I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?
I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.
I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.
“What do you mean by panic attacks?”
As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.
If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.
In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.
I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.
Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.
Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.
At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.
This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.
It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.
To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.
If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.
If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.