I've been thinking a lot about mental illness recently. Well, if I'm honest, I've been thinking about it most of my life. But over the last few months in particular, I've viewed it from a different perspective.
As I move towards my thirties I find my mindset changing a little every day. I'm a bit calmer, a bit more self-assured. I don't beat myself up as much for carrying extra weight or for not looking like girls in magazines. I don't care so much if people don't like me; I don't feel the need to be liked. I have my people, my loved ones, and that's enough for me.
It hasn't always been the case.
For much of the last decade I have been what you might call a high-functioning depressive. I'm not sure where it stems from - I think it could be genetic, it could be a chemical imbalance, it could be a myriad of little things falling into place alongside my need to overachieve, to avoid failure, to put pressure on myself to be perfect. I don't attribute it to any one event in my life as on the whole I think I'm quite a happy person and have had quite a privileged life. But sometimes none of that matters, when the illness decides to take you down with it.
For a long time I thought I was being a drama queen. For a long time I thought it was just general moodiness. But I look back now at times when I shut myself away, when I refused to leave my home for two months, when even at university when I was at my happiest academically, I still couldn't bring myself to go out with friends some nights. I'd cancel longstanding plans in favour of hiding in my room and crying without really knowing why. The panic attacks on the way to work, the times when night after night, I'd cry myself to sleep and wake up the next day, feeling unable to lift the duvet off, let alone climb out of bed.
All of this happened in tandem with some of the happiest and proudest moments of my life - graduating from university, getting engaged, buying our first property, planning our wedding. On the outside, I was functioning just fine. I was going out, going to work, living a relatively normal life. But then there were the parts only my closest loved ones could see, when the veneer I constructed for myself fell apart. The evening before the wedding, for example, I had a terrible anxiety attack. I was surrounded by family who had travelled for hours to be with me and I had to tell them all to leave. I screamed at them until they backed out the door. I didn't sleep that night. I dread to think of the grief I've given Jon over the years as he bore the brunt of my moods.
What can you do in situations like this? It took a long time for me to admit that things weren't working and even longer for me to drum up the courage to visit my GP. I tried medication for a little while but it gave me heart palpitations which in turn caused more anxiety. This was disappointing, as I know so many people have had success with it, but it was worth a try. I tried for a long time to convince myself to see a counsellor, but experiences as a teenager had really put me off. I took up yoga, I re-evaluated my sleeping habits, I tried to be more mindful about the food I was eating. I had reiki, I used different breathing techniques, I looked for accounts from others suffering the same. I learned to control it for short periods of time but always felt as though my defences were weak and due to break at any time.
A lot of this is subjective - it will differ from person to person and I can only speak from my experiences, but in the end it was something so seemingly innocuous that helped me to feel a little more like myself.
You might have seen a spate of reports in the news over the last week about the Pill and the effects it can have, particularly relating to depression. I read this piece in The Guardian and so much of it rang true for me, I felt the need to talk about it. In February this year, I came off the Pill after taking it for 8 years. I did this partially because I'd just had surgery, had ran out of pills and couldn't face dragging myself to the GP for a prescription; and partially because I was having odd pains and wanted to see if the Pill was affecting me in that way.
Eight months on, I haven't had a single panic attack.
Eight months on, I haven't needed a single sick day for my mental health.
I'm not naive enough to think I am magically cured, and I still have days where I feel the depression rearing its ugly head. The crucial difference for me is that I've started seeing it as something to be managed. I've taught myself to recognise the signs and look after myself accordingly. If I need to cancel plans and take time for myself, I do. I'm trying to feel less guilty about it, because it's a condition. It is nothing to feel guilty about. It is nothing to feel ashamed about. It's a part of me, it's a part of my life, but I don't want it to rule my life. I'll treat it like any other physical condition I've had; like a bad period, or a bout of flu, if I feel the depression coming on, I'll give myself the care I need.
Today is World Mental Health Day. If you've suffered, or think you may be suffering, take a minute to look after yourself. Take a minute to breathe, and remind yourself it isn't a reflection on you. Depression does not define you. Asking for help does not make you weak. If you had flu, you'd look after yourself. If you had an infection you'd go to the doctor. Mental health is just as important as your physical health, if not more so - as it can impact on your physical health too. If you've ever wondered about getting help or advice, please take the time to do so today.
Lots of love,