My mental health story

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Me telling my life story to around 40 people – January 2018, New Life Foundation, Thailand

I have spent so long trying to hide and cover up the fact that I experience severe anxiety (and depression that comes with that) and it’s incredibly tiring …tiring to have high levels of anxiety in the first place and an extra layer of tiring to cover it up. And for what? To protect other people, to hide the shame I feel about being anxious, to hide my own vulnerability, to pretend that everything’s fine when it isn’t because it’s sometimes easier that way? I want to speak up about it now because a) it helps me; in fact, it’s the only way I can really heal, and b) the stigma surrounding mental health still exists, despite some promising movement in the direction of reducing that stigma thanks to mental health campaigns and the like, and I’d like to add my own efforts to that momentum.

I’ve just spent nearly three months at a mindfulness-based recovery centre in northern Thailand and am still not ‘cured’ of anxiety, and today I left there feeling emotional and stuck in my thoughts. However, if there’s one thing I have learnt from my time there, it’s that honesty, openness and talking about it are really, really important, and that there are kind and understanding people who are willing to hear and accept you and your mind, however difficult, confronting and inconvenient it may be.

So, in the interests of honesty and disclosure, here goes. For the last three years I’ve had recurrent, repetitive, intrusive and highly distressing suicidal thoughts. I have been more or less functional for some of that time and have worked for short periods and completed a teaching diploma. I’ve had romantic flings and taken up rock climbing. However, I have been a prisoner of my own mind for much of it. My mind tells me that I should kill myself because it’s better for me as I’ll always be unwell and unable to stand on my own two feet, emotionally-speaking. It tells me that I’m stupid for staying alive and that I’m denying myself if I don’t commit suicide. Buddhist teachers tell us that we are not our thoughts, but then what are we when our thoughts are all-consuming and relentless and feel so real? My mind repeatedly kicks me for mistakes I made prior to this episode which precipitated it. There have been times, particularly in the first few months of this episode, when I was literally screaming in emotional pain from those thoughts, rocking backwards and forwards in a ball in the corner of my childhood bedroom at my mum’s house day after day, unable to leave the floor, let alone the house.

With medication and time, things are nowhere near as acutely painful as they were back then, but sometimes it takes over and I crash into overwhelming despair. Today was one of those days. However, without pushing myself in any way and in my attempt to practise full acceptance of my experiences, I cried a lot and told friends how I felt, I stayed in my hotel room in town, wrote down some of this, smoked two thirds of a packet of cigarettes in bed, talked a bit to some friends on WhatsApp and Messenger, and this evening I found myself treating myself to a haircut, massage and a pizza in town. It still utterly baffles me how I can go from desperate to reasonably human in the space of less than 8 hours.

Often I care immensely about what other people think. In my hometown I walk through the town centre and feel as though I stick out like a sore thumb because of my face, my expression, the way I walk, my clothes, my ‘aura’ and my accent when I talk to people (all of which, I’m assured, are perfectly acceptable and not especially unusual). This is all no doubt a result of being bullied at primary school, when all of the aforementioned traits were pointed out and mocked, repeatedly. I still don’t know why this happened, and in the many therapy sessions in my adult life I have tried to overcome these feelings, but they persist.

I worry about friends’, strangers’ and my family’s opinions of me. I worry that I’m too boring, too loud, too quiet, too anxious, too grumpy, too negative, too positive, too posh, not posh enough, too intellectual, not intellectual enough, and so it goes on. Something I have recently realised is that it takes me a long time to fully trust somebody, be it a friend, colleague, romantic interest, therapist, whatever. I need time to fully trust that somebody is okay with me as I am, and doesn’t have an ulterior motive to change me or to rescue me.

I think that more or less covers it. I know it’s all pretty heavy, but unfortunately mental and emotional distress usually isn’t convenient, pleasant or easy to experience or to hear about. So on that note, if you have a friend or a loved one who is suffering, one of the most helpful and loving things you can do is the old cliché – be there. As best you can, really show up for that person. Listen, try to understand, ask questions if you don’t, empathise, give real hugs and be honest. Unless you have something utterly mind-blowing up your sleeve, unsolicited advice, although it comes from a place of wanting to help, is usually unhelpful, and in my experience has often made me more stressed because I feel like I’m going to upset the giver if I don’t heed it. Plus, the chances are that your loved one has already tried yoga, meditation, herbal tea, vitamin tablets, running, walks in nature and so on. Distraction is often helpful, but not before you’ve fully listened and shown that you are hearing what your friend has to say. Take time to truly listen and accept, and then make a tea or show them a video of kittens or something.

I really hope that me sharing my story is in some way helpful to someone out there. Meanwhile, I’m still alive (and plan to remain so) and am working out ways to try being a little softer and kinder with myself, which this evening will probably include some sort of ice cream and the rest of my packet of fags.

In the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves and each other. Lots of love to you all xxx

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