I was looking at my diary this evening trying to work out a writing plan for the next few months. I’d be ashamed to put a figure on how many blogs I aim to write a month versus the amount I actually have written. As I was going through my diary I saw that I’d written beside May 1: Mental Health Awareness Month. I had obviously planned to write something incredibly inspiring when I made this note, but as you can see when you scroll through my blogs for May, it didn’t happen. I couldn’t bring myself to write it, because doing so would’ve made me a hypocrite.
The truth is that on May 1, I was struggling to get out of bed, and I wish I could tell you why.
It wasn’t due to stress: sure, I was busy with the novel and other stuff but it wasn’t particularly taxing. Everything was great: JP was himself, and Ali her bubbly self and writing was going well. Yet since the end of January I had been feeling shit for no apparent reason. I started to feel fearful; I’d been here before and overcame it with the assumption that it would never happen again. That if I ever felt down again that I would speak out and get help before it got overwhelmingly bad.
It crept up on me quietly this time, out of nowhere. I was fine one week and not okay the next. I felt frustrated as I scrolled down through my Facebook feed, seeing the clichéd ‘It’s ok to be not okay’ and ‘needing help is not a sign of weakness’. Well, perhaps this was true for other people, I thought, but it didn’t apply to me. I had no reason to be down – I had a great family, great home, and I had lots of work coming in. And yet I was going to bed every night, tears falling from my eyes.
The truth is I felt like a failure. I felt empty. My novel might never be written. I don’t know how to go about finding another job. I still feel guilty about leaving my job behind three years ago, a job that I always felt that I was never any good at. These thoughts twirled around my head as I lay down each night. I had let my mum down, my daughter down and myself down. Some people see me as a role model, whereas I think I am a bit of a fraud.
Things finally came to a head on the 17th May. It was National Walk to School Day and I had walked Ali to school alongside other parents, a perfectly normal thing to do. But I didn’t feel normal at all. I left Ali at the school door and whizzed home, the tears stinging my eyes. I was sick of it, of feeling so crap. So I did something I’d never done before – I rang the doctor to make an appointment. There was an appointment that evening, and I took it. The minute I hung up, I felt sick. What was I going to say? What if the doctor thought I was crazy and had to go on antidepressants? What if she reiterated my feelings that there were people worse than I was, that I was being melodramatic? Also, the thought of handing over money just to have a chat with a doctor seemed like a massive waste.
As I sat in the waiting room, I felt like a fool. Across the room, there was a little baby in a carrycot screaming in pain. I don’t need to be here wasting time, I thought, picking up my handbag. But in true dramatic style, the doctor called my name at that very moment.
I followed her to the room. ‘Did you get your driving licence sorted?’ she asked, looking at the screen. I laughed.
‘Just this morning, believe it or not.’ (The rigmarole to get a licence these days is ridiculous).
‘So what can I do for you?’
‘Well, I don’t want to be wasting your time,’ I said, apologetically, ‘but the truth is I just don’t feel myself. I mean, emotionally.’
She stared at the screen. ‘How long has this been going on?’
‘Ah, on and off, since the end of January.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘That’s an awfully long time,’ she said. ‘Do you know what triggered it?’
I shrugged. ‘No idea. Just a general sense of failure I guess.’ I was starting to sound like an idiot, and was clutching my handbag, ready to run.
‘Okay. And did you suffer from postnatal depression? Or do you think you have it now?’
‘I had it for two-and-a-half years.’ She frowned.
‘There’s no record of that here.’
‘I didn’t report it at the time. Too scared.’
‘Right, and are you managing? Housework, meals, looking after Alison?’
‘Oh, absolutely. It’s not affecting my work at all, at home or otherwise. I just feel flat.’
‘And what do you do in your down time?’
She’s funny, I thought. ‘Not much. I try to work as much as possible. I work freelance, so if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I like to stay active, and disability activism is so important to me. And I’m looking for another job. Love being busy.’
‘Hmmm, you don’t think maybe you’re too busy?’
I scoffed. ‘It’s not like I have a full-time job or anything!’
As I listened to my own answers, I could hear what the doctor heard, at last. Firstly, that just because I didn’t have a nine-to-five job didn’t mean that I wasn’t working, or that the work that I do wasn’t valuable. Secondly, my self-worth is so wrapped up in what I produce in terms of my parenting and my writing that having not finished my novel had become like the end of the world to me. Thirdly, that downtime is important. This is the one I struggle with the most. I always feel like I should be doing something: writing, playing with Ali, cleaning, exercising. To me, sitting watching TV or reading is wasting time.
And then the doctor said the one thing I absolutely hate to hear:
‘You need to keep your expectations in line with what you can physically achieve.’
I stiffened. ‘I don’t think my disability is relevant, to be honest.’
The doctor laughed. ‘Well, it is. And also, you’re human. Take more rest. And talk more.’ She scribbled down the number of a counsellor on a post-it, which is still lurking somewhere in the bottom of my handbag.
I came out of the doctor’s feeling emotional. I had expected to be told that I was silly, that I had nothing to feel down about, that I should buck up and cop on. And she didn’t say that at all. She had validated how I was feeling and acknowledged that it was real.
I’m not writing this for attention. I didn’t even want to publish this to be honest. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, or feel that I’m not able to work because I am (Keep work coming please – I like to eat). I was going to leave it languishing on my laptop. Then I thought of all the recent suicides, both local and celebrity, and reckoned that if I could help just one person reading this, then it would be worth sharing.
Sometimes, despite the clichés, it doesn’t feel right to be not okay.
But it’s not right to suffer in silence either. And I can’t be the only one who’s sick of it.
So let’s not do it anymore.
So if any of you guys want to share your stories please do. Even if it’s so I don’t feel like such a pariah