At the beginning of this year I made a decision to start taking medication for my anxiety. This is part 2 in a series about making this decision and its impact.
If you want to read this from the beginning, part one can be found here.
The relief I felt about my decision to start taking anti-depressants again was sweet. Instantly my breathing regulated itself, I felt calm returning. Sometimes just the decision to do something practical about a problem can bring respite, as if one proactive action tricks us momentarily into thinking we are cured.
But hot on the heels of this relief was another feeling.
I have taken antidepressants before.
After the birth of our third child (the magnificent Ed) in 2009 I finally allowed myself the crash and burn I had been barely holding at bay for years. I was diagnosed with post-natal depression and prescribed a course of drugs. I took them for about 18 months. They really helped.
But I had believed I was one of those people who took anti-depressants once. At a particularly low point when everything fell apart I needed them, but it was a one-off thing. I thought after this ‘blip’ I would be back to being able to manage life, to keep myself sane and mentally well, never to need them again.
I thought I was going to set an example of how to live well. And because of the techniques I had learnt and the ways I had changed my life, I would succeed. I would be strong and focussed and with commitment and hard work, I would stay drug-free.
But it hasn’t worked out like that.
Second time around and I found myself blurting out to my counsellor Amanda, one thought colliding with the next,
How can I write about this stuff, how can I work, how can I continue to serve in church, how can people still think I have a valid contribution, if I need to take pills to make me normal?
A stronger or braver person wouldn’t have let it get to this point, is this my fault for not being better, not getting a grip, not pulling myself together? I write about this all the time, and I can’t even do it for yourself. What does that make me?
Weak and foolish.
(or words to that effect).
Now, because I know a couple of things about anxiety and mental illness these days, on some level I knew I was talking nonsense. But the emotional pull of these feelings was very, very strong. Somewhere deep inside, I felt I should have been able to keep myself sane and calm, I should have been competent, in my own strength, to live without anti-depressants. I should have been consistent enough with my self-care to not need medical intervention. And the inability to do this meant I was out. Disqualified.
Feeling disqualified is not pleasant. Feeling you are not good enough, and somehow not quite making the grade. Like you are lacking in some inherent way and not only will people find out, but when they do they will exclude you, think of you differently, judge you. As though this diagnosis you (occasionally and wrongly) perceive as weakness, means that you are unable to engage in life like everyone else. As though you have no valid contribution to make.
A feeling of being somehow out of the running, on the outside… other.
And this otherness isn’t about something that can be seen, how you dress, or where you live, or how you speak, or what you know – something tangible that you could change if push came to shove- it is about who you are, inside.
As though in a deeply intrinsic way, connected to the core of what makes you who you are, you have been searched and found to be lacking.
And if there is any taboo about mental illness that needs smashing, this is it.
Mental illness does not disqualify you.
In fact, maybe the reality that your brain works differently, this experience, this way of seeing the world, is actually the thing that you have to offer.
I have a wonderful friend who tragically lost his brother to suicide a couple of years ago. His brother had battled with his mental health and had got to a point of extreme despair.
My friend, his brother, wrote to me recently;
Maybe if (my brother) had known that mental illness didn’t disqualify you from life, it could have been so different for him…
I think a big part of the shame or disappointment for him was that he thought he’d beaten his depression. Sorted. Done. As long as it was in the past, he could hold his head up. But the sense of this depression staying with him seemed a massive weight.
I wish he had seen there is life – often a richer life beyond illness… We didn’t consider maybe [mental illness] could qualify you and give you a gift that others needed.
And it is this truth that we must consider.
Maybe this suffering doesn’t disqualify, but qualifies. And rather than leaving us feeling we have nothing to contribute, maybe these experiences, these battles, give us a gift that others need.
So I galvanise myself, and take another step.
And I wake up and I take my pill.
And I see the packet on the bedside table and I remind myself of the truth.
I am not disqualified.
And I write it down, and I say it out loud, again.
Because these lies that talk of failure and disqualification, are written through society and have found their way into our hearts and minds, and we have to refute them. We have to expose them. We have to speak and write and encourage and reassure. We have to remember and reiterate and remind.
You belong, I belong and our contribution is needed, and valid, and vital.
(Coming up. Part 3.)