Check on your strong friend: Some thoughts on mental health

In the wake of the deaths of Scott Hutchison, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain, people are talking much more openly about mental health. I came across a no-doubt-hackneyed epigram on Twitter this week, which whispered ‘check on your strong friend.’ This struck a chord. I am loud and outgoing, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I’m a serial enthusiast, outwardly confident, mostly friendly, mostly fun, and I also struggle with my mental health.

I wasn’t sure how to start this post. I was trying to think of pithy ways in, but my head’s been a bit fuzzy lately. That’s how depression feels to me. A kind of omnipresent shadow, which pulls and tugs at me, distracting me. I’ve been experiencing bouts of mild depression since I was a teenager, often coupled with mild anxiety. I don’t ‘battle with depression,’ or anything quite so profound. It feels more as though I am stuck behind it in a queue, and every now and then it turns around to tell me I’m shit.

A lot of people have recently shared statements of support for strangers on social media – ‘DM me if you need to chat.’ Chatting is essential, and I know that talking through how I feel is one of the quickest ways to relief for me. However, I think that struggles with mental health are often equated with intensity or extremity. It is the cataclysmic events which make it to the news – and it’s the extreme representations of mental illness which find their way into films and T.V. When I first started thinking that I might be depressed, Cat would reassure me, saying: ‘don’t worry, I don’t think you’re depressed. You never stay in bed all day.’ Whilst she was clearly trying to help, this was based on a misconception (one which I used to share) of depression as interminably extreme.

Most often, it’s mundane stuff that alerts me to an approaching cloud. Standing for 20 minutes trying to choose a sandwich in Boots (yes, sometimes I dabble in the dark and dirty world of the meal deal), or suddenly feeling frustrated and flustered by things which disrupt my routine. When I am in a funk, simple tasks feel overwhelmingly complex.

Sometimes, I become an exaggerated version of myself (If you can imagine that!) – disingenuous and irritating. Other times, I feel unable to make conversation, and feel my energy depleted by the effort. Afterwards, I overthink my interactions, and wonder why people would want to be around me. I often ask Cat whether I talked too much, or not enough. I experience both happiness and sadness with an intensity that is often unsustainable. I can feel too much, but also not enough at the same time. I had moments when The Boy was really wee where I felt a horrid indifference to him, and it really hurt! That has thankfully passed now, but I still think about it.

When I was feeling low recently, Cat recommended a post by Cup of Jo (here), which was excellent. Jo describes her own depression, and reminds us that it is not weakness. It is an illness – a chemical imbalance. It’s like having a cold. She describes a recent bout, explaining:

‘I felt exhausted all day; I had a hard time making decisions; I felt boring around friends.’ 

‘YES,’ I thought. This is often what I feel. Sarah Silverman – quoted in Jo’s post – describes depression as feeling homesick when you are at home, and that resonates so strongly with my recurring sense of loneliness and mild social dislocation.

A lot of the time, I can cope – but occasionally I notice myself slipping into a negative spiral. My mind dredges up otherwise long-settled minor irritants, and amplifies them – turning me into an uncharitable grumpy old toad. Things are always worse at night. The twin enablers, silence and darkness, provide the perfect conditions for my overactive mind to run free – reminding me of everything I’ve ever done wrong, or catastrophising and filling me with chest-bursting anxiety. Unfortunately, sleep doesn’t come easy since The Boy turned up, and like any illness, depression seems to be worse if you can’t recharge fully.

I suppose the reason I’m writing this post, is that I have noticed recently that there is often something of a disconnect between attitudes to suicidal depression (support and compassion) and nagging day-to-day mental health struggles (irritation and indifference).

Jo finishes her post by reminding anyone who is struggling to reach out for help. This is sound and compassionate advice. I want to make a further case for being conscious of the less extreme forms of mental ill-health, and looking after friends, family, and colleagues who simply seem under the weather. Struggling doesn’t have to be extreme to need to talk. The day-to-day struggles are the ones which build up pressure if not released.

This has been a rather self-indulgent ramble, but it has been quite cathartic. Thanks for listening.

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