It’s World Mental Health Day, so I considered why it’s still as important as ever to talk about mental health [TW: Mental illness, suicidal ideation]
When I was in my early teens, I would shut myself in my room at the weekend and lie in bed. I didn’t sleep. I would stare at the ceiling as the hours ticked by, waving away suggestions of pleasant family activities whilst the chirpy pitch of my mother’s voice became steadily strained. I ate meals in my bedroom and stayed up until the early hours. After school, I would come home and situate myself in front of the computer, monosyllabic as I tried to escape reality. I rarely saw friends. On the particularly bad days, I would return immediately to bed, sometimes without even removing my uniform. I knew that something was amiss, but I couldn’t find the words to articulate what that was. More than that, my ‘other-ness’ terrified me. I somehow doubted all normal teenagers felt the way I did: flat and immobile, with a regular torrent of emotion that burned like acid in my throat.
I don’t think I truly accepted that I had a mental illness until it become irrefutable fact. In my final year of University, catalysed by exam season and the catastrophic end of a relationship, my fragile mental health collapsed. I remember the churning, manic state of my mind as, the night before my first exam, I sat in the library and searched the Internet for ways to end my life. I remember telephoning my poor mother as I walked home in the dark, tears streaming down my face, repeating, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” I meant waking up in the morning. I meant sitting my exam. I meant living. I remember lying in bed and hearing the trains pass outside my window, contemplating a violent end as a back-up plan. The next day, tear-stained and numb, I forced myself out of the house I still shared with my ex-boyfriend and sat the exam in a haze. Then, I began to ask for help.
After some years of denial, I have come to terms with the fact that my struggle will never have a neat ending. I will never ‘recover’. For as long as I am alive, I will have a mental illness: this is a fact I have made peace with. I have learned, and still am learning, so much about the way my brain works – and that helps. It helps to know that I will often feel elated in the summer and then, once the nights draw in and the sun sinks lower in the sky, I will be overcome with the urge to hibernate. I’m glad I’m aware that crowds and loud noises and over-stimulation make my jaw clench and my muscles tense and my brain so, so tired. It is useful to know, if not to experience, the overwhelming cavern of loneliness that splits open my ribcage should I spend 24 hours without human interaction. It helps because I can see these things occur and identify the root cause with the rational part of my brain. I am not faulty: I have a mental illness.
The chronic nature of my illness does not give it a free pass to define me: I am not my mental illness. But I will talk about it, because I am both ready and well enough to accept it as a part of myself. Never feel obliged to talk nor guilty for choosing not to. Nobody is entitled to your story. You do not owe the world an explanation for your own self.
I choose to talk about my mental illness because it empowers me. Because it makes me feel less alone to share my experiences and hear them echoed by so many others. When I was at the peak of my struggle, unable to envisage a future for myself, other people’s stories painted that future for me. I choose to talk because perhaps, one day, I might be able to impart the same sense of hope within somebody else – and maybe that somebody will be an isolated teenager who can’t find the words to explain that something isn’t quite right. Because I want to contribute to a world where there is hope: where mental illness means support, not dismissal; where it begets compassion rather than condemnation within a system that makes place for it in campaigns but not waiting rooms. I talk about my mental illness not to minimise, but to normalise. I am not my mental illness. I have a mental illness, like so many others. And that is why I talk.