Twice today I have sat at my desk, in an office with seven others in it, and I have done the tiniest of fist pumps. Imagine, if you will, clenching your fist and moving it just a fraction of a centimetre, whilst thinking to yourself ‘Yes!!’ in a subtle act of celebration. Tiny little victory celebrations for tiny little successes. Moments in which I feel like I actually have some control over things.
I won’t bore you with the details, but for any of you techies out there; 6 months ago I knew nothing of C# and programming in ASP.net, and had never worked in IT, and today I am drawing close to delivering my first fairly large project. I’m feeling rather proud of myself. That feeling of pride didn’t even falter when I remembered I have to put this new bit of functionality through peer review, IT-level testing and then User Acceptance Testing, along with a massive lump of paperwork for the Change Control. Actual completion is a long way off, but in this moment I’m not thinking about that. In this moment I am celebrating that I have mastered output variables!
My life isn’t always celebration. Whose is? I have some really hard days, when I just feel emotionally exhausted by every little hardship. There are days when I just can’t get my mind in gear, and there are days when my sheer bloodimindedness makes every conversation an argument. Some days I just wish I could start an argument because then my anger would feel somewhat justified. Others I wake up in the morning and lie in bed and all I want to do is hide away forever beneath the safety of my duvet. But eventually the thought of feeding the dog and going to work force me out of bed and out of the house; forcing myself to act like a normal human being. Sure everybody has off days, but I have off weeks, off months, 2005 was pretty much entirely an off year.
It’s silly. I’m perfectly happy to complain to friends and family if I have the flu, or if my hayfever’s playing up. It’s just an acceptable fact – people get ill, or have recurring conditions which flare when the nasty trees decide that, as it’s March they ought to shower the world in their sneeze-inducing pollen. Thanks a bunch, trees! It’s not, however, socially acceptable to sit down at the dinner table, visiting good chums, and come out with ‘hey, guys, my depressions really playing havoc with my moods at the moment, so sorry if I’m acting like a total bitch, or going a bit awol, or just generally a grump-bag, I just need to sort out my headspace.’
Jennifer Lawrence put it perfectly after the Oscars, when she was talking about the film she won her Oscar for; Silver Linings Playbook. (I haven’t seen it. I wish I had, but I’ll be getting it on dvd for sure). But yeah, she said the following;
“I think that there’s such a huge stigma over it [mental illness], that I hope we can get rid of, or help… I mean, people have diabetes or asthma and they have to take medication for it. But as soon as you have to take medication for your mind, there’s this instant stigma. Hopefully we’ve given those people hope, and made people realize that it’s not–”
I’ve never really been an advocate for mental illness. To be honest, I’ve never really wanted to admit that I could possibly have some form of an illness. Because that’s what it is; it’s a real-to-goodness illness, and it’s not really something I know enough about. I don’t even know for sure that I’ve got it, and it sounds ridiculously hyperchondriac, to me, to sit down and say ‘there’s something wrong with me’. But that’s coming from a gal who sees illness as a sign of weakness, despite knowing it not to be the case.
Anyway – why am I saying all this? I think it’s because I recently became aware of the Time To Change organisation. You might have seen their adverts on telly. Basically what they’re trying to do is to get people talking about mental health. A few stats from their site are as follows;
- 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any one year.
- 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems will experience stigma and discrimination.
- At the time of writing, 34,893 people and organisations have added their name to their pledge wall.
So if it’s that widely spread, why aren’t we talking about it? Because somehow mental health issues have always been some sort of taboo. It’s the fear of the unknown – when someone breaks an arm you can see what’s wrong with them, but with mental illness it’s hidden inside the brain, and so people never knew how to deal with it – hence talk of wandering wombs and the catch-all solution of lunatic asylums. The world has changed, there are treatments available; both medical and psychological, and yet still there is silence.
I wrote on the Time To Change pledge wall that I would play my part in breaking the taboo. I will speak out about mental health.
There’s no big dark secret in my past. No horrid thing which happened to me which made me the way I am. I’ve not been abused or neglected. I was a happy, sorta outgoing teenager. Ok, I had a massive obsession with Lord of the Rings, and I didn’t have the most social of social lives because I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere, so I couldn’t really go out partying all night with my chums. But it was all good really. Looking back, I was never really great with people – by the time I’d left sixth form and was heading to uni I’d had two boyfriends, both of which were the most innocent of affairs. I’d had friends throughout school, but they seemed to disappear as soon as we’d split up for our various further educations/careers. Alone (almost), and in a far away town I was suddenly faced with my own self, and I wasn’t really all that enamoured by what I saw. I picked the wrong subjects, that much is easy to see now, but I never realised it at the time. But basically I wasn’t happy with myself, I wasn’t happy with my course, and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do about it. I stopped going to uni – no one noticed if I was there or not, so it was quite easy to do (I kept going to work at the shop I’d got a job at – I put on the normal-person act fairly well, I think) and I wished each day that I had the strength to admit something was wrong, and to give it all up. I didn’t give up, but I managed to screw up my education, getting out of those three years with a measly ordinary degree to my name – no hons, and no chance of using it in real life. I left uni, cut myself off from the really supportive friends I made, and tried to make myself go on pretending to be normal. But I didn’t feel normal inside. I was lost and scared and angry, and I had no idea how to talk about it. So I didn’t. Instead I started self-harming. Little things at first; just scoring my skin with a pair of scissors. This escalated, and even to this day, 4 or 5 years after having stopped, I still have a lovely patchwork of raised scars where I would cut my arm. I look at them, when I’m feeling really low, and I think about how easy it would be to do it again, but I stop. Not because I’m better, but because it’s hard to put on the normal act when you’ve got fresh scabs to keep covered. Instead of self-harm, I have other coping mechanisms; avoidance (hiding from the world; spending weekends almost solidly in bed), denial (pretending as hard as possible that nothing is wrong, even when I feel like falling apart completely) and confrontation (I love a good debate, but when I’m feeling low I can get really aggressive; picking fights with my nearest and dearest over nothing at all).
I find this world difficult to cope with at times. I feel awkward and angry and afraid, and I don’t trust many people with that information. Or at least I haven’t until now. Hello internet… not quite the secret confidante you appear to be… But I’m not always miserable or self-destructive. Some days things go right. Some days I feel happy about the world. Some days I recognise the little victories which make life worthwhile.
Don’t be afraid to talk about mental health. It’s time to change. It’s time to be rid of the fear, the stigma and the discrimination. Gavel!