I used to wonder why all my close friends were mentally ill, addicted to something or both. Why did I attract them? Was I co-dependent? Possibly. Did I have such a low self esteem that I didn’t think myself capable or deserving of having regular, healthy friends? Could be. Was it because I found them to be more creative, open-minded and interesting? Possibly, though plenty of mentally well people also have these characteristics.
Maybe (and this was a dark and sobering idea cooked up one drunk, self-hating night) I was such a controlling person that I surrounded myself with vulnerable, disempowered people who would not present a threat to my fragile self-esteem. Ooh, nasty. But it couldn’t be true; my friends were a fierce bunch of bastards and in no way below me in the pecking order.
Coming to terms
Now here’s an idea: could it be a case of like attracting like? Let’s see: I’ve suffered from depression at various points in my life, flirted with anorexia in my teens, self-harmed on and off, abused drugs intermittently and, in my twenties, acquired a charming little drink problem. So why did it take me so long to figure out that I belonged in the same category as my friends? Why was I wondering what possessed me to hang out with this nightmarish bloody alcoholic who kept pissing my bed when I’d done the same only a week earlier? Clue: It’s a river in Egypt.
I wasn’t as bad as them. I was doing just fine, thank you very much. This fresh cut on the top of my arm? Just a blip. This panoramic row of empty wine and beer bottles lining my windowsill like a dystopian skyline? Just a party. You can have a party by yourself, right?
Compared to my friends, I felt like small fry. I had cuts, but theirs were bigger. I drank but they drank more. I had depression but they had schizophrenia, clinical anxiety, BPD, drug-induced psychosis. I had a self-destructive drink problem but they were fully realised addicts destined for AA and NA. They’d been in mental hospitals and rehab clinics for God’s sake.
Most of them are even dead now. How’s that for winning at mental?
But being in crisis is not an Olympic sport. You can be a person who takes a low dose SSRI because you struggle with anxiety. You can be a person who has dark days where you don’t get out of bed, choose beer for breakfast and watch Loose Women while contemplating suicide. Or you can be a person who develops a benzo and opiate addiction to quieten the voices in your head before cutting your thigh so deep that you almost hit an artery. Either way, you probably need to make some changes.
Something has to change
Sometimes we all need help. And the best help we’ll get is from ourselves. I’m all for alternatives to SSRIs because it’s a sad state of affairs that when we get ill, all we’re likely to get is a six-week waiting list for a few sessions with a GP counsellor and a prescription for an SSRI. Frankly, weight gain, the inability to orgasm and a whole host of other side effects are big prices to pay for mood stability.
Call me paranoid, but a nation dosed up on Citalopram is not likely to challenge the socio-political status quo or bring forth the revolution. All the same, it was SSRIs that saved me. Yeah, I know – big pharma just hooked another dumb fish. But clearly they are working for some people. But by themselves they are not enough.
I see countless people going on SSRIs for depression or anxiety and it’s as if they think the tablets are magical beans. They continue to drink heavily or smoke weed all day or eat nothing but McDonalds while watching The News, which is about as uplifting as brown frickin’ bread. It’s not enough. The pills alone aren’t always enough.
Doing what works
You have to be kind to yourself. More specifically, you have to do right by yourself. Does exercise make you feel better? Then do some exercise. Do you feel extra crappy if you stay in your pyjamas all day? Then get dressed. Does reading newspapers make you feel angry and scared? Then don’t read newspapers. It all sounds simple but it’s sooo hard.
Being kind to yourself is a struggle, because if you’re habitually used to self-destructing then those neural pathways have already been forged. If you don’t start over-riding these old behaviours and replacing them with stuff that is good for you, then it’s just the same old pattern.
I’m drawing on my own experiences here. I’m just depressive small fry, remember. But whatever your experience (or diagnosis), the principle stands: being kind to yourself is a good start. That may be getting off the sofa and out of your pyjamas, eating kale or going for a run. You just have to figure out what actions are kind for you.
My friends – two of my closest friends – didn’t manage to make it out alive. Whatever it was that attracted me to them and vice versa, I’m blessed to have known them, nightmarish bloody alcoholics or not. When we weren’t bickering, we had each other. We made a connection. That helps too.
I have two other old, old close friends, and both of them have struggled with the same sort of things – addiction, poor mental health. Notice the present tense?
They’re still alive. And I’m still alive.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some kale to prepare.
Crystal Jeans is a writer and single parent from Wales. She is an MA Graduate in Creative Writing, and the author of “The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise”. Crystal is currently working on her second novel, and blogs about literature, feminism and parenthood over at Menstrual Mafia.
Join us on November 18th in Cardiff at Compassionate Approaches to Mental Heath – a one day experiential event designed to inform, inspire and empower people living and working with mental distress.
Please book now to join us in Cardiff. Limited £35 tickets – sponsored by Welsh mental health and wellbeing charity Gofal – are available for people with personal experience of mental health issues, and their supporters.