Thursday 1st December, 2016, late morning.
I’m in A&E, convinced something is terribly wrong with me. Everything hurts, there’s a tightness in my throat that feels solid, I feel sick when I try and eat anything more exciting than toast, and when I do eat – well, not to be crude, but it feels like it goes straight through me. I am not well, and I’m terrified that I’m Really Not Well. I burrow into Drummer Boy’s chest, convinced I’m about to get life-changing news. I think about never marrying him, never having his children. Something is definitely wrong.
I text a dear friend to wish her a happy birthday.
Thursday 1st December, 2016, early afternoon.
“So, your test results: everything’s fine. Textbook blood, I’d say”, says Dr James Blunt. I look at him in disbelief and ask him to talk me through the results. “But I feel… awful.” How can everything be fine?” He goes through the numbers. “Panic is a really hard drug,” he says gently, or words to that effect. “It’s like you’re constantly wired.” I make a feeble, not-unkind joke about his name as I leave. He gets that a lot.
It’s another two months before I feel like “me” again. Things unfortunately get worse before they get better. Christmas, usually my favourite time of year, passes in a miserable blur. There are many low points, and in my fraught state, I ask too much of Drummer Boy, over and over. One of lowest points comes on a Friday evening in January. I’m travelling home from work on the bus and I am terrified – of course I am, that’s my only emotion these days – of the coming evening, of the coming two days. So many hours ripe for frightening thoughts. How will I get through them?
The turning point comes when I agree to start medication. Initially I grimace at the doctor’s suggestion – what about side effects? What if the anxiety goes but takes other, better qualities with it? – but I quickly realise that I couldn’t possibly feel any worse. I have almost nothing to lose.
Five days is all it takes for the fog to become a mist. That fifth tablet resurrects the real me, the girl who likes the world, and all the books, music, eyeliner and dogs in it. Sure, it takes another couple of weeks for that girl to get the upper hand, but the change begins in a matter of days.
I was lucky – lucky that the first type of SSRI I was offered worked, at the first dose I was offered. And progress hasn’t been strictly linear, but private CBT has given me some strategies to interrupt, if not derail, those poisonous, panic-driven thought processes.
I was also lucky to have a GP who believed me, and to have seen other doctors who took me seriously. Without the NHS, I honestly don’t know where I’d be right now. I never wanted to harm myself but I was reaching the end of my tether with being scared all the time. I wanted the mental terror to stop, and had it gone on much longer, I…
I don’t know. Thankfully, I’ll never have to know.
Friday 18th May, 2018, lunchtime.
I am here, nearly 18 months later, with a job and a life full of books, music, eyeliner – oh, and have I mentioned I have a dog now? I don’t like to bang on about him…
But dipping a toe in ‘the system’ (i.e. having gone to a GP with symptoms of a mental illness, ended up in A&E more than once, being referred for NHS CBT then paying for private therapy, taking medication) has made me cynical about ‘awareness’ initiatives when it comes to mental health. Encouraging people to be open about how they feel and what they’re going through is all well and good, but if you have a mental illness, you need to be talking to trained professionals, not just your friends and family. And right now, the system cannot give that professional, expert help to everyone that needs it.
Plus, if you’re mentally ill, it’s hard enough actually feeling the feelings, let alone having to articulate them to other people. Placing the onus on those who are mentally unwell to speak up and make themselves heard isn’t always the right answer; awareness needs to go both ways. People shouldn’t be afraid to talk, sure, but those who don’t deal with mental illness shouldn’t be afraid to listen, to check in with someone they’re worried about, to create spaces and structures where those who are struggling feel supported and cared for.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, I’m sure, but we’ve reached a point where it’s imperative we consider the usefulness of ‘awareness’. Talk is cheap, but a system that can help everyone who needs it is utterly invaluable. And we’re not there yet.