I only really came to terms, socially, with my depression, anxiety and self-confidence problems pretty recently. I’m 27 now, and was first diagnosed with depression around 5 years ago, give or take. And the initial problem for me was opening up.
Sometimes coming from a working class background can making opening up quite tough. My mother and father are excellent, but I do feel like in a household that has a focus on the basic amenities in life, mental health may, unfortunately, get swept under the carpet. “How can you be unhappy? You have a plate of dinner and a roof over your head, what’s there to be unhappy about?” (Just to clarify, this isn’t a proper quote from my actual life, merely one I’ve made up in my brain to reflect an idea or approach. My mental health didn’t become a problem until I had my own roof and made my own dinner. The latter not being a contributing factor to my depression, although I am a terrible cook and can’t deny that my mashed potato could make any human sad.)
Telling your family, like it is with telling anyone about mental illness, is a tough journey. It’s a check-point in life disguised as a hurdle. That is, however, what it is – a hurdle. A big, massive hurdle that grows larger the closer you get to it, like that scene from Father Ted where he is explaining to Dougal that the cows in the distance are far away, not small. Telling people is a hurdle. And it gets bigger the closer you get. Just like Dougal’s cows.
Telling people about mental health is a triathlon and a bloody marathon. It’s the Olympic Games of vulnerability, and all you can do is sit there and allow people to react however they want, however they see fit. This is sometimes why talking about mental health is so hard. We don’t have any control when it comes to other people’s reactions, and it’s hard to have control over the impact of those reactions on us. The idea that mental health is somehow less important than physical health is a very real one, and some people react in this way. That can hurt. Yet, just how your tough times may surprise some people, their reaction may surprise you too.
I remember the day I told my work friends about my mental health issues. I did it through the sharing of an article I wrote on this very website via email. I explained why I was emailing from home after work, the reason being because I was slightly scared, but at the same time I was still Luke and I had not changed. I noted that my problems with depression were in the past and I had been ‘fighting positive’ for over a year at the time. But the time was now right to speak up.
The following Monday at work, I experienced one of those beautifully surreal and understated moments that life sometimes serves up when you don’t feel at your best. Beautiful, understated and memorable.
I was sat at work, with probably 10 other people eating lunch. We’re all friends at my work, but one friend who was next to me said, “I read that article you sent around, it was sound. Didn’t know any of that about you. Thanks for sharing and nice one. We don’t have any ice cream in, do we?” And that was it. The fact that mental health stood next to ice cream at that moment when I wanted to be treated ‘normally’ was heaven-sent and a boost of confidence to me. No weird questions, no awkward silences. This, I thought, is how it should be. Mental health should be as approachable and spoken of as much as ice cream and Father Ted. This was normality.
Now an admission: I hate when people tell me something that I can’t see happening. “Things will be OK, trust me” often receives a harsh rebuke: “No it will not, what a stupid thing to say. Everything is going to be crap and you need to stop telling me otherwise!” Everyone I know will probably have heard this sentence at some point, because I am famously awful at dealing with things in the moment. Be that a moment lasting 5 minutes or 5 months. My face reflects it and my words inflate any situation. So I know I’m being a hypocrite here – I’m sorry – but I’m going to be the person that I hate, because here’s what I want to say to you:
Life will always surprise you. People will always surprise you.
I hid behind social media with my wider circle of friends too, letting them find out a similar way, but through a Facebook post, not an email. I did things my way. I told people in a way with which I felt comfortable. I wasn’t confident doing it, and my mind was telling me I was being too dramatic telling the world. My stupid mind. Yet what I found helped me further. Compassion in normality.
Lots of people came up to me that week and told me how they had enjoyed my piece and left it at that. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. It was just that right then, we all had different things going on. I had different things going on.
If there is a lesson that I hope is taken from this absolute tangent of a think-piece is that depression, poor mental health, or however it is that you are suffering, may seem all-encompassing right now, but if a time comes when you want to tell someone – and I hope to hell it does – there’s a massive chance that they won’t react how you expect. There’s a massive chance they will appreciate your honesty, respect you and continue to treat you how you want and how you need. Have faith in people to have compassion because one thing I’ve learned is that compassion is a trait that is more common than you think.
And the second thing I’ve learned? You might even get some ice cream. I know I did.