This week (8th – 14th May) is Mental Health Awareness Week. Right now, for the first time, I’m signed off work with depression.
I’ve been having a tough time recently, tougher than I’ve experienced in the past. On paper, my life is really, really good at the moment and I have so much going for me: Chris and I are about to buy our first home together; I’m in a fantastic job; I have so much support from my amazing friends and family. In reality, that doesn’t necessarily make much of a difference to my mental wellness. Bipolar disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain: my brain is faulty (compared to the “normal” brain) and therefore sends my moods up and down, sometimes not helped by certain triggers, but often it’s without noticeable triggers. This means that most of the time I can’t predict periods of depression or hypomania/mania.
When I was signed off work by my doctor nearly a week ago, I’d just been through one of the worst weeks of my life in terms of depression and anxiety. That might sound dramatic, but I’m saying that earnestly. While that was all going on inside me, I still got showered every day, washed my hair, put on my make up, left the house and went to work. I laughed and chatted and did my best to go through the motions of a normal day. Mostly, I succeeded in doing that.
There’s an amazing post doing the rounds on Facebook (you can find the Huffington Post article about it here) written by a woman about what self care looks like when you’re living with depression. The status perfectly describes how depression can manifest itself, struggling to get out of bed and find the energy to stay on top of personal care and hygiene, which is something that others often don’t see. Depression is an illness that naturally hides itself. It encourages sufferers into isolation, which is why it mostly remains out of sight.
People are often surprised when they learn for the first time that I have bipolar disorder and suffer from prolonged periods of depression. They might have noticed that I can be a bit flakey or shy at times, or that I get “ill” and lethargic every so often. But while I’m down, even when I’m at my worst, I still try to get showered, put on a full face of make up and go to work. Sometimes, I can only manage the getting showered part, or the going to work part. Sometimes I can’t manage any of it. Sometimes I can hardly find the energy to get out of bed and getting dressed and showered is way beyond my capabilities that day. But most of the time, I keep going through the motions to look as “normal” as I possibly can.
In each of these pictures I was depressed. In some of them, I had hardly left the house in weeks and the picture is one of my few outings, and in others I was coping and getting through the depression, still seeing friends and doing things and taking care of myself. Without knowing when the pictures were taken and what was going on with me at the time, you won’t be able to distinguish the pictures where I’m just about getting through the day from the ones where it’s business as usual, unless I tell you. Communication, openness and creating safe spaces to talk about mental health is so, so important.
In that week before I was signed off, I spoke to two mental health professionals and, after I told them how much I was struggling, both of them told me that I looked good and articulated myself well before offering my virtually no help whatsoever. I’ve had friends suggest that I should dress down if I need help, because otherwise I’ll be dismissed. How is it that my invisible illness has an appearance and I don’t fit the description? I tick all the boxes on the symptom list, but when it comes to the way I look or communicate, I’m A-OK. Surely the mental health professionals I saw aren’t so naive to think that depression and anxiety need to look a particular way?
Asking for help takes an enormous amount of courage. Opening up and trying to articulate things that feel impossible to understand yourself isn’t easy, but then being told that you look well and aren’t “severe” enough to be recommended for help is really hard, especially when you’re hanging on by your last thread.
Thankfully, I’m now getting the support I need, but getting it hasn’t been an easy task.
If you are struggling with a mental illness, I encourage you to keep asking for it and talking about how you’re feeling until you get the support you need. I understand how disheartening it can be and how difficult it is to go round in circles, having the same conversations about what’s going on inside your head, but please keep doing it.
If someone has opened up to you about a mental illness, please listen. Be the ears they need. Take them seriously. Know that it took courage for them to talk to you.
Some useful links:
Mental Health Foundation
Mind | Information & Support | Helplines
Samaritans | Talk to us