The tight rope of sanity

This week I have seen many posts by friends [and strangers] sharing lived experience of mental health for world mental health day. Social media has its down points [for instance, I was tagged in something the other day to “find the name of your vagina” – erm, really?] – but this was an example of how brilliant it can be – breaking the myths and stigmas surrounding mental health. I had no idea of the struggles behind so many of the smiling faces – the happy statuses and family photos I see on my newsfeed. It really does come down to Plato’s wisdom “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.

I haven’t spoken about mental health for a long time [life suddenly got rather busy; not to mention sane] – but timehop reminded me last week that three years ago I was giving the Brett Hill Memorial Lecture at the International Conference of Mental Health Pharmacy. Back then I was working as a recovery trainer for the local “recovery college” – and one of the prerequisites for the position was lived experience. For those of you who know me beyond wordpress, you may remember the “duvet days” when I was struggling … when life seemed very heavy and without meaning. Of course, I’m one of those happy go lucky smiley people who no one expected to plunge to the depths of depression. I think I put a lot of energy into being “okay”and this didn’t really help. Cambridge was quite a pressurised environment; I expected a lot – in fact, reading back through an old journal the other day I was amazed just how much pressure I put on myself – running, swimming, calorie counting [a meagre prawn on a piece of brown bread for lunch; really?] – staying up until God knows when to finish three essays on palaeolithic hand axes; and trying to work out what I really wanted from life. Burnout? I ended up eventually as an inpatient, walking around Fulbourne Hospital in my pyjamas drawing pretty flowers on the desk. The psych ward was an eye opener, and not wholly a negative experience. Ultimately I wanted desperately to know that someone cared; that I wasn’t alone in this vast and scary world. I soon realised that very little of the supposed professionals did care [some did, later on, and they were hugely important in my recovery]- it was the solidarity of the “inmates” which mattered. Unfortunately you said what the doctors wanted to hear, and eventually – 3 weeks later in my case; they let you out.

What was it like, my depression? It manifested itself in chest tightening panic attacks, the kind which strike unannounced in supermarket queues, prompting you to leave your basket and flee; convinced that everyone will think you insane, as you fight for your breath, convinced you’re about to die an embarrassing death. It crept into not wanting to go out, in self harming and a desperate sadness. A hopelessness that one cannot sufficiently describe to one who hasn’t been there. If my life were catalogued in colours, this would be a grey period … a long dark winter …

It wasn’t an easy road, but whose is? I had therapy, I talked, I painted, and I wrote stories … I realised that actually it was okay not to have all the answers to the [unanswerable] philosophical questions … and that I needed to learn to be okay on my own. You get through it because the alternative isn’t an option. I think there came a point when I realised that I couldn’t kill myself, so therefore had to find a way to live.

It is ironic, perhaps, that all these life lessons, have come in so useful since the birth of my darling little boy. I didn’t declare any history of mental health issues on my pregnancy questionnaire, as I didn’t want the stigma attached to me. This is probably a sad reflection of our culture; yet I stand by my choice.I haven’t been on any medication or seen by any doctor concerning mental health, for 3 years …. I am out the other side … and I can now look back and be [wait for the PollyAnna haters to vomit] glad that I experienced it all. I hope knowing what it’s like to be riddled with despair, helps me empathise with others – and will help me mother my son in a compassionate and understanding way. My coping mechanisms, assisted by CBT, are still used today. They work. I have not had a panic attack in 5 years [and still appreciate getting through Sainsburys without leaving my basket!]

Maybe you’re reading this and you’re struggling; maybe something here resonates with you – then know that nothing in life stays the same … people change, situations change … if you’d told me 3 years ago that I would be mother to a 19month old, with a mortgage and a job, and a totally happy/”normal” life, I would never have believed you. I am content these days; exhausted but content – we may not live in a mansion or have lots of extra money at the end of the month – but I wouldn’t swap this for the world. This is my wealth; an appreciation of happiness, of life, of having survived.

There is help out there, and often found in the most unexpected of places. I wasn’t going to write about this, as I figured this is in my past, and doesn’t need digging up – but maybe someone needs to read this today, and I’m not ashamed …  just proud.

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