There are 15 steps on my stairs.
15. A number I had never noticed. On most days I run up and down the stairs in leaps and bounds barely pausing in my rush to start my day or get to my bed. But one night those 15 steps were the hardest obstacle I had ever faced. I stood at the top of my stairs walking back and forth into my room terrified to walk down those 15 steps.
Finally I took a deep breath and stepped off the last bottom step. I walked into my mom, who was relaxing watching the TV and knitting, and said the words that scared me more than any of the thoughts that crowded my head on a daily basis. “Mom, I think I need help.”
I was 19 years of age but my problems had started years before. I had always been quite a social individual growing up, played sports, did well in school and was for all intents and purposes a “Normal” person. But somewhere along the way I had lost myself.
I had started to withdraw from my life. Not in a way that was hugely noticeable at first– I stopped playing sports by telling people I was too busy with my leaving cert studies, I’d make plans to meet friends but would bail at the last minute always with an excuse of being delayed, having work to do or being stuck at a family dinner. In school and college my attention just started to slip. I would start projects well in advance and yet be hurrying to finish them an hour before deadline, I would get up in the morning with all intents of hitting the library and attending lectures but instead would find myself aimlessly driving around or just browsing online.
Thought I was different
I would find myself being scared to meet my friends and cancel but then spend the night berating myself for this action. If I did make it out I’d find a reason to go home early or else sit feeling awkward and out of place again berating myself for going out at all. No matter what action I took I was always finding fault with it. I knew my behavior was odd but I didn’t know why. I just thought I was different.
And every night I would promise myself that it was just a bad day that tomorrow would be better; I’d get up and catch up on everything. Tomorrow. And then the next day the same thing would happen, the same feelings would return but I wasn’t connecting the days, I wasn’t aware of the pattern.
Hiding my problem
I think the scariest thing is how smart I thought I was at hiding my problems from people. I would get up in the morning at my normal time and pack my stuff for college but instead of making it to college I would drive to a park or beach and sit there doing nothing until the time came for me to get home to my parents. To keep up the pretense that everything was fine.
Sometimes I would call into friends and spend the day watching TV or sleeping in their houses until college was over. On nights out I would tell them of all the things I had to do the following day so that my early departure wasn’t seen as strange. I had it all planned so that I could fool everyone including myself because I did believe that the next day I would get up and go to college, or do all my assignments or meet up with the friends I had blown off.
Eventually people did start to notice problems – I became known as a bailer to my friends. It was said in jest but was completely true. My family commented on how much time I spent sleeping or sitting alone in my room. They’d ask why I wasn’t going out with my friends like I had previously told them I was or why I was home early. Their concern and questions were only answered with fights and statements to leave me alone. I wanted to be left alone.
Just tired and unhappy?
I was aware of mental health illnesses, of depression and anxiety disorders but I didn’t connect them with what I was experiencing. I was just tired and unhappy. None of the descriptions or stories I had heard of other people living with mental health problems seemed to fit me. That is probably one of the biggest lessons I learned that mental illness is an individuals suffering.
If you know one person with a mental health issue you know only ONE person. Each persons experience is different and tailored only to them.
The hardest thing
Walking in to talk to my mom is still to this day the hardest thing I have ever done. How do you explain to someone that you think something is wrong with you but that you don’t know what it is and worse how can you tell someone who loves you that you don’t love yourself and that the life they have provided you with, supported you in and watched you build isn’t enough to make you happy.
I was terrified of hurting the people I love by telling them how much hurt I was experiencing.
I don’t recall a lot of that conversation with my mom. I remember crying because I couldn’t find the words and then crying when I saw how sad she was for me. I remember her telling me her heart was breaking for me, that she had noticed something was different, that her once lively daughter had seemed to disappear. I hated hearing how much pain I was causing her in admitting my problems. I had never wanted to hurt her.
Visiting my GP
The next day she took me to my G.P. and sat with me while I again attempted to find the words to explain what was happening to me. He was wonderfully kind and listened, as I played down the problems I was experiencing, still refusing to admit that things were as bad as they were for me.
I was referred onto a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with depression and started me on a course of anti-depressants and sessions with her. I only attended twice.
The diagnosis shocked me.
Don’t label me
While I was ready at that time to admit something was wrong, I wasn’t ready to have it labeled so I did what a lot of people do I ignored it. I refused to attend again and ignored my parents’ advice to keep going. I wasn’t ready at that time. Truth is that while I wanted to get better I was scared to face into the reasons I was feeling this way so I ignored it.
Time passed and I resigned myself that this was to be my life. I went travelling, experienced new things, met new people and became world class in projecting an image of a happy well adjusted young adult who had just had a slip. How could I be depressed when I was doing so many things? No one would believe me or understand, I thought. To me a depressed person took to their beds and didn’t get back up. This was the biggest lie I told myself, that there is only one way to experience depression.
Truth was I was depressed and getting worse. I felt very little and too much all at the same time.
I had no interest in my life and just went with the flow of the day to day, keeping up appearances but inside I was destroying myself. My mood swings were out of control, I’d be happy and laughing and then crying for no reason unable to stop or talk to anyone. I knew my friendships and relationships were suffering but I didn’t care. I was angry with everyone for forcing me to act this way. I saw it as everyone else’s failure to recognize my problems. I badly wanted someone to take control of it all for me but at the same time wouldn’t allow anyone to get close enough.
And then something changed. It wasn’t some major event but I started to hate how much of life I seemed to be missing out on. While my family and friends grew up, got jobs, relationships, houses I was still in the same place and I realized I wanted these things for myself. I didn’t want to just accept my life anymore I wanted to direct it. For the second time I went back to my parents and asked them for help but this time it was different I was ready to accept the responsibility of helping myself.
I went back to the G.P. got prescribed a course of anti-depressants and booked in to counseling sessions.
One slight difference this time was my GP made me promise to go for a walk.
It seems odd but he told me that while he had no issue prescribing me pills he wanted me to start going for walks as well. To get out of my house for 30minutes each day and just walk.
I did it. With the help of my mom each evening we would put on our runners and go for a walk. It was on these walks that I started to open up. I would tell her how I was feeling that day. Talk to her about what I wanted for myself and she would just listen. She didn’t try to advise me or tell me how to do these things she would just listen and let me get it all out.
As a result I started slowly being able to talk to a couple of my friends about what had been happening. I was no longer ashamed or scared to admit that I had a problem and my friends did exactly as my mom had done. They just listened. They began to understand my behavior and accepted it. They let me have my bad days but the difference was I was no longer lying to them or avoiding them.
For the first time I was actively engaged in my life. I wasn’t hiding my problems anymore.
No more hiding
I now live with my mental health problems. I am no longer trying to hide from them or even trying to beat them. I accept them. I don’t beat myself up on days I feel low, I tell someone I am having a bad day and with his or her help I give a voice to those feelings.
The medication helped me to get back on my feet, the counseling helped give me the language to explain my feelings and my family and friends gave me the support I needed. But most importantly I helped myself. I drew a line in the sand of all the past mistakes I had made and let the blame I had heaped on myself go.
It is a fact that 75% of mental health problems start before the age of 24. There is no “one fits all” design for mental health problems and while talking does help, learning how to talk about mental health is hard. Start small and build yourself up slowly. There is always someone willing to listen.