Well, this isn’t going to be an easy post to write. But as it’s World Mental Health Day, it feels like the right time.
Only recently have I opened up my blog to people outside my immediate family and a few friends. Now I’m writing the most personal post I’ve ever written.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
There, it’s done. I said it.
And guess what? I am not unique. Far from it, actually. According to the Mental Health Foundation:
- 1 in 4 people will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year
- Over 70 million workdays per year are lost due to mental health issues, making it the leading cause of illness-related work absences
- Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain
- Major depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide
So if it’s so common, why isn’t it talked about more? Well, probably for the same reason I never talk about my experiences.
Although in recent years awareness around mental health has definitely increased, and there’s more and more campaigns aiming to reduce the stigma, it’s still a big problem. I think this is mostly down to ignorance and a lack of understanding by people who’ve never experienced these issues themselves (or been close to someone who has).
Anxiety is not “stress”. Depression is not “sadness”. Absolutely nothing associated with mental illness is “just attention-seeking”.
Though anxiety and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders, there are of course many others out there. I can only speak of what I know and have experienced myself.
My story is not unique, it’s not special, it’s not even particularly interesting. But I suppose that just further illustrates how normal it is to go through this.
I’ve always been someone who experiences emotions more intensely than others and I can go from high to low incredibly swiftly and sharply. Of course, this was put down to “moodiness” for most of my life.
But come my mid-twenties, I was well and truly past any hormonal mood swings, yet I still didn’t feel in control of my emotions.
My reactions often felt totally disproportionate to the situation I was in. Things upset me more than they should, I handled change terribly, and when I felt annoyed or angry over the smallest things, my chest felt like it was being squeezed into a teeny, tiny ball. Once that grip eventually loosened, I just felt incredibly low; deflated, almost.
Then came a really low period in my life. Nothing particularly major happened but this low was triggered by a multitude of different life events, changes and realisations that I just didn’t have the tools to handle.
I could barely get out of bed, I would cry at the drop of a hat and wouldn’t be able to stop, I was either sleeping too much or not at all, I found it hard to leave the house except for work, and I suffered full-blown panic attacks in my office to the point where my boss phoned in an ambulance one time as I was struggling to breathe and my lips were turning blue. Fun times.
After years of thinking something wasn’t quite right, it all came rushing to the surface within a relatively short timeframe and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
It was time I got help.
I’ve heard some horror stories about people’s experiences with dismissive GPs but luckily for me, my doctor was fantastic. She was non-judgemental, patient and reassuring. After talking to me for far longer than the allotted five-minute appointment, she explained that she thought I was suffering from both anxiety and depression and went through a range of treatment options. We settled on low dosage antidepressants and a series of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
The pills made me feel like absolute rubbish the first few days. But they soon settled down and over time and through experimentation, we found the right dose for me.
One thing that worried me about taking antidepressants was becoming a zombie. Thankfully this hasn’t happened. I find my moods are much more “level” for sure but I still feel the full range of emotions!
CBT on the other hand was not my favourite thing. If you’re not familiar with it, CBT is a type of therapy focusing on dealing with your problems in a positive way. It’s not about digging up the past and having your head “shrunk”; it’s about breaking down problems, finding practical ways to handle present issues, and improving your current state of mind. It involves a lot of worksheets.
This all sounds well and good but for me, it was all too uncomfortable. I felt as though I had no business being depressed. I didn’t feel like I had a right to be there as things weren’t that bad, right? I worried that my therapist was judging me (I’m sure she wasn’t!) as she must have seen so many people in worse situations than me.
But that’s the nasty thing about depression; it doesn’t care how good or bad you’ve got it, whether you’re rich or poor, single or loved up, employed or unemployed, have a loving family, a close group of friends, are an award-winning actress…
Depression doesn’t give a shit.
It just invades whomever it wants, regardless of circumstance.
Its cousin anxiety is just as ruthless.
Anxiety for me is generally irrational. I know it’s ridiculous to feel so anxious about leaving the house, or to worry for hours about the odd look someone gave me in the supermarket, or to melt down over a tiny change in schedule.
At the back of my mind, I am aware that these things are nothing to be worried about but it doesn’t make the tight chest, the raised heart rate, the jittery feet and hands, or the inability to concentrate any less real.
After learning to accept that, it got easier.
Honestly, the best thing I can say is talk to someone. A friend, a relative, a colleague… find someone to talk to and don’t be afraid of your own honesty.
This doesn’t mean you have to tell the world. Until now, I’ve told very few people about my struggles with mental health. My immediate family knows, a few close friends, and a couple of my superiors at work (as it’s pretty hard to leave early once a week for therapy for without them noticing…).
I am by no means saying that talking about it will solve the problem. Far from it. But at least you won’t be going it alone.
More importantly, talk to a professional. If you feel dismissed, talk to a different doctor. They – more than anyone – can help.
Find what works for you. You may not want to take pills. That’s fine. They worked for me (aside from some pretty hefty weight gain… Joy.) but that doesn’t mean they are right for everyone.
Perhaps CBT will be your saving grace. Perhaps not.
It’s trial and error to find what works for you so just persevere until you find it.
Actually, turns out this post was incredibly easy to write after all. The words just flowed and it was quite cathartic!
But now for the hard part… Going public.