Usually when I write about personal or emotional things, I don’t share it until that situation or feeling is in the past. It’s easier to be open about something when you’re not in the middle of experiencing it. Even knowing how powerful vulnerability is for connection, it’s still hard to open up without hiding behind that thin protective filter of “oh yeah I felt like that a while back but I’m fine now.“
“What, you too? I thought I was the only one who…”
– C.S. Lewis
This quote sums up why I share my writing, and why I’m writing this now in particular, before this becomes dimmed by time. When we’re honest about our experiences it reduces the space between us; that barrier between the flawed self and the perfect other. We are less alone when we see ourselves in others.
I’m going to talk about mental health, and I’m going to talk about what is happening to me now. I’m going to talk about how despite being a thoughtful and reflective person, I’ve only recently acknowledged that I may have mental health issues. Previously I attributed my struggles to me just being a bit of a fuck up, a bit shit at life. Too much this, not enough that, definitely worse than other people.
I thought that I wouldn’t write about any of this until months down the track. When I would be able to look back on “that time I realised things might be hard because of something in my brain” rather than still be questioning my value. Am I a bad person or does my brain just not work properly sometimes? It’s a painful question and I am in the middle of unpacking it, because my default answer up until now has always been that it is the former: I struggle because I am bad. That is my default answer because that is what I was told as a child, and especially as a teenager, and that shit is hard to shake.
The trouble with some mental illness is that it can be hard to spot. It’s hard to separate one issue from another; sometimes it’s hard to tell the brain disorders from the bad habits unless you’re a psychiatrist. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise simply because it has always been that way and you’re accustomed to it. You’re used to things being rough all the time. You figure out strategies, little things, like I forgot how forgetful I am, because I learned to put anything I agreed to, even tentatively, in my Google calendar immediately, with automatic reminders. If you meet me, I’m pretty fun. I figured a few things out, having fun is one of them.
It’s hard to discern if what you feel is abnormal or dysfunctional when dysfunction is all you know. It’s especially difficult to see when you were consistently fed negative ideas about yourself since you were a young child; when you grew up in an environment that didn’t understand you and didn’t know how to help.
That was me. This is me. A lifetime of hurt and struggle and no obvious answers. No clear path about where the issues began – was it the people around me or was I a faulty child? For most of my life I believed the latter. I was told by one parent that everything was my fault, and there was no culpability on their part. The other parent wasn’t really there. The message I absorbed from both was that I wasn’t worthy and that I didn’t matter.
It has taken me a long time to reject that story. I have fought for my self worth, and it still often deserts me. I have fought for approval in a hundred different ways. I wish I could go back and tell that little girl how utterly perfect she was. She has been damaged for so long that she can’t hear it now. I can’t hear it when I receive praise and love. I can hear it enough to crave more, to seek it, to burn myself out trying to win it, to be crushed when I don’t get it. But I can’t hear it enough to feel it, and 30 years is a long time to feel mostly unloved.
Enough childhood moping. So what does this have to do with mental health exactly?
I fought myself and the world for so long because I was told all I need to do is try harder. But no amount of trying can conquer problems when effort is not the issue. And effort is not my issue.
What is my issue? I don’t know yet. So far I have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but I think there is more, and I’m currently seeing a team of professionals to try and unravel the mess that is my brain. Possibilities floated so far include ADHD, bipolar disorder, and emotional dysregulation due to my upbringing. I’m not an expert but I’m pretty sure it’s not bipolar, that it is likely ADHD, and it could well be emotional dysregulation. I just learnt that phrase today and I think dysregulation is a satisfyingly ugly word.
I cry in front of doctors and nurses trying to explain myself; I cry even more when they understand. I feel a hopelessness in the pit of my stomach when they say they don’t know yet, because I have been fighting for so long and I need them to know. I need a prescription, I need an action plan. I get a fierce, desperate energy in my kneecaps and I distract myself and carry on, waiting anxiously for my next appointment which might bring me a little bit closer to answers. Working on myself, by myself, has got me this far, but it’s not enough.
I am afraid that I do have a disorder. It’s a big deal. I am more afraid that I don’t, because that would mean there is something terrible about my character after all, rather than an abnormality in my brain, and that idea hurts. I try so very hard to be good, to be productive. The scariest possibility is that it is simply a damaging childhood, because that is the hardest to overcome.
I crumbled, a couple of months ago. And I finally realised that some of the things I feel, the things that frustrate me about myself, are not normal. I avoided any hint of mental illness with doctors for years because I thought “I’ve come this far. Just keep trying.” Dealing with the mere idea of having a diagnosed mental illness seemed harder than living with the effects of a disorder. I didn’t need anything new to think about. I had my self-definition already, as troublesome as it was.
Then I crumbled. If I didn’t have my son to care for, I think I would have been hospitalised. He saved me, somehow, even though he also added another layer of difficulty: how to not fuck your kid up when you’re falling apart. He took up mental space that I needed to heal, I couldn’t grieve with him around. But he saved me, nonetheless.
What I needed was three months to cry. I needed a soft, warm, dark nest with constant cuddles. I need mangoes and strawberries and camembert and endless hot Earl Grey tea with honey and cream (what? That’s just how I like it, ok) and no essays to write or bathrooms to clean. I needed time and space and nurturing to process all the things I’ve lost. But I’m a single mother.
So I got up every morning for school drop off
I cuddled my son
I said sometimes adults get sad and he doesn’t need to worry, and he trusted me and didn’t worry
I threw myself into a project
I cried in the supermarket
I went to lectures
I deleted people from Facebook
I got drunk
I paid the bills
I got drunk again
I started doing yoga
I pulled my car over because I suddenly couldn’t breathe properly, I sobbed by the side of the road for an hour
I made jokes
I didn’t pay the bills
I got up at 5am
I didn’t go to lectures
I stared at my laptop willing myself to write, and couldn’t
I got parking tickets
I kept going to work
I got up at noon
I started this blog
I avoided phone calls
I wrote essays in a few hours because I’d procrastinated so long
I slept a lot
I threw letters in the bin without opening them
I failed a test because I was paralysed by fear and couldn’t walk the last 50 metres to the classroom
I told my friends I was suffering and weary, they told me they heard me and they love me
and I went to the doctor
And then another doctor, and another, and another. And every time I told them the same thing: I cannot live like this anymore. I haven’t lost the war but I am exhausted by the battles. Help me. I need help and hope and pills and answers.
I can’t wrap this up tidily because this is now. I am not through this yet. I don’t know how long it will take or who I’ll become. I am sharing this in case someone reads and feels less alone.
I am doing my best, because I have never lacked for trying. It hasn’t all been bad and it hasn’t constantly been bad. But it’s been hard enough to wear me down over the years. It’s not enough of a life. And sometimes there is only so much one – possibly malfunctioning – brain can do. I finally asked for help.