Thursday 6th February is ‘Time to Talk’ day, so it’s an excellent opportunity to choose to talk about mental health. Talking about mental health is really important because it has the power to change lives. There is a dedicated website with loads of great resources, hints and tips on how to start a conversation, which you can find here.
It’s essential that people make a personal choice about whether they talk about their mental health. I decided I would share my journey explaining how talking has helped me.
Here is a quick synopsis of my lived experience. In essence, I was a successful leader working in Housing and Education until the age of 43, when I resigned due to severe anxiety which later developed into depression. Talking has for me been a vital part of my continuing road to recovery.
At my lowest times, I isolated myself from everyone, including family and friends, (which was very unlike me, I’m usually quite extravert and sociable) so my talking journey started with writing. I found keeping a diary of my feelings and experience strangely cathartic and therapeutic (I say ‘strangely’ because I had never written a diary, even as a teenager). Writing helped me to clarify my thoughts and feelings and make a little bit of sense of the alien world in which I felt like I had entered. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I would later use my diary as the basis of sharing my lived experience with others… I will come on to this.
In some ways, I suppose writing helped me realise I needed more professional help to fully make sense of my new world (which I was increasingly becoming frustrated and resentful about). In summary, my new world consisted of struggling to get out of bed, failing to wash my hair and put on my makeup (really not like me) and crying sporadically throughout the day. On better days taking the dog for a walk but then having a panic attack and having to quickly get home, unaware of the days and weeks that passed and panicking about when I will get better because I needed work and an income! Yes, I needed a bit of help, so the next stage in my journey was talking to a counsellor. The benefits of counselling are endless and can quite literally be life-saving.
Despite the emotions and pain I have gone through, counselling has helped me make sense of and accept my new world. It has equipped me with the knowledge and skills to take back control of my feelings and emotions in a way that I can now live with my illness and navigate my new world. In reality, this has meant setting up my own business, slowly starting to take on some work and living my life again. The most important thing it has done is give me the confidence to re-engage with family and friends whom I missed dearly. Interestingly, it also gave me the courage to talk about my illness with them. Not only has this been beneficial for me (I feel accepted for simply being Lou) but it also helped them understand why I needed to shut myself away for a while and that, it didn’t mean I loved or cared for them any less. How they felt about me avoiding them was always something I struggled with. I felt a massive sense of guilt about the impact I thought I was having on my loved ones and still did until recently when I was talking to someone about the impact mental health has on family and friends. I explained I wanted to write a blog about it because it shouldn’t be underestimated. She said she loved the idea about a blog on the role of family and friends in supporting recovery (an interesting interpretation of what I was saying) as long as I don’t give myself a whole load of guilt about it (lightbulb moment!). She explained people who love you will simply want to help and walk beside you on your journey. Metaphorically, I realised that this equated for me to the little text or the weekly card I would receive, the phone call to my husband to ask how I was or the little presents I received. It was their way of letting me know that despite not being in each other’s company they were still all there walking beside me and I hadn’t offended them by my actions, they understood. I had never thought about it in this way and needless to say, it led to shelving my original blog idea and writing this one!
So after writing, talking to professionals, talking to my family and friends, (I also started to speak to people in the park while walking the dog) I found myself delivering my lived experience to complete strangers (maybe 25 or so people in a room). This led to blogging (you will see from the first one how much courage it took me to “talk to” LinkedIn). As I get asked more often to share my lived experience, and as I write this post I have been reflecting “Why do I talk about one of the darkest and hardest times in my life with potentially 1000’s of others”? Because, being honest, I find it helpful to talk, but also do it in the hope that my lived experience and blog provides hope for others. If my talking and writing can help just one other person to gain the courage they need to talk to someone about their mental health, then its totally worth it.