This is hard to write. I’ve wondered if I have any right to be writing it at all. But I’m also aware that I’ve spent much of my adult life talking about how important it is to be open about our well being, to own the complexity of our different emotions, to acknowledge that life does not happen solely in good and bad, that there are multiple shades of grey in between. As we head into a few months that will undoubtedly take a toll on the mental well being of everyone involved, it’s more important than ever to talk about our mental well being and what it means to us. So I might awell walk the walk. Like many people, I’ve had my ups and downs with mental health. On the grand scheme of things, these have been mild. While it has certainly negatively impacted on my life, it has seldom been debilitating and the bad days always pass reasonably quickly. My ups and downs are nothing in comparison to what other people have dealt with, and are dealing with. I’m acutely aware of that. What I’ve written is not definitive, it’s not conclusive, it’s not representative of the complexity and variance of mental health and well being. It’s just part of my own personal story.
I suppose I’ve always had anxiety to some degree, but never had the language to describe it. Over the years there have been bad patches, interspersed, thankfully, with plenty of good patches. I don’t even know if anxiety is the right word, it’s never been diagnosed that way or anything, but for me it best sums up how it feels when I’m in it. Nausea. Racing heart. A rising feeling of panic. Feeling that I’m on board a boat that is adrift on constantly choppy seas.
As with many things, there’s a spectrum to this anxiety. Most days, it isn’t there at all. Some days, it bubbles away just below the surface. Some days, it rises to my throat and feels like it might choke me.
Very often, my reaction to this anxiety is to cry, often uncontrollably, often in public. On bad days, I disengage, avoid phone calls, send monosyllabic responses to messages. I have to focus so hard on functioning that I don’t have the mental or emotional energy for anyone or anything else. There have been multiple occasions where I have been out socially or in a work meeting, have quietly excused myself, gone to the bathroom and sat with my head between my knees, tears streaming down my face and my breath refusing to slow down. I have found myself discreetly holding on to the edge of my chair or the edge of the table to stop myself just getting up and leaving what I know logically to be an enjoyable social gathering. I feel convinced that no one wants to be around me, that everyone is judging me, while at the same time berating myself for bringing my negativity into the situation. I smile and nod through conversations, counting backwards from 10 to steady my breathing and wondering how no one else can hear my heart pounding in my chest.
Sometimes there are triggers; social situations, an upheaval that brings a feeling of no control,damaged trust, life markers (Christmas, birthdays etc), loneliness. Sometimes there are no triggers, or it will come over me at a time and place when I should be at my happiest. On holidays. Out with friends. Sitting on the couch watching a film.
Walking down a busy street in Berlin, after a visit to a brilliant museum, I had an awful attack of anxiety. I looked around for a quiet place to go and gather myself. There was none, which made me panic even more. I walked into a nearby shopping centre and made my way robotically towards the bathroom, counting to 10 over and over, my heart hammering in my chest, feeling like I was going to throw up. I sat in the cubicle for I’m not sure how long, telling myself that it would pass, that it would be ok. Instead of getting the train, I walked back across the city, focusing on my feet and the solidness of the concrete until my heart rate eventually slowed down and the feeling passed.
I had such powerful anxiety in Bangkok airport that when I eventually got on the plane (having coached myself through each step involved in getting that far), I cried virtually non-stop for about 4 hours. It’s happened over the years in public places, at house parties, in pubs and clubs, at home, in work. Sometimes it’s been there when I wake up and sometimes it’s built up over the course of the day. I know the drill to get myself through it. Sometimes I just need a hug. Sometimes I need distraction. Sometimes I need to be by myself. Sometimes I need to be constantly surrounded by people. Sometimes I need to be in bed because it’s the only place that feels safe. Sometimes I need to walk for miles and miles. Sometimes I drink too much. Sometimes I eat too much. Sometimes I hardly eat at all.
On the worst days I have wondered what it would be like to just step out of my skin. Like pressing pause. Like going asleep and only waking up when the feeling had passed. Like turning to smoke. I never wanted any of this to be permanent, but on the bad days when anxiety and sadness smothered me I have yearned to have a temporary ‘off’ button. Because I am fortunate enough that even these worst days are manageable, I have always been able to sigh, get out of bed, and walk through my days with the anxiety bubbling just below the surface. I go through the motions of work and eating and socialising and dating and activism and hobbies, constantly pressing down the rising tide of anxiety. Sometimes I feel so nauseous that I can’t eat. Sometimes I don’t speak to anyone who isn’t a very close friend. Sometimes I zone out and disengage, retreating into my own head. Sometimes I feel like my chest will explode with panic. Sometimes I feel hopeless and useless and isolated. I can feel utterly, crushingly alone. I sometimes feel powerfully sad, like all the happiness has been drained from me. I will always, always be grateful that while these feelings are awful when they are there, they do pass and often stay away for months or even years at a time.
Over the years, I have often (though not always) gone through these bouts of anxiety on my own. I have great friends and a solid family, but for me it’s not the same as having ‘a person’. In more recent times, I’ve been acutely aware of not having someone there to support me on the bad days. I don’t have someone to turn to for reassurance or comfort, someone to put their arms around me and tell me it’s ok. I don’t have a familiar smile to bring light through the darkness. I don’t have someone to cook me dinner and bring me cups of tea.
It would be nice to be able to borrow someone else’s strength on days when my own is lacking. It would be nice to have someone remind me that I’m wonderful rather than having to always remind myself. It would be nice to see my strength, resolve, dedication and compassion reflected through someone else for a change. It would be nice to have someone to crawl into bed with at the end of a crappy day. Someone to rub my back and stroke my hair until the anxiety subsides. These small things can be the difference between a bad day and an epically bad day.
I am so very lucky and privileged in many ways. I have so much to be grateful for and am acutely aware of all of this. But I still feel sad and anxious sometimes – and that’s ok. Because I am human, I have a complex mind and a vulnerable heart. I have emotions that are not always straightforward or convenient. Sometimes my brain works against me. I am imperfect and flawed and vulnerable because I am human. Over the years, I have heard things like ‘but I don’t understand, you’re such a strong person’. Fucking right, I am strong, and I am resilient. And that means I also have a side that is not so strong, because we can’t be all strong, all the time. Sometimes the greatest show of strength is in saying how you feel and asking for support.
If you are one of my friends who has listened while I cried at you in public (again); thank you. If you are a friend who has ever sent me a message or called just to check in; thank you. If you have made me laugh on a bad day, thank you. If you are one of my ARC family who has welcomed me and made me feel challenged and motivated and valued, thank you. If you are someone who has not made me feel pressured into being more engaged or more fun, thank you. If you are a friend who has said ‘You know what, I’m struggling too’, thank you. If you are a friend who has sat beside me in silence on days when I couldn’t muster a conversation, thank you. If you are a friend who has gently encouraged me to get some professional support, thank you. If you are someone who has shown me care, consideration and support, thank you. If you have been there with a hug when I really needed one, thank you. If you have been there at times when I needed to be distracted, thank you. If you are someone who has reminded me that you love me, even when I am possibly the least fun person in your life on that day, thank you. If you have shared your own mental health and wellbeing challenges, whatever they may have been, thank you. If you are someone who has held me together when bits of me were coming apart, thank you. If you have shown me that there is always a light to be found, thank you. If you have seen me and valued me just as I am, thank you.
This was hard to write. But I’m glad I wrote it. The bad days make me appreciate the good ones that little bit more. The darker days make me appreciate the light.
‘Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light’ – Brene Brown