I posted about this on my FB profile, but I’ve decided it’s worth sharing with a wider audience and in greater detail. There’s a meme going around where people share their first ever profile pictures.
On the surface it’s a happy picture. This was taken around May 2007. I was at the Lorien Trust larp event in Locko Park, playing an elf.
This photo comes from one of the most unhappy and unhealthy times of my life, when I was deep in the clutches of undiagnosed depression, suffering major stress and anxiety and heading towards a mental breakdown within weeks of this photograph being taken.
See that top? That’s a size 8. My healthy frame is naturally a size 14. I shouldn’t have been able to fasten that around me. My arms and torso were so thin it makes me shudder. You can see my collar bones jutting out. This was the one and only time in my life that I have been skinny, and it was a time of abject misery. Go read this before anyone DARES to try and compliment me on looking ‘thin’ or expressing envy for my shape in this picture. It was an unwanted side effect with horrific costs.
At this time I had completely lost myself. I was trying my hardest to enjoy hobbies because they would bring me closer to the people I was dependent upon for my sense of self esteem. Given that these people turned out to be about as much use as chocolate teapots in terms of supporting me through these problems, this was a spectacularly bad idea. Because by the time I came out of all this, I had spent so much time and effort investing in these people and was so dependent upon their approval for any shred of self worth, that I had driven away many of my other friends and dropped all of the interests and hobbies that made me who I was.
I am a quietly creative person. I am not ostentatious, or loud, or fond of large crowds of exuberant people. So I still struggle at times to understand how on earth I dropped my interests in writing, stitching, knitting, reading, research, blogging and my quiet and simple investigations into the solitary practice of Wicca in favour of dressing up in a corset and waving a sword around in the middle of a field of thousands of people who were dressed up like a Middle Earth army.
(Before anyone jumps on me for slating LARP – I LOVE LARP. Or rather I love the idea of it. The creative freedom, the expression, the creativity, the social aspects, the sense of community. But I wish I could watch it all like a TV show, because it’s so not me. I would wander around that field pretending to have fun and feeling like a sham up against all of the genuine enthusiasm and interest which was so apparent in everyone else there. LARP is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination – but it was so not me at all.)
I know deep down why I gave up those other interests. It was because I was put down, ridiculed and quietly dismissed in my efforts to share them that I stopped doing them. When you are faced with a blanket response of disinterest and cruel humour, you begin to doubt yourself and your abilities. When it continues and you gain absolutely no respite or external counter view, you believe it. And if, when you’re like me, you suffer from mental health problems which reinforce your negative views of yourself and your place in the world around you, that can be enough to start unravelling you at the core.
What I was trying to do was say:
Hey! Look at me! I’m having fun! I’m with the people I believe I love and doing what they want to do and I’m having fun! Honest! I’m one of you! I’m doing the things that they think are worthwhile and joining in and trying my hardest to be happy! Look I’m smiling! It doesn’t matter that it hurts, I’m smiling! Everything’s OK now! Honest!
Underneath there was a little voice saying ‘what they fuck are you doing?’. I was absolutely terrified of that little voice, because I had no answer for it and I knew I should be listening to it. But I couldn’t. There is still, in this society, a massive stigma surrounding mental health problems. An overwhelming urge for those who suffer with them to pretend that everything is fine and that they are OK. That’s exactly what I was doing when this picture was taken. I might look like I was having fun. But I wasn’t.
However, as they say on Top Gear – that was then. This is now:
This is what happiness looks like. This is me as I am now – this photo was taken last summer.
It’s taken the best part of seven years, but I have found myself again. Things are not perfect, not by any means. I am still battling against anxiety and depression. I’ve been through job changes, ups and downs, difficulties with family and friends and all the roller-coaster things that life brings. I have had a rough ride, but the difference is that I believe in myself.
It would be very easy to say that I believe in myself because I have a husband who loves me and friends who appreciate me, but there’s more to it than that. If I had simply rebuilt my self esteem upon the approval of a different set of people, I would be potentially headed for the same mess as I was in years ago – liable to shatter at a moment’s notice if I ever lost it or felt in danger of losing it. And when you suffer depression and anxiety, you ALWAYS feel in danger of losing people’s good opinions of you. You always feel like you have to pretend that things are fine in case people leave.
The biggest lesson I learned, and the one I want to share with people today, is that things won’t necessarily be fine just because you keep pretending that they are. And sometimes, putting the brave face on things for longer than you are capable of sustaining can land you in a much bigger mess than saying ‘No, actually, I’m not ok, this sucks mightily and I am suffering’.
But it’s hard to say that without tackling the taboo surrounding these issues. And this is why it is important for the people who are managing their depression and anxiety – and other mental health problems – to speak out.
It’s easy to pretend that the old issues have gone away when you are feeling ‘better’. I found myself agreeing heartily with Tom Pollock when I read his article on living with Bullimia. When celebrities speak out about mental health problems, it’s always couched as something temporary which they have overcome. Like the big bad monster which got chased away, and don’t worry, it’s never coming back. Surely we learned in the last few years that the big bad monster never goes away. And it has horrific sets of teeth. Regardless of how positive and bright your life and existence might seem to other people, that monster is always there and always a threat.
It is so important that we create an environment where people are allowed to say ‘I am not OK right now’. Yes it’s time to talk, and part of that is providing reassurance that things aren’t that bad, or that things will get better. But it’s time to listen too, and to know that we need to listen more than once, because these big bad monsters lurk outside the door all the time. At best they are sleeping. Rarely can they be killed.
I shared this photo on FB with the promise to people who are suffering that things can get better. And they can. I am a positive example of this. My life now barely resembles the shambling wreck of an existence I was going through when that photo was taken. But part of the success has been the acceptance that this big bad monster is part of my life and while it might sleep sometimes, it never truly goes away and that even in times of joy, I will have to occasionally stop and say to the people around me ‘You know what? I’m not OK’.
What makes these people amazing in my life is not that they see me in a positive way, but that I can say this to them and it will not make them permanently think less of me. They accept that I am struggling and rejoice when I am stronger and provide understanding and patience in the gaps between those things. That more than anything is what reduces the fear of losing people’s good opinions and which makes the monster non-lethal. Scary, yes, but not lethal.*[Got something to say? Submit to Project Shandy]*