Throughout secondary school, the running joke among my friends was that I was not quite right in the head. All sorts of things were brought up as evidence for this- my taste in music, my taste in men, my tendency to take things more seriously than they really warranted, and so on. So, two years ago, when I didn’t order any alcohol at a high school friend’s birthday party, I had the perfect explanation. “I’m on meds,” I told them, pointing to the Diazepam in my bag, “We all knew it was going to happen eventually.”
The truth is, I’d been waiting to use that line all day. Not because I thought it was clever, or because I thought it would make my friends react in a certain way, but because I was elated. I was over the moon to be on meds. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I wanted to throw myself a party. And the reason was that I now knew the way I’d been feeling for the last month wasn’t normal.
To say the least, September 2012 wasn’t a good month for me. I’d begun, apparently out of the blue, to worry about things that had happened months or even years ago. More specifically, to worry about the horrible things I might have forgotten I’d done. Maybe I’d made a huge mistake at my job, and then forgotten about it. Maybe I’d yelled a racial slur at a friend, and then forgotten about it. Maybe I’d harmed somebody I loved, and then forgotten about it. I couldn’t prove I hadn’t.
When your brain declares war on you, you never get a break from it. I was living in a constant state of terror, wondering what new memory it was going to throw at me next. I couldn’t eat properly. I couldn’t talk to my friends. I couldn’t even sit quietly for a few minutes without getting a horrible new thought. It got so bad that I phoned the Samaritans twice. The first time, I got cut off when my signal failed, and the second time, I panicked because the person on the other end was leaving a gap of about thirty seconds before she responded to what I’d said last. It’s probably exactly what she’d been trained to do, but it suddenly seemed horribly possible that she was using those pauses to report me to the authorities for those terrible things I thought I’d done.
When I was finally diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and given twelve weeks of counselling, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Those things I’d been imagining weren’t true. It was just a misfiring set of chemicals and an unfortunate pattern my brain had settled into. True, I’d rather not have it, but if the choice is between having a treatable mental disorder and having to believe that my thoughts that month were completely accurate, then I pick the mental disorder.
A lot has been written about the stigmatisation of mental illness. Some people think that going to a therapist or being on medication is a sign of weakness, and that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, whatever that means. And it can be worse than that- somebody I used to work with cheerfully told me that it was best for people with depression to kill themselves, because the alternative was for them to start killing other people. (This from a man who worked with disabled children. Such a sensitive soul.)
For me, the tragedy of this isn’t just the victimisation of people who are at their most vulnerable- it’s the fact that it might scare somebody off seeking help that they desperately need. Say somebody who’s been feeling miserable for months, for no apparent reason. Say they keep telling themselves that they should just snap out of it, but they just can’t. Say they either decide that it’s because of some failing on their part (thus making them even more miserable), or that, deep down, everyone must be just as miserable as they are, and that happiness is just a myth.
There was an advert a few years ago that I thought addressed this problem well. It showed a psychedelic swirl of sunshine, rainbows, and pink bunnies, with a caption underneath reading, “If you don’t feel exactly like this, talk to the Samaritans.” In other words- your misery isn’t normal, and it can be fixed. Don’t listen to anybody who says you just have to put up with it. You have a right to be happy. We all do.