Today is Time to Talk Day, when the charity Time to Change asks us to all to spend five minutes discussing mental health issues. The aim is to raise awareness, reduce stigma and encourage people to open up about a subject which is still taboo for many.
So here on let’s talk! we thought we should do just that, and have asked our regular contributor, Suzie Grogan, to start a conversation about how mental health issues affect her, and what raising awareness means to her.
My name is Suzie and I have experienced mental illness. There I have said it.
This is actually how I began my first ever post about mental health, four years ago, on my blog over at No wriggling out of writing and the response to it was overwhelming. It led to my offering a monthly guest post slot to someone else who wanted to say something about how depression and anxiety had affected their lives, and a book – dandelions and Bad Hair Days – followed. It proved to me that there are millions of people out there who are longing to be open about their feelings and find support in others; but the possible stigma that attached to the declaration was a significant concern. What will my friends and family think? What will happen at work?
I can’t remember when I experienced my first real bout of depression. I was an anxious child, and terrified teenager. I had a loving and secure childhood, with two younger siblings but with a father poorly with Parkinson’s from his mid-40s onwards perhaps I took on some of his anxious nature. He was certainly incredibly superstitious and convinced the worst would always happen. I later discovered he had lost his first wife and child, and saw his mother fall dead in front of him.
After I had my own children I was diagnosed with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). All parents are anxious but I took it to extremes, convinced that if I didn’t follow certain rituals (such as making the beds properly, or laying the table with matching cutlery) some terrible accident would befall my family. I developed an eating disorder as a means of introducing some control into my life and was eventually desperate enough to approach my GP. I was lucky to be offered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the OCD became manageable, but the lingering thought that something I did, or failed to do, would bring some disaster on us all remained.
Unluckily for me this feeling seemed to be confirmed when, only in my early 40s, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. All my fears having come true, and despite coming through all the treatment successfully, I became swallowed up with anxiety about my health and I felt terrified of everything the future held for me. It is nearly nine years since my cancer diagnosis but the anxiety remains, and occasionally it is unbearable. My life is consumed by it,and the black dog of depression snaps at my heals.
As a mother I knew I was supposed to bring up my son and daughter to be confident, caring people with a proper sense of who they were and what their place in the world might be. I was meant to give them all the opportunities I could to equip them for a future with choice and the ability to forge happy relationships with their peers. How was I supposed to do that when I had no sense of myself, no confidence that I had anything to offer anyone? I thought I was bound to be abandoned if I was not the ‘best’ mother, wife, friend, person I knew and my desperation to please, to make everyone happy, inevitably failed in the hurly burly of life with little ones, simply reinforcing my view of myself as a bad parent. But despite all this pain, all the unhappiness I have put myself and my family through, my children have turned out to be confident, and caring and I am incredibly proud of them. And after four years of counselling I can be proud of myself – for being a ‘good enough’ parent. And person.
Dandelions and Bad Hair Days raises money for the mental health charity SANE, and it is full of poetry and prose by more than twenty people who were keen to keep the conversation going. And that is what we must all do – on the 5th February and beyond.