It’s been a while – sorry – I’ve been writing but not blogging and I don’t really have any good excuses for that.
Today’s blog is not about writing, however. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and, while I try to keep my personal life out of the way as much as I can on this blog, I feel it’s important to share how mental health problems affect my life. If that’s not something you want to read, by all means skip this post and tune back in another time. I won’t hold it against you! If you want a bit of an insight into the life of somebody with a mental health condition (or, er, 3), read on.
Fair warning: there are very brief mentions of suicidal thoughts in the post below. Please be cautious if you’re likely to find this upsetting.
First of all, a list of diagnoses and definitions. I have depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The first two of those are fairly well-known, though I urge you not to imagine them in the way the terms are used colloquially. Depression and anxiety can both render an otherwise healthy person a quivering wreck or cause them to cry uncontrollably at nothing; they can make you feel afraid of everything or numb to everything, and they come in varying degrees. They can come about because of a life event or because of nothing at all. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is best known for its prevalence among combat veterans, who may experience flashbacks, exaggerated startle responses, dissociation and panic attacks (among other symptoms). This disorder is always a result of trauma, but it’s not always military. A car accident, the sudden death of a loved one, childhood abuse… there are any number of traumas that can cause PTSD, but not everyone who experiences a trauma ends up with PTSD. I’m not sure why some people get it from some experiences while others don’t – I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and I’m not sure even they know for certain.
It took me three separate incidents of trauma – one lasting sixteen years, one lasting one year, and one lasting a single night and its aftermath – to finally get me to the state I’m now in. I didn’t start presenting with even mild PTSD symptoms until after the second trauma was over – and I was still within the period of time during which such symptoms are normal, and recovering well, when the final incident occurred. I hope this serves to demonstrate, if nothing else, that having a mental health condition doesn’t make you weak.
Unfortunately, it can make you feel pretty weak. Sometimes I can’t leave the house without panicking, crying, or getting so dizzy I feel I’m about to pass out (there are other physical symptoms, too, on occasion). Sometimes I go from panicking to ‘waking up’ on the other side of town from where I was, having effectively blacked out for a period of time. Sometimes I can’t even get out of bed, too tired or just too miserable – every part of my body feels too heavy and I have no energy whatsoever. Sometimes I can’t sleep, lying awake worrying about everything. Sometimes I can’t stay awake. Most times I have nightmares, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and emotions that don’t belong to the present – whether that’s fear, or guilt, or anger. Someone dropping something can make me jump a foot in the air; somebody raising a hand nearby can make me flinch. I have to grit my teeth and ignore the pounding of my heart and the shaking of my hands when I wash up sharp knives. Seeing certain body types, clothing styles, or hairstyles in the street can cause me to believe – absolutely, albeit only for seconds or minutes – that people from my traumatic past have found me. I panic if I don’t have plenty of personal space, a toilet to retreat to (for the locking door) and a clear escape route. I am constantly checking my surroundings for danger, and quite often I see it when it’s not there – sometimes through literal hallucinations (or pseudohallucinations, which are apparently anything you can recognise as not-real after the fact, however real they seem at the time). And possibly the most fun thing is that medical professionals often want to know which of my diagnoses is causing the most problems at any given time, which is difficult to answer because they’re all mixed in together and they all overlap.
I’m on antidepressants, which unfortunately are not a magical cure-all. They don’t actually stop my depression entirely, and they may even be blocking the emotional processing required to combat my PTSD. I suspect that coming off them will make things worse before they get better – and there’s no guarantee that they will get better. All that trauma I racked up over the years may always impair my ability to live my life. It might not sound like much – after all, it’s all in my head – but everything we experience of the world is in our heads, and a mental illness can’t just be switched off, ignored, or bulldozed through. On a practical level, these conditions led me to start hallucinating when working normal hours in an office, to panic, to have no energy left over after my lunch break, and eventually to be dismissed as my condition deteriorated and my boss felt he couldn’t make any more allowances for me. Finding another job has been difficult because I don’t know exactly what my limits are, and they vary from day to day and week to week.
Treatment can be complicated, especially when you have multiple conditions. Therapy has helped me in the past, but my recent course was unsatisfactory. I intend to try again, but I want to talk to my doctor about my medication first. I’ve had to change doctors, because the surgery I was at before didn’t have anyone who really seemed to understand how mental health worked. The last straw was when I went in to tell my doctor I was obsessing over the idea of suicide (another symptom) and was afraid I might hurt myself – I needed help, and I still barely had the strength to ask for it. She asked me what I expected her to do about it, then asked me how I’d do it and why I didn’t. I came out of the surgery in tears, called my adopted sister (she is my rock when I need somebody to keep me alive – or just to walk with me to the shops) and waited for her to come and meet me so I didn’t end up walking under a bus. That’s when I decided I needed a different doctor. We’ll see how this one works out.
There are things I can do, management strategies that keep me going. I use the Zombies Run app (a fitness app with an awesome story) to help me get around outdoors. It wasn’t designed with PTSD sufferers in mind, but it happens to work really well for me in that capacity – the fictional team in my headphones as I walk stand in for an actual person having to accompany me everywhere, the mission objectives give me a reason to complete my walk, the zombies allow me a focus for my hypervigilance and reassurance that the danger is contained and easy to outrun… and I can blast my music with it, effectively blocking out the triggers of the real world. Honestly, this jury-rigged fictitious support system is 90% of the secret to the limited functionality I maintain. I can also meditate to calm my mind, which helps me to sleep sometimes. The same goes for colouring books (adult or otherwise), which are also very relaxing. I’m sure there are other things I do, but I can’t think of any right now. A lot of it has to become somewhat automatic, because these conditions are all the time. I have relatively good days and horrendously bad days, but it’s never easy.
As you may be able to tell, living with these conditions isn’t particularly fun, but I don’t want anyone reading this to think there’s no hope. Although I’ve outlined the things I can’t do above, I do also continue to get writing done most of the time. I’ve recently submitted two short stories to an anthology, and I think they’ve both been accepted, pending a few final formalities. I still get up the shops now and then – a vast improvement on a year ago – and sometimes I manage to get as many as two minor household chores done in one day before I completely run out of steam. I am reading up on my conditions and the possible ways I can treat them, and I’m not giving up hope that life will improve. Where there’s life, there’s hope, even if it’s sometimes hard to remember that. The next thing I’m looking into is the possibility of becoming self-employed, which would give me more flexibility than a regular job and is therefore more likely to be sustainable for me. I’m still fighting, and I’ll keep fighting to get back to where I want to be. It’s going to be a long struggle, but it’ll be worth it if it pays off.
If you have concerns about your own mental health, talk to somebody about it – a doctor, a therapist, or a charity like Mind. They can also help you if you’re worried about somebody else and don’t know what to do. Don’t be embarrassed – lots of people experience problems with their mental health, whether mild or severe, and there’s no shame in needing help.
Thanks for reading – I hope this has been enlightening for you and helped get you thinking about the complex world of mental health.