Am I Really Alone? - Fighting Mental Health Stigma
How I Came to Be an Advocate for Mental Health Awareness
When you're feeling great the world is your oyster: Happy, creative, out-going, social... the possibilities are endless.
Life may throw you curve balls, but you just bat them back with ferocity and nothing stands in your way.
At least, that was my understanding when I was in my early twenties.
Maybe I was blinded to the reality in front of me, or maybe I was just caught up in life and its crazy storm of eventualities.
Either way, I don't think anything could have prepared me for what was to come.
The Gathering Storm
I've experienced low mood throughout my life, but it was always something that was transitory. I'd cry it out, get angry, get drunk with friends, play a depressing album or two and that was that.
After all, depressive lulls are just part of life. You move on and 'just get over it', right?
Well... no. It's not always that simple: Something I was about to find out without warning or preparation.
The First Strike
Happy in my little bubble of comfort, I was completely unaware of the situation unfolding behind the scenes.
Things had just started to seem like they were on track: Settled down in a quiet two bedroom house on the edge of the city: Partner, marriage, four rabbits and a reasonable job that brought in a comfortable wage.
What more could I ask for.
Honestly, that was a contemplative/reflective question, not a challenge.
Life obviously had other ideas.
The bubble broke early one morning in the low light of September.
I woke up, still bleary eyed and drowsy to hear movement and the noise of bags being hurriedly packed with clothes.
In my confusion, I struggled to try to force myself awake (to no avail) and sat up in bed trying to let my eyes adjust.
My partner was at the foot of the bed, fully dressed and frantically stuffing the contents of the wardrobe into a large duffel bag.
Apparently that was that. He'd had enough. The decision had been made and he couldn't deal with any of it any more.
Quite what 'it' was, I had no idea.
None of that mattered.
He left after a brief emotional conversation, but no further details or reasoning was given. I’m still unsure even today.
The Final Straw
The coming days/weeks/months kind of faded into one and I was left reeling in my emotions: Confused, stressed, upset... all of the same key factors, but this time it was tangibly different.
Nothing in my usual repertoire of 'breakup' cures seemed to work.
I struggled to focus on day to day life and eventually collapsed in a fit of tears at work, much to the shock of my colleagues who had always seen me as a happy, bubbly, carefree person.
That was the start of it all and what seemed like my entire world falling apart around me.
One by one the seemingly perfect parts of the life I had began to crumble around me.
I became lost in my own thoughts, struggled in and out of work and had to be signed off with depression and severe anxiety... though even that seemed to not register.
Things were spiralling out of control and I had no way of stopping it from happening. I don't think I was even aware of what was truly going on.
I couldn't keep up with the bills on my single wage and after a failed attempt at finding a housemate to share the property with, I had to move to a small bedsit apartment further out of the city.
This meant that the four rabbits that had brought me joy and company for so long had to be re-homed due to rules and constraints at the new place.
My health deteriorated rapidly and I started to close off from friends, family and the rest of the world.
Friends who had seemed so close and supportive suddenly faded into the aether and I became isolated and alone.
In a matter of weeks my whole world had been flipped on it's head.
It was only a matter of time before the last part of the picture disappeared.
After a horrendous battle with my employers, consisting of bullying and harassment over my mental health situation, I was finally let go from my job.
It was a traumatic experience, to say the least... compounded by the sheer lack of compassion and understanding of so many around me.
Friends slowly distanced themselves and the invitations to meet up waned and eventually stopped.
Nobody seemed to want to be around the miserable guy.
That was that.
Navigating the Fog
It's strange how seemingly inert experiences can suddenly return full force when you least expect them.
I'd always felt like I'd dealt with my demons over the years and overcome the many obstacles of my existence, but depression doesn't appear to allow that.
Especially with the confusing nature of what had happened, it left me questioning every single instance and decision I'd ever made.
Was I being punished for something? I couldn't think of anything that would warrant this, though my anxiety tried it's best to sway my judgement.
I spent hours, days, weeks just staring into empty space trying to figure out what had gone wrong, but nothing seemed to fit.
It wasn't one particular thing that I could pinpoint as the cause for my sadness.
There was no reason, no meaning. It was a foggy blur of hurtful past and isolated present, compounded into one uncompromising mess that I just couldn't escape.
My anxiety left me trapped inside my apartment, unable to face getting out of bed, let alone going out my front door.
Internally, I was desperate to escape four walls, but the anxiety and depression enveloped me like a strait-jacket: Bound and gagged, unable to move.
And there I sat, completely helpless in the middle of it all.
Finding the Path
Depression can be excruciating.
From the outside, it looks no different to any other person.
Tired and upset, maybe... but then that's nothing new.
Inside, it's a completely different story.
The masks we all wear to hide our emotions and shield ourselves from harm also hides the reality of the turmoil that's brewing in our minds.
Depression is like a rabid dog, attacking your inner most feelings and tearing at the fleshy pulp until you're second guessing yourself and can't see any way forward.
It infects every last cell and corrupts the hardware leaving you floundering in confusion and hopelessness.
I remember talking to a therapist and being adamant that I couldn't face being here any more, but that I also couldn't bear the alternative.
I was trapped in limbo, a prisoner in my own mind, completely at the beck and call of the condition and a shell of my former self.
The Road to Recovery
It took six attempts before I found the right therapy.
The lower level ones just didn't even touch the surface and though the penultimate ones came close to relieving the symptoms, they weren't sorting out the real issue.
What sparked the beginning of my recovery was a complete chance encounter.
My therapist had received a small leaflet through her door about a local arts therapy centre and she happened to remember me mentioning once that I liked music performance and writing, as well as a couple of creative things mentioned in passing.
I wasn't that keen, despite creativity being a major part of my life before my breakdown, but she coaxed me into going to an open day/tour of the facilities.
She literally picked me up from my apartment and drove me to the centre on the day and sat with me through the entire thing, which was a couple of hours long: Something she didn't actually have to do, but for some wonderful reason she was lovely enough to set aside the time in her schedule.
I'm so glad she did.
Creating a New Me
I can safely say that this was one of the key turning points in my battle with my mental health and I've got her to thank for it (among many others).
The 18 months I spent there, attending two weekly sessions in different areas of the creative arts, helped drag me out of the hell I was in.
It was really difficult at first, as my anxiety and mood resisted any change from the status quo, but just being able to be around other people with similar conditions/situations and being able to work through my difficulties with support and care... it was life saving.
When I first attended, I barely spoke at all. My therapist did most of the talking and I mostly sat quietly in the corner for a good number of weeks just doing really basic things like doodling, not really getting involved with anything or anyone else.
Within a few months, I slowly got the courage to make idle chit chat with other people there and gradually began to feel relatively comfortable.
By the time I left at the end of the 18-month period, I'd done most of the courses, ended up as a volunteer helping out in willow weaving classes and even taught my own lessons in willow weaving and crochet.
Building on the Foundations
Part way through my time at the arts therapy centre, I began my two year group therapy course after referral from my GP.
It was difficult at first as my anxiety hated being in groups of people and any time I did talk, I’d end up breaking down in tears, which made me feel worse.
Little did I know at the time that this was actually precisely what I needed.
As time progressed, I felt more and more able to open up about my various traumas and delve into issues that had been at the forefront of my mind for many years.
It was by no means an easy task.
Facing the Fears
Reopening old wounds was soul destroying, but being part of the group helped me to learn that I wasn’t really alone in what I felt.
Although the other participants’ experiences weren’t necessarily the same, there were connecting bonds in emotion, relation and response to our individual experiences that we could discuss and compare notes on.
Talking about everything really challenged my pre-conceptions and made me think about things in ways I’d never been able to think about before.
The depression had been taking hold of me and the only way to alleviate it was to ‘suck the poison out’ (metaphorically), step by step over the two year period.
At times it was excruciating. I regularly slipped back into lulls of severe depressive states where everything seemed too much, but persistence was key.
I can safely say that, in the end, it paid off.
Lifting the Fog
The first time I realised that things were working was extremely emotional.
I’d been going to a mental health (non-religious) choir practice for a number of weeks and was getting closer to the end of my group therapy.
I can remember leaving practice full of the usual buzz of support and happiness that being part of that community gives, but something felt different. I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but it felt different.
The whole way home I struggled not to get upset, but the flood gates opened when I got home and I realised that it was the first time in about five years that I actually felt like ‘me’ again.
It wasn’t even that I was back to my usual levels of happiness, stability or anything. I still had a long way to go, but this was the first clear sign that I was on track and able to recognise that I was ‘on the mend’... and it overwhelmed me.
Since then I’ve been going from strength to strength.
I finished my course of medication after five years of daily doses at high strengths.
Over the course of the summer holidays I managed to set up my own small business, with the help and guidance of my mentor from Skills For Employment, making hand crafted wooden gifts to sell online and at craft markets.
I also finished my two year group therapy course in August. It was really strange to suddenly be thrust out into the ‘real’ world, but after all of the intensive work we’d been doing, I felt ready to tackle it head on with the support of my partner, family and a few close friends that have stayed the course.
Learning to Live
It’s not been easy. I’ve had a number of ‘wobbles’ and times where I’ve felt like I could just throw the towel in and give up, but I haven’t.
I’ve learnt not to look too far ahead: Focus on what needs to be sorted in the short term and the rest will figure itself out.
Don’t fuss too much over the detail. You can tackle that when it needs to be done.
Learn to trust your own judgement.
Things aren’t always going to work out, but that’s ok.
It’s okay to not be okay.
Just make sure that you don’t dwell on it too much and ask for support when you need it.
The right people will be there to support you when you need help.
The rest of them don’t matter.
Talk to people as much as you can. It’s the only way to sap the poison before it takes hold.
Finally and most importantly: Know that you are never truly alone.