I’m supporting this campaign by Rethink, to encourage people to talk about mental health. Because it’s hard to speak about it publicly, because there is a stigma attached to mental illness which does not apply to most physical illnesses, because it feels like a weakness, because you think you’re the only one, because you’re afraid (of what you’re experiencing, and of how other people will react).
I wish I could say that ‘coming out’ in this context is always met with outpourings of support and love and help. There’s a lot of that.
But there’s also – telling your boss you’re having treatment (medication and counselling) for depression, and her (a) telling other colleagues to keep an eye on you, (b) telling the management board that you have mental health problems and (c) generally treating you from there on in as a problem, not a colleague who’s having a problem. That was about ten years back – would it be different now? It depends on the workplace, on the boss. It’s risky, and if now I would (and do) say things publicly it’s because in the time since that dark episode I’ve gained in strength and confidence and because what happened to me then made me angry and determined to challenge those attitudes.
Of course there’s also the whole ‘pull yourself together’ thing that will surface, explicitly or implicitly. Especially if your life circumstances don’t ‘justify’ your depression. If bad things have happened to you, and your illness seems to be a result of that, the sympathy will probably be more straightforward. If your life is outwardly fine, then some people – including kind, loving people – will feel that you should be able to sort yourself out.
But a lot of the stuff that deters one from talking openly is internal, not external. No one told me I didn’t have a right to feel depressed because I was physically healthy, employed, solvent and had people who loved me. I told myself that. No one told me I was a failure and a mess, because, since I left the house every day washed, appropriately dressed and apparently functioning, only I knew (for the most part) that I was a failure and a mess. No one told me I couldn’t be really depressed because I kept leaving the house every day washed appropriately dressed and apparently functioning – that was me, telling myself that – as I read account after account of depression, hoping to see myself in there – I obviously didn’t have a serious problem and should be able to sort myself out.
How do you measure the seriousness of depression? I was never hospitalised, I had very little time off work, I was never unable to get up and go through the motions of life. But for a long time I had that nasty little mantra in my mind throughout my conscious day and every time I woke during the night, and for a long time I only smiled when people could see me. For a long time I saw my life as trudging on, up hill all the way, fog and gloom all around me so that I couldn’t see where I was heading, or even see that I wasn’t alone on the path. I wrote a poem along those lines, a very bad poem, long since deleted, but at the time it helped to write it down. People who didn’t know me really well didn’t know – but they sensed something, or perhaps the lack of something, a spark . I had a few job interviews during this period and the feedback suggested a lack of enthusiasm or interest in the post, a lack of dynamism and energy.
Partly, you realise how bad it’s been when it starts to get better. When the mantra stopped. When my smile stayed on my face after I’d shut the door, when no one but me was there. When the fog cleared and I could see that however far I still had to trudge on uphill there was a beautiful view from where I was, and there were people alongside me.
I’m talking about this now – more publicly than I ever have before – because I’m prompted by the Rethink campaign to share my story. And because I know that some people who know me will be surprised, and may think I’m ‘not the type’, but may therefore rethink their assumptions. As you look around you, in a lecture or a meeting, at a party or a gig, there will be people there, talking and laughing and making decisions and relating to those around them, who are or have been in the grip of depression or anxiety, who are struggling with or have struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders, who are experiencing or have known the intense highs and lows of bipolar disorder. You’ll never know, unless they dare to share it with you.
It’s a part of me, I think, that propensity to slip into the pit. I stay out of it mainly by being busy enough, with lots of things I care about and that bring me joy, but not so busy that I succumb to anxiety and sleepless nights and feelings of panic. I know the signs now, and can usually take preventative steps before I start to slip. Once you’re in there, it’s hard to get out, as Alyssa Day’s blog vividly and powerfully describes.
It shouldn’t be so hard to talk about this stuff. It is, still, and I will press Publish on this post with more trepidation than for anything else I’ve sent out into the blogosphere.
But it really is time to talk.