I’ve had this post knocking around in various forms for probably nearing three years now. It’s a subject that I feel quite passionate about, and thus I find it very hard to articulate myself eloquently enough to put into words exactly what I want to say. There’s a lot of ground to cover and, given the nature of it, my experiences are different every single day.
October 10th was World Mental Health Day. A day dedicated to raising awareness of any and all mental health conditions. Even if you have never suffered from a mental health condition yourself, I can almost guarantee that you will know at least one person who has. 1 in 4 people will suffer from some sort of mental health condition in their lifetime. It doesn’t matter if it’s anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia or something else entirely – they’re all things that need to be talked about with as much seriousness as any chronic physical illness.
And so here I am, doing exactly that.
After a year of increasing sadness in my last year of college, I was diagnosed with a mental illness in the Autumn of 2012. I was at university, absolutely hating it and getting gradually more and more miserable as time went on. At the time, it had never even occurred to me that there might be something wrong – I just figured that my low mood was a byproduct of my abrupt arrival into fully-functioning adulthood, combined with the realisation that further education was absolutely not suited to me and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I started having panic attacks, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night uncontrollably crying for absolutely no reason at all. I phoned in sick to work on more than one occasion, just because I felt too sad and scared to move from my bed. I would either sleep too much or hardly at all, and there were days where I wouldn’t even leave my room. The worst part was that there was nothing in particular that made me anxious – it was just a constant, nagging feeling of dread. I also became “overwhelmingly self-conscious”. Not just things like whether or not I’ve got food stuck in my teeth, or whether or not it just looked like I was picking my nose when I was actually readjusting my nose piercing (that happens a lot), but ridiculous things like “Oh my God I think I just blinked too slowly”, “Am I breathing too heavily? I’m breathing too heavily”, “I’ve just moved my hand slightly too far to the left oh my God why did I do that”. Of course that manner of thinking is completely irrational – but I was absolutely convinced that everyone in my surrounding was watching me like a hawk, waiting for me to do something they could call me out on. Not surprisingly, nobody ever has.
That’s what made it so exhausting to deal with – I knew for a fact that the way I was feeling was completely ludicrous – but there was nothing I could do to stop the thoughts from creeping in.
Eventually I decided that I’d had enough. I went to see a doctor about it and from there, a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with depression and generalised anxiety disorder.
The discovery that there was actually something wrong with me changed my entire perspective on how I was feeling. I’d always just accepted that I was a natural worrier and that was who I was and who I was always going to be. Being told I had an actual, real, chemical imbalance was a glimmer of hope – because it meant that the way I was feeling was only temporary and there was a real possibility that I could change it. Unfortunately, that glimmer of hope was swiftly extinguished by my psychiatrist, who discharged me after four or five sessions because he thought I “seemed too happy” to warrant any more. To this day, I have absolutely no idea how I gave him that impression, but I thought that if an actual mental health professional was telling me I didn’t need help, then how I was feeling was as good as it was ever going to get.
It took me a very long time to build up the courage to go back to a doctor again. It wasn’t until the middle of last year when I was prescribed with a course of citalopram, an SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) which increases the amount of serotonin in my body by preventing it from being reabsorbed by my brain. I wasn’t hugely optimistic about their efficiency – especially when the doctor told me they would take up to six weeks before I noticed a difference, and also that there was a tiny chance that they might make me suicidal. They didn’t, but they did have the weirdest mix of side effects – for the first three days, everything was in slow motion. After that had passed, I had a constantly dry mouth and I couldn’t stop yawning, peeing or shaking. Sometimes all at once. Eventually these passed, and after about five weeks it suddenly dawned on me – I felt better. I didn’t feel constantly nervous. The constant worry wasn’t as pressing and invasive as it had been before, and the empty space in my chest felt like it was gradually being filled. I wasn’t cured – but it was the first step down that clichéd road to recovery.
My mental health has been a massive part of my life for nearly six years. It’s had an impact on everything I’ve done. Some days it makes life hard, and other days I barely notice it’s there. The way I try and describe it is like “background sadness”, like when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone in a room where the television is on in the background. No matter how much you try to give that conversation your full attention, you can still hear the TV. Some days the volume is so loud that you’re struggling to hear what the other person is even saying. Other days it’s so quiet that you barely even realise it’s on – but you can always see the picture flickering over their shoulder.
I’ve had many occasions where I’ve gotten up and said “right. Enough is enough” – and for a while, things are okay. But it often stops there. Things rarely escalate beyond “okay”. It means that I can function to a degree but I still struggle to find enjoyment. It all sounds very doom and gloom – and believe me, it feels it too, especially when I do a job that I am blessed to love as much as I do, only to be held back so strongly by the fear that something is going to go wrong. Not only does it make me feel miserable, but puts a great deal of pressure on the people around me – the wonderful girls in the salon who put up with me when I’m not feeling great and take on the extra burden if I’m struggling to do a particular dog. My friends, who have had to deal with me cancelling on plans if I haven’t been feeling so well but still invite me anyway. My best friend, who has dealt very gracefully with all my venting and has always been a pillar of support, even when he’s had his own things going on. My parents, who are still very much in the dark about the extent of things but continue to support me anyway.
For now, I am getting better. – I’m beginning to realise how far I’ve come since I was at university. I’m challenging myself to push through things that make me anxious – whether that’s grooming a dog that I think is going to bite me, getting on the train to London on my own or going on a date with someone I’ve only just met. I don’t want to say that these things would have been impossible beforehand, but they would have been seriously difficult. I’m still on the antidepressants and I’m beginning to learn how to be more open about what’s going on in my head. I’ve never been especially secretive about it, but this is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve been able to address it on a wider scale. I’m not going to end this post with some inspirational spiel about how I feel like I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel or anything like that, because I know that it’s probably never going to be that simple. Even though I feel okay now, something could happen that sets me back a year – and that’s okay.
If you’re still with me at this point, I just want to say thank you for taking the time to read my strange jumble of letters. My WordPress draft tells me that I started writing this in 2013, and I’m only just now finding the words to say and the courage to post it. A particularly big thank you to the people who’ve been there for me in the last few years – everyone at Pets At Home for putting up with me and being so patient when I was being utterly useless, Conor and Saville for always looking after me and letting me stay with you when I didn’t want to be alone. Billy for being my pillar of strength and for pushing me to get help. Emily for being the most amazing best friend I could hope for; William for turning up in my life at precisely the right time, and for humouring me the night we met and I took “dutch courage” to an embarrassing level. To Andrew for being there for me, despite being on the other side of the world and then the other side of Europe, and to Emma, Steph and the girls in the Groom Room for taking over certain dogs if I couldn’t handle it. There are countless other people who have supported me and looked out for me, but if I were to list every single one then it will take me another three years to post this! Just know that I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you and I can’t thank you enough for all you have done for me.
Before this starts to sound any more like an awards acceptance speech, I think it’s about time I wrapped it up. After all that, I can’t actually think of a way to conclude – so I’ll leave you with this quote which for me, sums everything up perfectly:
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new” – Socrates
Thank you very much for reading.