How it all began
“This could never happen to me!”
That was my approach to mental health issues for a significant part of my life. Rather naively, I thought that having a happy childhood, a good education, a family, and a job meant that I was immune to these issues.
Then I gave birth to my son in 2003. Suddenly even the simplest task made me feel overwhelmed. I was incapable of making simple decisions and cried a lot. To me, this was only a temporary thing – the sleep deprivation was to blame. Many months later though, and with a baby routine well established, nothing had changed. I could no longer get away from the fact that there was a problem.
With my husband’s help, I summoned the courage to visit the doctor. The very idea was paralysing. I wasn’t meant to have a mental health issue; I didn’t fit the profile! It turned out that I had post-natal depression. I was offered the choice of medication or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) sessions. I wanted a quick fix that didn’t involve any talking so there was no question of what I would choose. Next stop, the pharmacy!
A few months later, I was happy to be back to my usual self, and I decided to consign the whole experience to the bottom of the drawer. Little did I know that it would return!
It’s all coming back
A decade later, my behaviour gradually started to change – I was stressed at work and I became more irritable and eventually withdrawn. Back again at the doctor, and this time she called it anxiety with moderate depression. I knew the drill. Next stop, the pharmacy!
Despite the doctor’s pleas to take time off, I refused to do so – I was too worried about how this would be perceived at work. Would people think that I am no longer capable of doing my job? I confided only to a handful of trusted colleagues and I didn’t talk to my boss until the 6-month course of treatment was completed.
She didn’t ask a lot of questions, either because she was trying to respect my privacy or because she didn’t know what to say. Either way, I was ok with that. Any mental health issues were still met with skepticism, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable opening up.
Since then, I have had two more brushes with anxiety. The first time, I went to the doctor and ended up crying my eyes out. Back to the beginning!
This time though something had changed. I didn’t follow the usual drill. I was tired of hiding; instead of a prescription, I took a sick note from my doctor. For the next two weeks, I found comfort in painting (very therapeutic!). When I returned to the office, it was time to talk about the reason for my absence. What followed really took me by surprise. Any initial concerns about reactions were put to rest quickly as people began sharing their own experiences with mental health. I was not alone!
The last encounter was earlier this year. I started making some lifestyle changes to manage the triggers and then… COVID struck!
At present, my days fall into three buckets – good days, (mostly) ok days, and (occasionally) bad days. I found a new hobby – writing (hugely cathartic) -and I spend hours on Zoom with friends chatting about anything and everything to keep my mind constantly engaged. My husband reckons that my social life has become busier since COVID started; that is certainly true!
What I have learned
At the time of my first diagnosis, I convinced myself that there was a clear cause-effect relationship between pregnancy and depression; it was a one-off! As a result of my own experiences, that attitude changed over the years. The naivety and the distorted belief that mental health issues impact only certain people are long gone. Here are three insights that I think will benefit all of us:
- Mental health problems can happen to anyone. The internal struggle though may not be always evident to others; everyone has a different way of dealing with it. Some people are good at hiding it, but if you pay close attention, the cues are there (use of negative words, tone of voice, body language);
- Next time you talk to someone, and you spot any cues, take the time to ask them “are you ok?”. There is no need for you to have any answers. Practice active listening, and be there for them;
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it and talk about mental health. The more of us open up, the more it becomes part of the general conversation.
As for me and my mental health, I suspect that it will take us a bit longer to become friends – but that is irrelevant. We finally found a way to get along with each other.