Content warnings: Depression, anxiety, disassociation, self-harm (specifically cutting) and suicidal ideation
Five years ago, I wrote something for Self Injury Awareness Day. Since then, things have gotten both worse and better at the same time. I wanted to write down my “journey” since then, but also some thoughts about mental health vs mental illness in general, and why I find some many things in this space so frustrating.
Not long after I wrote that last post, I became the sickest I’ve ever been. The self-harm escalated to daily, I starting buying blades to make it easier, I had a kit of plasters and wound wipes in my bag because I was so worried about getting infections. The place I worked was next to a river, and I often got distracted by staring at it and wondering what it would be like to sink. I started to disassociate; I believed I was in the wrong timeline, I thought I was in a VR simulation, I forgot people’s names. I became obsessed with the idea that I would be sucked into my laptop screen and I would touch it to see if this was how I could escape. It was messed up.
I had a lot of therapy and I haven’t been that bad since. It’s a good reminder though that every time I feel overwhelmed that at least it’s not that bad. The self-harm was the main reason I started therapy and yet it’s the only thing out of that list that hasn’t really stopped. I’m less suicidal, I haven’t disassociated since then. I just can’t stop cutting myself.
Self-harm is a series of contradictions. I do it to feel in control and yet acknowledge it as the place where I’ve lost control. I want people to see it and know that I’m not right, but I don’t want them to ask me about it. I want to be open about it, but I sit in meetings looking at people wondering if they’ve seen it and what they think. Ultimately, it’s a very visible symptom of a hidden condition.
It’s the last point that kinda highlights a lot of my issues with the way we currently talk about “mental health”. Depression is very hidden, it’s very internal and you get so used to having to wear a persona of “everything is fine” that it’s hard for anyone, even yourself, to see what’s underneath. This is why a lot of awareness things have been around getting people to open up (we’ll come back to this) or for people to check in with each other. On the flip side, it makes depression really easy to ignore. “Oh I just didn’t notice!”. If I visibly self-harm (many people don’t do it anywhere visible and the majority of my cuts are hidden, but sometimes I’m either too depressed to care or I need to do it now and my arm is easy access), you can’t just not notice that. Not all mental conditions are hidden, and perversely those are the ones we don’t talk about. We don’t talk enough about bipolar, paranoia, schizophrenia etc etc
The way we talk about mental health doesn’t talk about mental illness. It talks about those temporary things; a flash of low mood, a period of stress, feeling worried about something. Things that mindfulness and wellbeing and all those things probably help out a bit. Mindfulness can sometimes help me I think; I use counting as a way to come down from a panic attack sometimes, or a breathing exercise to try and head one off. I guess I’m just frustrated about how that’s where the conversation stops. It takes a lot to talk to a manager about how I’m really not mentally well, but if all I get back is “have you tried meditation” then I won’t talk to you anymore. Then you’ll think I’m better but I’m not, and really it gets worse because I can’t trust you.
This post is weird and rambling I know. I started writing this two weeks ago after a bad episode and I’ve rewritten it at least 10 times since then. I just wanted to get something out there. Let’s do some takeaways.
- Not all mental illness is hidden and we need to talk about those as much as we talk about “it’s ok to not be ok”
- “Time to talk” puts pressure on the individual who has the problem and lets everyone else off the hook. I’m fed up of talking. Maybe you need to talk to me. Maybe you need to get better at actually listening and then do something
- Employers are using “wellbeing” to shirk their responsibility for creating toxic environments and managers are not taking their reports seriously when they come to them with anything vaguely serious.
- Self-harm is a thing. It sucks. It’s hard to talk about. This is the best I can do.