Earlier this year, I made a pledge with Time to Change to share my mental health journey with the world, in order to raise awareness of mental illnesses and end discrimination against those of us who suffer from them. 1 in 3 of us suffer from a mental illness of one form or another, and many people suffer in silence. I used to be one such person.
From the age of twelve I’ve dealt with panic attacks and anxious thoughts, culminating in a massive depressive episode at the age of sixteen. I told my mum at that point, because it was too much for me to handle alone. She helped me to book an appointment with my GP, and off we went. We sat outside the doctor’s surgery in her car and watched the minutes tick down towards my appointment, but I couldn’t move a muscle. There was no way I could have started a conversation about my mental health at that point in my life. I was petrified of what the doctor would think of me. I thought they would judge me for struggling, and then send me home with a bucket load of weird medications and a note on my medical record saying ‘crazy person’.
Looking back now, I know that wouldn’t have been the case at all. In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Unfortunately, this realisation only came with hindsight.
I started my undergraduate degree a few years later, still without having spoken to a doctor. I remained terrified of admitting that I had a problem, and that I needed help. By the time I reached third year, I was totally burnt out and defeated. I was constantly filled with dread, and my anxiety ate away at my motivation. I stopped getting out of bed for lectures, barely leaving my tiny apartment. It became both my sanctuary and my prison.
When my anxiety got so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to spend time in the lab anymore, I knew I’d hit a brick wall. Something had to change. I emailed my lecturer and asked to change my final project to something library-based; a short-term solution to my panic attacks. To those of you that dread approaching your lecturers (or boss) with personal problems, just remember this; they’re human too. They’ve probably heard it all before, and might even have experienced it themselves. If the academic I spoke to ever reads this, then thank you. I don’t think I could have made it to the end of my degree without your help.
I handed in my dissertation at the beginning of summer, and then finally moved back home. The fact remained though; I still needed help. My anxiety had gotten progressively worse over the three years I’d spent doing my undergraduate degree, and it was time to call my GP again.
This time, I made it out of the car. I got through my appointment without being judged, belittled or patronised. My anxiety had finally been validated as a real medical problem, and I felt liberated. “I’m not just a crazy person”, I remember thinking. “This is a real, medical issue, and I’m finally going to receive help for it.”
And so, I was put on the waiting list for CBT, and prescribed beta-blockers to help deal with the physiological symptoms of my anxiety in the interim. The beta-blockers stopped the effects of adrenaline, preventing me from feeling shaky and tight chested when anxious. Thank you, modern medicine.
I’m not ashamed of needing medication for my condition. No one should have to be. My invisible illness is just as real as a broken leg, only no one would be ashamed of wearing a cast, so why should I be ashamed of taking a miraculous little pill?
Not long ago, I had my first CBT appointment. The psychologist was one of the loveliest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, and after an hour with her I felt more in control of my illness and hopeful about my recovery and than ever before.
To anyone still suffering in silence, whether you know me personally or not – you are not alone. And when you’re ready to reach out for help, just like I did, there will be people ready to guide you.
Today, I’m beating my anxiety and working towards a Master’s degree. I still have a lot of tough days, and I’m not entirely comfortable bearing all when it comes to my mental health, but I’m doing it anyway in the hopes that it’ll start much needed conversations about this topic. In talking about it, we can put a stop to the stigma surrounding mental illness.