Last week, when it had to be pointed out to ASDA and Tesco that their ‘psycho ward’ and ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costumes were not acceptable, I decided I wanted to start to write about mental health.
In particular, my mental health.
Be nice, I’m about to make myself pretty vulnerable…
After the birth of my third child (the magnificent Ted born in 2009), the wheels started to fall off.
I wasn’t coping and my lovely husband suggested, after quite an extensive period of trying to fix me himself, that I go and see someone wiser than me and get some advice. To try and figure out what the chuff was going on.
I had a couple of ‘meetings’ with this wise woman and cried a great deal.
At this point i have a memory I want to share with you. It is also a confession. I think the reason I have remembered it very clearly (to the extent that I can remember the weather and time of day) is because it is important. Embarrassing but important.
I was walking down Allerton road to see aforementioned wise woman, having dropped children off at various places, and I experienced an almost audible thought process. I thought:
“Okay so i am having to go and ‘see’ someone… but at least I’ve not got depression. At least I’m not on anti-depressants. That would mean i was really in a mess and the situation was pretty hopeless. Imagine being so weak that you needed ‘happy pills’ to anaesthetise you. Only really flaky people need that. Imagine failing in the basic test: getting through the day in a respectable fashion.”
I would never have admitted to thinking like this. Outwardly I would have been very supportive of anyone else going through depression, whilst secretly probably thinking they ‘weren’t trying hard enough’.
Oh how I now cringe at my
ignorant foolish proud self.
Bleurghhhh. Yuk. (Hangs head)
Anyway, as you may have guessed, I arrive at the wise woman’s house (now I just call her my counsellor or therapist – as that is what she is!) and it was only a matter of moments before she said. ‘I have been looking at my notes since we last met and i think you are suffering with post-natal depression’.
She went on to suggest anti-depressants.
Over the coming weeks and months I underwent an exercise in taking off all the masks of respectability I had been wearing. It was pretty painful and strangely liberating. I no longer needed to pretend everything was ok! It wasn’t.
When I was at university I studied and really enjoyed the work of a performance artist called Bobby Baker. She was proper nuts and totally brilliant. Lots of her work was intensely personal and very funny. One particular piece of work she did stands out for me, and i have thought of it many times in the past few years. She hired a flat-bed truck and donned a white lab coat. She then sat on a chair fixed to the back of the flat-bed truck and was driven around London. As she was driven around she shouted through a mega-phone at passers-by; “Pull yourself together!”.
I love this because it so simply exposes the ridiculousness of this approach. The idea that by ‘trying harder’ it would somehow be possible to stop falling apart. This was the lie I had believed for quite some time. If i only made more of an effort and wasn’t so
lazy, selfish, disorganised I would be well. I would be back in control.
The diagnosis of post-natal depression was enough for me at the time. I liked to kid myself that it was the third pregnancy hormone craziness that did me in. I found that thought somehow reassuring. If i am honest, looking back now, I would say that i had been suffering for many years. Probably since before I had kids. Not suffering to the same extent maybe, but i have memories of experiencing panic attacks (not that i knew that is what they were) and periods of extreme anxiety for a good while before this diagnosis.
Some people fall off a cliff into mental illness, they have been ok and then suddenly they are not. For others (me included) it is a slow inexorable slide into depression. I think often this can be more dangerous, because it is far harder to spot. I had been putting various coping mechanisms in place for years. Managing and controlling my life so I wasn’t exposed, So i didn’t look like I was losing the plot. Basically so people couldn’t see me failing.
Step one was admitting I was not okay. The first step back to health.
One of the main reasons I am writing about this is to try and normalise talking about mental illness.
The supermarket giants were probably motivated by profit with the costumes they produced, and i am glad that it started a conversation in the press (and that they are going to be donating sizeable sums to mental health charities). But I think it is in more subtle ways that we (and i include my former self in this) dismiss people who are suffering with mental illness.
Ignorance can create a grace deficit.
Whilst the issues that surround mental health continue to be talked of in hushed tones, if at all, then people – who are suffering – will find it harder to get the help they need. Hence my honesty.
My story is not that extreme. It is also not neatly concluded – i don’t have a ‘clean bill of health’ certificate that ensures i will never again find myself struggling to hold it together as the world seems to slide out from under my feet. Right now i am well, and i am learning to put some things in place to maintain that.
I have written and re-written this post. When a subject is not often spoken of it can scary to be the one to bring it up.