Earlier this week I wrote about why it can be hard to talk about mental health. Even though I’ve written extensively and openly about having bipolar, and other auxiliary conditions, I still find it difficult to be honest about how I really feel. I know this is ridiculous; if I had flu and one of my friends asked after my health, I would tell them that I felt rubbish. So why is my immediate response ‘I’m great!’ when I’m unwell with a mental illness? Since Tuesday, when I published that post, a number of lovely people have been in touch to remind me that they care and are always available. Thank you, you mean the world to me.
I’ve given the issue some thought, and I’ve come to a few conclusions as to why so many of us find it hard to be open about our mental health. When people ask the question ‘How are you?’, they’re rarely asking for an honest answer. It’s a social convention that is more about politeness than emotional connection, a greeting rather than a request for honesty. Also, in day to day situations it’s not necessarily appropriate to confess your deepest, darkest anxieties to colleagues or acquaintances. When Nigel from HR asks whether you had a nice weekend, it’s probably best not to say that you spent Friday night in a downward spiral of self-loathing after going to town on a pizza and a tub of Haagen Dazs. After self-medicating with too much gin on Saturday night, Sunday was spent nursing a merciless hangover and the sickening realisation that life is pointless and your hopes and dreams have turned to dust. This is of course a theoretical example and one that I would know nothing about.
The chances that your colleagues will want to hear a tale of weekend woe in are slim. Tough crowd. However, it’s this continual, low level dishonesty about our emotional state that adds to the sense that our true selves are socially unacceptable and being anything other that ‘good’ or ‘very well’ is somehow shameful. People who say how they really are face the accusation of moaning, being a ‘miserable bastard’ or some other pejorative term that implies the spreading of gloom. The trouble is that depression is just a bit, well, depressing. Most people are desperately trying to stay afloat themselves, managing their own stresses and issues, so anyone who threatens their fragile good cheer is unwelcome.
With one’s closer friends and family, there is sometimes the danger that people need you to be a certain way. It’s possible that you play a role in their life and they expect you to be ‘the funny one’, or the one who will swoop in and clean up the mess when the shit hits the fan. If you’re unable to fulfil that role, they may find it upsetting and will be hurtful or unsupportive. Sadly, I lost a very dear friend because at a stressful moment, he needed me to be strong at a time when I was very unwell and incapacitated as a result. We had a massive fall-out that killed the friendship. I was furious and heart-broken and I couldn’t understand how he could have been so cold and demanding, when he knew how much pain I was in. It took a long time but I have since forgiven him and I realise that his behaviour came from his most damaged and vulnerable self. Compassion is essential for good mental health; it is imperative that you forgive your own frailties, but also forgive those who don’t understand them.
So, what positives can we take from this fairly bleak stuff? Where’s the light in all this? It’s easy to feel even more despondent when you have to make your way in a world that has little time for depression and mental illness. I guess the first nugget of hope I have to offer is to remind you that you are not alone. The pain that you are dealing with has been felt by all of humanity since humans were capable of feeling and thinking. Look at all the great art, music and literature created hundreds of years ago, which is still relevant today because it taps into the essential suffering and joy that comes with being alive. What ever you’re going though, you’ve got company. As such, there will be someone who can help you. Asking for help is one of the most challenging things to do, but if you look for it in the right place, it can be transformative. It may be that the people you feel closest to are not equipped to help you right now, and that’s ok. There will be a support group, a therapist, a phone line, or even a new friend who will understand. Keep going and try not to isolate yourself, you’ll find what you need if you keep looking.
My second piece of advice is to remember to be kind to yourself. This sounds obvious, but it’s something I have to remind myself of all the time. You need to be your own best friend and do what you can to take care of yourself. For me, that involves exercise, taking my son for walks in the park, cappuccinos, reading a good book, wearing lipstick and putting on a favourite vintage dress. They seem like small, trifling gestures, but they add up and can help brighten your mood, even just a little bit, making the world easier to manage. The trouble with depression is that you lose interest in the things you used to enjoy, so this advice is for when you feel a bit better, or as a preemptive strike when you feel yourself slipping downwards. If it does’t work, don’t beat yourself up; treat yourself with the same gentle kindness you would give someone you love.
Lastly, it’s useful to have a sense of humour. There is always a funny side, no matter how dark and painful the situation may be. I remember when my Dad was in the intensive care unit, a week or two before he died. I was alone with him and I pulled up the wheelie chair to sit at his bedside. I’m a hopeless klutz and as I slid the chair across the floor I managed to clobber the beeping machines that were keeping him alive. When I finally managed to take a seat next to him, I leant on the controls on the bed and he juddered up and down like a stuttering forklift. Dad looked at me, the old humour and arch wit gleaming in his eyes, and from beneath his oxygen mask he said ‘Got anymore winners for us?’
I hope that’s helpful to anyone who might be struggling. Whatever you’re dealing with, I’m right there with you. If you’re feeling suicidal please make sure you get the help you need and know that you can call the Samaritans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 116 123. Everything, eventually, will be ok.