This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a chance for us all to be open about our own struggles with mental health, to reduce the stigma attached to anxiety and depression, to discuss the fact that sometimes we all feel down, that sometimes we struggle to cope.
It is also Dying Matters Awareness Week, an opportunity for us to be open about the fact that we all die and that we’re all affected at some point by bereavement. It is convenient for a time-poor, part-time grief blogger that the two issues are, in my experience, often closely linked.
It seems to me that gradually, or perhaps suddenly, we’re getting much better in our society at talking about mental health. Celebrities are leading the way in coming out of the closet and openly discussing their struggles. Thanks to authors such as Matt Haig, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Fearne Cotton, it is no longer taboo to talk about anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, which is so important when we’re frequently told that something like one in five of us will experience mental health issues in any given year. It is essential that we talk about this, that we normalise the experience that so many of us have. And yet, when I write those words: WE ALL DIE (even when I don’t write them in capitals), it still feels as if I’m saying something shocking and uncomfortable and inappropriate for polite company. Even though it happens, not just to one in five of us, but TO ALL OF US!
In case you don’t know my story, by the age of forty-five, I’d lost both of my parents to cancer and then, a few months after my mother’s death, I discovered the dead body of the man I was in love with when I broke into his house. He’d apparently died of heart disease three days earlier, though the exact cause of death has never really been determined. It was, without question, the most traumatic event of my life. It left me reeling, not just for days or weeks or even for months, but for years. It was like a bomb had gone off at the centre of my life and the aftershocks went on and on and on. Three years later I consider myself to still be in recovery, I’m still grieving. I still have days when I struggle. My mental health has been deeply affected by loss. I know that I am not alone in this experience. And yet I have never felt more alone than I felt during the early months of that grief.
When Paul died, most people had no idea how to be around me. They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what to do. Most of my peer group had no experience of losing a parent, let alone a partner, let alone both. When I tried to talk about it, some people offered me platitudes about heaven needing angels or gardens needing flowers. (I wanted to murder those people for suggesting that some deity had inflicted this on me for his own pleasure). People asked me to be grateful for the happy times and cherish the memories. (I had eight months of a wonderful relationship. It wasn’t enough.) People told me that I would ‘get over’ it, that things would ‘get better’, that I would meet someone new. (I didn’t want to get over it; my sadness was all that was keeping me close to the man I loved. Things couldn’t get better because all I wanted was for him to come back. I didn’t want anyone else). I was angry and desolate and I wanted to be where he was. I was difficult to be around, I know. And I wasn’t just difficult because of the anger and the desolation and the non-stop tears, but because I was standing there openly talking about the fact that death happens. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone and no-one wants to think about that. Our culture does not want to acknowledge that death happens at all. It especially doesn’t want to acknowledge that death happens to children and young people, to people who appear healthy, to people who are our age, to people like us. But it does.
And when someone close to us dies, nothing can prepare us for the impact. People who haven’t experienced deep grief, assume that it feels like sadness. They expect us to cry a little and then get back to normal. But this is not my experience of the kind of grief I experienced when Paul died (or even the grief when my parents died which was much much milder for me). This grief, like many griefs, was shocking and traumatic and grief like that is a full-body experience. For many months I felt like I was vibrating with shock. Grief stops some people from being able to sleep. Grief stops some people from being able to eat. Grief makes it impossible to concentrate or to remember things. Grief literally wiped out huge parts of my long-term memory and still affects my short-term memory to this day. Grief can lead people to live in a state of terror; once the unexpected has happened, anything could happen at any time. Nothing feels safe anymore. Anxiety is a huge side-effect of grief. It is not at all unusual for depression to follow. Grief makes it very hard to cope.
Six months after my loss, I went back to see my old therapist. I didn’t go to talk about grief (I had a bereavement counsellor for that). I went as a routine follow-up to the therapy that I’d been having before Paul died, a therapy that, bizarrely, ended the same week that he did. I remember sitting in her office filling in the standard NHS depression questionnaire which asked me how often I had felt hopeless (every day), how much I had cried (every day), how often I felt fearful (every day), if I had felt that sometimes I’d rather be dead (every day). My therapist totted up my scores and told me that I was clinically depressed and in need of antidepressants and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). If I wasn’t depressed when I’d entered her office, I certainly was when I left. I was no longer grieving, I was depressed. She implied that I should have been better by now, that there was something wrong with me, that I was failing grief. Like the rest of our society, she had no idea how to deal with bereavement.
Luckily for me, I had a wonderful bereavement counsellor via the hospice where my mother had died who reassured me that I was throughly normal in my response to my experience and who supported me for a year as I went through the necessary process of grieving for my love and for my parents. Luckily I had some friends who were gifted in empathy, who were able to sit with me while I cried, who were able to listen without judgement while I talked. Luckily I was a writer who instinctively knew that in order to heal, I needed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of my experience. Luckily (perhaps) I had already had my own struggles with mental health and I knew the strategies that would help. I got out into nature, I swam, I upped my mindfulness practice, I became an expert in self-care. I survived. Three years on, yes, I’m still in recovery but I am smiling, I am happy, I am thriving. Things can knock me off balance and sadness and anxiety can return but I know how to pick myself back up again. Having been through the worst, I know I will be always be ok. Having been so close to death I have also made peace with my own mortality. Death has become familiar to me. It no longer scares me.
Which brings me full circle. We are scared of that which is unfamiliar. How can we prepare for something that no-one will talk about? How can we learn how to support people who are struggling if we have no understanding of why they are struggling? How can we admit that we ourselves are struggling if we fear that we will be misunderstood and silenced when we speak out? Mental health matters. Dying matters. We need to talk about it all. We need to get better at supporting each other in dealing with it. So here I am, doing my bit to raise awareness, in this awareness-raising week.