The Honest Reality About My Current Mental Health
In my last piece, I wrote about why I don't think a lot of us are able to be completely honest about our mental health. I want to change that, and so here is the truthful reality about my own.
Let’s start with the medical bits.
At 19, I was diagnosed with ADHD. At 21, I had my first panic attack. At 26, I was diagnosed with a specific phobia of vomiting, generalised anxiety, and OCD.
Those are my labels; the names on my medical records and the conditions I still live with today.
Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD makes you feel like you’re not very clever. My attention span was short, my lack of interest in what we were learning made me feel less smart than my schoolmates, and the only time I enjoyed studying was when I focussed on making my notes look incredibly neat.
This explains the ‘Cup of Enthusiasm Award’ I won in year four — i.e. he’s not very good but he tries really hard.
Being prescribed Ritalin throughout university made it a little easier to wade through a mountain of academia, and when I look back now it’s no surprise that I spent the first five years of my professional life working in the TV industry (where everything works at 100mph).
But ADHD didn't just affect my studies. Even when life is travelling at 100mph, my brain is travelling just a little bit faster.
My senses are heightened: I hear every tick of a clock and every rustle of a leaf, I see in my periphery every wave of an arm or bird flying in the distance. Thoughts race in and out of my head too quickly for me to process them.
This takes the enjoyment out of things. I get bored incredibly easily, which makes working as a journalist very difficult. I can’t recognise the feeling of satisfaction in a moment because my brain has already moved on to the next thing in the day, and it further amplifies the intensity of a panic attack when they set in.
Let’s talk about the panic attacks.
The first one happened when I was 21, and the best way I can describe it is feeling like a little switch in my head went from never being on to permanently on.
My panic attacks are largely caused by intrusive thoughts (often violent and dark that you can’t get out of your head). For me, anything along the lines of rape, violence, murder, paedophilia and knives can trigger a panic attack.
But so can feeling nauseous. I haven’t vomited since I was four years old (aside from two or three instances at university when I was so wasted I don’t remember it). The idea of me vomiting fills me with irrationally overwhelming fear. So anytime I feel a little queasy, boom, panic attack.
It happened just this morning as I was on the tube into work. It happens when I feel a bit hungover, it happens if I suspect my food hasn’t been cooked properly.
In 2016, I had gotten so exhausted with the way I was having to live my life as a result of all of these fears — the coping mechanisms I had adopted — I asked my GP about what help was available.
In my assessment session with the Centre for Anxiety Disorder and Trauma (CADAT) in South London, I got my diagnoses.
I started a six month long treatment course of CBT for my OCD, which I have previously written about.
When I look back at CBT now, I question how much it helped me. Getting the OCD label did, for sure. Now, when an intrusive thought pops into my head (which they still do), instead of thinking that it reflects a darker side of my personality, I simply tell myself, “You got that because you have OCD”.
It was just a relief to talk about these things in a situation where someone actually wanted to listen, free from the piercing eyes of judgement or worries about annoying people with your issues.
My generalised anxiety remains untreated — so the panic attacks persist — and just this week I started back at CADAT to work on the vomit phobia.
That’s the medical bit. If you’re still with me, awesome.
I have learned through my work that biology alone cannot be held accountable for mental illness. This is a hot topic amongst professionals working in the industry (again, I’ve written about this), but my own personal opinion is that there are societal influencers, too.
It makes sense to me; when our lives aren’t quite going to plan, it makes it harder to remain optimistic, whether you have a diagnosis or not.
I knew I was gay from a young age. I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, but I knew I was different. I never used to understand the appeal of the images of naked girls my friends would gawk at when we first discovered porn. I remember being on holiday when I was about eleven, and enjoying seeing a naked man showering in the swimming pool changing room.
When my parents found out I was gay, it didn’t go how I wanted it to. Again, this is something I’ve written more about.
It wasn’t until the last few months that I realised I have spent most of my adult life with a pretty unhealthy relationship with my sexuality.
I never understood gay shame, but now it is something I’m all too familiar with. In essence, it is the idea that the shame society places on not being heterosexual CAN (not definitely will) leave you a little f****d up.
When I first read about LGBT shame (suggested further reading on this here and here), it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I had come out, I thought the hard bit was done. I never questioned how spending the first 18 years of my life believing that my true self was ‘wrong’ and ‘unacceptable’ in society — before a time where I could surround myself with people that didn’t care about my sexuality — might leave me with a low self-worth.
The effects of growing up gay in a straight world on LGBT mental health is another area I have recently written about.
But, during university, I did create a social circle that couldn’t bat an eyelid about my sexuality. Over the years, my family became more accepting, and if you were to look at my life now, you wouldn’t think that sexuality would be an issue when talking about my mental health.
But it is.
Gay loneliness is an issue that people in the community have started to talk about, and one that resonates with me.
Great, I assimilated into a heterosexual worlds as an openly gay man. But recently I've started questioning at what cost.
My straight friends go on weekend trips with their partners, people are getting engaged and just a few weeks ago I was at home for my own sister’s wedding (which was amazing)!
People's lives are moving on, naturally. But I can’t help but feel like my sexuality might be a cause of me struggling to move on with mine.
Sure, I have a list of things I want to do in London that I’m slowly working my way through. It’s just not quite as fun doing them on your own.
Somewhere along the way to adulthood, I put so much pressure on trying to fit in and be like everyone else, I lost touch of which decisions were the right ones for me.
There are some pretty unhealthy ways that afflicted LGBT people cope with loneliness. We have higher levels of mental illness compared with straight people, higher levels of body dissatisfaction, higher tendencies to be critical of ourselves, and more sexual partners.
If I'm being truly unfiltered about my experience, then I have to admit that I've started to see these things in myself.
Sometimes I use sex as a validation mechanism, easily able to waste hours after hours searching for something on Grindr, and then feeling like it didn’t quite hit the spot when I find it. I’ve never been to a gay sauna, but it would be dishonest of me to say I’d never thought about it.
I've also become very critical of my own body, completely dissatisfied with 'the little layer of fat' over my tummy, and often driven to build a bigger chest and arms.
Anxiously thinking about what my future might be like if I — like many gay and straight people — never find a partner to laugh my life away with, I’ve found myself striving towards ‘achievements’, professional and personal. That itself brings about a whole other range of stressors, from work-life balance and deadlines, to finding the time to eat well, exercise and unwind.
My weekends tend to be spent riling in dissatisfaction about how little I’m doing, fuelled by an interwoven relationship between my ADHD and high self-expectations to constantly be achieving something.
But would you be able to tell any of this from my Instagram or Facebook? Do I even need to ask that question?
In spite of all of this, I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I saw a life coach for a while, and she taught me the value of gratitude.
I'm alive. I have possibilities. I'm aware of what is going on in my mind and, more than that, I'm working on it all. There is a lot in my life to feel grateful for, and I regularly remind myself of that.
I’m also in a position where I can (just about) afford to pay for private psychotherapy, which I recently started.
But of all the things I’ve learned so far - through my own struggles, through coaching, psychotherapy, podcasts, CBT, writing, conversations with friends, or hearing the experiences of others — I think honesty is one of the most important.
We’re human; by nature we feel compassion, and we want to help each other. We shouldn’t just strive to accept each other, but instead to actually understand each other.
I know that loneliness — whether it be because of your sexuality, your mental health, your religion, your race, whatever — is one of the most crippling emotions I can feel. But I have decided to share a lot of my experiences, albeit filtered in the past, and I have never regretted it.
I'm writing this to prove that I will continue to be unfiltered, to prove that we should all continue to be unfiltered, and to prove that in being open about our experiences, we can start to tackle them face on.
Post on Instagram. Write a blog. Send an email to your friends. Pick up the phone and call someone. Reach out to me. But whatever you do, do it with unaltered openness.
It’s cripplingly petrifying, but after writing this, I already feel better.