The Black Dog 2.0
The 9th to the 15th of October is Mental Health week in Australia. It’s the perfect time to take a break from The Splendid Life’s usual frivolous fair for some more serious stuff.
A little while ago, I read a post on Facebook by a journalist called Rosie Waterland, detailing her battle with mental health. She came out with her story, feeling she owed it to her readers to be honest and brave and not ashamed to admit that she had problems with mental illness. She wanted to put mental illness in the spotlight, and help shed some light on a really misunderstood topic. It really resonated with me, and not because I’m a ‘journalist’ who thinks I owe my readers anything…but because she shared her experiences to try to help bring about change. So I decided it might be about time to share mine. Earlier this year I was suffering from anxiety and depression.
Some of you may be nodding, some shaking your head in bewilderment, and some of you, sadly, will be cringing right this second. You might even be thinking “here we go, another attention grabber”…well, let’s just say that there’s a reason I’ve been keeping it mostly to myself for a couple of months. I’ve decided it’s not a very good reason. Mental health shouldn’t come with a stigma attached. Rosie Waterland shouldn’t have to come out and say she has to ‘admit’ the real reason she was off from work. I shouldn’t have to say she was ‘brave’ for doing so. And I shouldn’t have to feel so scared of pressing publish in a little while’s time – it’s crazy really, a thousand edits, a couple of month’s worth of having this written down in some form or another, and I’m afraid of sharing an experience I went through that was pretty much out of my control. Stupid, isn’t it?
I don’t have great dreams of making a difference by writing this post. I’m not a seasoned, published journalist with thousands of readers and my own weekly Bachie recap special, not like dear Rosie. But I’m going to share my story anyway. Even if it’s just for me. Even if it’s just so that I can say that I wasn’t ashamed to have poor mental health for a little while. Because, the sad fact is that many people that suffer from mental health issues at some point in their lives ARE ashamed, and they don’t speak up and they don’t share their stories. Maybe, someone out there in the ether will see this and get help. Or help a friend. And then I WILL make a difference.
Even now, writing this, I’m thinking to myself “Am I really going to press publish? Am I really going to let people out there in my life know this issue that I have had? Do I really want people I know and care about to know this about me?”. The crazy thing is, every year in Australia there are around 1 million people experiencing some form of depression, and over 2 million experiencing anxiety. It runs in my family, making me more susceptible to it, yet I’m still afraid to talk about it. But the answer is, yes. I am going to press publish. I want to open a discussion about depression and anxiety because I know that I want to be a part of the change that needs to take place when these types of topics are brought up.
I was ashamed, scared, and embarrassed, to talk about it. I felt alone. Now, however, I look back and realise that having gone through a period of mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. Mental illness is a serious issue, and I won’t apologise for the fact that I’m not going to skirt around it. For some reason society seems to be cringing over these words, the words that make writing posts like this even more important because the more they’re said, the less stigma will be attached to them. Mental illness is usually something that most people avoid or pretend doesn’t exist, even if they are suffering from it. I know I did.
A lot of the time, people with depression and anxiety don’t want to tell people because they feel like it’s something they should be strong enough to get through themselves. They don’t want to be judged for “making excuses”, or seen to be unable to cope with the pressures of life that everyone else faces and deals with. Sometimes it’s because everything in their life is pretty great and they just don’t have a clue how they can still feel so unhappy or out of control. They think to themselves “Well, I’m not suicidal…so it mustn’t be that bad. I’ll just try get over it.” So they hide it, put on a happy face and a brave smile, joke and laugh and pretend everything’s alright with the world while on the inside, they’re battling some pretty hectic thoughts.
Earlier in the year, the happy Emma, the smiling, funny, charismatic Emma, the Emma that makes friends and gets out of the house and enjoys this splendid life in all it’s wonder went hiding for a little while. It started out as anxiety, feeling like I was a little bit out of control with things, and over some time slowly declined into what, I can confidently say, is the worst thing I have ever felt in my entire life.
When it first started, Ryan urged me to go see someone. I refused, saying “I’ll be fine”, “I’m just having a rough patch”, telling him my issues were silly and I didn’t want to discuss them because I knew they were silly and I felt embarrassed to talk to a stranger about them. I’d felt down before, felt low, and I thought it would pass as it often did. I wanted to be OK, so I told myself I was. I didn’t think I needed help, and I was ashamed of not being able to control my feelings and emotions, when the logical side of my brain knew everything in my life was good. More than good.
I won’t go into detail, but I went through a really bad time. There were a lot of signs leading up to this. I stopped exercising. Stopped eating properly. Stopped getting dressed in the morning. Sure, I was on holidays, but previously I’d use my holidays to stretch my creative wings, for sewing, crafting, cooking, to visit friends – to live life!
When I went back to school I’d be standing in front of my class talking and all of a sudden fighting the urge to burst into tears. At the same time my heart would be pounding, I’d be feeling sick to my stomach. I’d zone out. I’d neglect my job and the emotional needs of the children in my care. I’d cancel plans. I had no energy for others when my own emotions took up so much of my own thoughts. I was using so much mental energy to pretend that I was ok that I was exhausted all the time. Despite this, I couldn’t sleep. On the inside, I was so unhappy. I’d cry when I was alone for no reason. I’d have mild panic attacks where my chest felt so tight, I couldn’t eat. I felt like I was walking on egg shells whenever I was around Ryan, hoping I wouldn’t do something to upset him. I’d apologise for tiny, insignificant things that were in no way my fault. He was so desperate for a way to help me, but he could only do so much. People with depression do some pretty messed up stuff in an attempt to find the source of their unhappiness, before they realise the real causes behind it. They leave their spouse, quit their jobs, stop socialising. I pulled away from my husband, and hurt other people in my life that I really cared about. I messed up some pretty amazing things I had going on because the emotionally driven side of my brain had completely taken over. It’s so hard to describe exactly what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but imagine for most of the day you can’t think past the next few moments, you can’t bring up any feelings about tomorrow, the next day, the next week…you simply feel nothing other than an aching hole in your chest and the feeling that something is pinning you in place and making even the most simple tasks impossible. I’m lucky enough that I had someone to take care of me on the days where it all became a bit too much, and I can’t imagine the place I’d be in if I’d had to go through it alone.
Unfortunately, depression and anxiety aren’t things that you just wake up one day and are cured of. But you get there. At the moment, I’m waking up and getting out of bed and going to work. A few months ago, I wasn’t. I saw a counsellor and I accepted that I wasn’t in control of the things that had happened to me. I reminded myself of the fact that when I start to have these feelings, they didn’t have to rule me. I owned the fact that I’d been suffering from a mental illness, and I was better for it. I wrote a poem, which I almost never do, about how it made me feel, and eventually I even published it.
I guess the reason I wanted to share this post is not to get my story out there so that people respond, or pity me, or finally understand my odd behaviour. I want to get it out there to maybe, just maybe, encourage other people who might be going through the same thing to get some help. Or encourage their friends and family to recognise the signs and be there for them like my family were. To further push the issue of mental health into the spotlight. If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety or depression, please don’t hesitate to contact BeyondBlue or The Black Dog Institute support services. Because mental illness is not something to be swept under the rug, and this Mental Health Week I’m going to be loud and proud. Proud that I was strong enough to get through it, and celebrating the fact that I feel like me again. And that’s a pretty great feeling.