Surviving or Thriving? This is the question being posed during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, taking place between 8-14 May 2017.
As someone who yo-yos between the two, it’s often a fine line and a distinction difficult to make. In recent years I’ve learnt to scale those peaks and glory in the views during times of high productivity, and also deliver myself safely to the ground when I’ve either ran out of inspiration or arrived at a path on my journey for which I have no map. I no longer waste my energy tilting at windmills, but having exhausted all avenues, I often consult my extensive support network of friends, family and trusted practitioners, before making any big decisions. It has taken years of resistance, relapses and fine-tuning to arrive at this juncture, and a combination of mindfulness and medication, but persistence pays off.
The longer you live with something, whether physically or mentally challenging, the more proficient you become at adapting your behaviour to fit the situation and responding appropriately. ‘Acceptance’ is the key word, here, and until you reach that point, you will find it almost impossible to move forward, uninhibited, and be happy in the present moment. It can take some people weeks to deliver themselves from the depths of despair, while others take years. Experiencing loss, or any unexpected interruption into our lives, often requires a process of grieving and adjustment. Left unresolved, grief is poisonous to both our bodies and our minds, and if you don’t ‘lance’ those noxious emotions, the more toxic they become.
Redundancy, an ailing Mother who’d fallen victim to the ravages of Cancer, and an unresolved identity crisis, all resulted in exhaustion, triggering a type of post-traumatic stress disorder that completely overwhelmed me and sent me into a major depressive episode. In that moment, I was neither surviving nor thriving, but existing in a place that I can only describe as hell on steroids. My story very nearly ended there, and my experience of the mental health system was largely traumatic and detrimental to my recovery. However, dedicated individuals from my local CMHT – including my GP – saved the day, and the support that I have received has been second to none. This continuity of care is the reason why I’m so happy to be here, contributing to the discussion and the community that helped save me.
Many people, uncomfortable with such heightened states of emotion, either resist help for fear of being annihilated by the initial groundswell that comes with acknowledging their anxiety, or simply don’t fully appreciate the impact that depression can have if left to run amok and permeate every aspect of their psyche. Generational life events aside, we are now assaulted from all angles: In today’s preoccupation with social media, for example, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of comparing your ‘meagre’ existence to that of someone’s highly edited, highly funded version of reality, invalidating your own life choices and experiences by creating an out-of-reach future self. Of course, this is just one blight on our mental wellbeing and there are myriad reasons for becoming mentally unwell and ways to improve our outlook on life.
A lot of the way that we respond to any given situation depends, to some extent, on our upbringing and the conditioning that we experienced as a child. Many emotions lie buried, like a sleeping giant, until we have the capacity to analyse the situation and recognise the part that this ticking bomb has played in shaping our resilience to stress. Reframing your thinking can be exhausting and not a particularly efficient way of living, but it can be achieved as you learn to develop a stronger sense of self and become master of your own mental health. I still have the occasional moment when I go from lucidity to languishing, at the flick of a switch, but those extremes have become much less frequent and short-lived. In the end you learn to be your own hero, but never forget the people who got you there and the impact that you, too, can have on another person’s ability to thrive.