I know I haven’t been around much for the last few weeks. If I’m honest, it’s because I’ve been struggling and I didn’t quite have the words to make sense of it. But I’ve been away from work for a couple of days, got some sleep and read some books, and now I’ve walked my way back to a place where the words are forming, slowly. Sometimes I am not as honest as I want to be about how I am feeling. Sometimes, even after all I have written and all I have learned, I am just as likely as the next person to smile fakely at a good friend and say “I’m fine!” Even though it could be further from the truth.
I have not been fine. I am maybe not really fine right now. But now I feel like I can tell you about it, where I couldn’t before.
So what’s been wrong? I’ll break it down for you.
It got dark.
It doesn’t usually happen this fast. Usually, over the weeks leading up to Christmas, I begin to see the slow decline of the soft evenings, I notice the flicker of the streetlights earlier in the evenings, and that the heating needs to be put on more often. That’s always how it has been for me, my energy slowly sapping, my mood gently lowering without me even noticing, at least at first. This year, it happened overnight.
Autumn had been beautiful for all of September. Golden and dry, I enjoyed wandering throughout south manchester and admiring the changing hues of the trees. Crimson, burgundy, bronze, copper; whorls of leaves blustering after passing cars. It was Autumn like you see it in the movies; so bright it makes you squint and so crunchy it makes you laugh. Then, almost overnight, darkness arrived. About two weeks ago I woke up to the dark grey skies, whipping winds, and drizzling rain that I associate with the British Autumn. Here comes the rain, I thought, my stomach dropping. The next two days I felt myself drooping, wilting like those crisp autumn leaves that were now soaked with cold rain and turning to mush in the gutters. Seasonal Affective Disorder has reared its ugly head.
I’ve found my anxiety to be more intense since the grey mornings began. Meeting every mornings dark horizon has taken a little more energy than usual, a little more bravery to go out into the world. I have fretted more about my food, about my work, and I have found myself nearly crying with relief when my partner returns home from work because it has brought an end to the crushing anxiety about being alone that I have been fighting off all day by working too hard. Some people might wonder if this is just a symptom of my normal depression, but I know it is not. Two or three days after the darkness arrives, we have a rare, beautiful, shining day of sunshine. I get out of bed easier, I work much more calmly, and at the end of the day, I am happily cooking a meal when my partner comes home. It’s not just me. It’s the darkness. It’s S.A.D.
This means it’s time to start playing defensive with the weather. I can’t rely just on my medication and my normal routine to keep me level. I need to reinforce it, build up the fortresses against the winter. This means bringing back in regular exercise (something I have been woefully inept at keeping up during the summer months), allowing myself to sleep but not sleep too much, (S.A.D. means that, during the height of winter, I could sleep for fourteen hours a day), and hunting the sunshine. I can’t take those rays for granted, now I need to pursue it. When a sunny day comes I need to make the most of it with walks to the park. I’m also thinking of investing in a daylight lamp for my desk at home.
I have to be honest, the rapid attack of the darkness knocked me to the side a bit. I wasn’t ready for things to change overnight. But they have, summer is over, and now it’s time to suit up and embrace the very, very few things I do like about winter. Open fires. Mulled Wine. Curling up with a book. A beautiful combination of sunshine and frost in the morning. Maybe, if I fight it hard enough and embrace these things, they can be stronger than the darkness this year.
I worked hard.
Two weeks ago I ran a mental health project in a secondary school where every day I stood up and told hundreds of teenagers my story about my mental health and how they should speak out about their problems. Many people told me before this week that I would have to watch my own mental health, make sure I care for myself and don’t over-stretch. And I did. I think. I checked I was getting enough sleep, I made sure that I was eating all my meals, I was honest with my mentors about what was going on. But still, by the end of the week, I felt almost teary with the weight of everything. I felt as if I was, at any moment, a couple of seconds from a panic attack.
So what happened? I think, honestly, I became completely overwhelmed by the implications of our project. Every morning I looked out over the sea of young faces and wondered how many of them had suicidal thoughts. Every day I told my story of my struggle whilst I was at school, scanning their faces for any sign of recognition, trying to find those people for whom my words were more than a story, but a reflection of their life. Every day I met young people who had come forward to share their thoughts and feelings and every day I left them, walking out of the school without quite shaking their stories from my mind. Knowing that I would think about them, wonder about them, but maybe never be able to provide more help than what I had given; simply listening. By the end of the week I was exhausted by my hopes for the project, exhausted by my constant worry that we would not get through to someone who desperately needed to hear us. Maybe they were off sick, maybe they were too afraid, maybe I could have taken a slightly different tack with my talk and they would have come forward. The stakes seemed unbearably high. At the end of the week I was pleased with how the project had gone, so elated but also a bit devastated. I had done everything I could do now, the rest is out of my hands.
That inability to control the outcome of the project, my own limitations as a human being who cannot personally protect, shelter, and support every child who I know is struggling with a mental health crisis, is what revved up my anxiety that week and in the weeks that have followed. It’s been a bit of a low for me, and perhaps that was inevitable for the first time we ever did this project. Perhaps getting started on something I have really wanted to do since I was seventeen years old was always going to give me a bit of a dip in my own mental health. Perhaps realizing that, at the end of the day, even my best efforts might not save anyone is the hardest thing of all. Because it is much easier to bear my mental health problems if I can tell myself that perhaps, perhaps, the story of my problems might help someone else with theirs. I guess this week brought me face to face with the possibility that it might not.
The other, more brutal possibility, is that even if my story can help someone else, it might not be the saving balm I have always wanted it to be. Some people posit that if you help others with their problems, it lessens your own. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe helping others is good and kind and charitable, but it’s not a cure. Maybe, after all these things, I am still the same.
Of course, I’m not the same. I know I’m not, and I am now in that place where I can see that for myself, rather than hear it from my friends and family and doubt whether it is actually real. Even if I am still depressed, even if I am still anxious, even if it feels like nothing is improving, even if helping others is not enough to cure a person, I am not the same. But I’ve been in that place for the last couple of weeks, that place where I can only see the things that aren’t changing, not the things that are. The drudgery of recovery seems endless and broken, and a tired road to walk. But I’m not the same, I’m not. It is something I have to keep telling myself over and over, especially when I’m working with young people who are struggling with mental health.
Sometimes I worry that they are believing a lie about me; that I am fully recovered and fine and my problems are behind me. When I tell them my story, I worry that I am inadvertently selling them a lie about mental health; that you can one hundred percent move on from mental health problems. I’m not convinced you can. As a young person, I feel like I was sold some lies about mental health. That once I decided to move on from them, then they were done with. (A lot of this was offered to me within the parameters of religious language) I fear that I might offer them some kind of false hope. But I also need to balance this with the fact that whilst I’m not “cured”, I am not the same, I am not. The example of change that I give is not, is not, is not a lie. I am better. I can hold down this job that enables me to talk to young people about my mental health journey. Yes, it is a journey still, not a destination, but I can talk about it with them. Maybe that is the most important thing.
And that’s what I am doing here, too. Talking about the journey, when I can.
I’m sorry I’ve been disappeared for a while, tangled up in work and the autumn darkness and the drudgery of recovery, disappeared into the journey of my mental health, but I am still here. Still walking through it. Still working it out. Still hoping that those of you who read are hearing me. Still hoping you are standing there, witnessing my journey. If the young people I work with are those who hear the tale of my journey, then you all are those who have witnessed it. There are many more miles to go, but I count on you to keep me moving forwards. From here, on this strange platform where I work out my next steps and try to understand how I got here, you are all my witnesses to my journey. Thank you for being here.