It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, a week like no other but when everyone opens their eyes to what is there, each and every day. Human suffering. Our silent suffering. Wounds on the body being visible may be treated, stitched together. But our minds…what lies within are invisible to all. And worst of all sometimes our own minds can play tricks on us.
For Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to remove the taboo. Like many of you brave folk have done before me, I want to share part of my story. It’s the reason why I created this blog in the first place. Yes it was part of a ‘100 Things to do in 2017’ challenge, but more importantly it’s because I didn’t want anyone to have to go through the difficulties of life alone or to feel alone. So it doesn’t matter if there’s only one of you wonderful readers out there reading and absolutely no one else. Because I will continue to write this blog for you. If anything I say about my experiences of life, how to make the best of opportunities, how to reduce stress etc., rings true with you, then I will continue to write.
When I started this blog, I was apprehensive. Who on earth would want to read my ramblings? I was feeling very low and had vaguely bounced back from a period of my life where I was highly depressed, dissociated and always felt anxious. I could not sleep. Food had lost its flavour. The smiles on people’s faces felt empty. I felt empty. Nothing I did and nothing anyone said seemed to make a difference anymore. I’d like to say it was the first time I had been in that position, but it wasn’t. In some ways it made it easier. I’d survived before, and I would again. In some ways, it was harder. Shouldn’t I know better by now? Shouldn’t I have all the answers?
Experiencing bullying and being witness to arguments throughout my childhood contributed to a nervous disposition from the offset. It also made me care about people more. I didn’t want them to feel what I felt. Unfortunately the first time I recall feeling despair was aged 8. I knew the feeling already, but didn’t know what it was called. Slowly that feeling and loneliness began to invade me.
Through my teenage years, there were some days I lived only for the people I loved and not for myself. I’d imagine how it would tear them apart if I were not around. But another part of me said they’d be happier if I wasn’t about, because after all I was a useless piece of junk, right? No. But the problem was I was still experiencing bullying, with one incident involving a girl at high school who I barely knew (and who tried to add me onto Facebook years later) telling me the world would be a better place if I were dead. I tried to think of what terrors she must have experienced to have said such a thing to someone she barely knew. But I couldn’t, and I believed everything bad she said to me.
The turnaround point came at university. I had been paranoid that a friend of mine was talking badly of me behind my back as she had been secretive. Usually secrets meant something bad was about to happen. As it turned out, she’d been organising a surprise birthday party for me with all of my friends and my sister in attendance! I felt ashamed of my behaviour and also surprised at the gesture and how readily she forgave me for being stroppy with her. I realised my defence barriers that I had built up to protect myself from the bullying was also shutting out the love my friend was showing to me. Incidentally, she is still one of my best friends to this day!
So I strove to be more open. I strove to find happiness, at the time not realising that I could be happy at almost any time, but my brain was hardwired only to register pain and despair.
I did not learn alone. I went to the university counsellor after a kind tutor of mine suggested it. The counsellor asked me a rather dangerous couple of questions, ‘Well why are you alive then?’ and ‘What do you like about yourself?’. I could only answer that I was alive for my love for others, not for myself. I couldn’t think of a single thing I liked about myself.
After a few sessions, I had been introduced to Mindfulness. I’d loosely practiced it a few weeks here and there and this pattern continued for a couple of years. But each day I worked on my happiness. Each day I began to note behaviours that didn’t serve me well and those that did. I experimented with my usual response to things vs a different response to see which would end up with a happier result.
And I still experiment to this day, although the experiments are fewer because I generally know what works for me and what doesn’t. And I now practice mindfulness pretty much continuously.
Last year I suffered PTSD and was having the hard time that I mentioned at the opening of this post. I never thought I’d feel so low again. And that’s the thing – poor mental health can sometimes strike unexpectedly. That’s why each day needs to be taken one at a time and why we need to continue to assess our useful and less useful thoughts, both when times are good and bad. It’s also why we should seek help if we need it and not try to do everything ourselves. But this type of awareness requires relentless practice, which sometimes can be very difficult indeed or not possible for all. Sometimes medication is needed, although in my case practice has been enough.
I lost a friend to suicide some years ago. And occasionally I still think about him. Sometimes in my mind I dedicate a moment to him when I’m enjoying life. Because I know how thin that wire is and how easy it is to fall from it. And I think how maybe he could have been standing here if just one thing could have been different in his life or if someone had said or done something differently.
A lot of people’s labels for me are: friendly, caring, empathetic and happy. That’s how I seem and how I’ve probably always seemed. And a lot of people will be none the wiser that I’ve walked the wire. But there’s a reason I am all these positive things. It’s because I’ve walked the wire. I know what it is to feel suffering, to feel alone, to feel like I don’t matter. It’s because I’ve felt those things that I have a great capacity to care, be friendly to others and treat them with empathy. It is because I have known great sadness that I know great happiness and how to appreciate happy moments. Sometimes I forget how to be all these things, but I always take note and practice, every single day. And for as many seconds of a day as possible.
It’s because I was so full of despair that I decided to write about the Path Of Happiness. It was to remind myself, and all of you out there that there is great reason to be happy. And how to not miss happiness when it stares you in the face. And to reduce the suffering that each of us experiences. It allows me time to reflect and to be mindful. It gives me a forum to hopefully make others feel better or look at life in a happier, freer way.
My closing comments to those of you who have suffered deeply is that you are special, and you matter, no matter what you or anyone else tells you. If you can’t live for yourself, living for others whilst you try to find a means to cope is just fine. For you and those with mental afflictions other than depression or anxiety, don’t feel you need to go through what you’re experiencing alone. There is help, whether personal or professional. Please – if you can only find one thing to do, let it be to ask for help. One to one communication can help you resolve personal problems. Communities can help take away the feeling that you’re going through things alone.
For those who haven’t suffered in this manner or with other mental health issues, please be patient and listen to those suffering around you. Most of the time people just want someone to listen and to be there, not necessarily to offer advice. Ask permission before offering advice. Sometimes your experience is so vastly different to another’s that offering a different stance when someone is not ready for it is not helpful. Just be there and show the person that you care.
And to everyone. Be kind to each other. You never know who is suffering, so try not to add to anyone’s burdens by speaking or acting unkindly. If you suffer at any level (which all of us do to varying degrees), remember that others are suffering too. Through nurturing kindness, patience and demonstrating our love and care for one another, we could be a great helper or lifesaver without even realising it.
Peace and love to you all. xxx