MENTAL HEALTH, MOTHERHOOD, MIRANDA AND ME
#Awareness Day sharing posts are a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, they can hi-jack causes and undermine the spirit behind the cause. Brands can get it hideously wrong when trying to piggyback off them and real victims can be overlooked.
On the other hand they are absolutely vital. Painful, perhaps…but vital. We are quick to condemn those who miss their pap smears and immunisations. Talking about these essential health care needs is comparatively easy — just get a smear, you’ll be in and out in under 15 mins, they say. When you have a baby, health visitors and doctors will scramble to make sure your kids are immunised. But mental health? Centuries of stigmatisation, mistreatment, ostracisation and shame against those with mental health conditions have created an absolute monster.
No one wants to admit they struggle, that they continue to suffer — and no matter how often you cut the head off, it keeps growing back. Sometimes, this isn’t a ‘cause’ you can beat. It isn’t always something that will go away. Sometimes, there is no end point. The best we can do is recognise that it exists and change the way we and others feel about it and react to it. We can learn to live with the monster — or the ‘black dog’ if you will.
It’s painful for me to write candidly about something that has since my teens affected me so deeply. I am more likely to joke about it, allude to it with a quip or a witty observation. Because humour is the best form of currency I can find to discuss what I deem to be such a weakness or flaw in my character. Many will recognise this feeling. The feeling of guilt when it inevitably affects your ability to manage home and work life. The feeling that you have no right to feel sad or to feel despair when many deem your life to be successful or carefree.
This year, for World Mental Health Day on October 10th the World Federation for Mental Health have announced that the area of focus for their campaign is suicide prevention. Overall, men account for three quarters of deaths by suicide in the UK. In 2018, this stood at 6,507.
I’ve known nine men in my life who have taken their own life and this is the first time I have written about it publicly.
Some of these men were my friends and colleagues. One was my primary school teacher. During his funeral, his pupils spilled out into the churchyard and out onto the street because there was no more room for them inside the church or outside on the cobblestones. We were ten years old and had worshipped him for teaching us loud, obnoxious songs and dancing around the assembly with his guitar.
One of these gents — a Welsh speaker who had volunteered alongside my husband, had bought my then unborn daughter a CD of Welsh songs the week before his death. I’d heard about someone taking their own life during the morning commute on the radio and by lunchtime I’d found out it was him. My daughter was born exactly a week later.
In the shadows of my childhood memories, there was a man with curly hair who told jokes in the pubs of my village, a circle of people around him. This was my father’s best friend who took his life at Christmas time. “I was too late…I was too late…” my Father would always say. I can’t remember all the names of his children or their ages, but always thought about them each Christmas.
Then there was a striking friend from school, a free spirit who used to do impressions of Jim Carrey when we were in our teens. When I picture him, I think of his thick black hair, the gel he used to coat it with (it was the 90s!). The fact that I felt discomfort and embarrassment when he was unapologetic about being extremely unique — some might say a bit odd. I’m ashamed of this now.
A close colleague I’d line managed before moving on to another role had been married only a few months and had invited me to his wedding reception, which I couldn’t attend. His family and colleagues spent days searching for him before finding out the news. I hadn’t seen him in some time before his death and the news still knocked me for six. I searched back through my email archives after finding out the news, searching for something — anything — that would explain or make sense. Nothing did.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling of losing someone you have known to suicide. But sometimes the pain of living is just too great. The shock waves extend much further than you can imagine. On World Mental Health Day, I think about all the men who are in too much pain, are in too deep past the point of no return, who feel they can’t hang on any longer. I think about my brothers and the fact that they seem to find communication so much more difficult, how much more stoic they are than me — the oddball youngest sibling. We have all suffered in our own way over the years. Without discussing it among ourselves.
On World Mental Health Day I think about ex colleagues in Japan who talked about the ‘honour’ of having a heart attack from work stress. I think about former colleagues who disappeared from work after being pushed to the very brim. I think back to being a new mother and how this was the worst time of my life, despite the fact that it could have been the happiest.
I think about the time I called my baby an asshole to the other mothers in my breastfeeding group and the moments of uncomfortable silence that followed. I think about the concerned calls I received from a midwife and a community psychiatric nurse after flunking my EPDS (Edinburgh postnatal depression scale questionnaire), which I bumped because I was apparently too busy doing press for a UK Cabinet Member.
I never did call them back. I swallowed my misery and before I knew it, my daughter turned ten and we are now talking about high school next year.
I think about those missed years as happening to someone else and when I talk about them, it’s as if those things happened to an actor in a comedy drama. Because It’s easier to think of myself as a bumbling ‘Miranda’ — a windswept maternal klutz than a barely functioning parent battling to tread water.
After losing my former colleague, I started taking my own mental illness and my working arrangements more seriously. I reduced my hours, I tried to stop comparing myself against the successes of others. I stopped looking at life like it was a race.
But still, last year I was pulled into an autumnal abyss where I couldn’t sense which way was up or down. I withdrew. I retreated. I lost clients before breaking down at the Doctors. I went to therapy (individual and group), I took medication…then weaned myself off it. I am still experiencing the fall out and shock waves a year later.
This week I realised I was in too much of a funk to go dancing. My concentration levels have dipped and my skin, eyes and ears hurt. I’m now on high alert, worried that I’m sinking into the fog again. When you’ve had mental health wobbles in the past, you over analyse every decision you make to the point of obsession.
Since leaving my previous full time role and going freelance, I’ve been massively liberated in terms of taking control of my life and feel really lucky that I’ve managed to make a living for the last two years. But at the same time, it’s highlighted the introverted side of me. I get more of a physiological / panicked reaction to noises than ever before. Again, I joke about this.
I ask a psychiatric nurse about the possibility of me having ADHD, she refuses to assess me because I went to University and wasn’t pacing back and forth in the consultation room waving my arms and wasn’t a ‘naughty child’. But hearing loud noises, children crying makes my palms sweat and my heart beat really fast. I feel like the floor is spinning and my ears are ringing. On a flight to Edinburgh when the plane was grounded due to a bird strike, I begged an air steward to let me stand by the open door at the front of the plane after I confessed I couldn’t breathe.
I asked her: “Excuse me…do you mind if I stand on the other side of the door…”
The plane door was open and through the front exit of the plane, you could see the rain lashing down on the Cardiff runway, bouncing off the steps.
I felt myself flushing red in front of a plane full of people and tried to ask her as discreetly as I could. I was trying to take in as much air as I could, deep breathing but feeling like no matter how much air I took in, I couldn’t catch my breath.
She smiled and reassured me, got me a cup of water and joked with me about running outside in the rain to cool off.
I turned my back to the plane full of people as I choked down the water, the air steward chatting to me about this and that as my entire left side was drenched by the falling rain outside the plane as I tried to steady my breathing.
It took just a few minutes and this clearly wasn’t her first rodeo. She’d probably seen dozens before me on the verge of a panic attack. But her kindness and humour had made the difference between going back inside the terminal and breathing into a brown paper bag and staying on the flight to Edinburgh.
Sometimes owning your discomfort and emotional turmoil can come up trumps.
I don’t know what all of this means. I don’t have any answers. But I’m owning it anyway. This year in particular, I want to give virtual fist-bumps to men and new mothers. I see you. It might feel like the darkest and most pointless period of your life. It might feel like all hope is lost, but know that you matter. It matters. It ALL matters. If you can make it just to the next sunrise, then you can go on.
In Welsh we have a saying: ‘Daw eto haul ar fryn’, which means ‘again comes sunshine on the hill’.
It always will, you’ll see.