I took part in a mental health awareness training course yesterday. It turned out to be a real eye-opener and I’ve spent most of today trying to process my feelings about it.
We covered the symptoms and causes of depression and it was the latter that unsettled me the most. The trainer asked the group – which included mental health professionals – ‘what causes depression?’ and their responses included the following.
- Not exercising
- Not getting enough sleep
- Not having a healthy diet
- Not having enough to do
- Not taking their medication (I kid you not – just think about that one for a moment…)
There were more, but I was becoming too anxious to take them in. I wasn’t the only ‘lived experience’ representative to feel that way. I felt wholly judged and yet again got the distinct impression that people still see mental health issues as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness. I think I know what the problem is, at least in part.
People get confused between illness and wellbeing.
There are things that we can all do to enhance our mental and emotional wellbeing. Rewrite the five points listed above as positive statements – turn those frowns upside down people – and they make a great checklist of things that can boost how we feel and how we cope with the crap life throws at us. But as far as I’m aware, skipping a scheduled run isn’t a pre-cursor for clinical depression.
When I’m well I run, practice yoga and mindfulness, eat way more than five portions of fruit and veg a day and even eat oily fish. The fish thing is mainly for a laugh because a relative told me that the reason I want to die is that I don’t eat enough salmon, but generally I treat my body like a temple. OK, I still haven’t managed to give up the rollies but that’s just like temple incense isn’t it?
I do all these things but I still have devastating, catastrophic relapses. And the thing is, when I’m ill, everything is bad for me. Because I’m ill.
A relapse usually means that I can’t leave the house to run, I tend to live off cold toast and my sleep patterns go completely haywire. But this time last year, you would have seen me running every day, practicing yoga in the evenings and picking vegetables straight from the garden to eat for my dinner. I was also incredibly unwell.
It was a dark, horrible time. What you wouldn’t have seen is the desperation to always run quicker than the day before, or me driving to Asda in the middle of the night so that I’d have blueberries for breakfast. I was convinced that if I didn’t eat two tablespoons of blueberries every morning or if I ran a slower time than the day before, one of the doom-laden prophecies in my head would come true. I couldn’t stop the fear, the feeling that unless I kept up with my routine something horrendous would happen, not only to the people I love but to the entire world. I wanted to die and free us all from my misery.
My own ‘lived experience’ – how I hate that phrase – tells me that when I’m ill, I’m ill. Sometimes I can play the part of Well CNS Blogger to Oscar-worthy standards but it doesn’t make me better. It usually means I’m more vulnerable and at risk than when I’m curled up under a duvet and surrounded by toast crumbs – because when I do that I have accepted where I’m at and am no longer pretending it’s not happening.
So can we get one thing straight?
There are great checklists of things that we can do to improve our well-being. Have a banana – they’re brilliant – and then go for a jog round the block. You might feel better for it, but mental health issues aren’t caused by a failure to tick everything off a wellness to-do list. If that were true I’d have been spared the burden of ever having to meet my psychiatrist because the only thing I love more than a good list is one where every item’s marked as complete.
The truth is that mental health issues can happen to any one of us, although some are more susceptible than others. If the Witch of Misery ever turns up at your door, points her miserable, bony finger at you and says that it’s your turn, remember this.
Lots of people will tell you what you need to do. You will more than likely feel judged and entirely inadequate. I can guarantee someone will tell you that you need to go for a walk – it’s a given. Others will decided that you’re not eating enough fish and should meditate each morning. At least one person will lend you a DVD of their favourite comedian to cheer you up.
But ultimately, there’s only one thing you need to try and do. Some will judge – meh – but some will walk with you, as much as they can.
The one thing you need to try and do is to get through the day – or the next minute if that’s all you can face – in any way you can*. That’s it.
I’ve spent days sewing straight lines of stitches in random pieces of fabric. I’ve cleaned the entire house. Twice. I’ve passed hours staring at the same spot on the carpet. Whatever you do, you might not feel like you’ve covered yourself in glory but you have. I know how hard you had to work to get through that day or moment, so you’re a frickin’ superhero to me.
Whatever it takes to get through the day. It’s all any of us can do. And then repeat until the Witch of Misery buggers off and picks on someone else for a while.
*With the exceptions of hurting others, putting yourself in harm’s way or waking to a pint of pinot grigio every morning.