On Courage, a Bit of a History, and Why I Have Decided to ‘Come Out’ About my Mental Health Issues

I have never been brave. I have never had the kind of courage I observe in others. Looking at other people’s lives – going on ‘mad’ adventures, going on holiday on their own, applying for jobs, sending out their writing; the list goes on and on – I wish I had the nerve to do what they have done. Regrets, as the song goes, I’ve had a few. I’m very aware that what I see on the surface often hides what goes on beneath – believe me, I’m very aware of that. But still….

When I look back on my very early life, I can see where my lack of bravery might have come from. I was an only child to older parents. My parents loved me so much, and I recognise and appreciate how valuable it was, am all to aware that some children have never had that. But they loved me so much, I feel – on reflection now – that I was suffocated by it. I’m not going to go into my personal experience of being an only child – this post isn’t about that – but other only children I know feel the same way. I was the apple of my parents’ eye. The much-longed for child they could pour all their love into. The whole world centred around me, and therefore pleasing my parents because I was everything they wanted and I didn’t want to hurt them became my goal in life. And that was, I believe, where my lack of courage, and the seeds of my issues began. Please understand this is not me being ungrateful. I loved my mum and dad, and they, like most parents, did what they believed was right. And like all parents, mine only had their own to learn from. Those lessons may or may not be/have been ‘good’ lessons.

But anyway, I grew up feeling like I had to please everyone. To do my ‘duty’. To obey, pretty much without question, because that was what ‘good girls’ did. I think maybe my male counterparts didn’t have that, because in those days (60s/70s) the roles of men and women were still pretty clearly defined. Especially by my parents’ generation.

It all meant I was an anxious child, always terrified of being abandoned, from an early age clinging to my mother, who resented it. I know that because later on in her life, she told me so. She wanted to go out to work, and the very young me wouldn’t let her go. I’m not going to discuss that here either, but I can’t be angry with her for needing something else than motherhood. Still, the damage was done, and I grew into an anxious teenager. I didn’t like anything that took me away from the safety of my childhood home. Even when I went on my first holiday without my parents, at eighteen, it felt like I’d been torn away from them, even though it was my choice. I remember crying down the phone to my mum that I missed her and wanted to come home. It didn’t really help that my holiday was in a cold rundown chalet in a rain-sodden holiday camp on the Isle of Wight!

I married someone who was controlling. That is all I will say about that aspect of the relationship. Being desperate to impress and please, I believed that control was what love was. And he did love me. But he had his own issues, as people do. So my anxiety grew worse – this time mostly centred around my body, which, because of comments in my early teen years, was a source of loathing for me. I believed I was fat (I was eight and a half stone!). I believed I was ugly. I most definitely wasn’t good enough. When I had severe, crippling post-natal depression after the birth of my first child, I was a ‘bad mother’ – this told to me by my own mother, and by my mother-in-law, neither of whom ‘believed in’ post-natal depression because they ‘didn’t have depression in my day’ and I should just ‘be grateful’ for what I had. That was my first severe bout of depression, and it nearly killed me.

Life went on. I was never the same again. My depressive episode was life changing. and of course, it’s a very well-known thing that once someone has had a bout of major depression, it’s much more likely that it’ll happen again. And it did, in various ways, until the next breakdown when my (by then pretty much loveless) marriage broke up. It’s funny how it hits you, a break up, even if you (think you) want it. I had been so desperately unhappy for so many years, yet I didn’t have the courage to end what was, in the end, a very unhealthy relationship. So when my now-ex finished it, I collapsed. I’ve since learned some things about why this might have happened. Firstly, of course, I was already mentally vulnerable. Insecure, anxious, years of constantly feeling inadequate as a wife and mother. But also, the break-up of a marriage (or any other long term relationship) has been described as a kind of death. And it is. Death of expectations, death of status, death of a kind of self. And again, it nearly killed me.

Over the years, other things happened. My parents both became ill. My mother developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, followed by dementia. She needed constant care, and when my father had a heart attack one day when I was working in my new job as a lecturer, I had to drop everything and go to care for her. I missed my very first academic conference at which I was meant to present, and felt like a failure. After that, it was a constant thing. My father recovered (although he had another heart attack later, leading to me again having to drop everything for my mother while he was in hospital) and he was my mother’s main carer, but I was always on red alert; and I couldn’t let a day go by without phoning my father to check that everything was okay, and if he needed anything. That continued until he died in 2012, seven years later.

During that time I had several sessions of various types of counselling via my GP but none of it helped. Looking back, I believe I just wasn’t ready for it. I think that, in some way, I needed that self-blame – it was constant, and worse, it was familiar, something almost comforting to fall back on. It’s a weird attitude to take, but if it’s the only one you know, you stick with it because anything else is even more scary. This is a common thing for many, many people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. We want them gone, but it’s scary, thinking about the process of getting better. Sometimes we just don’t have the strength or the motivation to help ourselves. And of course for me, other people were always more important.

My mother passed away – I still have flashbacks of that. I have flashbacks of her face before she died. Flashbacks of having to phone my father first thing in the morning to tell him. And then a new phase began. I haven’t dealt with those yet. My father became – after a short period of seeming okay – suicidal. And then the phone calls became constant. And I mean constant. From his carers – he became increasingly frail during the years after my mother’s death; from the hospital, where he was admitted twice after threatening suicide; from the hospital because. Increasingly frail, he contracted numerous infections. Eventually, he was admitted to a specialist psychiatric unit, where he was pushed over by another patient and broke his hip. That was the beginning of the end for my wonderful dad. He developed a form of severe dementia, and eventually died in a care home. Of course, during that time, I lived on the edge of a breakdown. When he died, I fell apart again. I’d been a bad daughter, not good enough for him (interestingly I’ve never grieved my mother, not thought too much about her death, despite the flashbacks, because maybe I don’t want to unravel it). I’d let him down. Hadn’t helped him enough. I was weak and couldn’t cope. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

I’ve posted recently on my latest bout of depression. I sincerely hope there won’t be another, but those of us with repeated bouts of whatever dogs us in our history have to be vigilant. And of course, for me it’s still early days. As I’ve said before, I’m taking it one day at a time. Working really really hard on maintaining the progress I’ve made. Trying not to see every down mood as a sign I’m going back into the depression I’m recovering from. Trying not to see every niggle of uncertainty as a sign my anxiety is returning. I will need more counselling in the future. And some things, maybe, can never be fixed, just looked at differently.

So why am I writing all this? Why am I ‘coming out’, as it were? Why am I repeating some of the stuff I’ve written in previous posts? Who am I, in a multitude of famous voices opening up and discussing mental health (the BBC series, Mental Health and Me, featuring Nadiya Hussain, David Harewood, and next week, Alastair Campbell, is powerful and important) to think I’ll be saying anything worth listening to?  The answer is, in part, quite simple: This is Mental health Awareness Week in the UK, and I am privileged have a voice to speak with. But it’s also because this – and the other posts I’ve written – are my own small acts of courage. I don’t know if this is all reckless; after all, as a lecturer, I’m in a position of trust, and am supposed to be ‘professional’ and, I guess, wear a mask. To an extent, we all wear masks. And much of the time, I do, although I will never, ever  pretend to be something I’m not. Now though, after this last breakdown, I’m tired of feeling like I have to hide it. This is part of who I am. It’s shaped me. I own it. And so I’m saying it. I’ll say it as many times as I need to.

There is still too much stigma. Too many people feel like their mental health issues are shameful. I’ve been shamed for it, and quite recently too. All too often we feel like we’re bad people for feeling the way we (can’t help) feel. All too often, we’re told that telling the world we’re a mentally unwell person is bad for us, that revealing our mental health problems is a death-sentence for our careers (and for some people, unfortunately, that is true). We feel bad for the way that others see us, like it’s our fault, and think that we’ll never be seen the same way as ‘normal’ people. And that is so, so wrong. I mean, people with cancer are never (I hope!) told to ‘get over it’, or to ‘smile’; or that ‘others have it so much worse’, or to stop being attention-seeking. These attitudes have to end. I can’t end it on my own. I’m just one person. But I’m at the point where I don’t care who knows, because it’s part of who I am. And that’s okay. Finally, I know that’s okay, and accepting it has been part of my recovery process.

What I want to say, at this, the end of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, is that I have seen lives devastated by mental illness. In my job, I work with many vulnerable young people who can’t cope with their problems. Often they’re ashamed of them, because they ‘should’ be able to cope. Because they ‘should be’ perfect. This is increasing in society, for many, many reasons. And so I want to say this, to them, and anyone else who is struggling: We are so much more than our issues. We are so much more than our illnesses. We are people who love, who are intelligent, who care about other people, who are often involved in the care of other people. We should not be ashamed; and we need support, not shaming.

Encouragement, not embarrassment.

Voices, not invisibility.

Sound, not silence.