In the UK this year, Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 13th until the 19th of May. It’s been no secret on this blog, or indeed any of my social media, that I have my own issues and struggles with mental health. Some of it is connected to how I manage my dsypraxia; some of it is just intrinsically me. At this point, I am going to put a mild warning for those who may be in a difficult place right now. Some of what I will be discussing may be triggering or distressing and I need you to look after yourself more than I need you to read my blog, okay? Alright, we shall continue.
The feeling that my brain is out to get me, or sabotage me, or it failing me, has not been an uncommon one in the twenty-three years I’ve been alive. I have memories of being a preteen, maybe not even ten, and wondering why I couldn’t seem to make myself be as happy as other people appeared to be. Depression and anxiety nipped at my heels the entirety of my teenage years, often leaving me isolated, filled with self-loathing and guilt from the feeling that I was making a fuss about nothing, that I had no reason to feel these things. So many other people had it worse than I did so I was just an ungrateful little bitch, wasn’t I? Panic attacks arrived on the scene when I was nineteen or twenty; self-harm didn’t sneak in until I was twenty-two.
The thing I have learned in my time upon the roiling seas of mental health, is that there is no direct line to “better”. There is no staircase where you reach the top and are “cured” of your issues. Some may disagree, saying it is a case of mind over matter, that you control your brain and your feelings and should be able to get rid of these bad things if you just ate green things and took up running. As with many arguments that occur on this spinning rock suspended in space that the human race call home, we’re both right. If that darkness lives in the knot of your sternum, like my obsidian moth does, then the likelihood of it leaving you for good is slim. If you have days, like I do, where the anxiety leaves you heaving for breath face down on your floor and you hammer your forehead into the ground because it’s so frustrating to be so afraid and not even know what you’re afraid of, then that shapeless fear is always going to be a part of you in some way; sweaty palms at the thought of travelling, sudden shyness at a networking event; a day where going to the shops is utterly impossible even though you have no milk and have three sheets of toilet paper left because it’s too bright and too loud and people are just everywhere.
However, I have come to realise that I am not at the complete mercy of my mental health. Although I spend a lot of time speaking about my brain and my dsypraxia and my anxiety and my depression as if they are entities seperate from myself, they are me and I am them. I do not exist within my metal health, my mental health is one layer of the wonderful jumble that is me and my life. Rather than seeing them as demon-like entities that possess me, leaving me helpless, I prefer to imagine them as little creatures that inhabit my body and use it as their playground; I become a garden for these capricious sprites. And so here the voice of the non-believer saying that “it’s all in your head” has a grain of truth. Not whole, rich, full fat compassion type truth, but some truth nonetheless. They even get bonus points for the mentions of good diet and exercise. They then immediately lose all points for being an ass. Not all the things touted by ignorant, and sometimes not so ignorant, folk are accessible to everyone struggling with mental health. And while there is some cross-over via symptoms and diagnoses, every person’s journey will be different.
You see, it takes time to find a way to your version of better. It requires listening to your body, to your mind, to your spirit, and learning when to gently override what you hear. Yes, there will be days when you need to stay home, have plenty of naps, eat comforting food, and see no one. But that cannot be every day. Some days, you have to hear the plea for a quiet day of solitude and get up, get out, and go do the day. Whether you make it through the day by the skin of your teeth or if you know you can push it further into going for a walk after work or calling up friends to go out for dinner or going to that kickboxing gym you pass every day, allow yourself to celebrate success. Similarly, there will be days when your mind is screaming at you with all the things that must be done right this second and the best thing for you in the long-term is to turn off your phone and do something that brings you peace.
To get to a better place takes kindness, towards others but most importantly towards yourself. I took up yoga several months ago, with a friend of mine as a guide. Every breath that connects my wandering mind back into the reality of my body is a kindness. The physical exertion of the flow and sweat on my back is a kindness. Each well-stretched tendon and muscle is a kindness. Providing yourself with a healthier diet, whatever that means to you, is a kindness. Drinking enough water is a kindness. Being kind to someone else is a kindness to yourself. Doing laundry even though you can barely move is a kindness because then you have clean sheets and clean clothes and can congratulate yourself on kicking butt that day.
It takes bravery to improve your mental health, both to recognise your good days and to survive your bad ones. Thanks to my universities, I have had access to counselling and it is a practice I intend to continue for the rest of my life in one way or another. Knowing, even on my worst days, that there was a space and a sympathetic person not connected to my social circle or family or day to day existence where I could go and talk things out, speak my darkest parts out loud and be able to process them, has been a lifeline. While it is crucial to confide in friends and/or family (and I have been blessed with multiple people I can take my difficulties and fears to) not everyone has that opportunity and there are sometimes things you don’t want to share about yourself with the people in your life. Bravery exists outside of councelling though, and can take a myriad of forms: waking up in the morning, eating, organising your week, booking an appointment, going shopping, speaking up in class or work, giving yourself permission to feel proud of your achievements, asking someone out, doing laundry, asking for help, making it through another day, and anything else you want to add.
With bravery, comes discipline, which can be a tough one, but it is the lesson I have appreciated learning the most. Sure, it’s not fun to stay home and finish an essay when I want to go hang out with my friends, or watch Netflix, or look at memes, but I know from experience that the short term pleasure of those things will quickly be blotted about the anxiety I will have the next morning when I see that I’m one day closer to that very close deadline and no more words have been written. That’s not to say I’m perfect at this, but in terms of managing my dsypraxia and my other mental health sprites, pushing through the fatigue or lack of motivation always leads to peace of mind and a well-earned sense of satisfaction.
None of these things are cures, and god knows I’m no mental health expert or guru or councellor. But I’ve lived it for a long time. I’ve been down the dark rabbit hole countless times but failed to ask for help. I survived the days and nights of intense lows, where breathing was a challenge I could barely face. And I’ve worked hard, so fucking hard, to leave those places and times behind. I can’t escape them forever, but I make the time between visits longer and longer, and the time I spend there shorter and shorter. Recently I had what I call a “bad processing day” when my dyspraxia was very prominent. Just walking to uni took all of my mental focus; the sides of my vision were blurry; it took me far too long to formulate even simple sentences in my head before I said them and then couldn’t be certain I’d said the words the right way. But despite this, I realised it didn’t bother me too much. Usually, a day like that would lead to intense anxiety and a dark spot of frustration that I could’t just be normal. Maybe it’s a simple thing to understand for some, but I finally put together that a bad dyspraxia day didn’t mean it had to be a bad day. It was a thought I’ve rolled over into the rest of my difficulties and I’ve found it to be a great help. Just because I’m feeling anxious, doesn’t mean it has to ruin my day. My little creatures can have their tantrums and batter themselves against my skull but they don’t always get to derail my life.
Do I have a point hidden in all these ramblings? Who knows. Maybe I want people to understand that although I usually look fine, I often am not fine in the slightest and, no, I didn’t have to dash out of the cafeteria because I had a phone call but because I was about to black out from a panic attack. Maybe I want people to hear of my minor successes and be inspired. Maybe I just want to be one more drop in the bucket of ending the stigma against mental health. All I know is that I have survived 100% of my bad days and, if you’re reading this, so have you. All I know is that the place I am right now with my mental health is the best it has ever been, even with a 15,000 word Master’s research dissertation ahead of me, no solid career path, no love interests, and I’m moving back home with my parents in July.
All I know is that everyone is a little bit capable of improving their relationship with mental health. Whether you have it or someone you know does, we can all do better at talking about it.
So, find your kindness, find your bravery, find your discipline, and give yourself time. Your mind matters; look after it.