I’ve been having lots of thinky thoughts about mental health recently, and the Disability Diaries week is starting to wrap up, so I thought now would be a great time to write up a bit about my experiences and what I’ve learned in the past four years of being mentally ill. .
An important note: I am in no way an expert on mental health. It is a huge and nuanced topic, and I have only personally experienced a few facets of what it means to be mentally ill. I’m going to talk about my thoughts and experiences of mental health, which will vary massively from others’ thoughts and experiences. Furthermore, although this will be quite a personal post, I am always open to thinking about mental health in new ways, so if you have any differences in opinion, please don’t hesitate to comment! This is such an important topic to me, and I always want to learn more about it. (Last note – there are trigger warnings for this post, including abusive relationships, eating disorders, references to self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.)
RIGHT THEN. About me. I have depression and anxiety, with intermittent phobias and dissociative episodes. (A mouthful I know, but I don’t really fit into defined diagnoses. Yaaaaay.) These started when I was 16, right after I came out of an abusive relationship. It was the first relationship I’d ever had – I was still a teenager, and she was 24. It was over the Internet. This experience made me very, very ill, to put it mildly. Panic attacks were a daily occurrence, and I was in a deep depression. I was sleeping at least 14 hours a day. My doctors in Bermuda told me that I had a thyroid problem, and they wouldn’t even consider the idea that I could be mentally ill.
This went on for two years. I graduated high school, and went to university in the UK – I was kind-of resigned to the fact that this was who I was as a person, and I honestly believed that nothing could change that. It did get better, for a bit. I met a girl. I fell in love. And then it became a long-distance relationship, mainly conducted over the Internet, and it brought everything back. I turned 19, and I wasn’t eating. I had maybe a bowl of cereal a day, for a month. I didn’t self-harm, but I wanted to. I wasn’t quite suicidal, but I kept imagining what it would be like if I just…didn’t exist, somehow. I couldn’t stop crying, but all I could feel was physical and emotional numbness. It was a very dark place to be.
After not being able to leave the house for a week, and nearly collapsing from lack of food, I decided to go to the doctor. I was immediately given SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, otherwise known as antidepressants), and put in contact with a therapist. Let’s talk about the meds first. For those who don’t know – SSRIs take a while to come into effect. For the first two weeks or so, all you experience are the physical side-effects of the meds, and few of the benefits. For me, those included extremely vivid dreams, constant exhaustion (I was now sleeping about 16 hours a day), and nausea. I can honestly say that I don’t remember much of those first two weeks. But after I got through them, I could feel the darkness lifting.
The therapy….was less successful. I was put into CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy):
CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.
CBT aims to help you deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts. You’re shown how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel.
Unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with your current problems, rather than focusing on issues from your past. It looks for practical ways to improve your state of mind on a daily basis.
It might just have been the therapist I was given (he was utterly useless – so much time was wasted re-capping what I’d told him the previous session). It may have been the style of therapy, because there are lots, and CBT doesn’t work for everyone. But I just didn’t get on with it, and after two months, I stopped. But I spoke more to my friends, because many of them have experiences with mental illness. I forced myself to go out, because by that time, it was summer, and that had an enormous effect on my mental health. It slowly got better.
I am by no means cured. I still panic and find myself in dark moods, and I am terrified that at some point the meds will stop working. But I also think that though all of this I learned how to listen to myself, and I now know what helps when I get like that. I know that I’m only 20, and I have a lot of years ahead of me – but now, instead of filling me with dread, that thought makes me smile. There will be challenges in my future, and some of them will probably have to do with my mental health. But I’ve recovered before, and I can do it again.
To finish. There are some fantastic resources online. Some of the ones I’ve used include MIND, the NHS, and time to change. Online information can be really useful, especially if you don’t have anyone around you who you can talk to. However, if possible, please see your doctor if you’re getting worried, or you think things are getting out of control. Meds and therapy don’t have the same effects for everyone, but even the act of telling someone how you feel is a step in the right direction.