#MHAW17 – Time To Talk?

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This article was originally published on 07/02/2014 @ 19:42 by Anwenkyatic, republished today for Mental Health Awareness Week 2017.

It isn’t Time To Talk day any more. It’s just Friday. Perhaps it’s some national holiday in some distant country I’ll probably never visit, or it might be the birthday of some celebrity, but by all accounts, it is a normal day. And that’s why I’m doing this today. I could have done it yesterday, when everyone was listening, but I didn’t. I’ll explain why later.

As I mentioned yesterday, mental health awareness is a cause that has been very important to me for years now. However, what I didn’t really talk about was why. I never went into detail about why the issue of mental illness had affected me so strongly. I made vague semantic gestures towards anxiety, and I talked briefly about recovery, but I never said what I was recovering from. It’s one of the most irritating ironies about my character: I am always entirely willing to admit that yes, I am one of the 25%, but I am always absolutely terrified to explain how.

Well. This is how.

I suppose an argument could be made that it started when I was 13. I don’t really know; I have little to no memory of any time before that, and the interim of my years of illness is represented only as a hazy mist in my mind. I can remember vague outlines of incidents and the impressions of how I felt, but that’s really it. It’s a self-defence mechanism, my first therapist told me. The brain won’t remember what it thinks will hurt it later, and my brain knew that it would be painful to think of those years later. So, it erased them. They might have never happened, if it weren’t for the fact that they are written in my blood and synapses. I can’t remember them, but I can still feel them.

From the first week of high school, I was singled out. I was an outcast. I may just as well have stood on a pedestal and shouted about it. I couldn’t hide it.

Anyway. When I was 13. That’s a decent estimate, because that’s when the bullying escalated beyond any semblance of control. I’ve always been short and snippy and too verbose for my own good, and in primary school, that had been a good thing. I was different, and that was OK. In high school, however, it became an albatross around my neck. My knowledge of Greek mythology was a cross to bear, not an attribute. My love of poetry was a burden and not a gift. From the first week of high school, I was singled out. I was an outcast. I may just as well have stood on a pedestal and shouted about it. I couldn’t hide it. With my unintentionally well-spoken accent and tendency to use words that were richer in syllables than understanding, there was no way I could have pretended to be normal. And people knew that. For years, I was called names. I was tripped in the corridors. People waited at the school gates with their friends just to follow me halfway down the street and taunt me. Teachers called it ‘teasing’. I knew better.

In year 9, things worsened. I was spat on. I was pushed into roads. I was followed in the corridors by groups of people whose faces I didn’t know, but I knew them well by the things they would call me. I learnt more words that year than I wanted to know. I couldn’t forget them now if I tried. At one point, I made a list of everyone who was regularly bullying me, with the intention of handing it to a teacher. That list totalled over 50 people, and I was too embarrassed to hand it in. I was ashamed. I was tired, and I was ashamed. Looking back now, I can’t believe that I ever thought it was my fault. That I deserved it. That the girl two years above me who would try and push me down the stairs was justified because I wasn’t like everyone else. That there was a just reason for the group of 15 boys in the years above who would follow me around the school and shout sexually explicit things at me within earshot of everyone so that others knew I was undesirable, and that they did this because I was a freak. Not because they were cruel and vindictive, but because I was ugly. I was different. I should be ashamed of it, and I was. And I’d like to say that this didn’t last long. I’d like to say that I told a teacher or an adult I could trust, and that someone put a stop to it. But it went on for three years, and by the time I was 16, I didn’t know who I was any more.

I suppose that a part of me knew that it wasn’t normal to excuse myself from a lesson so I could lock myself in a toilet cubicle and sob. I must have known that it wasn’t normal to linger in lessons until the corridors were empty so that I could avoid meeting anyone’s eye who would look at me with hatred. But I wasn’t normal, was I, and everyone knew it, and so these things just became part of the patchwork. They were abnormal, but so was my fondness for 19th century poetry and my acne. It wasn’t normal to feel a weight across my chest that wasn’t there, but it wasn’t normal to be 4ft 8 either, so what was the difference? What was one more thing that set me apart? I just added it to the pile of things that made me a freak, and I carried on, assimilating it into my life like an ink stain on silk, and I let everything become black. I let it seep through the fabric of my daily life, and I watched as it covered everything that there was. I stood aside as it made everything dark, and I wondered when it would be light again. I wondered if it ever would.

Depression is abstract. It is a vacuum. It is a storm that starts as drizzle and sweeps into a hurricane until everything is washed away, and you are left as a yawning chasm.

It’s a hard thing to describe, depression. You’d think it was being sad, wouldn’t you? Being sad for months and months, all at once, all tear stains on the pillow and howling with misplaced grief. But it’s not that. That’s too concrete. Depression is abstract. It is a vacuum. It is a storm that starts as drizzle and sweeps into a hurricane until everything is washed away, and you are left as a yawning chasm. There is nothing left. Depression is staring at walls for hours on end, trying wearily to muster up the will to feel something, anything – depression is nothingness. It is as much grey as it is black, and it is hollow. That’s the best way I can describe it. It takes you apart and puts you back together again with nothing inside, and it makes you watch from the sidelines. You are no longer an active participant in your own life. You are a bystander, watching as things happen but dully; you do not feel, you do not care, and you do not cry. Until you do, of course, because even depression can’t make a robot out of you, and when it is released, the catharsis is frightening. It’s shocking. It’s sobbing for eight hours and gasping for air for nine; it’s tears that come so fast you can’t count them on the fingers of the crowds who don’t care. It’s knowing that everything is wrong, but that you are the most wrong thing of all. It’s knowing that you are an abomination. That you are worthless, and empty, and you deserve to be. Depression is a best friend and a worst enemy. It is a cavern and a mountain. It is everything and nothing.

Brain for Aunty Sprout Mental health Self-Harm

It’s hard to describe panic attacks, too. I expect most of you have probably had one, but you might not have known it. It’s like a heart attack, but it’s in your mind as well. It’s poison, making all of you sting until you can’t breathe and you’re doubled over, head thudding and heart thumping and not breathing, not breathing at all until it ends. Luckily, panic attacks never really affected me; the anxiety that I felt was less sharp than a panic attack. It never took my breath away and made my heart hurt. Instead, it was a dead weight. It sat all across my shoulders and my ribcage. It hurt, but never all at once. It was an ache rather than a stab-wound. It was a yellow bruise and never bled, but it was constant. My heart rate was always racing. My head was always chasing thoughts – ‘that person is looking at you because you are ugly’, ‘that man hates you and he knows that everyone else does too’, ‘if you go down that corridor, someone will find you and chase you’, ‘if you get on that bus by yourself then you’ll ask for the wrong ticket and they’ll all laugh at you’ – my brain was betraying me, and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that these thoughts were irrational. I thought I had every rational reason in the world to be terrified of everything, as I was. I thought it was self-preservation that made my veins throb and my head ache. I never thought it might be illness.

Only when I finally mustered up the courage to tell the headmaster about the bullying – and only after I’d had a breakdown that rendered me unable to attend school – did I realise that there was something wrong. I had thought that once the danger had passed, then so too would the feelings of worthlessness. I had no reason to cry now, so why did I weep for hours every day? Why couldn’t I get out of bed on the weekends? Why did it fill me with cold, dry-mouthed dread every time I left the house and saw someone glance at me? I couldn’t function. I counted steps in groups of 4 and I bawled after school and I stammered through lessons, and I wasn’t me. I realised that I had changed. I had become someone else, and I didn’t know who that was.

Every day was difficult and I was conscious every moment that this was hard, but I had the determination to pull through it.

I won’t go into detail about the treatment. In the two years left in school, I had four therapists. I gradually found myself able to cope well enough to attend university – although I had been told by doctors and family members alike that it might not be a good idea – and I was doing well in my first year. I still cried and I was still frightened, but I got up. I went to lectures. I did my work. I made jokes. I was me. Every day was difficult and I was conscious every moment that this was hard, but I had the determination to pull through it. I worked through every second and struggled through every hour, and I made it through every day.

And then I wasn’t OK any more. Just like that, I wasn’t me any more. The doctors put me on Citalopram – 10mg at first, then 20mg, then 30mg – and I got worse. The high dosage of antidepressants set off a hypomanic phase. Again, it’s hard to explain. Mania is one of the most terrifying things a person can experience. Hypomania is perhaps half as terrifying, but still awful. You feel too good. Colours are too bright. The sun burns, even on winter mornings. Time is too fast. Everything is ‘too’. Too loud, too brilliant, too wonderful. And everything is immediate. I spent over £1,000 in just under two months, because all my inhibitions and judgement were gone.

I won’t go into detail about it, because I know there are people here who are still hurt by it – I ruined friendships and damaged trust, and believe me when I say that I am sorry every day, that not a single hour goes by and I don’t think about it – but I ended up in hospital, on the brink of leaving university, and that was when I knew that if I was going to get better – because God, I needed to – then it would take more than therapy and 30mg of something that tried to balance my brain chemistry and ended up tipping it the wrong way.

And I suppose that’s where it ends, really. That was where recovery began. Every day, I inhaled and exhaled and I hurt. It wasn’t a battle; more of a war, because for every conquest and victory – every time I left the house and laughed and liked myself – there was a defeat. There was always that moment when the Me I could have been was brought into stark contrast with the Me I now was, and I was unable to ignore the fact that I would always be the product of other people. I had been damaged by them, and although I was putting myself back together, I didn’t always know which bits fit together. I would always be what they had made of me, and I rued them for it. I hated them. I still do, and that makes me ashamed. I should forgive them, but my brain chemistry is still uprooted and weed-like where it should be blossoming and flowering, and they will never earn my forgiveness. Perhaps it’s this lingering hatred that means I still shake when I take train journeys by myself, and perhaps it’s why I still feel shelled out and empty when it’s dark outside and inside.

I am always afraid, always a little empty, but filled with the pride and happiness that comes with the little victories.

But it’s not always dark, either outside or in, and I am freer every day. Every day, although my brain is still a vessel for what other people made me think, I am more at peace. I get the bus to work and I write and I smile and I am always afraid, always a little empty, but filled with the pride and happiness that comes with the little victories. I graduated university with a 2:1, after my second year averaged a low 2:2 due to my illness and I averaged a First in my third year, and I did that. I did that. I started work full time and I travelled to visit friends across the country by myself and I went abroad and I breathed, in and out, every day, and I did that. I did all of that. Not in spite of the chemical mayhem in my mind, but perhaps because of it.

I am not worse for my illness. I am not dulled or lessened, not ashamed or inhuman, and I am the 1 in 4. I am the quarter, the 25%, and I will never be unwilling to admit it, because to deny it is to deny how amazing all my achievements have been in the face of it. I am too proud of my journey to lie about the route I took.

And that’s why I’m writing this today, and not yesterday. Because I don’t want to talk about it only when I’m asked. I don’t want to need a special day dedicated to the cause to make me say ‘I am ill, and I am in recovery’. I don’t want to wait once a year to say ‘this is me’. I am me 365 days a year, and I am always battling and winning and losing. Some days, I am the act of hating all the atoms that make me. I am afraid and I hide, and I am angry. But some days, I am the act of ordering tea and asking questions and making others laugh, and I am not ashamed or embarrassed of the contrast between the days. I am afraid of the knowledge that one day, the contrast will lessen, and I will return to being an empty shell in a world full of things that frighten me. But I am also proud of the knowledge that I will return to the real world after that, and I am not ashamed of either fact.

And it’s stupid. It’s stupid, isn’t it, that posting this should cause me so much fear. That as I typed this, my fingers started trembling and my face started flushing and I felt as though someone was poking at my insides and pulling them apart. That even now, after this is posted, my heart is racing and my hands are shaking, because I feel like I am expressing a secret. I feel like I am talking out of turn. I feel like I am writing words that no-one should read – that I am being vulgar and too honest – and that’s not true. I am being as honest as I need to be. I am being.

So, this is me. This is me talking.

If you would like to talk to anyone about depression or other things, please contact Meic, the national information, advice and advocacy helpline for 0-25s in Wales. You can contact Meic by phone (080880 23456), text (84001), instant message (www.meic.cymru) or email (help@meic.cymru) between 8am and midnight.


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