Mental Health, good or bad we all have it, so why is there such a stigma around it? Just like physical exercise, which everyone knows is important for us, we have to care for our mental wellbeing just as much as we do our physical wellbeing, for there is not health without mental health.
I am by no means claiming to be an expert or professional in mental health but I have had experience with poor mental health throughout my childhood, teens and early twenties. I remember feeling a sense of relief when Prince Harry shared his experience of poor mental health following the death of his mother. I related to his story, the one of escapism, of excess, of pretending to the world that my life was nothing but happy, of hiding behind a smile, of being the party animal and of being physically in relationships but never been mental “in” a relationship. Finally, someone that we perceive to live a life of privilege was willing to tell their story in the hope that the world would listen and we would change our ways. What makes his story all the more important is that he is a male and men in general don’t talk, I’m assuming for fear of losing their masculinity. Poor mental health effects everyone, no one is immune. Everyone has their own baggage that at sometime in their life weighs them down, how they deal with it is what is really important.
Now as a mother I don’t want my children to suffer in silence like I did and like many great people I know have, who unfortunately never sort the help they needed and ended their lives much too soon, so here it goes in the hope that it helps someone, this is my story…
With April upon us and Easter just around the corner, for me so too is another anniversary without my best mate, my dad. April 18 marks 29 years since I last heard my dad speak, last enjoyed his hugs, shared my last Easter (dad had a haulage company and had to make a collection from a town some 600km away, as I was never far from his side I went with him, we left home on the Easter Monday to return home on the Wednesday) and last shared our favourite icecreams, for the Aussies reading it was a hazelnut roll and mint drumstick!
In the early hours of the morning of Wednesday 18th April Dad and I were in a motor vehicle accident which claimed his life, that just as easily should of taken mine had he not of woken me from the front seat and told me to sleep in the cabin, that was the last conversation we ever had. When I did eventually wake, I was trapped in the upturned vehicle, little did I know that my life as a 7 year old, was about to rapidly change forever. I don’t know how long I was awake for before people arrived on the scene, but it felt like I was trapped for a lifetime. I am often still to this day, flawed by the sensation of not knowing why I couldn’t move, why it was so cold and why there was an eerie silence for what seems like an eternity. Even though I heard the words “deceased male” as I was cut out of the wreckage and taken to the ambulance, it didn’t not register to me that the male they were referring to was my dad. At the hospital I wasn’t told anything and after all my observations had finally been completed my mum, sister and a family friend who I affectionately knew as Uncle Ernie arrived. I don’t actually recall if I was ever told that dad was dead, I never really needed to be, the look on my sisters face as she walked into my hospital room said it all. I have always felt for her as dads death happened within a week of her birthday, not exactly the kind of thing you want to be reminded of around your birthday.
From that moment I blocked out the next few years of my life. My only recollection during that time was at dad’s funeral, standing at his grave in a black and purple striped dress and feeling the grip of my brothers hand on my arm. I know I didn’t talk about what had happened, I avoided going to school for fear of classmates talking about the accident or dads death and I never cried in front of anyone. I spent my teens and much of my twenties wondering why I survived, how I survived and what the point to life was. Guilt weighed down on me and it often felt like I was drowning in it, I later found out this was known as survivors guilt mixed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t speak about the accident or dad and when anyone did speak of him I blocked out their words. During my late teens and early twenties I had many suicidal thoughts. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be alive, that my life had no purpose. I often put myself into situations which weren’t the safest, I had relationships but was never mentally present, I often pushed people away when I thought they were wanting to know too much about me - it was my defence mechanism so that I couldn’t be hurt and while I always surrounded myself with people so I didn’t have to be with my a with my thoughts, I often felt alone.
I did go to a doctor at one point, in the hope that I would be able to finally get some clarity about why I was feeling the way I did but after less than a minute into the appointment, he was handing me a prescription for anti-depressants and I was told to come back in 6 months to see how I was feeling. I never had that prescription filled, I was already numb, I didn’t want to be numbed even further and I also didn’t want to be stuck taking medication everyday until the doctor said I could start weening myself off them. I knew that wasn’t going to fix me, I just didn’t know what else to do. I was an adult who didn’t know how to mentally function outside of the 7 year old girl. I was never in the moment, my thoughts were constant and it was tiring.
In my mid twenties I found yoga and meditation which was helpful in calming and ordering my thoughts but it wasn’t the “fix” I needed. It wasn’t until a friend of mine, one who saw through my walls and helped me break them down a little died unexpectedly that I sort help. I was standing at his funeral, listening to his wife speak with their daughter, who was less that 2, by her side that I started to sob uncontrollably and even though there were tears for the loss of my friend, it was like I was having an out of body experience and I was back at my dads funeral and the grieving process had finally started. A week after the funeral I started seeing a psychologist weekly. I’m not going to lie it was tough going, trying to open up and speak about feelings, about dads death, about the clothes I would wear to “blend in” and not stand out, about why I kept having relationships that I knew weren’t going anywhere and about the guilt that I had been carrying around with me longer than I hadn’t. I was embarrassed that it had come to this, so much so that I was trying to park as close to the door as possible, so that no one would see me walk into a “shrinks” office. I had spent much of my life hiding behind proverbial walls and I wasn’t ready for people to know I needed help. I now realise just how necessary this was for me, had I known how and being willing to talk to people earlier I probably wouldn’t of needed to see “Uncle Andrew”, the psych’s name given by a friend who was also seeing him at the same time.
Although I wish this anniversary didn’t exist, I can now say I am very fortunate. I had 7 years with the best father I possibly could of, I was old enough to have memories of him which are mine and not from stories people tell of him and I gained two brothers who otherwise would not of been part of my life and my girls have a Poppy who adores them like they are his own blood grandchildren. I now understand myself better, what triggers sadness and how to get myself back into a good head space.
Even though my story is far from unique and I now can talk more about my feelings, writing this has not been easy. There is still a small part of me that worries how this will be perceived and what people will think. I don’t want sympathy, I am telling this to hopefully help others, even if that’s one person, to take action and look after their mental health, offload a little of their baggage and not feel so alone because life doesn’t need to be lived that way and f’ck anyone that tells you differently!
With the pressure that society now has on our children to grow up, I urge parents to talk to their kids, and actively listen when they tell you things, no matter how small you think they are, as those small things are big to them and if you don’t listen to those things then how can we expect that they will be willing to share anything we do perceive as being “big” and “important”? I also urge you not to judge or belittle what someone is going through, you may see it as insignificant compared to your own issues but everyone handles stress and life experiences differently and when a loved one seems closed off, let them know you are there for them when they want to talk, maybe even start conversations about your own feelings, talk about the things that are getting you down, not just the positives and let people know that its ok to not be ok but its not ok not to share their burdens.