Several months ago, I started seeing a counsellor. A few sessions in, he very gently informed me that when it comes to my own mental health, I’m excellent at the theory. That I had heightened self-awareness and self-honesty. Heartbreakingly eager to get my hands on anything vaguely resembling a compliment, in the hope of silencing the sneering bitch that lives in my head, I took it as a sign that I was on the right path and that soon I would be cured.
I had been feeling low for a long time, interspersed with adrenaline-pumping panic attacks, but took stupid pride in how well I was coping – look at me, functioning even though my soul hurts. My brain took this as an indication that I obviously wasn’t feeling dark enough, and switched all the fucking lights off, leaving me with nothing but static hum in my head. In the terrified hatred of despair, or in the breathless grip of panic, all a person craves is for those thoughts and feelings to stop.
As it turns out, when the bad fairy turned up granting wishes, it actually wasn’t that great. Everything in my head disappeared, and I lost all my words. The tiny, lucid fragment that had survived the cull wondered where the hell I had gone, but there wasn’t any energy left to cobble together the relevant narrative. It felt like I had died. All I could do was feel. And I felt like shit.
Not only could I no longer function, I couldn’t be bothered to put clean knickers on. I shuffled from bed to sofa like a furtive cavewoman, only with fewer linguistic abilities and hygiene standards. Fortunately, this particular behaviour was cut short by a variety of techniques employed by my boyfriend (love, hugs, bribery), mother (encouragement, maternal love) and sister (positive reinforcement and “get in the fucking shower, you skank”).
I was frightened to leave the house. I was scared of being in it by myself. It made me realise that the people who professed to love me really meant it. My friend sent me a message saying that she realised I might not want to do stuff, but she was going to keep asking me anyway, for when I was ready. A lot of people find it hard to let go and lean on others (pride is a nuisance like that). Turns out, they could all see right through my coping façade anyway, so it was actually very healing to accept the support.
Now, bear with me. Gestaltism is used by psychotherapists to develop a person’s self-awareness in a non-judgemental way. Literally, it is a German word which loosely translates as ‘pattern’ or ‘form’. The idiosyncrasies of a whole entity, comprising of the different individual traits of its components (think of it as Marvel’s Avengers films – an overall theme conveyed by very different characters). In a sense, it is how we try to order our perceptions of the world in a way that makes sense to us, and our personal context. The non-judgemental bit is where I made a right bollocks of things. I made excuses for everyone except me, which meant I stopped accepting myself. The vocabulary to explain how depression feels is difficult to access, but for me I suppose it is a sort of rejection of self. By becoming so porous to the society around me, I had unintentionally absorbed a culture which actually just did not fit. You can keep pumping the wrong blood type in, but your cells will get pretty stroppy about it. And it will hurt.
Perfect people, living perfect lives on whichever social media platform those pesky kids use these days, will convince you that you’re the only person feeling out of step. I felt that it was my fault that I didn’t belong. Now I realise that when you feel this way, you have a responsibility to look after yourself. For example, in a professional dimension, your employers have an obligation to ensure that the environment you inhabit is conducive, within reason, to your ability to work well. If they are unwilling to provide this, then please, I beg you, walk the hell away. No salary should be worth you. The same for any other aspect of your life where this might happen.
That said, it is very difficult to let go of anything you have spent time doing, or being, or have experienced, even if it is detrimental to your state of mind. It took me a very long time to identify the problem, and even longer to admit to it. In her excellent book Sane New World, Ruby Wax talks about the culture of busy. That we exert ourselves just for the sake of having things to do. It becomes competitive, as though by having the longest to-do list we can demonstrate that we have a purpose. It validates us. Well, I spent about five months (and counting) where my only objective was to get dressed and brush my hair.
Of course, not everyone has this luxury, nor might they feel they have the love and support of the people around them. For this, I am one of the lucky ones. Having had that time, I can see what my triggers are and the way that I react to them. I learnt that by being very busy doing things only for other people, I was validating them, not myself. In fact, I was erasing myself. (But only mentally. Physically, my arse went nowhere).
Depression forces a person to become very selfish in that it renders them absolutely incapable of doing anything. As the episode eases off, there is joy to be had in practising selflessness. But find the balance. I do not always get this right. At times, I have said no to something just for the sake of experimentation. This is fine, but I probably should have chosen a more appropriate moment to do so, rather than refusing to let that poor chap pull out of the junction ahead of me in heavy traffic. He’s probably still there. I should take him a sandwich.
The very fact that I can write this means I’m not quite as much in the dark place. Not ‘cured’, but ‘better’. Waving a leg through the door, so it gets a bit of sunshine, perhaps. So many people advise being kind to yourself. Even Shakespeare told us “to thine own self be true”. Double thumbs up, Polonius, now tell me, what exactly is it that I want? This is where the self-awareness needs to be handled with some tenderness. Are you using it only as a tool with which to find your faults, and obsess over them? I struggled with learning how to redirect this trait towards my actual needs, let alone grappling with the scary concept of admitting them and doing something about it. It can be too easy to get washed away by other people; that includes the eroding forces of the boxes you try to fit yourself into. After denying my depression for so long, I have had to find ways to demonstrate to myself that it doesn’t now define me.
Fortunately, we live in enlightened times. Mental health awareness is finding its way out of the margins and into popular culture. It has become less taboo a subject. However, it’s worth noting that these conversations are likely much easier in broadly generic terms, or about other people. Because mental health issues only happen to other people, don’t they? Nope. It is OK to put your hand up and be counted. After going through a truly shite experience, someone told me that they had decided to share it with others, so they could open themselves up to the potential for love, comfort and support. With that in mind, some months after a breakdown, I decided to wipe off some of the snot and tears and write a blog post about it. It was very cathartic. The most surprising people responded with tales of their own. Everyone has a story to tell, of a time they thought they wouldn’t make it. I was told that it is normal for these feelings to return sometimes, and you just have to sit tight and wait for them to go again. More than a few people told me to experiment to try and discover which techniques might help.
Counselling. Different therapists have their own preferences regarding the school of thought they might employ, some of which might not suit you. Being an intensely private person, I found it very difficult to find someone with whom I felt comfortable. Shop around. I now have sessions with someone who understands where my brain is going, and knows how to shepherd me to the next box I need to open. Which is impressive because it’s all a bit weird in there. I’m laughing as I write this, at how past-me would feel about all this. Ha, self-indulgent behaviour! How melodramatic. Actually, what a relief to give all that baggage to someone else to dispose of.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) was also useful for me. Now that I recognise how I react in particular circumstances, I can learn to change the bad habits into good ones. For example, someone enters a room and slams the door. Old me will scuttle about in terror finding the cause of the anger and a subsequent solution. New me (well, she’s under construction) questions why the door slammed. Is it just because a window is open and it caught the breeze? Anxious people question everything. One way to ease the stress is to ask different questions. You see where this is going. Like learning anything new, it takes a bit of practice until it becomes natural and you stop thinking about it first. I’m remembering when I learnt to drive, and that time my sister needed to eat multiple Crunchies while I stalled her car repeatedly as the traffic lights changed three times. I was dispirited, but had faith I would get the hang of things. I’m trying to apply that to my mental health.
Look after your physical self. A lot of well-meaning people told me to pamper myself. Remember the bit where I had no motivation to wear anything but pyjamas? I can remember brushing my hair one day. It took ages. I cried. The next day, I did that and I cleaned my teeth. It helped to find things I liked doing. In itself, that might be part of the mission. The next day, you might actually do them. Miss your target? No sweat. Stick around and try again tomorrow.
There is a lot to be said for eating well and exercising. All those endorphins rushing about in there will devour the ‘sad’ chemicals. Bashing up the biscuits for a whopping great cheesecake is also very therapeutic. Eat the cheesecake. Balance.
When I still had the mask on, I never would have written this. Had I read it, likely I would have found it glib to the point of insult. I suppose the Stereophonics had it right when they said ‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’. On the days when it’s dreadful, every minute will seem so long. But each minute you get through is a little extra fuel for the fires of optimism. Another minute spent with those black dogs, where you stared the fuckers down. Each day they become a bit smaller, more manageable. I promise. I promise. Good luck.
Words Elizabeth Hughes
Illustration Nick Taylor