I have cancer. It is newly diagnosed. I am shit scared. I keep bursting into tears. I have palpitations and trouble catching my breath. I shout, I rage, I swear. I self-medicate with food. I tremble and shake. I have trouble remembering, finding words and concentrating. My sleep pattern is fucked – I survive on a series of naps. I worry, ruminate. Now – you can diagnose me with a number of mental health disorders if you wish, but my “symptoms” are a reasonable (if unhelpful) response to a very real threat.
It is World Mental Health Day. I sit here today with all these “mental health symptoms” alongside my physical diagnosis of vulval cancer. But I had these symptoms before my diagnosis too. I lived with these symptoms for more than thirty years. They were largely hidden from view. If you knew me back then you would not know about my symptoms. Well – you may have guessed I self-medicated with food, or you may have judged me to be fat and lazy. There were times I self-medicated with alcohol too. You may have thought me to be unreliable or antisocial. I often turned down invitations to social events – or just didn’t turn up. I was often “on the sick” with minor ailments. I changed my job frequently. You may have thought me to be “moody.”
You would not have seen me crying inconsolably as I feared the day ahead. You would not have seen me hiding in the toilet throwing up, my stomach screaming with nerves and dread. You would not have seen me sitting in my car for half an hour trying to pluck up the courage to go into the supermarket. You were not inside my head witnessing the incessant self-questioning and castigation.
I never told anyone about my “symptoms” because I didn’t know they were symptoms. They were just me, part of my personality, who I was. I functioned. I got by. I thought this was life – just how it was. Much of the time I will have appeared sociable, competent and happy. I was happy – some of the time, particularly when I was with my children. Yet I lived my life feeling as though I was a freak, I didn’t fit in, there was something inherently “bad” about me.
Would a diagnosis have helped? Did a label of “depression” help when I could no longer hide my symptoms, when I could no longer function, when I could barely get out of bed to take my children to school?
Perhaps it did. That label did bring with it some acknowledgement, some validation. It was a gateway to therapy and, eventually, to understanding and self-acceptance. I learned that I was not “bad.” I learned that I was courageous. I learned that I had coped the best that I could with the hand that I had been dealt. I learned that my behaviours were a response to the experiences I had early in my life. It was not my fault.
Today, I am stronger for my experiences and my understanding. Today I can yield to my symptoms, without fearing I am going “mad.” I can have a bad day. Today I have healthy coping strategies. They will get me through the difficult journey ahead. There is nothing “wrong” with me – though from time to time I am “not ok.”
I look forward to the day when it is universally acknowledged that mental health difficulties are as much, if not more so, a response to life’s challenges – the crap that we encounter – as they are to some failure in our biology. We already know how our experiences can change our biology, the structure of our brains. More so – we know what “good” looks like in nurturing healthy children, which is where our focus needs to be. While my experiences have made me the now resilient, positive, fulfilled, authentic me – I would not wish that thirty years of a life half lived on anyone.