Mental Health Awareness Week – why it matters
I was first diagnosed with manic depression when I was 17. It sounds incredibly official, diagnosis, like I’d recently fallen under the influence of something, some new malignant influence in my life; something that would shape me, define me and the ideas I had about myself from that moment on. I wrestled with the label for quite some time. I, as much as was within my ability to be wilful at the time, willingly walked away from a part time job, from college, from whatever ideas I’d held about the future ahead of me. I experienced other people’s attitudes towards me change and I allowed that to change my opinion of myself. Our family GP gave me a script for some pills and a leaflet on Christianity… “have you ever considered letting Jesus into your life, Neil?” (For what it’s worth, I had, throughout childhood but, that’s possibly a whole other story to tell). That was the entire extent of the conversation about it. I wrote excruciating poetry. I found ways of putting a face on things enough to lose my own sense of loss in the company of others. I was probably far less good at this than I led myself to believe, but I had good enough friends around me to never let me know; though none of us really knew exactly what to say for the best.
In my teens, I struggled with depression.
A few years later, I’d moved away, I’d met a girl. I lost a girl and I moved back home. I went to see another GP, who was writing out a script before I’d finished my sentence. (I stopped taking the blockers quite early on, they were indiscriminate in what they took away, all the downs, all the ups, everything in-between). I was 21 years old and living back at my mum’s house. I’d watched my mates graduate whilst I, whichever way I looked at it, had failed and shaped by that, continued to do so. I enrolled on a college course, I took a job, I built a studio at home; I made music and films and graphics, nice stuff; I survived on four hours sleep a night, I was a machine. Being creative, pouring all my energy into making things saved me from the destructive side of my personality. Right up until the moments where it doesn’t. On the back of another 70 hour working week and it all comes tumbling down. This isn’t a one-off, like a divorce or a death, but the sporadic and periodical result of living solely through your work. (A friend of mine would say to me many years later, if you live and die for your work, be prepared to die plenty of times over).
Throughout my twenties, I suffered with depression. On / off. On and off.
I’m 39 now. I’m very happily married, with three amazing children. I have a proper grown-up job, a scarily big mortgage and a Dadwagen. I’m blessed with a good life, a happy life. But, I still get those mornings where I have to talk myself out of the covers, out of the stalking shadows of my own self-loathing and doubt. In those moments, it doesn’t matter what I have or may have achieved, everything is temporal and gossamer fragile. And with so much that I should be happy about, feeling that way is far too wasteful, spurious and ungrateful to make any more sense than it did half a lifetime ago. But, I’m better, with age and experience at seeing the signs, knowing my triggers; although I still get it hideously wrong from time to time. I’ve learned to take myself away, to go for a run, to ride my bike; both sometimes harder, faster, farther than I thought I was capable of. I’ve also learned (a good amount of time with a therapist helped) to accept that this isn’t something I have to struggle or suffer with; it’s a part of who I am and how I feel from time to time. I’ve also learned, the more I talk openly and honestly about this, that I’m really not alone in feeling this way. Depression and mental health issues are something that, at some point or another, have affected most everyone I know. Now, that might well say more about the company I keep than anything else; but that’s not to underestimate the value, no, absolute necessity, of being able to talk without shame, stigma or embarrassment.
Where I am now, I’m learning to live with depression.
I’ve happened across a number of people who taught me and continue to remind me that putting this stuff out there isn’t career suicide or an act of sacrificing yourself to the judgement of others. Here are just a few of those that inspire me: