This month – May – is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative is being supported by See Change and there is more information about the campaign on the Green Ribbon website. (Green ribbons being the symbol for the campaign).
It is true that there is more awareness around mental health and mental ill-health and smashing stigma, but there is still a long way to go. Getting people to talk and to listen and to engage with the conversation is just the beginning. It’s a bit like feminism, starting the conversation doesn’t mean the job is done. It means the job has started.
I hit a bump this week and found myself flooded with all the usual detritus that goes with such bumps. It’s torrential when it happens and – like a torrent – it overwhelms. I could cry for hours straight. I can go to sleep late and wake up early just to fit in extra crying jags.
My children write me notes to tell me how much they love me in the hope that that can cheer me up. It does. And it doesn’t. It makes me feel better because I feel wrapped up in their love. It makes me feel worse because I don’t think it’s their job to make me feel better. My nearly nine-year old shouldn’t feel she has to spend 20 minutes writing a list of all that is good in the world to try and keep me in it. Because, of course, at the back of my mind is the guilty knowledge that – a few years ago – they came very close to losing me. I worry that every time I am sad, upset or in tears, they worry that I will turn them into orphans. At those times – and at others, when all is well in my world – I remind them of my promise not to leave them.
They think I don’t notice that one of them has her eye on me at all times – as though they have discussed it with each other and agreed this between themselves. Which, in truth, they probably have. They think I believe them when they say – as they position themselves either side of me at night, like two guardian angels – that they just want company and to sleep in a bigger bed tonight.
I was in conversation with a very dear friend during this latest bump and he put his finger on it.
‘Don’t be scared,’ he entreated me down the wobbly line from his part of Asia. ‘You’re not on your own.’
I was scared. I hadn’t realised that until he pointed it out to me. From ten thousand miles away, he could hear my fear when I – who was feeling it – didn’t even realise it was there.
I can’t speak for everyone who has an episode of mental ill-health, but here’s what it’s like for me:
I just don’t feel like I deserve to live. I feel like I’m a burden on humanity. I am an offense. Feeling like this about yourself is scary.
I offend myself. I do not know how to redeem myself in my own eyes and this, too, is scary.
I feel like I can no longer go on like this – yet I have no solution. Feeling like I don’t have the solution to a problem scares me (I always have a solution!).
The stress takes a physical toll – I have been hospitalised on more than one occasion with migraines born of stress. My neck, shoulders and upper-back feel they are made of steel.
I feel like I’m fighting a war – that I have been fighting a war for more years than I can number and that, while I have won a couple of battles, I am losing the war.
I feel scarred and battle weary, which is scary.
I can’t stop crying. Not even in public. I feel as though, by losing that amount of control over myself, I have no dignity. Feeling as though you have no dignity is scary.
I look like shit and I don’t care. It scares me that I don’t care.
I feel as if I have no anchor. Feeling like you are blowing in the wind is scary.
Failure is the biggest, most overwhelming feeling when I’m like this. Failing at life, failing at being ‘normal’. Feeling like you are failing is scary.
Feeling like the world has no use for you is scary.
Feeling like the world would be better off without you is scary.
Feeling like your whole existence has no value, no meaning and no importance is scary. Because if those things are true of you, then you have no right to exist. And the alternative can be equal parts attractive and scary.
Feeling that everyone knows the secret to life – except you – is scary.
Feeling that you’ll never be good enough to be told the secret is scary.
Feeling that, somehow, you deserve this is scary. (Even when you know that’s not how Karma works.)
Feeling that you can’t even speak – can’t even advocate – for yourself is scary. Especially if you like to tell yourself that you’re ‘normally’ reasonably articulate.
Wondering if this is your new normal is scary.
Wondering if you will ever be able to manipulate your brain into cohesion again is scary.
Wondering if this is the time that will prove unbearable is scary.
But scariest of all is when it stops feeling scary. When there is no feeling. When you rummage around inside yourself to figure out the name of what you’re feeling; and you come up with nothing. Because that is how you’re feeling. You are feeling nothingness. There is no word in the English language to describe the emptiness.
I’ll be wearing my green ribbon this month to invite people to start the conversation. Don’t be scared to engage in that conversation with me.