Season to season, my high-functioning anxiety disorder affects me in different ways. When darkness takes to the sky, it manages to break its way into my mind as well. It wakes me in the morning like a hangover, but is not so easily cured, and not as widely understood, despite being something that affects around 5% of the UK population.
It's easy to misunderstand high-functioning depression and anxiety in people who seem, for the most part, like nothing is wrong at all. Being able to function through an alarming dizziness, or going to work with a cloudy sadness looming above your shoulders, is a marker of strength that is easily misinterpreted as an illegitimate concern. They're just having a bad day, you say. They're so miserable, you whine. So lazy, as well!
Statistically speaking, almost half of us are affected by some sort of mental health issue. Every year, 70 million working days were lost to mental distress, making it the number one cause of sickness and absence from work. One in four of us will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in our lifetimes, and in 2015, there were nearly 4,000 rulings of suicide in coroner's court. The surrounding issue with public services to the mentally ill, and public understanding of what mental illness is and how it should be dealt with, is fast becoming an epidemic. And whilst there is not a great deal we can do to immediately reform government and medical practices in dealing with public mental health, there is a lot we can do from the ground to better understand it, ourselves, and the people we love who are affected.
The stigma that surrounds mental health awareness is doused in fuel and threatened with a lit match every time we cover our eyes and ears around sufferers and survivors. It is infinitely important to listen with the intention to understand, to anyone who speaks up about their mental health, if for no other reason than for knowing that you are one tragedy aside from being just like them too.
On occasion, my anxiety will wipe me out for days. I can't face my phone, I cancel all my plans, and I pray for the strength to get up and feed myself, or have a shower. I shake, physically and visibly. The panic ripples through my skin, and scratches on my bones. On these days, I relinquish all control to it, I wave my white flag, I surrender the fight.
It's not unlike me to wonder who we really are. I often wonder if we are the battles we fight, if we are the wounds from which we bleed, if we are the secrets we keep. I wonder if I am my mind as I drink my morning cup of tea, or if I am my mind at 4 o'clock in the morning when I can't sleep. I forever wonder if I am the mind that chains me to my bed.
I am no less candid in my expression than normal when explaining my illness to people I know and love. But sometimes, when I say to them that "I didn't get out of bed today", I'm met with a humming chorus of jealousy, shared with mild intent.
"Oh God, I wish I could spend a day in bed! Watching television, chilling out. I'm so jealous!" I brace myself to hear. "You're so lucky you get to do that!" I fear to have to listen to. I struggle to explain how ashamed and embarrassed I am of myself - that, at 25, I allow myself to be consumed by these fears for reasons that would not scratch the surface of someone with a mind and a heart that doesn't snap under the pressure of an anxiety problem.
In the past I have known myself to be the type to self-loathe, but as I grow older and have witnessed my condition worsen in the past 3 years, I have learned how to medicate my shame and embarrassment with as much laughter and self love as my body can handle. I don't fully understand the mind that chains me to my bed, but I love it just as much as the mind that still allows me to laugh as hard as I do every other day I'm not shackled to it. I understand how to talk about who I am and how I feel when I am not at my best. I have spent most of my twenties looking for some kind of "cure", a place to bury my condition, when what I really should have been doing was planting flowers around it. As easy as it sometimes is to put on the label and wear it like a coat, I have realised the importance of reminding myself that my anxiety doesn't define me. It is, and always will be, a striking part of my personality, it will influence my decision-making in my day-to-day life, and it will continue to challenge me in my relationships with others, but it is not all of who I am. I know that I am my mind when I am laughing hysterically over drinks with my friends. I know I am my mind when I am consumed by a favourite book. I know I am my mind as I sit alone on a cold morning, smiling into my second empty coffee cup.
Samaritans is a dedicated organisation that takes one call every six seconds from someone who, for whatever reason, needs to talk about issues that surround their mental health. Boasting a catalogue of over 200 branches in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, their mission is to provide support that prevents as many deaths by suicide as humanly possible. If Samaritans can celebrate 60 years of listening, then we as characters can exercise a day, an hour, or even just a moment of something just as valuable, for the purpose of fighting the same cause. We must understand that the darkest nights often given rise to the brightest mornings, and that is what will help us get out of bed in the end.
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