Mental health is just all up in everyone’s grill this week. Not only is this Saturday 10 October World Mental Health Day, but in the lead up to this global event, Australia is also celebrating National Mental Health Week, shining the spotlight on mental health issues, challenges and importantly, giving a voice to those with lived experience. The sharing of these stories, often shrouded in heartbreak and damning frustration, is so important. It brings those outside the mental health sector into the fold, and grabs the attention of individuals that may just see mental illness as not their problem, and none of their business.
However, this week of openness and soulful sharing has a flipside. Goodness knows I’ve gained huge solace and found the whole experience of sharing my own stories incredibly cathartic, but that hasn’t always been the case. I’ve never been ashamed of my mental illness, but it took me a long time to reach the point where I felt comfortable enough to share my experiences.
I was at one of my absolute worst points when I was living overseas a couple of years ago. I’d just started this incredible internship program that saw me work (and sit around in total bloody awe) at the Houses of Parliament at Westminster in London. As a collective group of interns, from each corner of the globe, we were creating memories that would last forever, and visiting places and meeting people some would only dream about. In parallel to this, while gallivanting around in this political-nerd dream world, I was numbingly depressed and anxious as anything. I’d sought help, thank goodness, at the prodding of and no doubt enormous relief to my parents and sister back in Melbourne (who would each, everyday, ring me morning and night), and had managed to get an amazing GP/Psychologist team behind me. I was prescribed medication for the first time, one of the best things that could have happened, and I started to put myself back together. So much of this was pure damn luck as well, but I think the discussion surrounding the, quite frankly, absolutely f#*%ing shocking provision of mental health care in the UK can wait for another post.
Every week, I’d jump on the number 19 bus and make my way from my apartment in East London to Chelsea, literally right across town, to where my psychologist had her practice. Not only did I listen to approximately 42358 podcasts on this often 1.5 hour trip, but I became too acquainted with many of the divine (and expensive) shops on the Kings Road, and knew just which cafes had the best sweet treats that I could grab on my way back to Westminster.
The friends I made during this time are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. We had a ball together. But these challenges, they were all mine. And I kept them that way. The people I was working beside, drinking beside and getting to know London beside didn’t know the mess my head had become, and how close I was to just saying catch ya’ later, and heading back to Oz. This time in my life was damn important for so many reasons, but the experience of wrangling my mental illness on my own without the physical presence of those closest to me, continues to be a source of empowerment to this day.
I used to think I’d done so much of this on my own. Then I realised that wasn’t the case at all.
In reality, these people I was surrounded by, my unbelievable friends in London, helped me more than I can ever say thank-you. I drew so much support and comfort from their hilarity, intelligence, organisational skills, spontaneity and generosity. They just treated me as me. I never gave them the chance at the time to give me that extra support, which I have no doubt they would have jumped at and dealt out in spades.
I thought that by opening up about my challenges to these relatively new people in my life, that I’d be losing ownership of my successes in managing them. Like that by sharing the burden of my depression and anxiety, I’d be less worthy of the positive feelings associated with taking back the power from my illness. It is only with time I realised that for me, by blogging and having far more open conversations with people about what I’ve experienced, that I’d never felt more in control or more powerful.
I share my stories because I want people to know a number of things. Firstly, that no matter what, you are YOU, you are not defined by your illness. Secondly, your life can be absolutely freaking wonderful, full of the best family, the most outstanding friends, the most incredible opportunities, and mental illness can still make you feel numb, hopeless and empty. And thirdly, and most importantly, you are not alone and you can get well.
There is a lot of pressure this week to shout your lived experience from the rooftops for the benefit of those in the world around you. But know this; your story is yours, and you take your sweet time with whom you want to tell it to. If you feel like throwing it on a blog, or sharing it over a coffee with friends, that’s awesome. But if you decide, actually, no thanks, then all power to you. You just do you.