(not at the disco)
My name is Tia, and I have depression. This weekly column will discuss the little bumps in the road, the lows, the highs, and the mundane existence of living with depression. ‘Insane in the Membrane’ will not pretend to have all, if any, answers to mental health. But it will use real situations that I have experienced in the attempt to chip away at the stigma of mental illness. Or, at least, the stigma that I see.
Stress manifests in many forms and can feel impossible to restrain. Because stress isn’t something you can see, it’s hard to diagnose or offer practical advice on. Like most mental illnesses, it varies with each person and can affect you physically, emotionally and mentally. In my last year of school, I had severe stomach pain. I went to doctor after doctor, but frustratingly none could explain what the problem was. It was after a CT scan and the elimination of the last possible diagnosis that I was told it could be stress. The idea that stress could have such a physical impact was bizarre, how was I to manage it? The physical symptoms of stress usually involve insomnia, headaches and low energy but it can also play a role in heart problems, asthma and high blood pressure. Since I couldn’t magically evaporate what was triggering my stress (I evidently took school exams way too seriously), I had to take calming pills and cut out dairy, tomatoes and white wine. Although not causes of stress, the acidity in those products can exacerbate the problem, potentially developing into allergies. Stress seems like an everyday issue, but brushing symptoms off can result in much more serious effects, i.e. a heart attack… or no white wine forever!
Excessive moments of stress can cause panic attacks. Unprovoked and unpredictable, panic attacks are not caused by triggers (anxiety attacks are). This is partly why they are so alarming. There is no universal cause for why they occur, and yet they are overwhelmingly distressing. The symptoms include sweating, shaking, feelings of choking, faintness and shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain and a fear of dying, or of losing control. Full-blown panic attacks include at least four or more of these symptoms – a scary combination. My panic attacks never happen without crying, and with these uncontrollable racking sobs my throat clogs and my breath comes short. During them, although hard to focus on much else but this possibility of dying, I try to concentrate on my breathing, stabilising at least one part of my body. Mind suggests grounding techniques, to keep you connected to the present.
After a panic attack I often jot down how I was feeling during it – what came to mind, what did my panicked state conjure up? Whenever I felt out of control, the act of putting my thoughts down on paper helped make the panic more digestible. Revisiting them later, I’d try to disassociate the thought process. It’s cathartic and definitely better than some alternatives.
Here’s some notes I wrote when I was living in Russia, homesick and overwhelmed with a new language and culture. Although the text is negative, just getting the words out on a page made me feel much calmer and under control.
“Sometimes it seemed as if she created the world she lived in. Her imagination running wild, painting a tormented youth. But life hadn’t been harsh. The only person she disappointed was herself. Friends and family looked upon her with love. How come she couldn’t see what they saw? Why did her chest threaten to suffocate her? Her mind was like a treacherous wind crashing into a calm sea. The stillness she dreamed of became a distant memory as she fought to regain control of her mind and breath. If only it was as simple as switching off.
At other times, she was safe. Able to reflect with confidence that she was ok. This was the persona she presented to the world. No one would know that she suffered if she stuffed it deep down within her. A smile here, a laugh there, she was generous with her kindness – everyone was deserving. Yet, not her. It was a cruel outlook on life. Perhaps an unnecessary outlook. But the more she put herself down, the more others could be built up. A friend to everyone, a danger to herself.
The scars on her body reflected the life she had led. Lines and patterns that told her memoir; the itch of a mosquito bite, the faded marks of acne, the slashes on her wrist. Desperate to find meaning she created more, extending the pattern, weaving the lines that would capture her story. Those times were lonely ones. She longed for someone to stop her, to take away the knife and calm her. But she hurt in silence, admitting to few, always after the act. If she could stop the horrified looks and pain she caused her closest, she would, but with trust comes truth. And sometimes the truth does hurt.”
I have pages and pages of notes like this on my phone and in notebooks. I tend to write in the third person; the idea that I am describing someone else is simpler than using the first person. It’s hard to recognise that these thoughts are yours, sometimes reading them over helps get things in perspective. Sometimes it’s too raw, sometimes I’m ashamed. But I’m wrong to be. These emotions prove that I, like everyone out there, can feel. It can be hard to remember that.
Panic attacks are scary and unpredictable. But talking about them and exploring ways of controlling them is key to getting better. The out of sight, out of mind theory has never worked for me. Pushing it down has only served to build up more stress and animosity. Since being more open with those close to me about my illness, it has made confronting these emotions easier, and my panic attacks less frequent.
P.S. I’m also a big fan of colouring books (put a candle on and scribble in or out of the lines, no judgement).
The NHS have a Mood Assessment Quiz that helps determine what your stress levels are like, and offer practical advice to control it. Apps like What’s Up? Or Huddle can help you talk through your panic with professionals or peers.
Mental health always needs more support, socially and fiscally. Mind, Heads Together and Rethink offer easy ways to get involved/fundraise/donate/campaign. The Arch2Arch run, London Marathon and Tough Mudder can all be done in the name of mental health. Or, if you’re like me and not a natural athlete, you can use easy ways to recycle to raise awareness and donations alike. Petitions like Time to Change and the Survey of Mental Illness in the Workplace are a click away from de-stigmatising mental illness.
Sofa Activism is easy ways to give, and possibly the easiest of them is Savoo Search, just use it as your default search engine and it’ll donate 1p every time you search something to the charity of your choice (I would recommend through Rethink).
SAMH and Action Mental Health are aimed at Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively, targeting mental health stigma on a more regional scale. Mind Cymru and Mental Health Wales focus on Welsh Mental Health.