Some Thoughts On Why We Aren't More Honest About Mental Health
I’m someone that has been fairly open about mental health in the past. I have written about it, spoken to friends about it, I’ve made a website dedicated to it, and even sought help for it.
Hell, last month I even organised an event that was all about people sharing their own stories of mental illness.
We, as British people, jovially acknowledge the inclination that exists in our culture to not truly open up about our feelings. “Fine, thank you,” we politely respond, often flat out lying to the colleague who asks us how we are today.
On top of this, my generation — and the ones that came after us — are growing up in the genuinely wonderful age of technology. Millennials, as we have been labelled, frequently referred to with a sting of negativity and accusations of impatient self-entitlement, filter.
We have a habit, almost a need, to post all that is ‘lols’ about our lives; all the time, every day, with the saturation up, a couple of emojis and a hint of X-Pro II, masking the fact that maybe, just maybe, we actually had a pretty shit day.
When it comes to my own experiences - not just of mental health, but life in general - I, too, have a tendency to filter; to drip-feed information, giving away just enough without exposing myself too much.
But recently something happened to me that left me questioning all of this, asking myself why, and wondering if there’s a better, healthier, alternative.
About couple of weeks ago, I had one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in a long time. It was a Sunday night, the last Sunday night of July, and I’d just gotten into bed.
Before drifting off to sleep, sometimes I like to put in my headphones and completely envelop myself in music. I’m not talking about foot tapping along to a chart hit or torturing myself with repetitive sounds of ocean waves. No no.
I’ve created a special playlist — one I’ve named ‘Inspirational Thinking’ — that I save for these moments before sleep. It’s a collection of music that, when it loudly pours into my ears, hits deep. It is so moving that it can silence the constant clatter in my head and stir something up within my soul.
Sometimes it taps into inspiration or hope, other times sadness or loneliness.
Regardless, listening to this playlist is one of my favourite things to do; it helps me switch off after whatever has happened that day, it gives me a strange sense of calmness combined with vulnerability. It’s a playlist that just makes me feel.
But this last Sunday night of July, Inspirational Thinking didn’t make me feel inspired.
I’m all too familiar with the routine of my panic attacks by now; I’ve had them for the last seven years. This was one of those rogue ones, not seemingly brought on by anything outwardly obvious.
I call these panic attacks ninja ones. I can feel their presence looming a bit before they full hit me with their force, and when they do, I get lost in a cloudy blizzard of emotional havoc that leaves me struggling to come up for air, emotionally and physically.
Normally, Inspirational Thinking is a reliable ally in combating my panic attacks, the musical distraction helping to calm my mind and take me away from the anxiety.
This night, it didn’t. In fact, my panic attack got worse the more I listened.
I’ve never suffered from depression, and nor do I know what it feels like to be suicidal, fortunately. But during this panic attack, I found myself starting to question what it is that I am living for. It wasn’t a desire to not be alive, or to take my life, just a curiosity about what it is that’s keeping me around.
What makes me feel alive? What do I love doing? Who do I mean something to? My head was filled with a barrage of questions, which in turn lead to further intrusive thoughts, more anxiety, and a relatively sleepless night.
I had initially written that this was scary, but that would be filtering. It wasn’t scary, it was f*****g petrifying.
In the throws of it, I was terrified about what was happening to me. To not feel in control of yourself, and fear what you might do, is a horrendously traumatic experience. I felt so alone, struggling to breathe, scared to see out the rest of the night.
It felt like pure terror, the type that I imagine you experience when there is a legitimate threat to your survival and you have no idea how keep yourself safe.
The next morning, I felt broken with shame.
I was angry for having had such thoughts, and frustrated that at 28 and after all the treatment I’ve had, that this still happened to me. Angry that it even happened in the first place.
It all came pouring out of me when I uncontrollably sobbed onto a friend the moment I got to work.
In the time that’s passed from that last Sunday night of July until now, I’ve done a lot of thinking.
I have previously learned that intrusive thoughts are quite common, and I have experienced that whole questioning “what is the point of life?” thing before.
But for some reason, this time the anxiety experience that accompanied it was magnified, worse than in the past. So much so, that I felt like I needed to do something about it.
What were my options? Accept that it happened, move on, and keep plugging away until inevitably it happened again? Or, try and do something that would make the anxiety less the next time that sneaky ninja creeps up on me.
The decision seems obvious when you write it like that.
I sent an email to my friends explaining what had happened, with a bit of context around my thoughts on why. Again, I filtered the experience a fair bit.
I asked them to all send me a letter or message explaining how much I mean to them, or how fondly they think about me. It sounds a bit self-indulgent, I know. But I felt that the next time I’m in the grasp of my anxiety, having some positive things to read, some validation and meaning in my life, will help get me out of the spiral of struggle.
We all too frequently snap at the people who have angered us, but rarely tell the good ones how much we appreciate them, or just how great they are.
This inclination to fixate on the negative is a little ironic really, when you think that it seems to only ever be the positive stuff we post about online.
I started questioning why we do this.There’s an outcry, and a big media push, for people to be more open about their mental health.
But with a culture that grimaces if we reply to our colleagues something along the lines of, "Actually, I'm feeling pretty shit today," and with the persistent glamorisation of our lives through social media, is it any wonder that we aren't more truthful about our feelings?
When I think about my experiences with mental health, it would be a lie to say I’ve been completely authentic in my openness. I’ve written about CBT, I’ve spoken about OCD, and I mention a panic attack after a particularly bad one.
Perhaps, we’re just too good at filtering, and not practiced enough in raw, unedited, honesty. Or perhaps it’s because society rarely gives us the opportunity to be so honest. But I’ve never told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which I am embarrassed about having come to hold myself as someone who wants to inspire others to do so.
I’ve realised that bit, I can change.
So here it is: the unfiltered, unedited, reality of my current state of mental health.