This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and the theme this year is relationships.
So, I’ve been thinking about the people around me, those who have supported me and been there for me over the past few turbulent years. I have decided rather than writing for them and about them, I would let them speak for themselves. I have taken my trusty iPhone and recorded conversations with a select few.
Firstly, my friend Sri.
Sri and I met at sixth form. We were studying the same subjects. Our friendship was cemented through numerous conversations over tea and toast and many nights out. We performed in school productions together and revised on the phone together, pacing our respective hallways reciting facts about Napoleon, and trying to remember Oscar Wilde quotes. We had a brilliant three days in Paris on a trip with the art department, talking, eating pastries and looking at paintings. But mainly talking. After sixth form Sri went to Leeds to university while I took a year out, but the next summer we travelled around Italy together for two glorious weeks.
Sri was one of my bridesmaids when I got married at 20, and after university she even worked for my husband’s business for a short time. In her twenties Sri worked and lived in London and we spent less time together. Our relationship thinned as our lives took different paths, her working for the Arts Council in London, me having babies and trying to maintain some semblance of a freelance directing career (and not really succeeding). A couple of years ago Sri moved back to Liverpool with her husband and daughter and our friendship has deepened and strengthened. I am so grateful to have her living a five minute walk away, and for us to yet again be involved in the day to day normality of each others lives.
Here we are at a wedding in 2007 (because the photos of 1997 have been censored for both of our benefit).
And here she is at her wedding, my all-time favourite photo of her (doesn’t she look amazing?)
She is funny, kind, creative, intelligent and the best person to go dancing or watch TV with. I am very lucky to have her in my life.
What follows is a transcript of our chat, although I have edited it slightly so it makes sense as we both talk fast and can get carried away on random tangents (mainly me).
Can you remember when we first talked about my mental health?
Do you know what, I don’t think I do remember, because it wasn’t a specific topic of conversation. It was our usual oh I’ll just mention something bad really quickly. I’ll talk about it really fast and then I’ll move on.
It was probably incremental because we were busy, one way and another, and so no I don’t remember a specific point. But I remember thinking oh that seems like something we should talk about a bit more, but she doesn’t want to, so we’ll move on.
I remember really well us having a conversation here (in Liverpool) and you just saying “I’m not well” and me asking you “how, how are you not well? what’s wrong?”.
“I’ve not been myself.”
That was all you said.
You kept saying “I’m not feeling good, but it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” And I was like, “alright, but when it’s not okay, what…?” I couldn’t understand how you were not well. So even though we were having a relatively frank conversation about you not being well. I still couldn’t tell how you were not well.
So, did I not use words like depression and anxiety?
No, not at that time. This was a long time ago.
The most recent big moment was the restaurant obviously.
(The incident Sri is referring to happened nearly a year ago when I had the Mother of all panic attacks when the two of us were in a restaurant. There was no avoiding what was happening or pretending otherwise. I wrote about it here)
That was, oh gosh this is happening, I have to man up now and know what to do. Or if I don’t know what to do, I need to find out what to do really quickly and just do it. Even if I think it is counter to what I want to do… and that was horrible to see you going through that, because I could not understand, because it was just us… And we were doing things that I thought were going to be manageable, and I’m sure you did too, which made it worse. And you just wanted to go home. And I just thought I am going to take her home but I hate the idea of her feeling like she has ended a night like that.
But I don’t know if I would’ve understood it really, if it hadn’t been for that day.
Because you are so articulate and we talk so much about other things, I think I needed visual and actual living experience to see you like that, to know what you needed, or how you were not coping, or what triggers exist – those kinds of things.
I didn’t realise that it could happen -there- just like that, in such a normal situation, with no reason, no suggestion.
How would you say that it has changed our friendship?
And then when I moved up (back to Liverpool) we saw each other more, but you still hadn’t got to the point of acknowledgement with me. So even though we were seeing each other more and doing fun stuff together, we were not really understanding each other, not opening up to each other…
I definitely opened up more to you when you opened up more to me.
And when you told me what was wrong, it opened up the possibility of me telling you what was wrong with me.
And that has only happened really recently. So I think we have a much better relationship now than we had for a really long time.
We didn’t talk about any of the important stuff for a long while because our lives were really different and it was hard, in the time we had together, to get to the important stuff. And also I think, for a long time, I couldn’t have articulated it if I had wanted to.
…There was never a good time to have the conversation but I suppose you have to find the time to have to a good conversation.
And what, if any, advice would you give to somebody whose friend has just told them they are suffering with depression and anxiety? What do you know about it now that would have been helpful to know about it before…?
I think that to be available and not to be too sensitive about how and when you are wanted. To take the cues and to ask even if you think you are being pushy. To ask the question ‘Are you okay?’
Be ready to be met with incredibly normal behaviour and to be confronted with very good acting… that’s quite hard.
And I don’t know what else… I suppose that it can manifest in very surprising ways that feel so difficult to comprehend because the things you are unable to do feel so simple, so ordinary. That is anxiety specific I think.
That is something you have taught me: I know that you are not depressed, you are anxious. The nuances in mental health, you have helped me understand more about that.
I think the two are linked, the doctor describes it as a venn diagram because low mood, low self esteem, all those things common to depression, impact your adrenaline and hormonal changes, so there is a link, but I don’t… I’m not depressed in a ‘black dog’ way. I was for a while, quite a long while I think, but I haven’t been recently.
The difference seems to be that with other people who I know who are suffering from depression it is not that one specific situation could suddenly overcome them. Like you at the restaurant.
Yes, there is not that moment when they are suddenly overwhelmed.
I don’t know if I would spot it in another person. It is so well hidden. And I am really observant, I’d like to think. But even if you do notice it, how do you approach them?
To me it can be really obvious. I think it is harder to spot if you are not living it. I think Matt (my husband) could spot it, because he has been with me through it all, all the ups and downs of it. But I think maybe because I have lived it, sometimes I am living it, I feel maybe I have a permission that someone who is not on the inside of it might not feel they have.
And it depends how good people are at hiding it. Because anxiety feels so… the shame is so great. Because the assumption is there is something wrong with me. Not in a medical, I’ve broken my leg way, but in a I am this, and I am weak because everyone else can cope with this and I can’t. And so the automatic response to that, is to want to hide it, so people just don’t go out, they make sure it isn’t seen.
But it is really hard to know if the hiding away is the armour you are putting on to cope. So you don’t want to chink away at someone, when this is how they are just getting through. And you don’t want to cut someone down because you think that they are masking their emotions when actually they are building themselves up to get through the day.
For me, knowing that you knew and understood and didn’t have high expectations of me was huge.
Even if someone’s expectation is that we would have this really intense conversation about it and I would spill my guts and share everything with you, it can be too much. Sometimes that happens… because it happens… but other times it isn’t helpful.
It is nice knowing someone wants to know what is going on, and knowing they want to be there for you but also knowing you might not be able to let them in right now and that is okay.
That is massive.
(Next up: my husband!)