I really had to think about whether or not I wanted to blog about Mental Health Awareness Week. Partly because I wasn’t sure if I had anything I felt like I wanted to say. It’s not always easy to be open.
I don’t talk about my mental illness on social media for a few reasons. I think it’s partly because I’m actually quite private, and I think carefully about what I want people to think about me. When a large majority of my interactions with readers and other writers is online it’s easy to filter and present a certain image. Although I do my best to be very genuine and open, the darker side of my life is one I try and keep hidden from view.
This year I was signed off work for almost four months due to depression. I’ve only been back at work for a few weeks; when I made the trip to the States for RT I was technically still absent from work due to my mental health.
I’ve only been able to accept the fact that I have depression in the past couple of weeks. Before that I would insist that it was just anxiety—as if “just anxiety” is a thing! I suffer with panic attacks, insomnia, and being physically sick. Those were the worst symptoms, I think; throwing up often several times a day, not being able to sleep, and that awful tight feeling in my chest that never really went away. I found myself focusing on those physical symptoms because it was easier than trying to deal with the root cause. I really didn’t want to accept that I was ill.
For the first few months—through January and February—I pretty much refused to talk to anyone about my issues except my doctor (who I had to tell what was going on since she was the one to sign me off work). I refused CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and any other type of therapy, and I didn’t want medication either. Looking back now, I really don’t know what I did for the four months I wasn’t in work. It’s like that time is a black hole. I didn’t write, I didn’t go anywhere, or do anything in particular. I just existed.
When I left for RT I felt like I was starting to lift out of it a bit. Having an amazing three week adventure to look forward to focused my attention, and travelling on my own always forces me to pay attention to the here-and-now, what’s going on around me and how I feel about it. I started to pay better attention to things like hunger cues, and though I still wasn’t (and am still not) sleeping that well, some of those awful physical side effects started to lessen.
I think part of the reason why I didn’t—and don’t—want to talk about my mental illness is because I like the fact that people see me as a bright and upbeat person. I am that person. I like being the sort of person who my friends look to to organise the parties and the nights out. I like baking just to see my colleagues smile and to brighten their day. (And because I like cake). I always strive to be the friend who lifts people up, instead of dragging them down. I hug a lot.
What I am learning is that I can still be that person—bright, full of life Anna—and accept and deal with my depression and anxiety in a healthy way. Having depression and anxiety doesn’t take away from that bright, full of life person. I am still her.
The way we talk about mental illness is changing rapidly. Even a few years ago I wasn’t prepared to discuss my anxiety attacks, even though I’ve been having them since I was sixteen. I buried the idea that I could be a person who suffered with mental health issues. It may be that coming to terms with the existence of those issues in the first place has been harder than overcoming the effects the issues have caused. I’m still working on it.
And I’m going to keep working on it. This journey is probably going to be one I’m on for the rest of my life. I may have lost four months of my life to depression, but I’m not going to let it dictate the next four months, or the months after that. I know there’s every chance—even a likelihood—that it’ll come back, that I’ll sink again, and I may lose more time. But I know who I am, and I know where I’m going, and I’m going to work my ass off to make sure that my mental health problems don’t define me as a person. I’ve got so much more to do.