I am the voice of the spirit trapped between inexorable cycles, caught in the crossfire, hanging on by my fingernails to a life that repeatedly loses meaning.
They say that mental illness affects sensitive souls. I’ve often thought it’s interesting to consider that many of us who are sensitive and compassionate to others, can be unforgiving – even cruel – to ourselves.
We often work in the caring professions or in pastoral roles, and pride ourselves on our empathic qualities and ability to get alongside others.
Yet we can be judgemental in the extreme when we’re the subject in question, and often fail to grant ourselves half a chance to get back up on our feet; particularly when we suffer with recurrent depression.
Diagnoses and classifications can be helpful for some things, and experienced as damaging at other times. It’s good to see mental health being discussed more openly in social media lately – conversations about prejudice, stigma, and exploring what is ‘illness’, and what is a variation of ‘normal’ human experience.
I want to tell you about the memory that was triggered the other day by something I read. It was about 35 years ago, when I was twenty years old. I’d grown up, since the age of eight, with my Mum being periodically extremely unwell and in hospital – she suffered with ‘manic depression’, as they called it in those days.
I was always quite creative, and it would be twenty five years until I myself was told by a psychiatrist that my psychological state of mind was likely to fall ‘somewhere on the bipolar spectrum’.
It was after I had my baby daughter and the added stress and challenges took me over the edge. I became alternately very driven and a bit chaotic, and then deeply, paralysingly depressed. This went on for months on end with the pattern intensifying over fifteen long-drawn-out years, year in year out.
As a young student, and for a long time afterwards, I was simply drifting: cooking in restaurants, designing cards I didn’t really know how to market; setting up an unrealistic small business; walking for hours with my dog around the hills; making meals for friends; hosting warm spontaneous candlelit gatherings by the log fire and largely sidestepping the confronting realities most young people have to address. I guess I instinctively cut myself a break.
Window on the World
I remember one afternoon in winter falling asleep in the glorified bedsit I was renting with a friend round the corner from the wholefood restaurant where I worked – tired out by the intensive weekend evening shifts.
I had one of those sleep experiences where it feels like you go to another world – a place of utter peace and reassurance that you don’t want to ever end. When I did come to, darkness had fallen. The peace stayed with me, enfolding me. I lay there and watched as lights began to come on in the houses all round.
This was bedsit land, and many lives were based in this tightly-packed neighbourhood. Just as you look down from a plane as it’s landing and marvel that so many hundreds of thousands of lives can exist in a place you’ve never really thought about before, and that this phenomenon is multiplied all around the world. And that the events and developments in these people’s lives must seem as critical and significant as ours do to us.
I saw a kitchen lighting up, a lady pouring a glass of wine and beginning to cook. Somewhere else I saw plants outlined and a living room beckoning the weary returning worker. Further away, I saw a couple embracing, colours, shapes. I felt atmospheres and immense possibilities for the expansion of all of our lives.
And then, as I returned to my habitual self, I started to remember plans for the next few days and obligations to be honoured – the things I was in danger of letting slip. Weeks and months, contexts and thoughts about personalities returned to consciousness, and I felt my heart drop as I contemplated my actual life with dismay. It occurred to me, whilst still under the vividly remembered dream’s calming spell, that it was as if my life was being arranged for me by a stranger, and an unsympathetic one at that.
All these years later I am at peace with my life, living much more harmoniously, and, having got to know myself better, arranging it far more consciously. My own path has taken me through the exacerbation by antidepressant medication of my natural fluctuations (enthusiastic ‘ups’ & deflated ‘downs’ became ‘better than well’ feelings and devastating, crushing, life-denying depression) to the need to take a powerful medication, lithium, to keep everything manageable.
I have learned so much about myself and other people through the difficult years that, surprising as it sounds, I cannot unwish those experiences. My capacity to empathise has expanded, and I’ve been naturally led into working in the arena of mental health care.
During the fallow periods I was unable to be kind to myself. I was so afraid about the future and kept fixating on ‘what might have been’. Now I realise that what was happening to me was all part of my pathway, and it has even come to make sense.
Be Compassionate to Yourself
If I could wish one thing for anyone reading this who is struggling through similar trials it is: that you are able to find compassion in your tender, long-suffering heart for yourself.
You are stronger and more courageous than you realise – you are still here, after all. Who knows what qualities you are fine-tuning that in future might be life-saving for someone else.
I leave you with a gift – a book recommendation. ‘When you’re falling, Dive’ by Mark Matousek. Every chapter in this inspiring book is about a different character who has been strengthened through enduring adversity.
It has always helped me to know I’m part of a tribe. Go well, precious fellow soul.
Nicky Hayward is a writer, blogger and mental health campaigner. She is passionate about finding the words to explore the challenges she has always lived with, in the hope that they can help others too.
Join us in Cardiff on November 18th 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. Legal & General sponsored tickets are also available for nurses, social workers, students and small charities.