This month, I will be hosting some guest bloggers on Off the Beaten Track as part of the initiative Authors for Mental Health.
This initiative has two aims: increase awareness into the importance of good mental health and raise funds for Beyond Blue, an integral Australian organisation, particularly in today’s social, emotional and political landscape. Authors for Mental Health runs through to the first week of April, culminating in an auction (April 1-6) in which generous authors and publishing professionals have donated everything from books to their time and expertise.
So why have I raised my hand to be part of Authors for Mental Health?
That question is both simple to answer – I have suffered from anxiety since childhood and bouts of depression since early adulthood – and complex.
Mental illness affects me, and many of my loved ones – friends as well as family members – and colleagues. And good mental health is just as important as good physical health. Yet, we – as a society – still attach a stigma to mental illness. We make it difficult for people to put their hand up and say, ‘I suffer from mental illness’ or, ‘I need help.’ We don’t have enough support measure in place. For many of us, we don’t have the vocabulary to explain mental illness, even to ourselves, so how can we begin to understand it?
So, when Kate Foster reached out to ask if I’d donate an item for the auction, I said, ‘All the yeses.’ And then I offered to help with the blog series and other aspects that I could contribute to.
Because good mental health DOES matter. It is critical and should be a priority for all of us, looking after our own mental health. And for those who don’t yet have the vocabulary to understand it, or the courage to ask for help, maybe, just maybe, this initiative will make their path a little easier.
Depression has hit me hard at various times in my adult life. For me, it usually manifests as despondency, a feeling that creeps up on me until I am in the thick of it and see no way out of it – a feeling that it isn’t worth doing anything, going anywhere, seeing anyone. A feeling that it’s not worth participating in life at all, and yes, at times I have had thoughts of suicide.
With ‘lower-grade’ depression (as I think of it), something that has raised its head several times in the past two years, sometimes for weeks on end, I get frustrated and angry – from zero to fury in a matter of seconds – about things that really don’t matter. Or I’ll sob uncontrollably, my body wracked with pain and fear that it will never end – though, in the moment, not truly knowing what ‘it’ is.
And I still have the occasional panic attack, though usually in situations where I feel claustrophobic, as though I need to escape but can’t. For me, naming it is the most powerful tool for overcoming it. ‘I am having a panic attack,’ I’ll tell the person I’m with. In one instance, I had to ring the call button on a flight, so I could say, ‘I am having a panic attack.’ The man next to me quickly stood and let me out and the flight attendant ushered me to the galley where I was given water and space to breathe. My partner, Ben, has been with me for several attacks. At first, he’d ask, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He now knows to give me space, to speak to me in soothing tones, and to coach me to slow my breathing – his empathy helps.
With depression, I had a break-through when we were living in Seattle, a city I loved but one in which you live under grey skies for 10 months a year. I wrote about that in this post, The Gray, and it was only in retrospect that I realised I was smack dab in the middle of depression when I wrote it. Here’s an excerpt:
‘Your mood is gray. You crave nothing, hate nothing. Everything is neutral. Extremes have no place in your existence. Your soul has been doused in peroxide. Sometimes, just there in the periphery, you see glimpses of passion, of disagreement and debate. Yet you have succumbed to the numbing, and do not participate.’
When I showed up at the GP and she asked what she could help with, I burst into tears and sobbed through an explanation of what was going on. As a New Mexican (one of the hottest, sunniest states in the US), she had first-hand knowledge of the additional stress that grey weather puts on mental health. After listening to me blubber for a good five minutes, she said, ‘Honey, you’re depressed.’ More specifically, I had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
The relief at having a diagnosis was overshadowed by self-flagellation. How had I not realised? I’d suffered from depression before – how had I not recognised that it had taken hold again?
The doctor prescribed Vitamin D supplements and medication. The medication, however, made me nauseous and woozy 24/7 and after several weeks, I decided, ‘No, not for me.’ What else could I try? Well, if I was missing the sun, I could replicate it, right? I bought myself a blue light and I started going to hot yoga three times a week. I also talked openly about my depression. I asked for help and understanding from my partner and friends – and (I am so grateful for this), I got it. Though, I never raised it at work. I didn’t feel safe enough in that environment to tell my colleagues, my boss. That stigma! In the throws of depression, I was simply ‘difficult to work with’ and ‘surly’ ‘always unhappy’.
Now, 13 years after the SAD diagnosis, I am better at recognising the signs that depression may be taking hold. But only better, not perfect. It still catches me unawares at times, particularly during the ‘Groundhog Day’ existence of Melbourne lockdowns.
So, that’s why I have raised my hand to help bring awareness to the importance of treating our mental health the same way we do our physical health – by prioritising it, by be empathetic to ourselves and others, by building the vocabulary we need to talk about it openly and effectively – and without judgement.
Please, please, please – take care of yourself, make your mental health a priority, if you haven’t already, and if you need it, ask for help. It’s out there.