Picture the scene, you’re climbing a hill with the family. It’s fun, you’re in the fresh air. You have your beautiful children and great husband beside you. This is real, quality time. Your smiling, happy, then you look down. You’re feet are lost in the undergrowth and slam: out of the blue, literally out of the blue, your imagination takes over and you’re suddenly swearing like a trucker in a jam, seeking out the poisonous snakes that are sat waiting for your ankles. You know, those many, many poisonous snakes native to Cornwall. The ones that have psychopathic tendencies and an agenda to kill all humans. The beauty of a walk with the family has dissolved and your eldest is pretending he can’t hear you repeat all of the words. Like, all of them.
Or perhaps, another time, when you’re at a museum with all the family. And you’re having a lovely time. And the kids in particular are running around enjoying this creative, learning experience. Your Mother-in-Law has paid for you all to get in. It’s smashing. And then, out of the blue, literally out of the blue, your imagination takes over and half an hour in to your visit you’re stricken, pleading with your husband to get everyone out because something horrific is going to happen. And you have to leave immediately, but they choose to go via the gift shop (because who doesn’t love over-priced gift shop tat – even with the threat of sudden horror), so you go on ahead. You hide, crouched down beside your car, ringing them until they come out and you can leave the area at speed, finding solitude on the M5 heading West.
Or perhaps it’s a different time, when your son is going to London on a school trip and from the very moment you get the itinerary you can visualise the horrific thing that is going to happen at each point on his journey. Or the ache in your chest that suddenly bears no resemblance to a pulled muscle, or tired limbs, or the fall out of weeks of agnonising fear poisoning your body with toxins that rumble around making moving, breathing, getting up, so very difficult to do. No, that ache is definitely going to leave your children motherless.
Funny isn’t it. Hilarious. What a drama queen. What an irrational idiot. In fact it’s all so ridiculous, wouldn’t it be better if I didn’t talk about it. Because I look stupid. I look almost as stupid as I feel.
And that is part of the problem. Not just for me, but for the millions of people that struggle with any form of mental health challenge, in whatever state it comes in. We might be the kind who can talk about it to friends. We might be the kind who can mention stuff that’s happened in the past because it’s not present, it’s not current, it doesn’t affect. But we can’t begin to mention it when we’re in the middle of an episode. What does anyone do with that information? What do you expect them to say? What’s the point of telling them, if not to draw attention to yourself? So you don’t, you keep quiet. It’s easier that way.
I’m quite good at faking it. I was chatting to someone the other day, someone who had shared their own recent feelings of being lost. I felt it important to suggest she wasn’t alone. She was aghast at my confession. She couldn’t imagine that somebody like me could never suffer any kind of mental health issue.
Somebody like me.
I think she meant the somebody like me that is fine on a good day. Even when in the throes of an episode, I have good days. Great even. I can chat, I can be funny, I can be warm, or thoughtful, or caring. I can be down right lovely at times. When I’m good, I’d be friends with me, sure. But when I’m not? Well, that’s another story. And it’s one I know I hide very well. Partly because I’ve been well for a good few years and previous episodes were in the past. Partly because nobody wants to hear from a whiner. Partly because we all have our issues, life is good for me, what right do I have to feel anything other than happy? Don’t answer that question, it’s irrelevant! And partly because I’m embarrassed about the sort of things that trigger my panic. Terror or health. I know right, specific and obvious, my anxiety lacks imagination. (Though not technicolour imagery, sadly.) Partly because no matter how progressive we like to think we are as a society, mental health is either misunderstood, disrespected, ignored, or swept beneath our proverbial carpets. Mine’s a vintage Persian in case you wondered.
It’s Mental Health Awareness week this week. I write this as someone in a current, very real phase of anxiety. I’ve been treading water for weeks. Occasionally dipping under the surface, gasping for breath, before finding my rhythm again and so far, just about managing to keep my head above the waterline. But it’s not easy. Far from it. I’ve had moments where the kids will have seen my fears – I’m not ashamed of that, but I don’t like it. I’ve had moments where I’ve wanted to hide, run away from the school drop off, avoid people, lock myself away in the safety of our home. I’ve had moments where the various balls I juggle have been dropped, affecting not just me. And then the subsequent, overwhelming sense that I’ve let people down. God, I hate letting people down.
So why mention it? Well, I guess I’m talking about it now because I feel that I am one of the lucky ones. One of the ones experiencing it, living with an episode, but I still have some semblance of capacity to vocalise how I’m feeling. My logical brain is practical. I know that the things I fear do not help me. I know my thoughts are irrational. I know that the aches in my body are toxins from the bile my imagination peddles out. And yet, my emotional, psychological self is a bit slow on the uptake. And so we find ourselves in a vicious circle. It’s been spinning for a while and now, I’d like to get off; if only it were that straight forward. There’ve been many comparisons given online, and I agree with every single one of them. Asking me not to panic, telling me to pull myself together is, in that moment of debilitating fear, every bit as unhelpful as telling a blind person to look harder or a deaf person to hear better. A person suffering an acute panic attack, no matter what the trigger, can not just ‘chill out’. Laughing, prodding or goading will not help. Tell me to man up and I might just smash you in the face.
I have coping techniques. A variety of things I’m doing to ease the impact. I’ve flirted with the idea of going back on to prescriptive solutions, something I’ve been lucky enough to access, (God bless the NHS), but haven’t needed for a good few years. For me though, at the moment, I’d like to avoid it. Not because I don’t think they have great value, they do, but because my anxiety is something I want to work through differently this time.
Mental Health is, and always will be, something I have to keep an eye on. I think that is the case for more than would care, or are able, to admit. I think life is running at a pace, we’re not really designed to keep up with. I think the balance has gone and we’re desperately trying to keep up with something that perhaps, isn’t right. I think lots of things about the reasons, the whys and wherefores, the triggers. And they’re just my opinion. The point is, I am one of those people. And there are millions like me. All on varying scales and varying levels of wellness.
It’s taken me until the end of Mental Health Awareness week to formulate my thinking. Not least, because it’s an awkward subject. But it’s an important one. And I felt I had something to say. That message we see in motivational posts on Facebook, you know the one about being kind because you never know what kind of day someone’s had… . I’d say, without a doubt, a million percent that. Even when snakes are snapping at my ankles.