"Do you not think you might be a little..depressed maybe?" “Oh, no, no no, im not one of those.” –This is a conversation I once overheard about 10 years ago. I was in Starbucks waiting to meet a friend and there were 3 women at the table next to me. I was 19 and they looked about late twenties. 'One of those’. ‘Those people’ – what does that even mean? I remember playing it over in my head afterwards. I was battling some serious doubts about my own mental health at that time and, after hearing this conversation, I remember thinking with a shameful heart; 'well I guess maybe I'm one of those...Great.' I had just witnessed the stigma around mental illness first hand. This comment, as off hand as it was, had inferred that if you got depressed, you were a certain type of person, and, judging by her tone, not someone she aspired to be.
Thankfully, since this day in 2009, we have come a long long way in shedding the belief that illnesses like depression and anxiety are an example of a weakness in character - but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Think of it like this; If someone breaks a leg, this isn't accompanied with any shame or secrecy - for the simple reason that we understand it can happen to anyone: we all have bones, we can all break them. Yet when it comes to wobbles of the mind - we haven't quite reached such levels of normality just yet.
So, let me tell you a bit about my story. I am no one special, I don't have any great talents and haven't yet achieved any great professional successes - but I like to think I have lived a pretty full and interesting life so far. I’ve traveled a fair bit; I got on a plane to Australia at 18 to go and live on a farm in the middle of Queensland before winging it around Aus as a waitress for a while (and this was back in the day when phones lost signal and barely anyone was using Facebook!). Since then I've lived and worked in Italy, France and the Philippines - and once went on an ill-fated jaunt to Costa Rica on my own (which was terrible - I'll tell you about it at some point and we can all laugh together). I’ve ran a half marathon, worked 15 hour shifts in restaurants and hotels and once went back to college to re-do some A-levels, somehow gained a place at Medical School, failed that, and then began another degree in Psychotherapy and gained 1st Class Honours. (It makes me tired just reading that..!) I held down jobs throughout both degrees and I'd hope to think I have made a lot of great friends over the years. I also once drove across Italy by myself in a Fiat 500 (ok that might not sound too impressive to some of you but I was completely terrified 95% of the time - so it was a very big deal for me.) Anyway, my point is - I’ve been someones rock, someones love, someone's heart and someones best friend and I've had a really good time - but - I have also suffered incredibly painful private battles with my mental health. Several episodes of serious depression, social anxiety, bulimia and after failing medical school, I seriously considered taking my own life. So, according to my Starbucks friend, I am definitely one of those.
Yet in no way now would I class myself as a ‘weak person’ – or really someone much different from anyone else. Those are really just my vulnerabilities. We all have them; some people suffer with their physical health - my struggle has been with my mental health - and that is just the cards I have been dealt.I'm not 'crazy' or 'unbalanced' or 'mad' and im not built differently from any other human being on this planet. Its simply that I have had to learn this is the area of my existence I need to take more care of.
I’m also definitely not alone. There are literally millions (squillions!) of people out there who struggle with their heads - yet still achieve wonderful things and live full lives.
A fight - or lack of - with yourself, in your body or your mind, is not a defining measure of your worth or potential and does not dictate your ability to be a good friend, sister, daughter, lover, employee, confidante, dancer, doctor, circus performer - or whatever the hell else you are or want to be.
I do love it when I see some of the on going advertising campaigns that have been launched and when celebrities talk openly about their experiences (I <3 you Prince Harry!!), but revealing you have depression or struggle with your emotions can still rapidly plummet a social interaction into an awkward silence. So, as much as on a larger scale we are becoming more comfortable - there is still work to be done in filtering this down to our smaller interactions and daily dialogue.
As a holiday rep, a significant part of my job was to get to know my guests. In the past 18 months I have had hundreds of conversations that have lead into someone either telling me they've struggled - or - that their daughter/son/partner/wife/neighbour/step-mothers-cousins-son has experienced it too. So when I say I know we're all suffering - i'm not exaggerating, I actually do. I'd be trying to sell day trips to Verona and end up losing an hour in a conversation with 3 nurses, each telling me all they see coming through the door is mental health problems - and what can they do? they can't do anything to fix it?! I have had the same conversation over and over again with far too manypeople to think anything different - which is why im so tired of the stigma. There are just far too many people living in quiet desperation.
Also, take it from me - It really doesn't matter if you're sipping 15 euro coffee in Courchevel or you're on an inner city council estate - it might look very different but the feelings are all the same. We're all built of the same stuff - sadness is still sadness - even if you put it in a fur coat.
So, I have a theory and I think the discomfort we have really just stems from fear. I trained in psychotherapy so I literally read books on depression, anxiety, eating disorders - everything. Mental health doesn't scare me because I understand it - but I remember a time when it did.
Currently, there is no clear ‘cure’ for the majority of mental illnesses, and for a lot of people it can be an exhausting case of trial and error. When we break a bone or catch the flu, we know the formula for becoming well again; rest up, don't put any weight on it, stay in bed etc etc. Often the road through something like depression can be a completely blind one. There are a tonne of theories out there but no ‘one size fits all’ path to feeling well again. Add in the lack of support and empathy offered by most workplaces, the fear of how the people we love most will react; "Will they understand? How will this affect my relationship?" and its not difficult to understand why facing a diagnosis can be scary. Telling yourself you’re fine and carrying on can seem like the easier option - and may work for a little while. For many though, its like placing a badly fitting lid on a boiling pot; what can’t go upwards and out will only begin to seep out of the sides - and may be much more forceful when it does. I myself have been down that road and understand how denial can feel much safer than facing an illness you don’t know how to overcome.
‘Sophie I think you’re depressed and I reckon it’ll take about 6 months to a year for you to work through it’. Sitting there, I agreed obediently but as soon as I left that doctors surgery - I decided I was fine, No way was I one of those, I could deal with it by myself thanks, no depression here! So I never attended my follow up appointment. Six months later things had only gotten worse and I found myself beginning twice weekly therapy shortly after my 21st birthday.
So if fear is the problem - education could be the answer. In studying counselling, I had the privilege of getting to really understand my own mind and I wouldn't have been able to qualify for my degree without doing so. It was hard work and required me to look in many of my own dark corners - but the more I understood, the less afraid I became. Not everyone can do a counselling degree but the reason I built this blog (and not only to make you howl laughing from time to time) is to try and take away some of that fear and shame. Our emotional worlds and responses are formed through our families, earlier lives and significant life events, yet not many of us really even know that. You have a 'mental health' that needs your attention as much as your body does and if you neglect it, then you may find yourself in trouble. We don't have this knowledge of ourselves implemented into the way we run our lives just yet but im hopeful we will soon.
Finally, through all of my own experiences - and the many many conversations I've had, the thing that stands out above all else is this; noamount of intelligence, professional or academic achievement, beauty, social status, or money can ever really immunize a person from developing a problem with their mental health. We so often think that it can but the only deciding factor on whether or not you are susceptible – is if you are human. The shame is so pointless. You're not superior for not struggling, and you're not inferior if you do.
When we start to recognize this as a solid fact (because it is!) and stop seeing our struggles - or lack of – as defining factors of whether we are strong or weak, we can stop judging others that way - and begin to recognize that everyone, given a particular set of circumstances, is just as vulnerable - and there is no such thing as one of those.
So if you read this far, thanks, I know I go on a bit so well done for persevering! I always promised I would never address or criticize the stigma unless I was willing to be completely open about my own difficulties. I wasted a good decade of my life feeling like it was a black mark on my character - but its not and it never was. So I couldn't harp on about not being ashamed if I was still ashamed myself!!
And if you ever need help, please ask and please please please please please whatever you do, please try not to feel ashamed- you are not weak. Also, starbucks lady, if you ever read this - I hope you got help and got happy xx