This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme Surviving or Thriving? I’d recommend visiting the Mental Health Foundation‘s website to find out more.
Ironically this week I have struggled to find words to talk about mental health, because I’m struggling with my mental health. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, but I’m zigzagging between not too bad and barely coping at a rate that’s leaving me exhausted. Usually my mental health, while not great, is relatively consistent. I’m OK for a few days/weeks/months, then bad for a few days/weeks/months, and so on. Just now I can go from OK to crying and unable to carry on several times a day. I’m hoping it’s down to the change in medication a couple of weeks ago, and that it will settle down. I’ve been speaking to my GP to plan what to do if it doesn’t.
I’m holding on to the fact that I am better than I was a few weeks ago, that there is progress. To illustrate I wanted to share two similar experiences I had a few weeks apart, vastly different in how my brain interpreted them.
Last week, my first week back at work, I had to drive to Gateshead for some training. I don’t often drive south of the Tyne except on motorways, and the Gateshead town centre is unfamiliar to me, but I had directions, my trusty sat-nav, advice from colleagues and, as it turned out, an optimistically naïve faith in towns always well signposting their public parking.
I’m not sure if the car park I was heading for was completely unsignposted from the main road, or if the sign was obscured by the roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but I didn’t see the turn off until I was passing it. I was then sucked into Gateshead’s one-way system where I tried to follow the occiaisional parking signs but ended up hopelessly lost and doing a u-turn to avoid a sudden (unsigned) bus only lane, much to the consternation of several bus drivers (I don’t think my mouthed apology and panicked wave appeased them). The inexplicable system continued to chew me up until I was finally spat out on a bit of bypass I recognised and was able to head to the quayside.
Its fair to say I was frazzled, definitely stressed, but I knew the walk from the Quayside into Gateshead was mostly a pleasant one and would give me time to calm down. I emerged from the car cursing the town planners, sign buyers and road builders of Gateshead and stomped up the hill perfectly fine to take part in the training (after a medicinal cuppa.)
Rewind a few weeks…
I am driving through an unfamiliar part of the city, following my trusty sat nav, to find my way home from an unfamiliar branch of my vets, the only one that could fit my accident prone greyhound in this morning. Spotting a gap in the traffic ahead I mirror, signal, manouver and overtake a cyclist.
Its only after I pull ahead of him that I realise there is unexpected traffic calming there, and my manouver has prevented him from pulling out past it. This I figure out while watching his angry hand gestures in my mirror as the traffic behind me slows to accommodate him.
I don’t know if there was no sign, or if it was hidden behind the van parked at the side of the road.
I am a terrible person, I have nearly caused an accident, I could have killed that man, I shouldn’t be in charge of a car.
He is justifiably angry. What if he reports me to the police? I’ll be arrested for driving dangerously. If I can’t drive I can’t work. What if I’m sent to jail? I’ll lose my house, my kids.
What if he’s a criminal and follows me or finds me out from my numberplate? What if he targets my family for revenge? I’ve put my children in danger. I’m a terrible mother, I shouldn’t be allowed to have children, they’d be better off without me because I can’t keep them safe.
Is the car behind following me? Have they witnessed it, do they want to report it or just lose their temper with me? What will I do if they yell at me? I can’t defend myself, I nearly killed that man, I deserve whatever I get.
This continues, not just through the day when I expect every knock on the door to be either the police, an angry motorist or cyclist out for revenge, but every night that week when I’m trying to get to sleep. What if he’d fallen off the bike? What if the car behind had hit him? I’d not just be responsible for the cyclist’s injuries or death, but also for the trauma of the driver who hit him. I am a terrible person. And so on…
That’s what anxiety does to me, the difference between an OK day and a bad one. The catastrophizing isn’t rational and it isn’t proportionate, although it feels it at the time. It doesn’t have to be a situation with a real fault or error on my part, my brain does just the same faced with something very minor, e.g. someone forgetting something I remember (“Should I remind them? They’ll think I’m bossy, they’ll think I’m interfering, they’ll think I don’t trust them, I must be a bad person to make them feel so bad”).
There’s a strange contradiction in my anxiety, one I can’t notice at the time and can’t explain. How can I feel simultaneously worthless, useless and unnecessary and also be so completely selfishly convinced that only I am responsible for everything? There was no thought in the second example of blaming the planners, sign writers or even the person who’d parked their van so inconsiderately. It could only be my fault. Nothing else and no one else gets in.
At my worst my mental health problems are visible, perhaps I’m jittery or I can’t make eye contact, but usually they’re hidden. Many people who know me have no idea about it. And that’s true of so many people.
The idea that everyone is fighting battle you can’t see is becoming a cliché, which doesn’t stop it being mostly true. Far more people have mental health problems than speak about it. I’m getting help. If you’re struggling please seek help too.