Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Tea and sympathy: Overcoming anxiety

anxiety, depression, mental health, mental health week, mental health awareness, post natal depression, post traumatic stress, overcoming anxiety, hope, motherhood, parenting blog, mother diaries

If you didn't know already, it is mental health awareness week this week. This may not mean anything more to you than re-sharing a few sympathetic posts on Facebook, or it may resonate deeply with you over an issue you or your family have faced surrounding mental health. If you follow this blog you will know that for me it is the latter. A post I hesitated over the 'publish' button a few months ago in an is this too personal to air in public sort of way, ended up provoking quite a lot of discussion surrounding motherhood and mental health, so much so that I got invited on radio to speak on the subject. Some confided in me privately that they had been through similar things, others admired my bravery, though to me it felt as brave as flashing my knickers in public (and, believe me, they're not quite as sexy as they used to be). Suddenly I was an expert in mental health, discussing it live on air as though I had more of a clue what I was talking about than all the sleepless nights and palpitations would insinuate (or maybe not).

I'll let you in on a little secret: I am probably no more clued up on mental health than the average person, I've just happened to experience something in my life that fits into that category. In fact, I'm no more an expert in mental health than I am at knowing how to make you a good cuppa, which depends entirely on how strong you like your tea, or whether you even drink it at all. Being an expert in mental health somehow seems to imply the same thing; that you can be an expert in something as individual as how much milk you have in your brew. Well, of course I won't know that unless you educate me, in the same way that I am doing so about my battles with mental health. I'm just someone with a story that someone labelled as a mental health issue. Who knew?

And that's exactly it, I didn't know. My first revelation of any mental health problems was being diagnosed with post traumatic stress after the birth of my first child. Although this came as a bit of a shock, it was relatively easy to deal with in the scheme of a life of anxiety and depression, symptoms of which I had experienced from the age of five years old. I didn't know that until a nice lady in a hospital room casually spoke of my 'anxiety' as though it were as obvious as an elephant in the room. Well how was I to know when no one else had ever pointed it out to me? How was I supposed to admit to the elephant in the room when no one ever talked of mental illness, especially not to children? How was I supposed to know I needed more than just tea and sympathy?

My memories of school consist of mostly bad ones; from the early days of being picked on in the playground, to the time I was too anxious to admit I'd had yet another bad nose bleed in class; from the first time I intentionally banged my head so hard against the wall I made it bruise, to the time I literally wet my bed at the thought of going to class the next morning. Aged thirteen. But I did leave the house the next day. I cracked on with life with a smile on my face and no one knew.

I can only think it was mental stress that, aged seventeen, I came out in boils and abscesses which I tried to hide from everyone. Well, wouldn't you? I was so embarrassed by the state of my skin that I didn't tell anyone about the one that grew to ten centimetres under my arm until desperation point set in (despite me struggling to stack shelves at my weekend job, sporting a comedy swollen arm). I was taken to hospital to have an operation and the doctor said he'd never seen anything like it. I thought he was telling me I was disgusting rather than praising my ability to cope with pain.

But I cracked on with life and no one knew, other than thinking I was perhaps a little shy or awkward from time to time. I had a good sense of humour and a pleasant smile; my ammunition.

Around the same time I would randomly burst into uncontrollable tears, usually confined to the toilets at lunch time. I had friends but felt lonely. The combination of having constant negative thoughts running around in my head along with the fact I struggled to sleep left me feeling constantly exhausted. Once I woke in the night with severe stomach cramps, literally crying out in pain. Initially the doctors were sympathetic, suspecting an appendicitis, but on ruling that out they told me to go home because it was all in my head.

In my head.

But I cracked on with life with a smile on my face and no one knew.

I would bite the skin from around the sides of my fingers until they bled. I would peel the skin off from around my lips. I told people I had cracked skin with the cold weather. You may still notice the odd plaster on my thumb from time to time – old habits die hard. I would go home on an evening and just cry at how overwhelming life felt, or bang my head against the wall as though that would somehow get rid of all the thoughts in my head that were exhausting me. As I got older I would go to the doctors with various ailments in the hope of getting what I really needed: The, while I'm here, I've been feeling a little low recently, line. I never got anywhere because I made it sound as trivial as a common cold. They responded with condescending sympathy. I didn't want sympathy. Just a good cup of tea and for my brain to switch off. I thought that everyone must think like I did; I thought that they were all such incredible people for doing things like getting on aeroplanes and saying they enjoyed it. Because they couldn't possibly, right?

But I cracked on as normal. Because I was normal, right? And I'm sat here writing this and thinking, was that really me?

I would feel physically sick in certain situations and I've no idea why. Simple things like going to the butchers to ask for meat, or anything that involved working out measurements and weights on the spot which brought me out into a cold sweat. I would pre-plan every outing, imagining what I would say in my head over and over, should a difficulty arise. Some days the thought of leaving the house was too overwhelming, but I'd always leave. I'd always face my battles head on. I'd crack on with a smile on my face and no one knew.

My perfectionism would drive me to extreme lengths, desperate to be successful, or at least admired. I would avoid failure like a bad smell, god forbid I would have to face criticism of any kind. People would call me little miss perfect as though I had it all together somehow. They would roll their eyes at the things I was good at: 'is there anything you can't do?' they'd say, 'you're so lucky.'

I didn't feel very lucky. Little did they know that my motives were because I felt anything but.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, other than the fact that I owe it to myself and every other normal person who has experienced something labelled as mental health. Here I go airing my dirty laundry in public again at the risk of being branded a looney or an attention seeker. But if I were truly as such I would not be writing this in a relatively coherent way, nor would the attention-seeking fit in with my relatively introverted persona. I write risking the fact that people will look on me differently, or that they will look on my life as one big cover up. All those years I avoided it just made the voices louder in my head, telling me I was useless. All the years I couldn't admit I was scared or just how lonely I really felt because I thought it made me sound pathetic. All the years I skirted around therapy because I thought that mental health was just some phrase that described people with, well, real mental problems, not mine.

See, I'm not just writing this post to raise awareness of mental health, nor to simply make you aware that it happens to extremely normal and well functioning people. I also write this post to give hope – hope to people who resonate with any of this that you can tell the voices in your head to do one. Hope that it doesn't always have to be this way. Now don't get me wrong, those voices still come at me like a tonne of bricks from time to time, but I've got better at politely telling them to leave me alone, or on other days to less politely fuck right off. I have realised that I do not have to live with this; this ridiculously low self esteem and self loathing. I'm alright, you know. I make mistakes but I'm alright.

To tell you how to overcome anxiety is a whole other (thousand) blog post(s) that someone far better equipped in psychology should write, but I'll start you off with that four letter word: HOPE. I haven't even fully overcome but I'm choosing to be an overcomer. I have good days and bad but I'm choosing not to be a victim of them. I've had whole days where I've not had the same weight on my shoulders that I've felt for thirty years. Thirty fucking years of my life, like I had a physical weight on my shoulders. For those of you who have experienced anxiety or depression you will know just how incredibly freeing that is (or sounds) to have experienced life without it. I remember hearing someone else say they felt free of it only a year ago and me thinking if only. But it doesn't have to be an if, but a when. And although you may slip back a hundred times or more, just experiencing the when once makes you crave your healing like it's a drug. Though life may get tougher for a while, there's no going back. Your mental illness is not who you are, it's not who who were born to be. And hope sits just around the corner with all the weightlessness you'd dreamed of.

So I press on with small steps. I've been to the butchers and ordered some mince beef. I bite my skin a little less. I've said no to people without caring about offence. I even complained in a restaurant last month. Get me.

Now, lets put the kettle on. How do you like your tea again?

cup of tea, lisa maltby, lisa maltby illustration, drawing of tea cup, drawing of cup of tea, tea and sympathy

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