I have not been writing here of late; you may have noticed. In part, I’ve been Very Injured and so have run just a handful of miles since April thanks to the Hip of Doom. But also, I’m just less sure about being Someone Who Talks About Mental Health.
Last year, I filmed with Mind, talking about parkrun and anxiety. In May, I contributed to a piece for the Runner’s World’s website about how running has helped my mental health. I became a Time to Talk Champion. I wrote this blog. I spoke at length, over the course of many many months on social media. I had been so public about my own experiences that I was starting to forget that I was a person beyond them. By putting everything out there, I gave recognition to the fact that practically every aspect of my life was aligned with my tiny broken brain.
More than that, I was bitter, I suppose. Angry with myself for letting everyone into my brain because I thought it was already spilling out of my head, but as it turned out, most people hadn’t realised what a state I was in. Annoyed that after my first panic attack at work, everything spiralled out of control for months on end until I eventually left my job. Hurt that people were praising me for being “brave”, commending me for speaking up and yet I was still getting worse. I wanted this blog and talking more widely to release me but it seemed to be keeping me captive. The more I tried to make things normal by talking about anxiety, the more I felt that there was a label attached to me, marking me as Anxious.
I began to stigmatise myself. The past year has seen a huge push on mental health campaigns and that it’s okay to talk. Things will be better if we talk about it. We need to talk about it. Here I was talking about it and I didn’t feel better. Once again, there was something wrong with me. I had to be the problem, not a world still full of stigma.
And then I met a man. Of course I did, there’s always a man involved at the big turning points in my life. A northern man who on our first date sat on the ground outside a pub with me, and indulged every nonsensical conversation I threw at him. I was excited for the first time in ages and I didn’t want him to know me as Anxious. I wanted some respite, not to talk about mental health, not to be known for it. He was new, he was unconnected to my life, he was a fresh start. There was this glorious idea that I could be charming and funny forever. I could be the version of myself who turns up for first dates, forever.
Nonsense, of course. I couldn’t lock away a portion of my brain forever. If I could I would have done that years ago and solved this whole sorry mess. After a while I started making allusions to it. Casual references here and there. Nothing extreme, but making him aware.
Then two months in we went to the zoo on a Friday night. I was tired, fractious, worrying about work, too quiet. He knew something was wrong. I knew something was wrong. In my usual way, I wasn’t really sure what it was, too many thoughts fighting for dominance. On the Northern Line, I burst into tears. We got off the train. I hyperventilated on the platform. I stalked the streets around Warren Street in a teary blur, him five paces behind me, me begging him to just leave me there. I will never be able to explain how humiliating it is, the first time someone sees you in that state. The moment you realise their vision of you has changed, irreversibly. We got back on the train, got off the train. We loitered at Waterloo for my connection out of London. I cried some more. We got back on the train and he took me home. Three separate trains down the one short stretch of the Northern Line.
I wrote about my problems at work earlier this year. I finally left in late July. I’m going back to London in September, back to law, back to a life I left behind. I was okay, I was excited. Then I started filling in forms for my new job and had to complete a health declaration. And there it was: “Have you had any problems with mental illness such as stress anxiety, depression or an eating disorder?” Where do I start? How can I fit all of this into one tiny box? Eventually I checked yes, and wrote “history of anxiety” in the box for further details. A day later, an Occupational Health Adviser called me and we talked about my history. I put too positive a spin on it. Under pressure I either crack, or I develop the persona of a 1950s tv housewife. Too chirpy. Too bright. Yes, I had experienced a severe generalised anxiety disorder in the past. No, I’m not currently medicated. Yes, I really do think I have a handle on it these days. Too wide eyed and too broad smiled. Always edging towards the manic.
It’s a big international organisation and I’m sure it’s all to provide me with the best support they can. Still, a lot of me thinks that I’ve labelled myself before I’ve even begun. Shown my hand and made them doubt I’m up to the job. Would it have been better not to say anything? History suggests they would have found out eventually but maybe this time…
I can control the manner in which people find out about my mental health but I can’t control their reaction. And I’m a control freak; every facet of this issue links back to my inability to cope when I’m not in control. So maybe that’s my unease about continuing this, that there are too many reactions out there and that by not writing, most of them will never happen. If I shut down, my mental health goes back in its box and it rattles in the corner but it’s not casting a film over everything I do. Once I thought I needed to talk about it to take back control. Perhaps that’s changed. Now talking about it feels like I’m becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I say, the more ill I become.
The problem is, it’s not just me. I know there are people that have shared my experiences. I know because friends who I would never have suspected of having any problems at all, have come to me, relieved to talk about anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD. They couldn’t have done that (with me) if I’d never started talking. I’ve seen people I barely know struggling and been able to offer some semblance of (often flippant) support. Would I have done that if I hadn’t started writing this? I don’t know if I would. I still fully believe that people need to talk about mental health but after two years of being very open about my own, I think I have to stop.
I don’t know what I’m doing right now. 28 years old and I am very lost. I’m not running, certainly. Attempting to stay calm for the impending changes of a life I thought I would never go back to. But this? I’m not sure I can be a mental health advocate whilst staying mentally healthy myself. Maybe that’s done.