It’s World Mental Health Day today, and I wanted to take a moment to talk to you about the different ways in which our mental health can suffer. Because none of us are immune to this, no matter how much we may like to think we are. And so it’s important to remember that not being okay is not a sign of weakness, but rather a natural part of human life.
For some people not being okay is something that only happens from time to time. Certain events in their lives such as illness in the family, strained relationships, worries about work, financial insecurity etc can wear down even the most naturally upbeat and positive person. For them, their mental health may recover relatively quickly once the stressful situation is over. Or it may not. But it is very clearly linked to events happening in their lives, whether passing incidents that are soon forgotten or traumas they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
For others, depression and anxiety are constant companions, cropping up throughout their lives without any kind of correlation to specific events. It may even seem that their lives are just one long stream of stressful situation after stressful situation, a pattern they cannot get out of no matter how much they try.
It’s okay to not be okay
The point I’m trying to make is that there are uncountable reasons why somebody may be struggling with their mental health. But regardless of the cause, mental health issues are hard, and it’s okay to not be okay.
So often we feel the need to hide behind a mask, never showing how we truly feel. I remember working in one environment where I felt discriminated against based on my health and ended up diagnosed with depression. I would get home from work every night, physically and emotionally exhausted, and sob for hours at the thought that it would never get any easier. Yet one of the cleaners at work mentioned how much he loved seeing my bright and cheery smile every day.
It’s often easier to hide behind a smile than to show the cracks, especially when already being treated as “weak” for some other reason (for me it was my battle with Endometriosis at that time). But it’s time we, as a society, began to accept that mental health issues are a normal part of life, so that we can end the stigma and begin to make it easier for people to be okay with not being okay.
Anxiety and Depression can show up in many different ways
Anxiety and depression are no strangers to me. Looking back I can see that I’ve battled with them many times over the years. But nobody ever told me that they could show up in your life in lots of different ways, so it has taken me years to recognise some of these for what they are.
So many times in my life I have thought that I must just be weak and silly, even allowing others to paint me with those brushes too, rather than seeing it for what it was – mental health issues. So I thought I would list some of the ways they have shown up in my life, in case any of these seem familiar to you too. Often the specific details may be different for you, but perhaps the feeling behind them may be the same, so I’ve highlighted the parts you may relate to. I’ve also tried to break them up into several key themes, for ease of viewing:
Mental Health Issues connected to Social Anxiety
- I spent most of my teen years terrified of my own voice. I couldn’t even verbally give our order to the man in the chip shop, even though I saw him every week, instead giving him a piece of paper with it written on. For this same reason I dreaded Drama lessons, for fear of being ridiculed. And when my friend persuaded me to join her church choir, I spent 7 months miming and feeling like a total and utter loser and fraud. And because I was so terrified, I couldn’t even tell the choir master how I felt. Until one day I couldn’t take it anymore and simply didn’t turn up. The anxiety of being there and failing to get over my fear and actually sing was suddenly greater than my fear of letting people down by not going. But I felt so embarrassed that I haven’t been back to that church ever since, and it’s been almost 20 years!
- Following an incident at primary school, when I suddenly began to feel sick whilst sitting in front of the assembly awaiting to show my work, I developed Emetophobia. It started with a fear of getting sick at school, and so I began to avoid eating at school because I thought that meant I couldn’t get sick. Over time this developed into not wanting to feel full (it didn’t help that feeling full often did make me feel nauseated, thanks to my EDS), and so I began to eat less and less at home too. I dreaded eating out at restaurants, and began to avoid certain high risk foods. Emetophobia controlled so much of my teen years, including forcing me to make excuses to never eat at a friend’s house, and made me feel like an utter fool, because I knew it wasn’t rational but I simply couldn’t change how I felt. After several years of it not really being an issue, it has unfortunately reared its ugly head in recent years with how often I feel and get sick these days.
Mental Health Issues connected to Physical Illness and Disability
- Having been a clumsy child, regularly at A&E, due to (at that point undiagnosed) Hypermobility, I became fearful of PE lessons as I simply didn’t trust my body not to hurt or make me fall over and injure myself. And that’s before we even talk about the fact that my legs didn’t seem to work in coordination with each other, and so when others were running ahead of me I’d be lagging behind, wondering why I was so useless at such a seemingly natural thing as running. So I spent years dreading PE lessons and feeling totally inadequate.
- When I was suffering from Hyperemesis during my pregnancy, I honestly thought I just wasn’t strong enough to deal with “normal pregnancy sickness” for a long time, and allowed doctors, nurses, midwives, and people in general to make me feel like I just needed to try harder and everything would be okay. Equally, when I was in labour I didn’t feel confident in expressing how I was feeling, and allowed myself to be dismissed on a couple of occasions when I really shouldn’t have. The first, when I said I really didn’t feel very well and they told me to get some rest without checking me, only to find out later I was actually really sick. The second being when I hit transition and the midwife didn’t believe I was anywhere near that point and dismissed me, only to get a shock when I gave birth a couple of hours later. Essentially I didn’t trust my own experience, because low self-esteem taught me to put others’ opinions above my own.
- Because of how physically ill I am these days, and how hard it is to plan ahead with anything, I avoid making plans as much as I can. I hate to have to cancel, and so despite desperately wanting to see other people, I do not even think about trying to meet up with anyone. And when I do make plans, usually for things I cannot avoid such as medical appointments, I worry about whether I’ll be well enough for days, even weeks, beforehand.
Mental Health Issues connected to Work & Education
- Despite being very sick for a fair bit of my university education, including being diagnosed with Endometriosis and prescribed some really strong hormonal tablets for my time in Russia (which totally messed with my head), I always framed my experience as, “I blagged my way through that and don’t deserve to feel proud“, rather than seeing that I’d gained a good degree whilst being very poorly.
- When working in a role I eventually realised I was ill-prepared for and totally overwhelmed by, I allowed myself to be framed as “not coping well enough” because I believed that was true. My anxiety left me unable to eat, sleep, or function in any reasonable way, and I lost the ability to stand back and look at what I had achieved, because all I could see was the one part I needed help with. And because the work had impacted my mental health so severely, I left feeling utterly traumatised and still struggle with feelings of both failure and having being failed.
These are just some of the ways in which anxiety has shown its ugly head in my life over the years. There are several more. As I say, these are very specific examples from my own life, but I hope that by sharing them it will help to shine some light on how many different ways anxiety and depression can affect our lives. It isn’t as simple as being sad or blue, although that can be a part of it for some people.
There’s more I would like to say, but I simply cannot look at my screen any longer. And in the interests of self-care, I am going to end this post here and leave you with the links to some resources you might find helpful. Please remember that is it okay to not be okay, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it as something you simply have to put up with. There is so much support out there, and it is time we ended the stigma around mental illness, so that everyone feels able to reach out and say, “hey, actually, I’m not okay,” and receive the care and support they deserve. So please, if you’re struggling today, reach out to somebody.
Mind – The Mental Health Charity
Samaritans – Call 116 123 (in the UK) to talk to someone for free
Time To Change – Let’s End Mental Health Discrimination
The Mighty – Making Health About People