Monday, 10 October 2016

World Mental Health Day

Were I a more courageous man than I am then we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd be dead, my life taken by my own hand. Lucky for you, then, that I don't have the required level of courage. It leaves me here to write blogs for you to read.

Today, I learn, it is World Mental Health Day. Apparently, this is on October 10th every year. I chuckle a little because only last night I fired off a sarcastic tweet about "every day being something or other day" these days. Lots of those days are mere advertising campaigns and none of them are really official days for anything. Its marketing and you are being sold something. But then, irony of ironies, the next morning World Mental Health Day turns up. If today is the day that mental health is being sold then I'm all for it because today I'm here to tell you that lack of mental health is no walk in the park. 

And I can speak from some considerable experience. I can't say exactly when my life began to go out of shape. Maybe it was as early as age 10. Maybe even before. But certainly by ages 14-16 I was disturbed enough to have appointments with an educational psychologist. I treated it as a game in which my task was to convince the doctor that I was a normal boy feeling fine. I guess I did a good enough job because I only saw him a few times and no further action was taken. But one morning when I woke up, aged 19, I thought, genuinely and completely, that I was about to die and then I might have wished that there had been some more rigorous investigation at an earlier stage. I was experiencing my first full blown, thorough-going panic attack. I was leant over the kitchen sink, cold tap running, sweating like a pig as I dry heaved. I really did think I was going to die. My head was racing. I had no idea what was happening. I felt terrified for my life. When the moment passed, as I've learned through multiple episodes since it always does, I spent the rest of the day a drained zombie, unable to think or eat. 

That first panic attack was over 28 years ago. And I'm still very aware as I write today's blog for you now that I could have another at any time. One does not become immune to them. I did, for a time, have a few good years in the intervening period when the fog that descended on my personality with that first attack cleared a little and a bit of sunshine shone into my life. But circumstances change and you can find yourself back at square one. In that intervening period I learned many things, not least that the attack I'd suffered and repeated many times since was not just about "external circumstances". It was quite likely very much something to do with who I am physically as a person too. There is a history of mental health problems in my family and so its more than possible that I was vulnerable to such problems even from my very birth. Since that first attack I've had many more. I've found myself terrified on trains, buses, planes and just out in public. Its worse if I'm in public because people might see me and stare and wonder if I'm mad. I've seen the look in their eyes as they shy away. But I'm not mad. I'm just scared and asking myself "Why is this happening to me?" And sweating like a pig.

Having such anxiety problems changes your life. When told you've been invited to a party, for example, you might be thrilled at the idea there's fun to be had and laughs to share. I would be worried in case I felt a panic coming on. I'd be asking what I might do if I started to feel bad. I wouldn't want anyone to know. Probably best I make up some excuse not to go, I'd think to myself. That solves all the problems that I'm imagining and anticipating in my head. And experience would back this up because I've been in so many places at so many times sweating my balls off and not wanting to be there, a rising fear filling my mind, my guts churning, just wishing I could get out, run away and escape. Because I know if I could only step out of that door and leave this situation the symptoms I'm experiencing would disappear just like that *snaps fingers*. But, knowing all that, it turns you into a person who takes the easy path all the time, the path of least resistance, the path that doesn't lead to horrible feelings and mental struggle with yourself. Could you really blame me for becoming a hermit, a recluse, one who just wants to live without the gaze of others?

But there's more. Life doesn't stand still. I read in an article for World Mental Health Day that "mixed anxiety and depression is the most common form of mental disorder in Britain". I can well believe it. I suffer from it. I can feel it now in the regular headache I've developed over the last 12 months. (I'd never had a headache in 47 years before that.) I've become so very attuned to every twitch and burble of my body. I've become over-sensitive. Every pain I fear might turn into an agony. Every twitch might become another problem. I live daily in fear of pain and agony and physical struggle. Each day is turned into a waiting for something bad to happen. Imagine just that burden on your mind besides anything else you might have going on in your life. And its this sense of always having things "on my mind" that becomes a problem too. I'm never free. There are few moments in which care is abandoned and the moment becomes one of enjoyment. You become a person who is constantly monitoring themselves, always on watch, forever on the lookout. "When is the next bad thing going to happen?" is always on your mind. You try to negotiate your life around all the perceived problems of being yourself in the world. And there's never an off day from this job. Its 24/7/365. And the question keeps rearing up in your head "How do you escape a problem when the problem is you yourself?"

This blog is not really about me and its certainly not to say "Poor me, look at me, have sympathy for me". But I think that sharing personal thoughts and feelings is helpful because maybe it jolts one or two people into realisation to know that people suffering from mental health issues might feel this way and, for some others, it will make them realize that there are other people out there who feel this way too. Mental health issues are not uncommon, whether temporary or of the more permanent kind, and the Mental Health Foundation estimate that 1 person in 6 likely experienced a common mental health problem in the last week alone. Expand the time frame and more and more people will know what it is like to have experienced such things. One of the immediate thoughts people have having experienced a mental health issue is that they are alone and no one else understands how they feel. Having once sat in a support group for people with similar issues to mine I realized that's not remotely true. Indeed, what I realized is that many people might feel a hell of a lot worse than me. I sat down in that group with people who could barely walk without shaking, people who seemed terrified to exist and locked in a prison of the self. I myself have lain in bed unable to stop shaking and it wasn't because I was cold. It was because in some way it seemed like my soul was mortally terrified of the conditions of its existence. Such is life for some of us. We can become prisons for ourselves with only our own painful emotions for company.

But, of course, its one thing to recognize this and another to do something about it. For some people, people lucky enough to have someone who cares enough to take the risk of stepping in, doctors and possibly pills and therapies will help them. I'm glad for them but I also think that's not the case for everyone. For some people, lucky people, a friend is enough, should they be lucky enough to find one. That's good too and it goes to show that caring about somebody in a genuine way really can and does make a genuine difference to someone's life. But, again, this may not be true for everyone. My experience of mental health issues is very narrow and limited to my own experience. But there are many kinds of mental health problems and they aren't all experienced as the same and neither do they necessarily have the same solutions. Or, indeed, any solutions. However, I do struggle to imagine one in which no one giving a fuck about you as you suffer with it will help. Of course, as I've tried to show, with some common mental health issues it can cause the sufferer to isolate themselves as a defence mechanism and this can give further opportunity for their afflictions to attack them all the more. That said, I personally would respect anyone's right to deal with their situations as they feel able to. I have certainly isolated myself out of self-preservation. If trade offs have to be made to accommodate myself to the things I must suffer then to suffer them without outside interference seems a reasonable trade to me.

So today is World Mental Health Day and if you were someone who thought that you didn't know anyone who had mental health problems, well, now you do: me. But I would wager someone more close to home than me whom you already know does too. The purpose of this blog is really just to say "be aware". We really do not know what goes on in the minds of others nor what they have had to suffer or how it affects them. Maybe you or someone you know is that person who avoids things "in case they feel bad". And maybe the feeling that motivates that response for them is something more than just not liking groups of people. Who knows? We are complex beings who react in diverse ways to things. The events of life affect us all differently and, for some, become problematic and even a life-long struggle.

Be aware and have a little understanding. Help if you can. For some people its life that is the hell and death that will be the blessed release.

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