Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. I hadn’t planned to write a post for it (hence being a day late), but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like it was time to share a bit more with you all. A brief disclaimer: I’m nervous and writing this in a hurry, so if I don’t word something in the best way, I apologize. I’m also not a medical professional, and everything I’m saying here is just my own opinions and experiences!
When I started blogging again, I mentioned that I’ve had a hard time in the past couple of years. What I didn’t say is that this is largely because I’ve been suffering from a combination of post-partum depression and anxiety (from here on to be referred to as PPD).
It’s not something I talk about a lot here – if for no other reason than I’m still dealing with it on a daily basis, and it’s still hard to put into words and talk about. But I do think that mental health is an important thing to discuss, and that starts with people sharing their own experiences so others feel less alone. I will probably share more in the future, but for now, here’s a little bit about what it’s been like.
I thought I understood depression based on all the reading I’d done, the people I’d talked to, the friends I have seen struggle with it. But I had no idea. I thought it was a purely mental thing – a mood disorder that made it hard to function because of feeling an extremity of (negative) emotion. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but for me it went well beyond that. It was a physical illness as much as a mental one. It became hard to function. I was exhausted – to the point of feeling like if I had to keep my eyes open for another minute I was going to break. It felt like everything had been reduced to a dark tunnel, and I couldn’t see beyond it. My entire life was painful tiredness and forcing myself to do the basic things required to stay alive (and keep another tiny, vulnerable, precious person alive too).
What made it hardest was that it was invisible.
I’m no stranger to invisible illness. I’ve got diabetes and had back surgery in my late 20s because of ruptured discs in my back. No one could see either of these physical issues, and it is at times very hard to deal with assumptions made because of that. When I was in pain constantly and needed to sit down on the bus, I would be glared at because I looked young and healthy. When I am having trouble with my blood sugars and feel ill and irritable, I have to try not to take it out on the people around me because they have no idea what is going on.
But this time it felt even harder to get people to understand what I was going through. I would try to explain, but because it is such a hard thing to describe and (as I discovered) you really can’t imagine how it feels if you’ve never been there, it has been really challenging. I have often wondered what my mental illness would look like if it had manifested physically. What kind of physical injury would equal the pain and exhaustion I was experiencing? Because at the worst point I felt like I was bleeding out in a ditch and everyone was walking past on the street without even seeing me lying there, needing help. Or that they saw me, but didn’t understand how deeply I was wounded or how desperate I was. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but honestly I feel like it’s pretty apt. I’ve had surgery twice in my life, and neither was as difficult to recover from as living with PPD. Which means depression and anxiety were more painful and debilitating than being cut open, operated on (once while awake) and sewn back together. Think about that for a minute. It’s an important point.
So because of all of this, mental health is a big deal to me. Particularly as it impacts new mothers (and their partners). It’s something so many people have to deal with, and yet many either don’t know what’s happening to them, don’t feel that they can discuss it with loved ones, or simply don’t have anyone to turn to. There are so many obstacles that prevent those with mental health issues from getting the help and understanding they need. So as small as it seems, I think it’s important to share our experiences.
I don’t have any answers, though I wish more than anything that I did. I’m still trying to figure it out. All I can say is that it is possible to learn how to deal with mental illness, and there is help available. What that help looks like will be different depending on what is going on. Unlike many physical ailments, there isn’t one prescription or treatment that works for everyone. It’s a lot of trial and error, and a lot of making progress and backsliding. I have also found that getting the help I needed wasn’t always a simple process. The medical system can be labyrinthine and frustrating to navigate. And when you’re suffering from a debilitating mental health situation, the energy it takes can make it feel impossible. And even when that is in place, it’s a slow process to regain equilibrium – and it’s not a linear process. The only advice I can give is to persist, even if it takes time and is frustrating, and to be patient with yourself as you begin to work on getting better. You can do it, but it’s going to take time.
Since I do think shared experience is important, this is where the books come in. I haven’t read many therapy books, so I’m not going to recommend any, though there are some good ones out there. I’ll leave that to the professionals. But there are a couple of books I’ve read that have helped me feel less alone, or that have just given me some hope.
Jenny Lawson has two more books out that are also wonderful and that I highly recommend.
There are plenty of other books about mental illness that I’ve read and that I have on my TBR, but these were the ones that specifically helped me to deal with my situation, that give an accurate account of what it is like to deal with mental health problems, and that do so with humour and insight. I plan to do another post in the future that lists some more serious books on mental health, and some memoirs. Books I’ve read and ones I have on my TBR. But for this post, I wanted to share books that were less informational, and more comforting and easy to read.
A few more things I wanted to say before signing off. A lot of this post has discussed how it feels to be dealing with a mental illness that has been diagnosed and is being treated. But looking back, I probably had some issues for a long time that weren’t addressed. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and no one is mentally healthy in an absolute sense all the time. Which is fine. I think that the tricky part is to figure out when you have crossed from having normal emotional fluctuations to needing help. I also don’t think that point is the same for everyone. I think that if you are wondering if you need help, you probably could use some. It may just be talking to a friend, or it may be talking to a doctor. It doesn’t have to mean medication or hospitalization. And you don’t need to be at a point where you require drastic measures to need help, either. You just need to feel like you aren’t okay, and that you’re not succeeding at finding ways to cope on your own. If that sounds like you, please know that you don’t have to soldier on quietly on your own, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that you need some support.
I also want to talk to those of you who would be considered mentally healthy. I know I mentioned earlier in this post that before I had PPD I didn’t have a clue what it was really like. Which is true. But I don’t think that’s any reason or excuse not to try to understand. I think that, to the contrary, it is even more important to do so. The more you hear from or read accounts by people who have dealt with mental health issues, the better you will be able to help the people in your life who may need it, or to recognize signs that someone you love might not be okay. Because sometimes it takes another person telling us we’re not okay for us to give ourselves permission to ask for help.
Mental health issues are so common that I’m sure you have had and will have people in your life who need your support and who perhaps want to talk to you about how they’re feeling. Being ready to have those conversations is important. It’s also important not to take your mental health for granted. Take care of yourself – physically, emotionally and mentally. Give yourself breaks, get enough sleep, find things you can do that comfort you and make you feel calm. Whether it’s having a nice long bath or working on a hobby or spending time with friends. Whatever works for you, make time for it.
That’s the end of this rather long and rambling post, so if you’re still here congratulations! I really hope that something in this post spoke to you, and that you took some time yesterday (and will try to do so every day) to take care of yourself and those around you. We all need it.
I’d welcome any discussion you may wish to have in the comments – suggestions of books on the topic you enjoyed or found helpful, your own experiences you might want to share, words of encouragement for anyone here who could use them, questions, or anything else that you feel moved to share. Thank you all for taking the time to listen, and I hope that you have people in your life who will do the same for you.
Here’s to our mental health!
For more information on World Mental Health Day, visit the World Federation for Mental Health here.
If you are looking for information on PPD or if you’re in the Vancouver area and need support, check out the Pacific Post Partum Support Society here.
If you are in urgent need of help, please look up mental health services available in your area or talk to your doctor. If you’re in Canada, a good place to start is the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention – they have a list of crisis lines available for different provinces here.