What do you wish other people knew about your mental health? One of our models, tells us candidly what they wish they had known before struggling with their own mental health and making an attempt on their life. We so rarely talk honestly about the zig- zag road of recovery, and what it looks like for individuals from day to day. Here is an unglamourous and honest story about what the road of recovery really means. TW: Suicide methods.
I have a secret to tell you. On the 6th of February 2017, I took 36 paracetamol tablets and continued my evening as normal while I waited for my organs to fail. My death would have cost me 54p, but of course it would have cost my parents considerably more.
If you had told me two years ago that I would go on to attempt suicide, I would probably have said something smug and crass to undermine you, and then I would have avoided speaking to you again. Suffice to say, I, like many others from my hometown, did not have a very high opinion of mental illness and suicidal ideation. People with depression were ‘weak’, ‘dramatic’, or ‘troubled’; worst of all, people who had completed suicide were branded ‘selfish’. Personally, I was brought up with the implicit assumption that depressed and suicidal people were their own category of person: they wore fishnet tights, smoked rollies, wore their scars with pride to make us all uncomfortable and were most definitely Not Us. Don’t worry, this smug attitude would come back to kick me in the teeth later in life.
Coming to terms with suffering from suicidal ideation was a bitter pill to swallow (36 of them), and it completely obliterated any prejudices that I previously had. I want to share some of the things I’ve come to realise about mental illness, and some things that I’ve shared with other sufferers. This is the information that I wish I had known when I became ill but don’t hear in any mainstream discourse. However, I first want to make clear that my suicide attempt was not a ‘lesson’ that had to be learnt. I don’t look back on it now and recognize it as a ‘good’ or ‘necessary’ thing to happen just because I learned X, Y and Z, or became a better person. I could have died, and that is not something to be grateful for. With that in mind, here are the things I know now that I wish I knew then:
1. Listen to me, but maybe don’t believe everything I say. When talking to depressed/suicidal people, try to remember that their outlook is depressed and suicidal. This is very important. Depression is contagious, and I can’t count the amount of times that I have hurt my friend’s and family’s mental health simply by trying to explain my own bleak feelings. I understand that when listening to me, it becomes easy to get stuck in the thick mud of grim that I tend to spout. Please know that just because I’m pessimistic that doesn’t make me right. I’m sad and scared and lonely, I want to talk to people, but I don’t want to hurt them. Hence, listen to me, but maybe don’t believe everything I say.
2. ‘Mentally Ill’ is not a recognizable stereotype. Anyone can suffer from mental illness. Everyone has a breaking point, and, due to the nature of life, anyone could be driven to that point. People who suffer are not weaker, less capable, less trustworthy or less worthy of respect than anyone else. They are unfortunate, that’s all. I often wish that I could go back to visit my old, smug self, slap her across the face (I’m allowed to because it’s me) and say, “YOUR LUCK WILL RUN OUT TOO, MISSY!”
3. We are all trying our best. It isn’t exactly unheard of for mental illness to put a strain on any sort of relationship. Often, people who do not suffer from mental illness can become impatient with a suffering person’s perceived slow or stagnating progress. I don’t entirely blame them. Mental health seems to be the de rigeur charitable cause. With the slew of print ads for helplines, TV ads encouraging us to visit our GP, and countless celebrities crying “It Gets Better”, one could be easily convinced that the road to recovery is linear, and easy for those who try. Well, it’s not. This ongoing campaign which encourages us to take the first step forward into recovery fails to mention that the subsequent steps may go forward, backwards or side-to-side. Finding a path to recovery is like finding a perfect foundation, it's different for everyone, it takes time to find one, mistakes are made along the way and sometimes, frankly, you don’t want to wear make-up.
Personally, I found the process of finding help hellish because I had always assumed it would be simple, and quick. I rang the helplines when I was despondent, but because they’re very restricted as to what they can say (legal reasons, probably) and I wasn’t much in the mood to talk, it involved a lot of disheartening radio silence. I presented myself to the GP saying “I’m planning to kill myself, hopefully sometime in the next week”, but she could only put me on an (18 week) waiting list to see a psychiatric nurse. She too was trying her best, but the NHS is undoubtedly overstretched. Sometimes I was so exhausted from putting one foot in front of the other that I couldn’t cope with the possibility of getting better. Even then, I was still trying my best.
There is no strict path or guidelines to follow, you must stumble about blindly and feel your way through recovery. It’s challenging for everyone. Please be patient with others, we are all trying our best. (By the way, I did eventually find what worked for me- skype therapy with a psychotherapist from my home country. I tried many, many options before I came up with that one, believe me).
4. Be the best kind of friend you can be. You do not have to be the friend that coaches your friends through hard times. However, if you offer to be that friend, please be prepared for the mental health conversation. Don’t panic, just speak, listen, and be compassionate. If you only check your phone once a day and take hours to respond to messages, you are not that friend. You don’t have to say you’ll be there when needed if you can’t/won’t be.
5. If you are having a breakdown, don’t go to a mentally ill friend for comfort. This is a lesson that I learned repeatedly, the hard way. I was let down, and I have let others down. Essentially, if the city is under attack, who do you call? Superman or your great aunt Nora with her broken hip? Coping with the constant suffering that can accompany mental illness takes a huge amount of energy, and if you’re in trouble you need someone strong enough to temporarily support you. Mentally ill people need their strength to nurse themselves back to health. Although you may feel closer to a mentally ill friend, going to them in a breakdown may cause you both damage. This doesn’t mean that you’re less intimate, it means you have responsible and healthy boundaries.
I’m trying not to glorify suicide as some sort of Eat Pray Love journey to self-actualisation. It wasn’t. It was grueling. It was throwing up every 15 minutes for 16 hours. It was having to call my own mother and father in another country to explain to them that their girl, who they’d put so much love and work into, didn’t want to live anymore. It was a lot of guilt, and broken relationships which still haven’t healed, and secrets kept from people I see daily. Worst of all, it was a brief glimpse of the mess I would have left in my wake.
If that doesn’t put you off, this might: I was informed at the hospital that I probably wouldn’t have died. In all likelihood, I would have fallen unconscious and then woken up in severe pain, needing a liver transplant. Go me.
I am not fully better yet, but I am better enough to have some hope for the future. I hope other sufferers find their own way through this time. I hope they know that I care, and that I’m rooting for them. Most of all, I hope they know that they are in good company.