Like most people, my experience with mental health has been a life long process, rather than a minor blip or a concrete thing that can be tied down and fixed quickly. When I first started blogging I had no intentions of talking about mental health here (although I did touch on self care and wellness), but as my influence has grown, and the conversation around mental health has become somewhat more prominent than before, I’ve started to see the value in sharing, in the hope to both encourage someone else and remind myself.
So I just wanted to let you all know, I love therapy. I think it’s great, and something basically everyone should do if they’re able to. I also think that it’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Out in the real world I talk fairly openly about my experiences with mental health, mainly anxiety and depression which are increasingly common these days, and yet I still sometimes feel a sense of the stigma both from the outside and internalised within myself. It’s easy to feel embarrassed or ashamed that we ‘don’t have everything together’, so I usually try to openly discuss mental health when I feel like this in order to try and overcome that feeling a little more. So why not do it online too?
After writing on the systemic change I think we need to see in order to approach mental health better, I mentioned sharing my own journey, and multiple people said they’d be interested in hearing. So today I’m doing that, along with reiterating some truths that I think I need to remind myself about too.
Nothing is ‘too small’
The fact is, most of us have experienced trauma in our life in some way or another, big and small. It can be tempting to put them on a scale alongside the problems others go through, and to think we haven’t experienced anything bad enough to justify looking for help. Other people have it way worse, so I’m just being selfish right?
Wrong. If it matters to you, then it matters to you. And that’s ok. Nothing is too small to seek help over. Someone else’s hardship doesn’t negate your own. There is space to hold both: acknowledging the suffering in the world, and understanding the things in your own life that may have caused you to struggle. It’s ok to fit your own oxygen mask before going to help others, otherwise you’ll end up burnt out, exhausted and unwell. Good activism, heck just being a good human, requires you to be healthy and capable, and it’s ok to both do the work in your own life while also trying to help others. In fact, I’d say you’re making the healthiest, smartest, longer lasting choice. It’s easy to look at how you’re feeling or what you’ve experienced and think it isn’t a valid reason to look for help, but it is. Your feelings are valid, as is your desire to want to do something about them. You don’t need to justify yourself to anyone.
And besides, you can feel totally fine and still have an important and useful experience with therapy:
‘In other words, you don’t have to go through a huge life event or trauma to benefit from therapy. Talking with a professional allows you to get a sense of how you appear to other people, helps you get feedback on whatever you’re feeling and offers insight on how those emotions are affecting your everyday life.’ (source)
There’s something in it to be gained for everyone, whether that be outside perspective, problem solving or working on how we communicate with others. So if you feel like you want to give it a try, do!
It can take time to find the right treatment, and that’s ok
I first went to the doctor about my mental health when I was about sixteen, but I’d been having trouble with depression since I was as young as nine. At the time they offered me a group CBT session (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which was on Tuesdays at 1pm, however I obviously couldn’t go to those because I had school. Without other options (the NHS, as we know, isn’t always great for these kinds of things), I was scheduled for a type of talk therapy that did not work for me. I had managed to do quite a lot of introspection in the years before seeking treatment; I already knew what my triggers were and what made things worse, I just needed to be given the tools for dealing with them. This is exactly what CBT is, but the therapy I was in was very much the kind that asked questions to try and figure out the cause, or asked how situations made me feel. However I already knew those answers, so ended up increasingly frustrated as the sessions went on at how unhelpful they were for me. There was no grand realisation to be reached, I needed to know what to do next. Eventually I just stopped going.
After such a bad experience with the NHS, I didn’t engage with any kind of therapy for around seven years. My mental health was up and down in that time. Dance school was fun, but sometimes it was extremely testing too, especially in my third year, however my masters degree more than made up for it by being one of the most enjoyable (if difficult) and reappropriating experiences of my life. During a lot of this time I was generally ok, but I did develop anxiety from the age of eighteen onwards, after a few of my friends passed away in sudden circumstances. This was a pretty natural response, due to a feeling of being totally out of control and overwhelmed, and it would most often raise its head in the form of panic attacks or occasional disassociation. I mainly was able to manage these things and they would pass, but because I’m very high functioning even in the midst of real struggle, I also felt very isolated because no one could guess anything was wrong. It wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t the fullest way I could live my life.
When I left dance school the panic attacks reduced dramatically, mainly because I didn’t have the all encompassing stress of feeling like if I couldn’t nail my pirouette then I’d never be able to have a career (which turned out to be completely untrue). And this year I finally was able to do a course of CBT for the first time.
I actually ended up doing CBT through an accidental series of events, not through the NHS. I had a friend who had completed on online CBT course, and then suggested to her housemates that they should all take it together as she’d found it so useful. I happened to pop to their house to visit on the same day that they were going to do their first session in the evening, ended up crashing completely, and had such an insightful and important evening that I asked if I could join for the rest of the course. Every Monday I made the trek to the other side of London for CBT sessions, with the last one perfectly coinciding with my last Monday in London. It was amazing for me. It gave me the tools I’d been looking for, helped me recontextualise and rethink some of my current situations and behaviours, and helped me feel like I wasn’t completely alone. Doing it within a group of people I was friends with helped me feel safe, and created a non-judgemental atmosphere that also enabled us to help each other see patterns that we might not have noticed on our own. I raved about CBT to my other friends, and how helpful I found it, and it was truly a significant and helpful period in my life. I’m now more equipped to spot patterns, stop myself before I go down a negative thought spiral, and identify the underlying thoughts that can be the real reason why I feel or act certain ways.
You won’t suddenly be fixed
That being said, it wasn’t like that course of CBT just fixed me. Nothing can fix you overnight, in fact I’m not sure how I’d actually define myself as being ‘fixed’. I still have bad days, even if they’re much less frequent and less intense than in the past.
‘I spoke with my therapist, and she was like, “Yeah, you gotta know this is a lifelong thing. You’re going to have great moments and shitty moments, and that’s life. That’s not mental illness, that’s life.” I’ve since learned that even if you do all these things: take your medicine and go to therapy and do everything you’re supposed to, you will still have shitty days. Your boss is gonna be an asshole or you’re gonna get your period. Even the most even-keeled human on the planet has off days. And so when that happens for me, I remind myself: It’s a shitty day, not a shitty life. That’s what gets me through the not-so-great days.’ (source)
It’s a shitty day, not a shitty life is the perfect way to summarise it. I don’t always feel great, and I don’t always manage to use the skills I learned at CBT. Sometimes I still feel too deep down a hole to get myself out, or that I can’t quite access the rational part of me that can implement some breathing exercises or some mindfulness meditation. Sometimes I’m really really anxious and nothing can immediately fix that.
But you know what I do now? I let that happen, I do something easy that calms me down like watch a movie or eat some chocolate, I go to bed, and I get up again the next day. And maybe that day I won’t be completely anxious, or I do have it in me to implement some techniques like meditation. Having just moved across the country I’m going through more uncertainty than usual and, because I didn’t magically fix myself and then uproot my life, it’s something that I’m constantly having to adapt with. So I let the bad days be bad, when I feel anxious or lonely or incredibly sad, and then I try again the next day. And I try not to give myself a hard time about that.
And now that I have moved, I’ve currently been attending a regular bereavement night. It’s open for anyone, and it’s a chance to talk, eat cake and try out a range of crafts. I’ve even found that having a few hours every fortnight to colour in and talk to other people who understand has been really helpful. Continuing to find spaces where you can feel safe is important and useful too.
You aren’t failing, and it’s ok to take medication
Up until this point I’ve never taken medication, and I feel ok with that decision because I know what works for me right now. If you need to take medication, that is ok too, because that is what is going to work for you in this current moment. Hey, maybe that might be what I need at some point in the future too, and that would be fine. Would you feel ashamed of taking antibiotics because your body wasn’t able to fight off an infection all on it’s own? No. So there’s no need to feel ashamed of taking medication that will also help with the mental side of things. Mental health is just as much to do with the physical aspects of your body, like chemical imbalances, as any other kind of health situation, so it’s silly to think that we should be ashamed of taking medication for that. It isn’t a sign that you couldn’t handle things on your own, or that you can’t look after yourself. It’s a sign that you know yourself enough to know when things aren’t ok, and that you’re strong enough to get the help you need, and that’s awesome.
And either way, it’s good to remind yourself that you are not failing. I still feel like this sometimes, on bad days, but I have to remind myself that how I feel doesn’t amount to my value as a person. Just because some days are worse than others doesn’t mean that I’m failing, it just means I’m still here and still going through the process. I hope you can remind yourself of that too.
If you’re interested in therapy, check out Mind’s guide for finding a therapist (including low cost options) here