy? Why do you spend hours working up the energy to simply get out of bed, to sit and concentrate on anything, fixating on the one tiny thing that person said, or crying way too much for no real reason? Why is this your life now, why do you waste so much time? Why is your personality unrecognisable? Why are you a ray of sunshine one day, but a hollow, empty wreck the next?
Mental health feels like this weird thing I can’t get over. It’s this looming cloud that’s taken hold of me as an adult. At school, I was always more anxious than my peers, but still only just a little bit. Yet slowly and gradually that anxiety became anxiety, and low moods became unbearable. There are good days and bad days. Being alone with my thoughts can sometimes feel like a chore – it can drive me insane.
It’s a process of instability; a pattern you get into that you can’t shake off until something external forces you to see yourself.
You don’t eat normally, maybe you’re skipping meals – but you love food so why are you doing this? Or you eat constantly – even when you know you’re not hungry. Your room is in the centre of a university accommodation block teeming with life, with friends laughing, joking, blaring out music – it’s bursting with energy. So then why, amidst such life, are you so lonely? Why is your door permanently locked, your curtains always drawn?
You don’t care about your appearance, and physically it begins to show. Your next-door neighbours awkwardly knock to check that you’re okay. You make certain reckless, worrying decisions that don’t reflect the real you – when you either don’t care about yourself, or anyone but yourself, why does it even matter that much?
So eventually, if you’re lucky like me, your friends will tell you that you need help. It can take a while, but you get to that point of realisation: you’ve sought help and you’re so comfortable with the concept that you begin to identify as a mental health sufferer, or your own equivalent term. It becomes part of who you are and you attempt to learn to manage it.
But now, people see you differently. The people who told you to seek help then now see you as a permanent wobble. Those who were there when you needed support suddenly think you’re using it as an excuse for everything. You start to doubt whether you really suffer from anything at all – maybe you are just being dramatic, maybe you are just being insecure, maybe you are just weak.
You think: am I a terrible person because I’m not ‘normal’? Or am I really normal, and just have to “grow up” as people say? If I am ‘normal’ (whatever ‘normal’ may be), then why do I have this constant panicky feeling in my stomach that constantly refuses me peace? Is that ‘normal’? To be honest, I don’t even know anymore.
There are different levels of depression. It isn’t always as severe as people perceive it to be, and it’s unique for each individual person. With the right kind of counselling and support, it can be contained and you can feel so much happier. However, at times, counselling can feel like a containment mission – you worry about becoming reliant on counselling or therapy. But we shouldn’t feel that way: mental health can and should be alleviated with the right forms of care and attention, just like any other tangible, physical wound.
It’s also very present, even when you try to wish it away. It affects everything: relationships, work, studies, finances, how much you care about things, how selfish you are, or how little you care about yourself. If only more people in Durham could understand that there isn’t an archetypal ‘mental health sufferer’. That might go a long way to helping us at a University where the counselling service is lacklustre and the waiting list shocking.
I still don’t completely understand who I am, so I don’t expect others to either.
I’m not ashamed of this part of me. It’s who I am, and the unnecessary stigma surrounding mental health only spurs me on to succeed in spite of it. Yet, we don’t live in a perfect world. I was conflicted over whether to put my name on this article because I know it might affect future job prospects and my personal relationships and friendships. It shouldn’t, and it’s wrong that it should, but it might. I look forward to the day when I can put my name on something like this without living in fear of being profiled.
All I can hope for in the years to come is that I see a shift. I still don’t completely understand who I am, so whilst I figure that out, I don’t expect others to either. And that’s okay. But I do hope that the judgement or pity that I see in some people’s eyes gradually lessens as more of us come to terms with the fact that mental health issues are, in fact, normal.
Photograph: A Health Blog via Flickr and Creative Commons