My name is Suzie and I have experienced mental illness. There I have said it. Not so difficult really was it? Actually, this was a difficult post to publish and for many people it is practically impossible to come out and express how mental or emotional distress has affected their lives. There is a real fear of the stigma attached to mental health issues and for me, as a wife and mother, professional woman and yes, a person in my own right it is only now that I can truly sense how destructive any such perceived discrimination can be. For the past two years I have worked for the local mental health charity Mind in Taunton & West Somerset and have seen at first hand how people struggle to re-engage with whatever passes for a normal life in the 21st century.
I can’t remember when I experienced my first real bout of depression. I was an anxious child, terrified teenager and after I had my children was diagnosed with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). All parents are anxious, but I took it to extremes, convinced that if I didn’t follow certain rituals (such as making the beds properly, or laying the table with matching cutlery) some terrible accident would befall my family. I developed an eating disorder as a means of introducing some control into my life and was eventually desperate enough to approach my GP. I was lucky to be offered CBT and the OCD became manageable, but the lingering thought that something I did, or failed to do, would bring some disaster on us all remained. Unluckily for me this feeling seemed to be confirmed by my diagnosis with breast cancer 4 years ago. All my fears having come true, and despite coming through all the treatment successfully, I became swallowed up with anxiety about my health and I felt terrified of everything the future held for me. However now, at last, I feel there is light at the end of the tunnel, but (as I suspect many others who have experienced anxiety and depression would agree) even saying that phrase can fill you with dread at what you may bring down upon yourself. It is an ongoing struggle.
As a mother I have struggled with how my illness manifests itself in front of my children. It must be frightening to see your mother raging at herself for her inability to cope with the simplest set backs. I have never thought it wrong to express your emotions in front of the family but there are limits and I must have exceeded them many times. As a mother I knew I was supposed to bring up my son and daughter to be confident, caring people with a proper sense of who they were and what their place in the world might be. I should give them all the opportunities I could to equip them for a future with choice and the ability to forge happy relationships with their peers. How was I supposed to do that when I had no sense of myself, no confidence that I had anything to offer anyone? My desperation to please, to make everyone happy, inevitably failed in the hurly burly of life with little ones, simply reinforcing my view of myself as a bad mother. Those little ones are now teenagers, better able to express how they feel but they are growing up and moving on and I must find a new path, they are not responsible for my well-being. I have a lovely husband who is as supportive as he can be, a sister who keeps me on track and writing, blogging and going freelance again are all part of a process to take me on through whatever middle age has in store for me.
Now, believe it or not, this is an upbeat story in many ways. I am OK. I have come to accept that my various health issues are part of who I am. I am endlessly thankful to the friends and family who love me and despite how I may feel sometimes I do enjoy a bloody good laugh, get tipsy and forget myself. I have survived breast cancer for goodness sake, isn’t that something to be grateful for? To be proud of? I have learnt how I work best, am most productive and yes happiest. And I understand and believe that I have a right to be happy.
For me though the very best thing, the most positive aspect of all this pain, all the unhappiness I have put myself and my family through is that my James and my Evie have turned out to be confident, caring and as certain as any teenager is about what they want out of life. They are polar opposites of each other – one philosophical and bookish and one sporty and firmly rooted in the here and now – but they are great kids and I am very, very proud of them. I hope my experiences show that however dark the world seems sometimes, however wintery and cold, there is always something to cling to to take you forward. You may struggle for breath but you can get there. And ‘there’ is where you will find the person you really are.
Phot credit Jaci Berkopec