Depression and mental illness: it’s time to talk

I hesitated before writing this one. I hate the stigma around depression and other mental illnesses. And yet I don’t like speaking openly about my experience. Call it prudence, or call it cowardice – either way I find it very awkward.

When I was at my most unwell it wasn’t an issue. Many days I wasn’t capable of speaking or moving at all. And when you are in a psychiatric hospital the people around you know the deal.

But now I’m getting better it is becoming more important to me to speak out.

I need not to hide what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been over the last five years. I need to be clear on why my career has not progressed, why I’m doing my current role at work and why I’m working part-time. I need my colleagues to know that I’m not being lazy when I need (as I often do) to take time off or rearrange meetings at the last minute. I need friends to understand that I can’t always follow through on commitments. And I need when my book comes out in June to be comfortable talking about the issues it deals with.

Being terrified of talking about the illness has for me been a big part of that illness.

Next month it will be five years since my childhood traumas were suddenly re-triggered by a hugely underqualified life coach delving without warning into my past. The effect was almost immediate. Within hours I started experiencing again symptoms I hadn’t felt for ten years: constant terror, a strong sense of unreality, the periods of violent shaking that are part of trauma reactions. I covered it up, with an instinctive reaction that what was happening was my fault and deeply shameful. I was so immediately so deep in it that my adult sense of perspective was gone. It simply didn’t occur to me to tell anyone what was happening; I tried to deal with it on my own. That was the stigma in my mind.

A month or so later the cracks were becoming evident at work and a concerned colleague suggested a psychiatrist. I went, because I knew I needed it, but I told no-one I was going. I continued with work, taking the time between my calls to hyperventilate, sob and plan my death, and then getting back on the next call. I continued to travel internationally, willing the planes to crash. I did everything I was meant to do, just believing I wasn’t real and with suicidal thoughts playing constantly in my head.

Eventually I collapsed completely and found myself in a three and a half month hospital stay in which my brain and body went wildly out of balance and a lot of the time I had no idea what was going on.

When I became conscious again I continued to try to keep it quiet. Shame, as they say, is a huge part of my story.

But as I’ve been getting better and that internal shame has begun to subside I’ve taken on other people’s, society’s, shame as well. I’ve been able for a couple of years now to admit to myself that depression is part of who I am, that I’ve had a range of mental experiences which outsiders would consider pretty weird, that as a result of those I’ve changed in some ways, though not in many others, and that my priorities are different just now. Knowing that internally was a huge step forward. But saying it out loud was a different matter.

There is undoubtedly stigma. For depression and anxiety in theory at least it does appear to be fading. Most people know someone who has been depressed, even if they struggle to understand and help that person when they need it. But ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are such gentle, abstract, non-threatening terms. The illnesses they describe are none of those things: what I think is not fading is ignorance about what those labels actually mean.

I’m making a fair amount of progress in admitting and making friends with my illness. I’ve been open on this blog about having had episodes of depression, though I’ve coated it so far in literary prose. I’ve explained my constraints to colleagues, and told them the reason for those constraints. When the topic comes up I’m fairly comfortable talking openly about ‘my psychiatrist’. (I have one. I see her every six weeks, down from every two weeks initially, or every night when I was in hospital. I don’t make a point of talking about her, as in day to day life I don’t by any means make depression my only conversational topic. But when it becomes relevant, when the next obvious thing to say in the conversation is ‘my psychiatrist…’ or ‘my depression…’ then I am increasingly able to say it without hesitation.)

I consider myself now to be relatively open about my mental health. I hope it helps some other people. It certainly does help me.

But though I can say ‘I suffer from depression’, I hesitate to describe what my behaviour has been like as a direct result of that. (Even writing that sentence, I feel the need immediately to reassure you that my behaviour just now is fine, is sane, that you have nothing to worry about.) Saying I have screamed a lot over the last few years, that I have banged my head against hospital walls, is a good deal harder than using the umbrella term ‘depression’. But that, among other things, is what it has been like for me. If I and others like me don’t share that then people who have not suffered will not know.

I’m conscious that when ‘The Storyteller’ appears it will be evident to all who read it that I have experience of some pretty unpleasant aspects of mental illness. I have not spared my characters any blushes. The novel is raw, and it is in parts brutal. (In other parts it is delicate and beautiful.) I want by June to be comfortable, in situations where it’s relevant, talking about all those aspects. I’m not going to go into it at dinner parties or at work. There ‘I’ve had depression and it leaves me very tired’ is fine. But if I’m going to read parts of the novel aloud, if I’m going to explain what it’s about, I need a greater comfort than I have now in talking about mental illness in its less palatable aspects.

This blog is part of the training I’m giving myself. And if it feels a little like a dam bursting, then maybe that is what it is.


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