“Work in a paint factory, expect to get splashed.”
This is what my husband said to me once while calming me down, following what I believed to be a panic attack over an unvacuumed house, unexpected guests and an expectation to play hostess after a long day at work.
Let me give you some context.
As a confident, collected and somewhat quirky adolescent, I was convinced that mental health conditions weren’t a thing. Ignorant, I know, but I had always thought (and sometimes still think) that it is always going to be a ‘mind over matter’ situation. I used to say it to broken-hearted friends who were convinced they were depressed; hell, I’d even been obnoxious enough to tell my father that his mother’s passing from old age is a natural process and he’ll be fine. Eventually, all of these people were fine as predicted, but it doesn’t take away from the simple fact that such situations affect us all very differently and that mental health disorders do exist, with some of us not always feeling ‘fine’ after some time.
Fast forward a few years; I learned about mental health in detail at university, and went on to become a specialist senior pharmacist in the mental health sector (both inpatient and community). It was an important transition for me, the untouchable teen, to grow up and become the beneficent clinician, to eventually learn that I too can succumb to elements of mental health disorders. Not a single person is invincible to the ailments of the mind.
Do I think that I have elements of mental health disorders because, as my husband had metaphorically implied, I work in a hospital full of people being managed for mental health conditions and so I’ve become more attuned and empathetic to the different conditions one can suffer? Or is it because, as I’ve become older, I have also become more sensitive to criticisms and starkly aware of what I perceive as negative energy? Who can truly say? And what does this have to do with guests and hoovering?
I have not been formally diagnosed for any specific condition, but from my modest psychiatric knowledge, I can attest to having symptoms of OCD and generalised anxiety; when I feel overwhelmed or upset, I clean and tidy and overthink. The reason I have not walked into a GP surgery to be seen to is because these elements do not dictate my day-to-day life, nor have I had any more panic attacks since. Mind you, I am and probably always will be house proud, but a few crumbs on the floor or a visitor coming over when I’ve not cooked or tidied up no longer has me hyperventilating or close to tears.
This does not mean that I am now unfazed by things that usually bother me; it just means that I am able to cope better. It took a long conversation with my husband that day and a root cause analysis of the situation and my emotions to determine WHY these trivial things were bothering me to the point of panic. I believe that it was a cocktail of things that tipped me over the edge that day, which felt smaller once spoken about. There is not always a rational answer to someone’s emotional state of mind, and that’s okay. Although it does help to pick apart the reasons we feel or think in certain ways, it is not always the be-all and end-all to overcoming them.
I have learned over time how to manage my personal OCDs and anxieties around worrying about how people will think of me if my house is not pristine, or my food isn’t gourmet, or if my life is average and not Instagram worthy. I did this by being grateful for the things that I do have (i.e. shelter, food, family) and being mindful of the fact that not everything is in our control; including the opinions of the outside world. I know this is easier said than done and a little cheesy, but talking through things with my husband and friends, or regularly journaling helps me get out of my mind and allows me to minimise what I think of as the biggest problem I have had to date. Now, I am not marketing my methods as a magical one stop shop to beating mental health. We are all unique as would be our methods of coping; I have used my personal coping mechanisms to survive the tragic loss of a sibling, the pressures of education and work, and the typical stresses of running a house and rearing a child.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is an excellent way to help individuals strategise how to take the thoughts they have that are causing problems and re-evaluate them in light of reality. It is a tool used by psychologists and other healthcare professionals to help people create better coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills. I try and use CBT when I feel down and out. Of course, there are times a person may need more than a talking therapy to support them, depending on the type and severity of their mental health condition; this is where psychiatric/social/medicinal support play a pivotal role. The medicine part is a lot of what my job is about. However, to get to the management plan, an individual must first take the step to seek support. That could be through self-help or a meaningful discussion with a loved one, through the widely available mental health charities doing excellent work, or through a conversation with your GP. There is so much support available to manage mental health, the aforementioned is just the tip of the iceberg.
The world is becoming more aware of mental health disorders; I’d even like to say that it is not such a taboo any longer. Yet some of us are still afraid to admit to having a fog that we cannot lift and is dulling our minds, or living with anxieties that cripple us. We live in a world where we are competing to be the best or to finish first, without giving thought to what this is doing to our physical, mental and emotional states. Social media does not always help alleviate these disorders in the face of glamour, fame, and all things sparkly; however, these same platforms can be used to create an awareness and an acceptance of mental health. I admit to the hypocrisy as I have also chosen to show my pre-Covid social life on Instagram rather than sharing real life issues, and I will most likely continue to share my holiday Snapchat stories post-Covid, which is okay. If we do not embrace some level of vulnerability for the fear of being judged then we will cease to grow. I hope by writing this piece I am taking a step towards changing how I use my small platform to hopefully helping at least one individual seek support with their demons and hells.