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Living with mental illness, but not knowing it.

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It is a strange thing to live over twenty years of your life unaware that you are suffering with a medical affliction. As ludicrous as it may sound, I genuinely had no idea that what I took to be second nature was out of the ordinary or worth engaging with. I hid away my tendency to imagine the worst eventuality of any given situation before it unfolds – and over-analysing every tiny moment and subsequent self-loathing – with relative ease, until at last I was alone at night and could allow my brain to catch up with itself. The cycle of daytime suppression and nighttime unravelling of emotion was exhausting, and it felt as though there were two different versions of myself constantly at war.

I put down my bouts of insomnia, which began in my teenage years, to my brain working overtime, unable to shut down at night – a trait which I had once hoped was an indication of undiscovered genius, but no such luck. The word ‘hormonal’ is often mockingly used to explain away emotional or erratic behaviour in young people, a stereotype which women continue to come up against throughout adult life. Hormone changes during puberty undoubtedly lead to heightened emotional reactions, but the ensuing eye rolls and jokes from older generations initiate and perpetuate an idea that mental health is not to be taken as seriously as physical health. The kind of stigma that results from this attitude to mental illness can often cause sufferers to experience chronic feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy. It is the kind of attitude that almost insists a person get much worse before they can ever get better; the same attitude that allowed a former boss of mine to tell me mental illness was not a valid excuse for a sick day. This kind of viewpoint is the reason so many people feel they can’t admit to not feeling okay and why they won’t take the time to deal with it in the same way one would with a physical issue. It is too dangerous to simply brush inner turmoil under the carpet – until it is almost too late – out of a sense of shame for not conforming to a blueprint of normality.

It has only been in recent years that I’ve begun to fully comprehend the damaging effects felt by a society which encourages the suppression of symptoms of anxiety or depression. In Britain especially, we are taught from a young age to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and all that stiff-upper-lip nonsense. My parents are fine examples of this mentality, and while their hard-working, uncomplaining attitude toward life does them credit, it also means that going to the doctors for anything less than a broken bone is seen as ‘making a fuss.’ Although teachers or friends often asked me if I was getting enough sleep or if I were feeling unwell, I shook their questions off in embarrassment, taking their concern as a slight against my appearance or performance, and this only increased my social anxiety.

It was only in my early twenties, when I explained that I couldn’t sleep due to my heart racing and difficulty breathing, that a close friend asked, ‘So how long have you had anxiety?’ At that point it all started to make sense. Even so, I didn’t take any action other than to try and continue to self-medicate through an inadvisable combination of recreational drugs and morose hermit-like existence.

It was two years later that I received the news that my cousin had taken his own life.

I had no idea that Gerry struggled with his mental health and as far as I’m aware he never told anyone. It seems futile to try and describe the depth of devastation and disorientation felt by a family unused to expressing or discussing emotion, so instead I will focus on the only silver lining. More than anything ever could, it impressed upon me the vital need to raise awareness of mental health issues in order that people may recognise symptoms within themselves and to feel that it is okay to ask for help. The weight of carrying anxiety or depression alone is dangerously isolating; the crippling sense of alienation can, in my experience, only be made bearable through the understanding of others. It is not about validation so much as being able to be open and honest about your own behaviour or emotions so that you might benefit from the empathy, rather than the judgement of the people around you.

This is why it is so important for stories to be told and shared: not in order to draw attention to oneself or to ‘make a fuss’, but so that another might recognise a part of themselves in another’s story, that they might draw reassurance, strength, a sense of not being in it alone.

The most important lesson I learnt from the death of my cousin has been to look outside of myself to share and discuss why I’m not feeling okay rather than to turn inwards upon myself in order to hide it. It gave me the push I needed to go to the doctor and get my heart rate tested, to feel justified in admitting the insomnia and panic attacks to a medical professional. This was beneficial in and of itself; simply feeling as though I was taking matters into my own hands gave me back a certain sense of control, and I could pacify myself in the night knowing that my heart racing was due to the anxiety rather than the multiple heart complications I had convinced myself I had. I was, however, quite astonished to be offered a prescription for antidepressants after a chat with my GP which lasted all of five minutes. While I was tempted to take him up on the offer, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to replace former dysfunctional drug dependence with another kind.  While I am without doubt that many people benefit and rely on the use of antidepressants, I felt that on this occasion I was merely being offered the option that would get me out of the overcrowded surgery the quickest.

My own journey has been made easier by employing simple solutions, such as discussion with friends who have their own mental health struggles or a family member ready to lend an empathetic ear to a much-needed rant. Making a conservative effort to force myself to leave the house for a walk or to practise yoga, along with an improved diet has helped enormously. Writing a diary before bed has given me an outlet for all the conflicting emotions and thoughts that keep me awake at night, allowing me to reflect on my thoughts in a way that is impossible when they’re racing around my head at breakneck speed. These lifestyle changes have allowed me to do things which, five years ago, I could only dream of having the courage to do, and I heard about all of them through talking to other people who also suffer from anxiety. I’m not sure that any struggle with mental health is as simple as finding a ‘cure’; there are peaks and troughs in any given day, week, or year – but not having to try to anticipate and deal with the lows alone makes their onset a great deal less terrifying.

In relative terms my own struggle with anxiety is made up of small battles with myself, seemingly inconsequential to the people around me, but it is not the magnitude of the struggle that is really important. What’s important is the acknowledgement that no level of mental illness should be denigrated or trivialised in order to make the rest of society more comfortable. I don’t suppose to have any real answers or wisdom on the topic of mental health other than to state that it’s okay to not feel okay, and hope that someone believes it.

This blog was submitted anonymously.

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