Today, given that it’s World Mental Health Day, I’m going to do something I rarely ever do on this blog and talk personally about something, and that something is unsurprisingly going to be my mental health – specifically the fact that I have, like so many, been dealing with depression for years. This is not a cry for help. I have all the help I need. And it’s really not a big problem compared to some cases I know about. Anyway, here’s my story. I hope it helps someone. Apologies for any awful writing but I’m just going to try and get this out quickly and then go and watch TV…
I first realised I had a mental health problem when I was eighteen. It was the day of A-Level results and everyone was nervous and full of trepidation when we met up at school to find out how we had done. The fact that this would most likely be the last time I ever stepped foot in the building where so much had happened and that I would most likely not see a lot of fellow pupils ever again weighed rather more heavily on me than any worry I had over my results. My mock exams had gone well, my coursework had received good marks and I was very much aware that I was a bright pupil. It wasn’t the fact that I had these ‘end of an era’ thoughts buzzing around in my head that alerted me to the fact that something was wrong with my brain. It’s what happened when I got my results.
I got the results I needed to get into my chosen university and should have been hopping with joy. As it was it felt like an immense anti-climax and when my Physics teacher said something like ‘you got three A’s you should be happy!’, I thought ‘yeah I should, but I’m not… why is that…?’ I felt none of the elation I was seeing in my friends and if anything it was the direct opposite. Like the sky had gone black.
You can go through a kind of nature/nurture type of analysis of my home life – which wasn’t without its complications but was no worse than many of my peers and most probably in a lot of cases far rosier – or my mother’s history of mental illness which clouded my childhood but at the time wasn’t actually a big issue for me. The analysis might lead you to say ‘okay I see how this might have happened.’ But no-one is to blame and I really just put it down to brain chemistry.
Depression is something that stayed with me for thirty more years and will no doubt continue to be part of my life until I shuffle off this mortal coil. Watching the Joker film recently had me nodding in a lot of places but I wasn’t going to stab anyone with some scissors or beat my friend’s brains out about it. I’m not particular ‘ill’ as such. I just have my own private black cloud which comes and goes according to unseen forces.
Weather forecasts for the cloud are mostly inaccurate. I don’t have any clear triggers for my depression. And I also feel embarrassed to say I suffer from depression, not so much because of the stigma attached to it, but because in my case it’s not particularly debilitating. I know people who can’t physically move at their worst, or who are suicidal, who need to be constantly medicated. That’s not me.
Sure, at one point I was on Prozac, but it made me feel so ‘not me’ that I asked my GP to take a different approach if he could. Prozac turned me into a giggly robot with a dry mouth and short attention span. Instead I went to a few counselling sessions paid for by the good old NHS and while my counsellor just sat there and listened and seemed to want to make me into an even more introverted and selfish person, it did actually help to talk to a stranger about my problems.
Some conclusions were drawn and I took some harsh steps to try and cut out a few toxic elements in my life, but in actual fact it was a book recommendation that helped the most. The book was a standard DIY text on cognitive behavioural therapy CBT. There’s loads of CBT books available and at the time it was a huge eye-opener for me.
The main ideas I got from the book were that distraction really helps and that in some respects it is possible to fake it until you make it. The brain can rewire neural pathways if it is given a chance to do so. If you stop reinforcing negative thoughts and become more mindful of your moods and patterns of thinking.
As I mentioned I am unclear on my triggers but I can quite quickly detect inside myself when I am starting to slip into a depressive mood. Thankfully these days I have some good support around me and because I am more open about my mental health with those around me they are more aware of when I might need help or space. Sometimes a retreat into the ‘man cave’ is the best tonic but actually these days I’d rather go out.
‘Fun’ social situations and even hugs off people I don’t see very often have in the past been problematic for me to actually navigate. Those of you who read my blog regularly will understand that what I think of as fun is rather ‘niche’ to a lot of people and I have a irony/sarcasm processor in my brain that cringes or goes into a strange insulting defensive mode when my comfort is threatened. It’s another facet of my mental health which I will continue to have to monitor and work on.
As the Joker says in the film… “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t…”, but if your problems are not so big that you need medication (and I certainly feel that I fall into this category) then behaving as if you don’t, acting ‘normal’ (whatever that is), can potentially lead to it actually becoming a nice new habit that will eventually see you genuinely change.
He also says along the way (and yes I know I’m talking about a fictional character here but the script was written by a human being not a robot) something like “I can’t remember a day when I was truly happy”. This certainly chimed for me, but then I took a step back and actually had a think about whether this was entirely true. Sure, when I got my A Level results I wasn’t happy like I should have been, but there have been plenty of moments since then that I think qualify as happiness. When it comes down to it you have to work to enjoy life, especially if the Extinction Crisis people are right and we don’t have long left to enjoy ourselves.
Anyway, I hope that maybe somebody somewhere might benefit from reading this piece of navel gazing bullshit, and hopefully the next time someone says ‘cheer up, it might never happen!’ to me I won’t stab them in the eye with a pair of scissors… only joking!