Spider Webs and Sunshine
My first thought was to write about my Mum; she was plagued with various mental health issues for most of her fleeting existence. St Ann's, the local psychiatric hospital, featured regularly in my every day as a child and even now, as an adult, just thinking about it sends a cold jolt of adrenaline through me. Everything about it was scary as hell; it seemed alive, the looming stone walls hiding the secret of a swallowed section of society.
But a story is always most resonant when it's told firsthand. My second hand experience can't tell you anything about what it was like to be in mum's head. So I'm going to take a really brave step and tell you my personal story of living with mental health problems. I'll be completely honest, it still bothers me that I followed in mum's footsteps to some degree. Growing up I mopped blood, paper-stitched self-inflicted injuries, lied to my sister while hoping to hell Mum would return from her midnight wanders to the local river, counted out pills, bore the brunt of aggressive outbursts, rang CPNs when too many pills were missing, comforted nightmares, quashed hallucinations, watched ambulances rush Mum to hospital in a last ditch attempt to save the life she so desperately wanted to end. I saw all this, and I vowed to myself it would never be me. Each crisis strengthened my resolve to NEVER be that person; to never be vulnerable, to never need help, to never be so selfish.
Even with my vast experience of mental health I had it so wrong- as though thinking positive thoughts and sprinkling magical fairy dust was enough to get through; as though people had complete control over their mental health; as though those who suffered so much could turn their lives around by stepping up, getting over it and making better choices. Until the day it happened to me.
The seeds were probably sown long before the day, but for me, there was a definitive rabbit hole moment. Mum died suddenly and unexpectedly in the winter of 2013, and I spent the next six months on a mission to sort everything out. No one helped me, I'm not sure I would have let them if they'd offered, and I had to learn a whole new facet of adulthood while trying to process my atypical grief for the mum I'd so often been a mum to myself. There was a storm brewing, and I sat in the calm before it, blissfully unaware of what was to come. Mum's birthday was my rabbit hole moment, further confused by the fact it was my daughter's birthday. I remember heading to a friend's gig and in the midst of the music being absolutely crushed for the very first time that Mum had gone. It was as though the last six months hadn't happened- to me the dawning of the ugly truth occurred then and there. Mum was dead.
For a small moment, I felt like I was falling off the planet, and as I came to the video tape started to play. An ugly, distorted video tape of all the memories I never should have had playing over and over in my mind's eye. Every replay twisted me up from the inside; the pain was intolerable, and all that mattered was stopping the tape. I wasn't being deliberately selfish, but I couldn't function at any sort of human level with this internal monologue constantly playing. I became withdrawn, and started doing literally anything I could do to 'get out of my head' for a while. Drinking muted the noise for a while and even if it was short term, it was better than no let up at all. Bridges became temptations of sweet release, fleeting thoughts of jumping bubbling up through the head noise. I went to places I would never normally go and pretended to be someone else entirely. The sea, which for so much of my life had been my solace, threatened to overwhelm me with its dark and menacing depths. My eyes rested on the blades in my kitchen as I fleetingly wondered if mum had been onto something all those years before. I methodically went through Mum's private pharmacy, trying a different mind altering psych med each night. My sick self made choices my well self would never have made, although, thinking about it, were they ever really choices at all? I'm a natural fighter, and as the head tape shouted loudly, my whole being fought for survival in the form of escape.
I still managed to function on some sort of level, although the simplest tasks became the most epic of missions. Supermarkets were particularly challenging; alongside the constant memory-monologue, the noises and lights felt sharp, almost painful, and ordered thought was nigh on impossible. If people brushed past me the touch sent jolts of panic through my body, on a physical level, and I trembled uncontrollably as adrenaline washed over me. I remember wanting to scream at people, wanting them to know what was going on inside my head, hoping they'd understand I wasn't completely mental. The thing is, I actually was. Despite my judgemental notions of autonomy and the ideal that I, and only I, was in control of how my life panned out, the noise was choking any chance of rational thought and I knew I needed help.
There came a point on the beach, having consumed an almost-full bottle of oral morphine and having narrowly resisted the urge to go swimming fully clothed never to return I had to do the one thing that to me, was synonymous with failure. I had to depend on other people. Those people were literally lifelines at a time where my mental health was at it's lowest ebb, and I will be forever grateful to them. S, E, S, J and L I hope you know I love you.
The doctor I saw diagnosed PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and depression, I was started on meds and offered urgent intensive counselling therapy. The mention of therapy was deeply uncomfortable; throughout my childhood I had watched mum go through countless different therapies, both residential and in the community. Swathes of professionals breezed through our house leaving nothing but prescriptions and empty promises in their wake; Mum struggled with her issues until the day she died. I didn't want to repeat the pattern, to go through a whole bunch of medication and therapy if nothing was going to work. And here was the thing, there was no guarantee. The only thing I had was a faint hope, and at a point in my life where I literally had nothing else I had to step up and give it my best shot.
The next few months were hard. Really hard. I spent a huge amount of time processing things I never even knew I needed to sort out. My therapist was amazing, and helped me to realise some key truths.
-Asking for help did not in any way make me weak. (She added that she thought I was probably one of the strongest clients she had come across- maybe she was hoping for a tip?!)
- Being kind to myself did not equate to selfishness. In fact, taking care of my needs was essential to stay healthy for my kiddos, and especially for B.
- I wasn't superwoman. (Truth be told I didn't let on in sessions about my true identity. That shit is classified info. She's right, I'm not Superwoman.... I'm actually Wondergirl! ;)
- I was sick and needed time and medicine to get better.
So simple, and yet so mind-blowingly difficult to get my head around. Like I said, those few months were more than tricky. Slowly and surely though, I started waking up. The video tape eased from a deafening chaos to a bearable white noise hum; shards of sunlight pierced the thick canopy of gloom that had formed over my life; and my smile became my own again, replacing the eerily familiar fakeness displayed to the world as proof I was OK.
Please know this. It's OK not to be OK. The airbrushed society we live in demands nothing less than perfection on every level, but you're never accountable to them. The only person you have to explain yourself to is you. Wherever you are at today, remember there is huge beauty to be found in fragility. You are loved. You are important. Since my wander into the underbelly of societal norms I swore I'd always be genuine. Always be me. Some days I'll be a healthier, or kinder, or braver version of me than others. That's life. That's humanity. The human experience necessitates community. Community comes from compassion and honesty.
So have courage and be kind. Especially to yourself.