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Friday 15 May 2015

My struggle with mental illness

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that my blog has taken a back seat for a very long time. As an explanation, and as I feel passionate about the subject, I thought I’d make a return to blogging with a post which I hope will be insightful and educational.

This week is mental health awareness week. And for as long as I can remember, but particularly for the past few months, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. Although 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness every year there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding it, and it’s almost impossible for someone who’s never experienced it to understand. It’s not easy to spot a sufferer. They learn to put on a different face, and attempt to get on with life as normal. But it’s difficult. I thought I’d try to share my experience by talking about the things I feel, and things I say, on a daily basis.

Everyone feels fear every now and then. Feeling anxious before something challenging can be a good thing because adrenaline is released which can improve your performance. But my fear is daily, and irrational. Imagine waking up every morning feeling terrified. Your chest is tight and you struggle to breathe.  You try to calm yourself by thinking rationally. “But I’m only going to work, like I do five days a week.” But the irrational, anxious part of your brain wins. You have to force yourself out of bed. Going to work feels like climbing a mountain.

Even though you try your hardest to live life normally, sometimes you let your illness win. You have to take a break from battling your mind and have to turn down invitations just to take some time to yourself. And you feel so guilty. You feel weak. You don't have a limb hanging off so why can't you do normal things? Everyone else manages to go out with their friends. They don’t have to keep thinking of new excuses.

Even though the almost permanent sense of fear is terrible, the moments when you feel nothing can seem worse. Humans as a species are constantly evaluating their choices and lifestyle. You want to create a life which makes you happy. Living with depression takes that opportunity from you. You don’t know what will make you happy because you don’t feel emotions. You flip through scenarios in your head but it doesn't help. You’re just trapped in this state of nothingness and feel empty.

This is easy to understand, but very frustrating. You use all of your energy getting out of bed and through the working hours. By the time you get home you just want to sleep. Knowing that you have to repeat it all the following day makes everything so much harder.

Mental illness often brings with it low self-esteem. Everything becomes your fault, and you become withdrawn. No-one would want to be friends with you anyway because you’re a horrible person, and people are better off not knowing you.

When your emotions are dulled days begin to blur. Months have passed before you know it. And then you start to wonder whether you'll ever be better. You've already lost months to this illness and there's no sign of things improving. You try to hang onto the fact that there's still plenty of time for improvement, but sometimes you lose sight of it.

I don’t think people realise that, along with mental pain, physical pain can be a side effect of mental illness. Stomach cramps and chest pains aren’t uncommon.

As well as affecting how you feel, I've noticed that I've made small changes to how I act. In particular I find myself repeating the same phrases.

Things I’ll say:

This is a side effect of guilt and feeling worthless. Everything is your fault and you make sure that you own up to it (mostly unnecessarily) as often as possible.

“I’m fine”
This is due to the stigma. You’re not often showing any outward signs of suffering, so you keep it to yourself. There’s no point in giving away your secret when a large proportion of people wouldn't know how to deal with a conversation about mental illness. 

“I’m just tired”
When everything becomes overwhelming this is the go-to excuse. It doesn't often provoke a follow-up conversation, and so it’s a quick way of diverting attention away from yourself.

“I don’t know”
This is the result of those feelings of nothingness. When you can’t latch onto emotions you’re unable to formulate an answer to a lot of questions. People ask you what’s wrong or if you want to do something in particular and you’re unable to tell them.

Living with a mental illness is relentless and frustrating. It often feels like all of the best emotions have been taken away from you by an ominous being that is determined that you'll never feel happy again. But of course this isn't true. For most people, treatment and support will go a long way to getting them back on track,

What I hope people to take away from this post is an open mind and a willingness to understand. The more people who are willing to learn about mental illness, the less the stigma surrounding it will be. And always remember to be kind. Because for all you know, the next person you meet might be fighting a daily battle with their own mind.
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P.S. The amazing images used in this blog post are all courtesy of Allie Brosh over at Hyperbole and a Half. For a more in depth idea of what it's like to live with depression please visit her website here.

Allie Brosh / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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