It’s the last day of May today. May’s a great month, especially here in America, because it generally means Summer – and vacation from school – is almost here. Seven school days and counting…! 🙂
But May is also Mental Health Awareness month. It’s taken me all thirty one days to decide whether or not to post this, but here’s a fact that helped me to decide:
1 in 6 people in England will suffer from mental health issues this week alone.
And here’s the next fact:
I’m that 1 in 6.
Mental health is no joke. Mental illness is real. As real as a broken bone. No, scrap that – that’s a bad comparison, because a broken bone only stays broken for so long. You take the cast off and it’s nothing more than a memory of that time you slipped on black ice and heard a crack. It’s good as new once the treatment’s done and you don’t tread any lighter on that leg every day because you worry it might break again.
Mental illness is not like a broken bone. It takes longer to heal. Sometimes it doesn’t ever fully heal and it’s like that china ornament you put back together with glue only to still see the cracks every time you look at it. The marks of being broken remain. Whether it’s bipolar or anxiety or phobias or, like me, depression, mental health is a rainbow of different things and because it affects a rainbow of different people, no two stories of it are the same.
Even today, with that 1 in 6 people experiencing mental illness, people still find it difficult to talk about. ‘Oh it’s all in your head’, they’ll say. Well yes, it is, but as our brains control our bodies, that’s no small thing. ‘You’re such a buzzkill,’ they’ll say. ‘Just shake it off’. ‘Have you tried being thankful for what you have?’ ‘Plenty of people have it worse off than you, you know?’
I’m not afraid to talk about mental illness because it is a part of my story. Ignoring it or pretending it was anything other than what it was will not change it. I’m going to take my cues from the wise Ms Granger here and remember that fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself. So I call my depression what it was – what it is – because trying to paint it as that thing that creative geniuses have, or a ‘tricky time’, or anything else is to belittle it’s significance.
I was 21 years old. I was in my final year of my degree, training to be a teacher. I had been a high achiever all my life and was no stranger to pressures and heavy workloads. But for whatever reason, during that final teaching practice, my world changed. I got a satisfactory lesson observation and could not laugh it off this time. I found myself skipping my lunch and then stuffing my tear-stained face with chocolate on the tram ride home and I didn’t know why. I walked through my days like a zombie, my feet taking me places, leaving me wondering how I got there in the first place. I did not feel like me. Of course, I did what I always did: I ignored it and carried on. Until one Friday night.
I remember that evening so clearly. I cried for a little while on the journey home but by the time I walked through the door I felt nothing. I did, robotically, what I always did when I had a bad day: I picked up a book. My old favourite, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I read the first page. I read it again. And again. And I could not understand the words. I mean, I knew what they said, but somewhere there was a disconnect between that page and my brain and they got lost somewhere. I wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone who asked me what I was reading, even though that book was as familiar to me as my own heartbeat.
That’s when I knew something was really wrong. Something that I could not ignore.
Things got worse from there and, with my mum in tow, I went to the doctors. I was given a questionnaire to fill in while I sat in the waiting room. I had depression, the doctor told us. Take these drugs, he said.
So I did. I went home, watched TV without watching TV, went to sleep without sleeping, and woke up without being awake at all. I was numb to everything. Some days I would cry, other times all I would do is sit. I became scared to leave the house. I had to leave university. I had to attend counselling and then, when things didn’t get better, a therapist had to come to the house because I couldn’t leave it.
Some days, the drugs worked and I was happy for a little while. No, not happy, but energized. But then they wore off and I’d be back to the dark and colourless place that had become my new life. I missed out on memories with my young nephew and niece, missed my university graduation and graduation ball, lost months of time. All I wanted to do was fall asleep and not wake up.
It took a good year, more even, to get back to some semblance of who I was. But it’s a part of me now. In stressful times, I can still feel that black dog lurking close by. I can feel the anxieties kicking in and the colours around me fading a little. What has changed is that I know what these things are now, I know it’s name, I know how to deal with it. We are not friends, depression and me, but we have learned to be cordial to each other. And I have learned this: I am stronger than it.
People find their way out of darkness in different ways; my way out was with a pen and paper. One of my favourite people gave me a gift when I moved to America, a gift of a notebook with special words written in it for me as I write my own. Every time I doubt my strength, I read those words and I smile because I am reminded that while depression is a part of my story, I do not have to give it the starring role.
I’m not telling my story to you in the hopes of sympathy or a pat on the back for getting through it or anything else other than awareness. Anyone – you, your friend, your partner, your child – absolutely anyone can find themselves having to deal with mental health. High pressure jobs, changes in circumstances, or simply something completely chemical in our brains: it can happen to anyone. Mental illness is not something that only attacks the weak or wounded. It is not particular and it is not forgiving.
So we have to be. We have to be forgiving and honest and open. We have to address the issue. We have to talk about it. And we have to stop making it a joke. We have to stop saying, ‘Oh I’m so depressed’ when our favourite TV show doesn’t end the way we want it to, because depression is not sadness or the blues, it is a life lived in monochrome, a live where really living stops. We have to stop telling people who are depressed to simply smile and move on, because in the depths of depression smiles are an alien thing that soul-weary muscles cannot even fathom let alone attempt. We have to stop treating people with mental illness as weak because there’s is nothing stronger than a soul that has clawed its way out of darkness. Heroes are made in the midst of battles, not in their absence.
So as we go into June, please don’t let that be the end of mental health awareness. Talk about it still. Don’t be afraid to say the words. Remember that it’s okay to not be okay. And it’s okay to be there for your friends even if you don’t understand everything they are going through. Just to be present, to be forgiving, and to listen, is enough.