This week it’s Mental Health Awareness week, and I wanted to share my story. Because the more we talk about it, shout down the stigma of it, and stand together on it, the easier it is to face. Even if I’ve had to cry a bucketful of tears to get it written down!
My Grandpop was the person in my family I always felt I was most like, or at least wanted to be most like. To me he was funny and clever and kind and brave, and we’ve always said we think he was probably a spy – working in import/export in Sudan in the 1950s with a lot of duties for the British consulate, and an MBE for his services – that’s got James Bond written all over it! So I guess, being so like him, perhaps I could have been a spy?! I did get the MI5 forms once, much to Mr Husband’s amusement as he thinks I’d be about as covert as a flamingo at a duck pond. But my Grandpop was also a manic depressive, and like him, I suffer with depression.
He died when I was 14, and actually I don’t remember much of his sad days, I just remember the larger than life days. The days he seemed, to me, to be bigger and brighter than everyone else, and, to me, to be the most wonderful person in the world. He seemed the master of his own destiny, invincible, a shining star.
That is until the day he slashed his wrists. When I went to visit him in the psychiatric hospital I had never seen him so small, so sad, so desperate. And I saw the pathetic cuts on his arms and I was angry, because they hadn’t even been done, as I saw it, with conviction. The man I adored for his crazy boldness had done a half-arsed job on his suicide attempt (or of course, more likely, cry for help) and I couldn’t understand it.
Unfortunately it wasn’t long afterwards that he died from a brain haemorrhage and I never got to ask him all the things I wish I’d had chance to. How was he feeling? How could I help him? How could I stop this happening to me? And I never got chance to tell him that it was ok, that I understood. Because I didn’t then. And that’s one of the biggest issues around mental health, because it’s so difficult to ‘get’. It’s not a case of pulling yourself together, in fact some of the most capable people I know are the ones that struggle the most. The strong ones are the ones who falter and crumble, because you can’t be strong always and forever, and if you don’t allow yourself to bend a little under the weight of things, that’s when you just break.
Fast forward 12 years and I think I’d probably been doing a dance around developing depression for years. Always jumping just ahead of it, missing it, teetering very dangerously on the edge of the black hole. And then I experienced a deeply stressful situation at work. A series of events which eventually led to people actually going to jail.
Ever since I was a little girl my two biggest fears have always been being eaten by a shark, and going to jail for something I hadn’t done. I don’t know where they came from, but then that’s the way with random irrational fears (and watching Jaws at too early an age), and suddenly I was in the middle of my worst nightmare. Not that I had done anything wrong (although hello nightmare scenario unfolding) and luckily there was never any question that I had, but just being close to it was too much and it started me on a downward spiral. I think it’s quite possible that I would have had to face depression at some point anyway, but this was the thing that set it off. I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time (story of my life!), and I just fell apart.
My depression at it’s worst is the most debilitating thing I’ve ever experienced. In the early days it completely floored me. Almost destroyed me. The blackness was total, the numbness all consuming. I felt like I was being crushed by an enormous weight on my chest which made just breathing, just being, unbearably difficult. So I preferred to sleep, to check out of the day-to-day. So many days I couldn’t even get out of bed and my (now) husband was afraid to leave me on my own. Somehow, for the most part, for the days I had to show my face, I was able to hide behind the fact that I was very high-functioning. I could carry on, and smile, and go through the motions, even though inside I was numb, or churning with anxiety. I lost years like that.
It’s been a long road for me, almost a decade so far, but I’ve begun to understand it, to understand myself with it. And now I know what it is. I know that it can pass, because it has before. I know I just have to hold on, ride the wave, be kind to myself, and try not to let the madness take hold. And for me that means staring it in the face. Saying, I see you. I feel you. I know what you are. Some days the anxiety bubbling away inside me feels too much but I have taken so much comfort from talking about it.
The loneliness it breeds can be helped by sharing the bad days, and that’s one of the reasons I started This Mama Does. Becoming a mother was a terribly isolating time for me and I wanted to be able to share those struggles in a fun and honest way. Because some days motherhood is truly wonderful, and other days it’s the hardest thing in the world, and I think we should be able to say that out loud. To celebrate the shared experience (the magical bits and the shit ones!), and know that we are not alone. Even if no one ever buys another pack, they’ve helped me through a time when I might have plummeted again, and that has meant everything to me. Now there are more good days than bad days (and the bad days are nowhere near as bad as they once were) but I’m not sure it will ever completely leave me.
And that’s why I’m sharing my story, because we need to keep the conversation going, to share experiences and raise awareness of mental health. Because so many people are struggling with it, and I want them to know they’re not alone. That there are others who understand and are sitting with them in the darkness. I wish I’d been able to say that to my Grandpop. To put my hand in his – not in a trying to make it better kind of way, because you can’t – but just to let him know that I was with him.
But I can’t say it to him, so I say it to you. If you have that rock on your chest, that anxiety bubbling inside you, that numbness that steals your days, I understand and I will sit with you.
Written by Christina Pickworth