Firstly, if you’ve gotten this far, I want to thank you. Because if you’ve at least clicked on this link, it means you either*; (A) feel passionately about mental health, just like myself or (B) feel you need to gain a better understanding of mental health stigma and its effects. *Of course, you could just be (C) nosy af, but we won’t shoot you for it this time! For whatever reason you decided to open this post, my story – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
At this point, you’ve probably noticed that I’m rambling more than usual – why? Well, I’m pretty damn nervous, if I’m honest. Not only because I’m totally exposing my entire mental health journey to the world but also because I’m revealing it to myself for the first time too, as a whole anyway. This post has been a long time coming you see, but I never really found the right words or the right timing to put it all down in a way that remotely made sense – until now.
W is For…Why & When It Began
Why? Why did you end up depressed? What happened to you? When did it all begin? I think one of the main reasons that I never wanted to come to accept my mental health issues was because I felt I was unworthy of having them. I’m not sure if it’s instilled in us as a nation or what but people in Ireland seem to think a mental illness can only be justified by some huge, traumatic event that totally turns your world upside down. In my case, I didn’t lose my legs or my family weren’t victims of a natural disaster (touch wood!), yet, here I was aged just 16, feeling zero emotion, wizened by the ‘bleak world’ that surrounded me. I made myself feel bad for feeling bad, I felt guilt each and every day – who was I to feel these feelings? I could have it so much worse, right?
If I was to pinpoint when exactly I began to suffer from mental health issues, I would say around that age of 15/16 but of course that may not be accurate (it probably wasn’t until then that I began to grasp a proper understanding of such problems) which wasn’t aided by the stigma still present while growing up in the 90s/00’s in a relatively rural part of Ireland. It definitely began to escalate when I reached Leaving Cert. but even though I understood what was happening, I was extremely reluctant (almost in denial) to accept it, never mind consider seeking help.
It wasn’t until I reached college in 2015 that I began to realise that I needed to address what was going on but still, being the stubborn person I am, took a further year to actually seek that help and support, which brings us up to September 2016 – exactly one year since now – and that’s where I consider my mental health journey to have ‘really’ begun..
T is For…Therapy, Tantrums & Becoming Teetotal
Having finally grown a pair of balls and going to see the GP in the UCC Student Health Centre during my first year in college, it was initially decided that I was suffering from generalised and social anxiety and was therefore referred to the college counselling service to see if they could tackle my issues with me. I feel it’s important to note that my first diagnosis wasn’t a misdiagnosis, but rather me holding back a lot of what was going on, trying to make it seem like I ‘wasn’t actually that bad’ in front of the doctor and counsellors.
Looking back, this is definitely something I regret and if I had the chance, I would go back and be completely open during that first session, instead of waiting almost 6 months to be properly diagnosed with depression too. I speak at more depth about my experience with therapy in a previous post but in short what I’ve learned is as follows;
1. Not Every Therapist Will Suit You
It’s just like everything else in life, hairdressers, personal trainers, tutors – different people have different approaches to their jobs and personalities can have a lot to do with this. People often presume that therapists and counsellors all read from the same page and give identical advice for each type of problem but that’s far from true. Some therapists are more ‘matter of fact’ in the way they speak to their patients, while others are more gentle and softly spoken. Neither way is better than the other, it all comes down to what you, the patient, react best to.
2. The Overflowing Glass Analogy
During a session where I discussed in great length, my feelings of extreme anxiety, my therapist explained the concept of anxiety to me in the most perfect way. Basically, we must view our bodies as a glass, and anxiety levels as water. For a person who doesn’t suffer from anxiety or panic disorders, day to day stresses will only add drops to that glass, so when a particularly stressful event occurs, the glass won’t overflow and they can therefore manage their anxiety levels. On the other hand, someone (like me), who becomes anxious over a variety of everyday occurrences, will always have their glass half filled with water, so when something overly stressful happens, my glass will immediately overflow, leaving me unable to handle my anxiety levels, resulting in a panic attack or even a series of them. As soon as this analogy was explained to me, it all fell into place and I was able to understand why different forms of stress effect different people in different ways.
3. Honesty Is Key
When I first began speaking to a therapist, I was very reluctant to open up completely. Sure, I’d taken the first step, I was sitting there in front of her, but part of me was still refusing to let down my guard, that shield I’d been gripping onto desperately for so long. I guess I was afraid that if I opened up completely, I’d never be able to stop, that the words would just pour and pour until all of my fears and heartaches were spread all over the table, but looking back, that’s exactly what I needed to do – let it all out. Going to therapy and only sharing half of the problem is futile. It’s like putting a plaster on an infected wound, sure it’ll stop the blood escaping but the infection within will continue to do its damage.
During that first year in college, I changed quite a bit from the person I had been in school. I was definitely more independent, free and I guess a bit wild, but by no means was I truly happy. I went from being a timid teenager who never dared to bend the rules to a significantly more daring individual, especially when it came to going out and consuming alcohol. The only time I truly felt emotion of any form was when I had a few drinks in me, which proceeded to a few too many on most occasions. While I began to come out of my shell, a personality I’d quickly begin to despise also reared its ugly head. I soon came to realise that I was a blunt and somewhat aggressive drunk, the complete opposite to my timid, sober self.
I began to get myself in trouble for things I’d say and do whilst under the influence (nothing illegal mind, just enough to give me The Fear for 3 days straight!). It was those extended periods of sheer paranoia and utter fear that made me come to the decision that I needed to say goodbye to alcohol (at least temporarily) before it became a serious issue – not like I needed another one of those, right? I can now say that I successfully stayed off alcohol for 11 months and when I did decide to drink again, just this month, it was for the right reasons, not as a method of coping with my hidden demons. (I also have a post on my year without alcohol, btw!)
A is For…Antidepressants & Acceptance
Now, let’s go back to my timeline. 2015-2016 saw the start of my mental health journey as I know it, but in September 2016, it took a turn that I never wanted nor expected to happen. Having spoken with 3 different therapists, I came to accept that talking things out wasn’t going to be the solution in my case. So, after chatting with my GP (openly and honestly this time) my diagnosis got the ‘D’ word added on to it and we decided that the next step in my mental health journey was to give medication a go. I’ll admit, I was fucking terrified to start taking antidepressants. I guess growing up in such a stigmatised society when it comes to mental health, we associated such medication with the worst of the worst cases, full stop.
In the space of a year, I’ve been on four different types of medication for anxiety, depression and panic disorder. A mix of antidepressants and antipsychotics of varying strengths, each has come with their advantages as well as some pretty shit side effects. Everything from tremor (involuntary shaking) and nausea to paranoia and weight gain, it hasn’t been a bundle of laughs but it sure was a decision I have zero regrets about. Right now, I’ve been off all medication for about a month but I definitely wouldn’t rule out going back on them if I felt I needed to. That time could come next week, next year or it was never – it all comes to to listening to my body and mind and accepting when it needs some extra support and looking after.
I’ve always been guilty of bottling up my feelings to the point where they wreck havoc with my mind. During one particular session with my therapist, I was asked to think back to my earliest memory of feeling anxious and on edge. It wasn’t until I did this that I discovered what an impact previous events, from years ago, were having on my current state of mind. Just because you feel anxious or low now doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings are being caused by an event or situation that just occurred. The past has a funny way of reoccurring in the present, which is why it’s so important to address all of your issues with the same level of care and importance, regardless of whether they date back to last week or 10 years ago. An unresolved issue or traumatic event left unspoken of will only continue to fester, and the longer you leave it untreated, the more difficult it will be to address it when it does come to the surface.
One of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m the sort of person who’s ‘in love with the idea of being in love’. By that I mean, I often jump into things without thinking them through, getting involved with someone half-heartedly purely in the hope of feeling more ‘complete’. Opening up and discussing my innermost feelings has taught me that in previous realtionships, the issue wasn’t that the other person didn’t care about me enough, it was that I didn’t care about me enough.
Being happy and content with yourself has to come first, because if you aren’t in a good place alone, how can you expect to be, with someone else? I also learned that expecting another person to mend your heart without actually addressing the issues yourself is never going to work. Having a loving partner won’t magically erase the painful memories of your past, but working through those issues, learning to love yourself and THEN extending that love to someone else – that might just be a recipe for success.