#TimeToTalk Day 2017 – On Mental Ill Health and the Magic of Talking

Content warning for brief mention of self-harm and suicide.

“I love you wildly, and that is my solace.” – Harold Pinter

Ever since I learned of the existence of the UK’s national Time to Change campaign, headed by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, I’ve watched friends and acquaintances take a brave plunge and tell their own stories of mental illness through various mediums of social media each year on Time To Talk day.

I admit to feeling jealous of their boldness, heartened by the responses they receive, and curious about the relief I imagine accompanies the sharing of a burden.

I joke about being raised by the internet; in 1994 or thereabouts we were blessed with our first family PC, complete with dial-up internet connection. It was an altogether more innocent time back then, and my Mum encouraged me to go ahead and find a penpal online. I was in that Manic Street Preachers chatroom before you could say 4REAL, and while I’m convinced my mental health was always destined (whether by nature or nurture) to be wobbly, it’s probably fair to say that my teen years were a catalyst.

What on earth happened?
What on earth went wrong?

I’m not prone to analysis of the first two or three decades of my life; a lot of it is quite a blur. At the time of my early teens the online community and the friends I made through it felt like a lifeline, and a precious escape from a very difficult environment. I’d not long since attempted to sever ties with an abusive Father, and struggled tremendously to connect to my remaining family, who I now feel were ill-equipped to manage the problems I was experiencing. What presented as a very obnoxious period of teendom was actually the beginning of long-term mental health struggles.

It was a boyfriend who eventually persuaded me to talk to a doctor when I was around 17 years old. The poor guy probably put up with a lot from teenage Jenny, and I should credit him for realising that something was quite wrong and marching me to my GP for help.

15/16yr old Jenny's bedroom. The mind boggles.
15/16yr old Jenny’s bedroom. The mind boggles.

I was prescribed fluoxetine and given a psychiatric referral. I spent the next nearly-20 years juggling medications, coping mechanisms and therapies. I went up, down, sideways, and every which way (but loose, as it happens).

The very darkest days for me were probably between ages 15-25, and that’s a lot of dark days, folks. I struggled primarily with a depression that I fail now to find a suitable adjective for. During desperately difficult times, I sooner resorted to self-harm than to talking about my feelings to anyone who might have actually been able to help me. When I was very young I learned that hiding, both physically and emotionally, kept me safe from bad people, bad words, bad treatment. When it came to talking, the shame and fear felt insurmountable.

When I finally chose to talk to someone who was immensely, profoundly important in my life, I was resolutely and unceremoniously rejected, and a Pavlovian lesson, deeply-violently-etched, was learned: do not be vulnerable, do not share, do not tell the truth, do not even write it down in a secret place, because you will be rejected and it will hurt so badly it will send ripples through the very fabric of your reality. It will haunt you when you least expect it. Your worst fears will be realised. It’s safer to be alone. And of course the loneliness was unbearable and my coping mechanisms were unacceptable.

When I met Elizabeth Wurtzel at a bookshop signing I was 16 and I lied to my Mother and told her I was visiting my friend Joanne.
When I met Elizabeth Wurtzel at a bookshop signing I was 16 and I lied to my Mother about where I was going, telling her I was visiting my friend Joanne….

I think both nature and nurture had their way with me in one way or another. I certainly never stopped to take stock or engage meaningfully in therapy, whether counselling or CBT, until I was much older. I had a period of relatively stable mental health in my late 20s which was, frankly, shit upon quite royally by a very toxic and unhealthy relationship that ended after almost 5 years, turning me loose into my early 30s like an injured, cornered wild animal.

For me, any feelings of suicidal ideation were uniquely ‘adult’. The pain never felt quite that bad, but the feeling that the people in my life would be better off without me practically was often strong. Any pondering on how-where-when was strangely abstract and void of emotion, and not borne out of suffering, but of a horribly poisoned sense of logic.

A video posted on the Time to Change Facebook page featured a conversation between two women about their struggles with mental health. One tells the other how she never shares her feelings completely, and always keeps something back…

“It sounds like I’m giving you everything, but the dark stuff, I don’t say.”

Ah, de profundis!

Looking back, and as I suppose many people can, I can identify some ‘lightbulb’ moments of my youth. When in my 20s, during a period of very low mood, I told a doctor how disappointed I was that this depression had re-occurred. The doctor looked at me curiously and explained that of course it had, and was statistically very likely to do so again. I think that’s when I realised that depression and me were in it together for life.

But here’s the thing: I’m not being fatalistic. I have an illness it’s taken me 30+ years to regard with any sense of clarity whatsoever. It’s been helpful in the past for me to use a metaphor of duality; there’s the ‘good Jenny’ and the ‘bad Jenny’.

Good Jenny is kind, compassionate, sensible, objective, functional, cheerful, funny, measured, adult.

Bad Jenny can still be kind and compassionate, but she is verbose, frenetic, subjective, dysfunctional, pessimistic, negative, terrified, jealous, needy, childish. Bad Jenny is a poisonous, lying, negative voice that whispers before it becomes loud.

Bad Jenny lies in wait until Good Jenny starts to do well, and then pops up like a disease formerly dormant, like the worst kind of sabotage.

All my life I’ve known that Good Jenny holds the reins the majority of the time, and I’ve distanced myself from the part of me that occasionally takes control. It’s only in the past few years that I started to consider seeing myself as one whole. I started to consider treating Bad Jenny with a little more kindness, acceptance and compassion. I’m beginning to wonder if acknowledging and airing our vulnerability -our ‘ugly’ side- can start to diminish its power. Maybe if we flip it, expose it, mock it, we can start to lessen its impact. Humour has always been a huge coping mechanism for me, and I don’t think I’m alone. See:

These days I wonder less how to vanquish my depression and anxiety once and for all, because I don’t think that’s how the story ends.

[source]
And today is the day to hang our mental illness laundry out to dry. It’s time to talk.

I’ve accepted that mental illness is a part of me, and that there will be tough times ahead. It isn’t a case of winning, it’s more about understanding and accepting and learning to do ourselves the kindnesses necessary for survival. There will also be wonderful times.

If you struggle with mental illness, or you know someone who does, here is my advice to you: BE KIND.

Be kind to yourself and to others. Acknowledge and be aware of your feelings, positive or negative. Give them air and lessen their power. ASK FOR HELP.

ASK FOR HELP!

Talking is true magic.

Forgive yourself when you stumble, and forgive others when they stumble.

If I may return to the quote at the top of this post, and share a vulnerability of my own: I hide away when the wave of depression looms; I keep the dark stuff to myself and I adopt that ol’ faithful brace position so I can weather the storm. Too often I’ve shut people out during that time, unable to assess the storm damage until it’s done. When Antonia Fraser wrote in her journal of her despair that she could not ease husband Harold Pinter’s deep depression, he noted in the margin, “I love you wildly, and that is my solace”.

Dear All: Whether a person, an animal, a place or an activity, please love wildly, and take solace ❤


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3 thoughts on “#TimeToTalk Day 2017 – On Mental Ill Health and the Magic of Talking

  1. I think you’re really on to something with the idea of completely vanquishing anxiety/depression as being not the correct goal. As a teenager I was really very disabled by my anxiety and it was a huge, terrifying thing that often completely took over. My goal, when I tried to work on it, was to get rid of it entirely. Be not anxious at all. Be constantly and unfailingly happy. That, of course, never happened, and I would label doctors and therapies as quack for ever making me believe I could be rid of anxiety. And then I’d give up, decide that I would always be anxious, and just stop trying. It was only when I realised that there could be a balance – that I could live with anxiety without it taking over – that I made any progress. I realised that the “bad” parts of me were in everyone else too, just maybe not as overwhelmingly. Everyone gets anxious to a degree – I know some pretty confident people who are too anxious to phone to get takeway – and everyone has moments of depression too, no matter what is going on in their lives. In trying to eliminate all anxiety and all depression I was setting myself up for failure.

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