A meme popped up on my Facebook page on Saturday. Two images: one of a forest, with the words “this is an antidepressant” across it, and one of some tablet blister packs, accompanied by the words “this is shit”. Now, I’m not usually one for getting cross about awful Facebook memes – really I’m not – but this one caught me at a bad time. A really bad time.
It was as if my body knew World Mental Health Day was coming up (it’s today), and decided to throw a cortisol and adrenaline party in celebration. The last eight days or so have been all kinds of madness, with a couple of full-on wig-outs, a constant low-level hum of anxiety, and a fun host of gastric symptoms, the like of which I haven’t experienced since That Time I Went Mad In Second Year. Even I can laugh at the fact that it wasn’t the continuous loop of “no, really, I am actually losing it this time” that drove me to an NHS walk-in centre last Thursday night – it was the lack of appetite. I’m never, never off my food. It just doesn’t happen. When I made a big panful of ratatouille but couldn’t bring myself to swallow even a mouthful, I knew things were bad.
Thanks to the endlessly kind, patient, thorough NHS nurse who examined me, joked with me and told me that I wasn’t dying but that I should consider getting some help taming the old anxiety beast, I was able to have a nice weekend – even if Drummer Boy did have to do a lot of hand-holding. I’m going to see a GP in the next few days or so, and I’m going to be open to whatever they suggest. Lifestyle changes, medication, some sort of counselling, I don’t know. It’s not my job to know. As Granny always said: “darling, you can’t be doctor and patient.” You don’t always have all the answers. You can’t always do it all on your own.
So this is why that meme bothered me. Because sometimes, the sane voices are drowned out by ear-piercing alarm bells of panic. Sometimes, the rational thoughts are just not loud enough to be heard. Sometimes, all you hear is the misery, the fear, the “I just can’t”. Sometimes you just need some help.
Sometimes, you can walk along the beach until it’s dark and your calves ache from crunching through the shingle but your heart’s still pounding and your mind still fights on, shrill and whirring. You can have a long, chatty, wholly delicious supper with a friend but when you get home, the demons sneak in the front door with you and demand your attention. You can plough determinedly through emails and meetings at work, and yet as soon as you step out for lunch, or a tea break, your anxiety gremlins are there, saying “hey, what about us?”
The point is (and I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but that’s never stopped me before) – mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. Faulty wiring, rogue chemistry, unhelpful hormones. You can take all the ‘lifestyle’ precautions you want – cut the caffeine, kill the booze, up the running, mute the social media – and still find yourself wobbling and in need of something to address the chemical imbalance. Don’t get me wrong, all those things help, and so do nerdy podcasts, stand-up comedy, chopping vegetables and typing out your feelings at length. I’ve found that generally treating myself like I would an aged relative works wonders: lots of Radio 4 and not too much excitement.
But there’s no shame in taking medication. You wouldn’t try and fight a bacterial infection with fresh air, long walks and willpower, after all. It can be exhausting just trying to do a passable impression of “normal”. There’s a lot of energy involved – if there’s something that can provide a bit of respite and relief from the emotional equivalent of trying to hack through a thicket with a teaspoon, then ask for it. Take it.
Asking for help, and accepting it when it arrives, is a strong thing to do. A very strong thing indeed.