It was 2:45am on a Saturday morning and I was still wide awake. No, I hadn’t been out partying. I hadn’t even had a sip of booze. I’d gone to bed at a normal hour after binge watching a few too many episodes of Fargo with my lover. I was tired when I lay my head on the pillow but as soon as the light went off I was wide awake. I was mad. I was sad. I was miserable. My body felt stiff and itchy. My gut felt hard and rigid; wrecked with guilt and full of resentment. On this Saturday, which ironically marked the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, I was finding myself on the edge of a relapse.
For me, my mental illness is something that is always with me – even if just a little bit. I do my best to manage it and keep it in check but the truth is it is always there, lurking on the periphery.
A History of Mental Illness
From as young as eight years old I had bouts of depression. I recall my parents announcing a trip to the public swimming pools and feeling a heavy sense of disappointment, boredom and hopelessness wash over me. It’s a feeling I now know as depression.
From the age of ten I developed obsessive thoughts and feelings of anxiety to go with the depression. My mind was in a whir, constantly considering and questioning all kinds of things and then feeling guilty for even thinking about them. I became addicted to confessing my sins to my mother, who had somehow become my personal catholic priest. Every night I’d come clean to her, telling her all my impure thoughts from the day. ‘I looked at a girl’s vagina in the changing room at swimming. When Mr Bruce was talking at assembly I imagined him naked, then imagined him having sex, then I imagined having sex with him! On it went. Out it would all come and my mother would listen and smile then simply say, ‘it’s okay, you’re allowed to have your own thoughts’. I would sigh, feeling cleansed and absolved of my sins. For a few minutes. Then the thoughts would start up again and the guilt and fear would start up again with them.
During my teenage years the anxiety lead to extreme hypochondria and a dependency on alcohol to get through all social situations.
It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom at 23 and had a complete breakdown that I was forced to reevaluate my self-care practices. It turned out that up until this point I hadn’t really had any. Until then, exercise was only something you did to lose weight, sugar was a dietary staple as was coffee, early nights were for party-poopers and living as a tortured artist was part and parcel of a creative life. Oh how wrong I was!
Nosce te Ipsum – Know Thyself
Nosce te Ipsum is a Latin phrase meaning Know Thyself. After managing my mental illness for ten years by using this phrase every day, I decided it was time to get it inked on my body as a constant reminder. I do my best to know myself. I know what makes my heart sing. I know what makes me sad. I know my triggers and my self-care requirements to keep my illness in check. I have learnt a lot of things about myself over the years and now that I know these things I can’t un-know them. One thing I know for sure is that I want to live. I refuse to let my mental illness claim my life.
What I Know about Myself
If I drink caffeine I have panic attacks. One cup now and then is usually okay – though I will notice I am more grumpy and hungry than if I stick to decaf – but one cup every day for a week will send me over the edge. It’s easy to slip back into that old morning routine of jump starting my brain with coffee – Oh believe me I do miss that wide away feeling. But the last time I let myself get hooked on the good stuff I found myself driving on a rainy night in peak-hour traffic with an elephant sitting on my chest. No matter what I did I could not stop myself from panicking. And panicking only makes a stressful situation much harder.
When it comes to sugar it is similar but instead of becoming anxious I first become irritable and then very depressed. As I am highly sensitive to the chemical response sugar brings out in me, one tiny taste leaves me gagging for the next fix. I find it impossible to live in the now and be present with my kids because all I am thinking about is face smashing a tub of ice cream. It is the one substance I am highly addicted to. If I fall off the wagon it is very hard for me to get back on it.
I wish I could say that I was fine with sugar alternatives like stevia or erythritol, but I find them just as bad, if not worse, than the real thing. I stick to fruit for my sweetness, especially banana.
The Need for Alone-Time
Being a Highly Sensitive Unicorn, an introvert and an intuitive empath, I find being around people for long stretches of time VERY hard. It’s not that I don’t like people – I do – it’s just that I find the energy of others incredibly draining. Even if another person is in the same room as me not saying a word I can feel their energy and I am concerned about their well being.
In order to recharge I need to be alone. Sometimes all I need is half an hour to unwind, read a book, exercise and meditate. Though of course if I leave it to long without demanding this time I will need a lot more time alone to make up for it. It may seem like a simple thing but I have learnt the hard way that when I don’t get this time I start to lose my shit. My perfectly woven shroud of wellness starts to unravel and soon all hell will break loose.
I have learnt that I need to exercise regularly and that if I go more than three days without a good bout of cardio I will start to become very sad. The sadness makes it even harder for me to start to exercise again. That’s when I know that the darkness is coming for me; the sadness is just the beginning, soon the darkness will swallow me up and it will not let me exercise at all. It will convince me that it’s best stay in bed eating Tim-Tams. But the darkness is not my friend. It doesn’t want me to get better because it likes having me there to torment. As they say ‘misery loves company’.
Do you want to know something funny? I hate exercise. I was not a sporty child and even now as adult I would rather be writing than sweating it out on the spin bike but I know myself and I know that exercise is simply a necessity for my well-being.
Cyclically, if I get to point where I have not exercised for more than three days, I also find it very hard to sleep. My anxiety levels spike and as soon as my head hits the pillow all I can see are my children falling from great heights. My heart pounds and my legs are restless. The only way to cure the sleeplessness is to go for a very long walk the next day. This can be the hardest thing to do when you’re feeling on the edge of a breakdown. But believe me, it is the very best thing you can do in order to rebalance your sleeping patterns.
The most likely times for me to experience a relapse in anxiety and depression are during the school holidays (when I am likely to miss out on ‘alone time’ or exercise time) or in between projects. If I don’t have a project on the go that I am passionate about I can begin to lose my sense of purpose. For this reason I do my best to make sure I have a direction ready for when I finish a large project.
I recently sent my young-adult fantasy novel off to a few literary agents in New York. I knew that suddenly not having my novel to think about 24/7 would leave me feeling a little directionless, so I booked in some film work for that week to give my mind a new focus before I started on my next novel. I need to be constantly working on something that excites me and sets my heart a flutter in order to feel fulfilled. How about you?
Being a Tortured Artist is a Choice
Ah yes. That old cliche that has claimed the lives of many artists. For years I believed that in order to make really good art one needed to suffer. I even foolishly thought that my mental illness was the key to my success and to treat it or manage it would be my creative downfall.
For years I stayed up late to work – even though I knew it impacted on the rest of my life. I used to drink a lot to drown out the sense of disappointment when my work didn’t sell, get published or if I didn’t get the part. Even when I finally realised that drinking heavily wasn’t a healthy way to manage my feelings, I still continued to binge on junk food instead; when really it’s the same thing, just different.
I used to engage in spiteful acts of bitching just to make myself feel better about not having what others did. Instead of being happy for my peers I would silently hate and resent their success. I would wallow as if they had blatantly stolen something from me, even though they had earned it fair and square.
When I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic I was reminded that living as a tortured artist is in fact a choice. We can choose to live as if this creativity we a besieged with is a heavy crown on our heads, a curse if you will, or we can accept that yes, we have a need to do this work, a calling even, but it need not be the death of us.
“You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration or its master, but something far more interesting – it’s partner – and that the two of you are working together toward something intriguing and worthwhile.” – Elizabeth Gilbert.
On top of all of the things I do to manage my illness, I also take medication. Since my breakdown over 10 years ago I have remained on medication. While all of my self-care can help with the depression and anxiety, only medication helps to relieve me of the obsessive thoughts.
I have at times come off it, like when I was pregnant, but after falling ill again I’d always go back on it. I’ve discovered I am not well when I am not on medication. I have an illness that requires medicine. Much like people with high blood pressure or asthma need medication, so do those with mental illness. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it, as if it’s ‘taking the easy way out’, believe me, it’s not. It’s a bit like how body builders take supplements – they still have to lift the weights.
As they say, ‘opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one’. Inevitably, there will come a time when some big dummy decides to tell you what they think of your choice to take medication. The thing is only you, and those closest to you, can truly know what’s best for you. Personally, I knew that when my lover couldn’t go down to the shops to get milk without coming back to find me in tears, because I was sure he would crash and die on the way home, that it was time to go back on my meds.
Being medicated is a choice that no one should make you feel ashamed of. It takes a lot of courage for someone with a mental illness to even seek help let alone accept that medication may be the right choice for them. In my experience, it’s not the mentally ill people on medication you need to worry about, it’s the ones who aren’t medicated that you need to watch out for!
The most important thing that we learn in this life is how to master the art of being ourselves. To do that we need to learn to know ourselves through and through.
How well do You Know Yourself? Ask yourself these questions:
What is your favourite colour? How often do you wear it?
What is your favourite food? How often do you eat it?
If you could wear anything, without considering cost or ridicule, what would you wear?
A) I am happiest when…
A) I am saddest when…
What would you be doing if you were in your absolute bliss moment?
What foods or environments make you feel bad?
What daily activities are you currently doing that are detrimental to your happiness?
What one daily practice are you not currently doing that would improve your quality of life?
My life purpose is…
Obviously there are no wrong answers. The point of theses questions is to get you thinking about what you like and don’t like. The real truth lies behind how easy it was for you to answer these questions. If you struggled to answer then perhaps you are a little out of touch with what brings you joy.