Yesterday I had a mental health crisis. Don’t be tempted to pathologise me: I don’t have a condition you can label and cure, I’m just a woman who loves life and embraces all the feels. And sometimes that collapses into something briefly dangerous – when I’m incubating a virus or particularly overwhelmed and triggered by the usual stuff (1).
These episodes are brutal and short for me – a pure hit of hopeless despair. They come out of nowhere, always, and they are rare but intense. As the years pass – thanks largely to my involvement in the CLMH Research and the empirically-based good sense of Brene Brown – I’ve learned to be more open about this aspect of my life. Nobody really wants other people to know that every six months or so they rage and rave about the house, sobbing and thwarted, feeling utterly, literally worthless; I’d rather show you my knicker drawer. But as I began to write about my mental health, I noticed that other people were starting to listen. ‘Mental health’ is something we all have, for good or ill.
At the lowest point, nothing will help and I can reach out (2) to no-one but at the same time I want everyone to know what I’m going through. World, how can you do this to me?! (Yes I know that sounds ridiculously self-pitying and afterwards, of course, I’m ashamed). My thinking brain doesn’t switch off during this time so I know I’m making an utter fool of myself in front of my fiercest critic (3) but I’m all affect, at the mercy of chemicals and my emotions. At least, with the wisdom of middle age, I know it will pass. As a youngster, I thought I was mad. I thought each time that it would last forever.
Today, I had a lifeline. Because of the mental health journey we have been on together, documented last year in his extraordinarily beautiful Coping in Hagen blog, my son and I share a rescue package.
“Help,” I texted him. “I’m having a mental health crisis.”
Quick as a flash. “Do you want me to call?”
I’m shaking and crying, wouldn’t know what to say. “No.”
“Can you go for a swim?”
The pool I go to is ten miles away. Driving would be reckless. “No.”
“Then get your trainers on. Go run round the lake. Take your phone.”
It takes me twenty minutes to assemble my gear, but I’m calmer. I haven’t run out of doors since June but it helps that it’s a beautiful Autumn day and that The Chemical Brothers are already cued up on my phone so I don’t have to rummage. Self-destructive me channels all my energy into how hard it it, into every uneven surface and bramble scratch and aggressive swan. Having run myself out by the far point of the lake, I turn and walk home.
As the endorphins drop, I’m tearful, but the urge to destruct has left me; I’m no longer in danger of medicating or self-harm. I spend the afternoon sitting mindlessly on the sofa, making myself drink water and using all the energy I can muster to push away guilt. This is a work day after all.
Finally, it’s time to write.
Today is World Mental Health Day 2018 and the start of a two-day global summit on mental health culture change in London (4). Neither I nor any of my colleagues from the CLMH Research have been invited, but I’ll be curious to know if the summit addresses the question of where the problem lies – with the individual or with a society dominated by compliance and the inequality of multiple hierarchies. I’m not insane, but from the first moment I was described as a ‘highly-strung’ girl, that label has dogged me. I’m a strong and powerful person, no victim, but it’s certainly true that I don’t always fit in and that’s what precipitates each episode. My passions have made me an outsider (5) and that’s not always a comfortable place to be.
That there’s an epidemic of mental ill-health in the UK, across all age groups from the lonely senior to the anxious child, is generally agreed. I’m not a great fan of Marx (these days), but his concept of alienation as a precursor to this – the schizophrenia of capitalism manifest in consumerism and inequality – seems as logical a way as any to interpret our public health nightmare, as Rod Tweedy’s article explores. “You can be speedy, inter-connected and utterly estranged from one another,” cautions the posthumanist Rosi Braidotti, about modern life.
One of the things I learned from both Brene Brown (6) and the CLMH Research was that mental health is fragile, precious, creative and vital. We all have ‘mental health’ and the most creative amongst us often have mental ill-health too. Our emotions define us as humans and we need some space to be ourselves, even within working environments. No corporatised, sticking plaster ‘Wellbeing Strategy’ will save the health of a worker marked out for a precarious life by insecure and oppressive conditions, but raising a discourse around mental health in workplaces, families and organisations, rather like the Self-Esteem Team do in schools, is a step towards being more flexible around who people actually are. I have the privilege of a loving family, a comfortable home and a supportive network, unlike those for whom mental ill-health intersections with other oppressions. Today I am fragile, but I’m sober and I’m whole.
*From ‘Ugly Little Dreams‘ by Everything but the Girl, a song about the possibly lobotomised and certainly abused Frances Farmer. The link is to a YouTube video.
(1) For an adopted person, go figure.
(2) My son and I have a joke that you can’t reach out unless you’re The Four Tops and sometimes this cuts through. (Obviously reaching out is the right thing to do, if you’re able.)
(4) Attended by the Duke of Cambridge. I don’t usually reference Royals, but it’s pleasing to note that here’s another young man whose mum didn’t always know how to behave.
(5) I can remember Aunt Reed, in the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, describing Jane as “passionate”. I could never work out why this was an insult.
(6) Check out ‘Daring Greatly’ or her new book, ‘Dare to Lead’. Brene’s website is www.brenebrown.com