Okay, so it is mental health week from October 5th to 12th and has been created to help lift the stigma from mental health and remove it from the taboo topics. This is an excellent idea, as people with mental health issues have enough troubles without being seen as the person with the problem by those who just don’t understand.
And as I’m not just an author, but one of those ‘one in four’ with a mental health issue, I decided I’d jump on board this particular band wagon and share a few things with you about mental health from my perspective. I’ll start by saying I am not an expert in mental health, I am not a councillor or here to offer anyone any medical advice. I just want to try and shed a little bit of light on what it’s like to have depression and anxiety, how it doesn’t make you a lesser person or a freak and… well, so what if it means you’re not ‘normal’, that is just the average marker for life, be abnormal and above average as it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
So here is my story. My name is Janis, I’m thirty eight years old, married and I have three kids. I’m tall, fat, and plain – I like to describe myself as a fat and frumpy housewife actually. All in all not about to stand out in the crowd for being an eye catcher (I mean, my height sort of does this, but people tend to look away after they see the face). I’m shy but make myself outgoing through almost twenty years of customer service (meaning I can hide easily behind looking normal and happy). Oh, and I suffer from chronic sinusitis meaning my twenty year career in ICT has come to a crashing halt as I can no longer work in air conditioned environments. It also means I have near constant headaches, can’t cope with dust, pollen, weather changes and so on. I can’t hold down a job due it too, but can at least try and be useful as a mum and a Haus Frau. It does mean money is tight and life can be tough, but when you look at other people around the world I’m a very lucky person indeed. Oh, I’m an author of, so far, two books too. Yay!
Most of the time this is all fine and I am okay with my lot in this world. Yes it’s not perfect, yes it’s not always fun and exciting… but it’s what I have, who I am and how I live.
Then there are the days I get visited by the black dogs. The days I wake up and just don’t see the point to it all. Those days of deep darkness trying to crush me into the complete and utter worthless nothing it wants me to think I am. And the darkness that likes making me angry so I try to fight it. As all that does is make me feel even more useless and hopeless. I call that black dog depression.
I’m very lucky when it comes to depression as I am considered only “mildly” depressed. This doesn’t mean I’m just a little bit down and could snap out of it if I wanted to. No, it merely means that when I do have the dark days that engulf me, swallow me whole and loudly point out all my flaws, how much I suck and what a loser I am… mild depression simply means I’m not constantly feeling that shitty. That I’m not constantly followed by that black dog. It’s more a monthly visitor that I have to acknowledge is there and wait patiently until it wanders off again. I have recently had to start taking a mild anti-depressant to help encourage the dog to leave me from time to time, but I do classify myself as being very lucky that I do get a break from its visits.
Other times, when life seems to be fumbling along just fine I suddenly start fearing and worrying the dumbest things. And the frustrating thing is I know they are dumb and irrational and I just can’t shake the near hysterical worry I get from them. Is this the day some idiot on the freeway is going to wipe me and the kids out as I drive home from school? If I walk in the park will one of the branches from the giant gum trees fall on me and crush me? What happens if someone in my family doesn’t wake up this morning and have died in the night? What about all the bills and obligations and possible bills and issues that might happen in the future? Will I have enough money to feed my family this week? Do they think it’s all my fault as I can’t get a job and therefore hate me for being so useless? That black dog I call anxiety and it’s been in my life for a while longer than depression. It has, sadly, had puppies who now follow my girls around. Heck, mine was a puppy I inherited too so it’s hardly surprising it gets passed along.
These are my two black dogs. I have accepted them as part of my life, despite not wanting them, as I know I can’t get rid of them completely… merely work around them when they’re visiting and not miss them when they’re gone.
Mental illness is an illness of the mind and comes in so many different forms, shapes and sizes there is no black and white answer that will cure all. Although I have friends who also suffer from depression, I can’t tell them to do what I do to chase my dog away, as it might not help them in the same way. What I can do is sympathise when they are having trouble, understand they’re having a bad time and just be there for them.
So, if you see a friend on social media who posts something like: “Dear world, f*ck off. That is all.” What will you do? Merely ‘like’ it to acknowledge you’ve read it? Comment with a smiley face or a ‘LOL’ as that person is always such a kidder and a joker and being funny? Sigh and give them a big lecture on how you find it so easy to be happy and not depressed and tell them to just buck up and get over it? Or, and this is my favourite (note sarcasm) one – simply unfollow them as they’re being so dark and negative and you don’t need such toxic people in your life. If only they could keep their dark thoughts and such things to themselves and off social media your life would be so much nicer and you’d be able to stay their friend. Yes, yes I have had people do this last one to me a few times… I’d call them friends but would be lying as real friends don’t do that.
What should you do if a friend posts something like that? Well, I’m not you so can’t tell you how you should react… but I can suggest the following. If you don’t feel comfortable commenting out in public, send them a private message simply asking if they are okay or if there was anything you could do to help. Yes you might cop abuse or even silence as a response… but you’ve still shown them someone noticed their outburst and is concerned. Don’t lecture them, don’t offer advice, simply offer to be there if they need an ear.
Me, I tend to leave a *hug* or ask if they are okay or similar to show I saw the post and am there for them. I don’t ignore it as I’m generally sure they have their own black dog visiting and although they’re unable to really talk about it, knowing someone is there, who understands and who accepts them in fair mood and foul, it helps. It really really helps.
You see, I use social media (mostly Facebook as I am only connected to actual friends and family and not the world in general there) to vent when my black dogs are visiting. I find those nasty, dark, eroding, corrosive thoughts better to be let out than kept in. Sometimes I can’t voice them so just bitch about the world in general. I do it on FB as it’s far better than keeping it in, far better than taking it out on someone face to face and far better than taking out on my kids. I can also delete the vent after writing it, rather than posting it. As sometimes simply writing it all down and removing all the blackness from within me is enough. I don’t post all my darkness, just some of it. And what I love is I have friends and family on there who see it as me having a bad day, see that my black dogs are with me and accepting it. Reminding me they’re there as friends and asking me if there is anything they can do. Friends like this are gold and if you’re like this – you are an awesome person and I thank you for being that way.
And you know what? Writing really does help me feel better. It is a therapy for me, an escape to somewhere I can just stop being me and let it all go. I recently read a blog post by Neil Gaiman about how Terry Pratchett writes angry and I totally got it. I get frustrated at my own flaws, at my issues and I then get angry at myself for not being able to stop being how I am, being unable to control my life or feel how I feel. But I can then slip into a different world and just write. I can stop being where I am and in a place I can’t control, I can become a god and make the world act the way it should. Not all of my writing comes across as angry, in fact my sense of humour tends to kick in and have a ball instead. Isn’t it amazing how many depressed people hide it in humour? Maybe laughter really is the best medicine… to some extent?
With anxiety, you can’t just tell people to stop being silly and just snap out of it. With depression you can’t just tell people to buck up and try to be a little more positive in life. Just in the same way that if you have a friend with diabetes who is having trouble with their blood sugar levels that day and therefore not feeling the best – you can’t just tell them to eat a doughnut and stop worrying. These are all illnesses, all real issues and all need to be accepted as who we are and make up the amazing person we are.
The biggest message I want to get out about the mental illnesses I know about personally, as I have them, is this:
You are not alone. No matter what those nasty thoughts in your head are saying, you’re not the only person in the world who can feel that crappy and worthless. That doesn’t mean you should just snap out of it as I know it’s not that easy. Just realise you’re not alone. Some of us understand. Maybe not exactly why you feel the way you do as we’ve not lived your life… but we understand that some days you’re just going to feel that way no matter what. And although those thoughts aren’t nice, it’s okay. You are not alone and you are worth the effort. You are not the toxic person, those who can’t accept or understand what you’re going through and so ignore you – they are the toxic people.
Be yourself, remember you are worth it no matter what those damned black dogs are saying and remember you are wanted, you would be missed and there are people there for you. And if you feel there aren’t, please contact someone. Here in Australia I suggest Beyond Blue, Lifeline or similar… overseas I’m sorry but I don’t know but maybe people will comment on this post and suggest places.
Our black dogs come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and shades. They are our dogs and so we know them better than anyone else does. Accept them as a part of your life, but don’t let them be the master of it – that’s your right, not theirs.
True friends accept you for who you are on sunny days and dark… and you are worth it. Never forget how awesome you are, even when those dogs are breathing heavily down your neck.
Until next time,