Part 1: The diagnosis

Last week, when it had to be pointed out to ASDA and Tesco that their ‘psycho ward’ and ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costumes were not acceptable, I decided I wanted to start to write about mental health.

In particular, my mental health.

Be nice, I’m about to make myself pretty vulnerable…

After the birth of my third child (the magnificent Ted born in 2009), the wheels started to fall off.

I wasn’t coping and my lovely husband suggested, after quite an extensive period of trying to fix me himself, that I go and see someone wiser than me and get some advice. To try and figure out what the chuff was going on.

I had a couple of ‘meetings’ with this wise woman and cried a great deal.

At this point i have a memory I want to share with you. It is also a confession.  I think the reason I have remembered it very clearly (to the extent that I can remember the weather and time of day) is because it is important. Embarrassing but important.

I was walking down Allerton road to see aforementioned wise woman, having dropped children off at various places, and I experienced an almost audible thought process. I thought:

“Okay so i am having to go and ‘see’ someone… but at least I’ve not got depression. At least I’m not on anti-depressants. That would mean i was really in a mess and the situation was pretty hopeless. Imagine being so weak that you needed ‘happy pills’ to anaesthetise you. Only really flaky people need that. Imagine failing in the basic test: getting through the day in a respectable fashion.”

I would never have admitted to thinking like this. Outwardly I would have been very supportive of anyone else going through depression, whilst secretly probably thinking they ‘weren’t trying hard enough’.

Oh how I now cringe at my ignorant foolish proud self.

Bleurghhhh. Yuk. (Hangs head)

Anyway, as you may have guessed, I arrive at the wise woman’s house (now I just call her my counsellor or therapist – as that is what she is!) and it was only a matter of moments before she said. ‘I have been looking at my notes since we last met and i think you are  suffering with post-natal depression’.

She went on to suggest anti-depressants.

Stop

Over the coming weeks and months I underwent an exercise in taking off all the masks of respectability I had been wearing.  It was pretty painful and strangely liberating. I no longer needed to pretend everything was ok! It wasn’t.

an aside:

When I was at university I studied and really enjoyed the work of a performance artist called Bobby Baker. She was proper nuts and totally brilliant. Lots of her work was intensely personal and very funny. One particular piece of work she did stands out for me, and i have thought of it many times in the past few years. She hired a flat-bed truck and donned a white lab coat. She then sat on a chair fixed to the back of the flat-bed truck and was driven around London. As she was driven around she shouted through a mega-phone at passers-by; “Pull yourself together!”.

Bobby-Bakers-Pull-Yourself-Together-image-by-Hugo-Glendinning3-600x340

I love this because it so simply exposes the ridiculousness of this approach. The idea that by ‘trying harder’ it would somehow be possible to stop falling apart. This was the lie I had believed for quite some time. If i only made more of an effort and wasn’t so lazy, selfish, disorganised I would be well. I would be back in control.

The diagnosis of post-natal depression was enough for me at the time. I liked to kid myself that it was the third pregnancy hormone craziness that did me in. I found that thought somehow reassuring. If i am honest, looking back now, I would say that i had been suffering for many years. Probably since before I had kids. Not suffering to the same extent maybe, but i have memories of experiencing panic attacks (not that i knew that is what they were) and periods of extreme anxiety for a good while before this diagnosis.

Some people fall off a cliff into mental illness, they have been ok and then suddenly they are not. For others (me included) it is a slow inexorable slide into depression. I think often this can be more dangerous, because it is far harder to spot. I had been putting various coping mechanisms in place for years. Managing and controlling my life so I wasn’t exposed, So i didn’t look like I was losing the plot. Basically so people couldn’t see me failing.

Step one was admitting I was not okay.  The first step back to health.

———————————————————-

Afterword:

One of the main reasons I am writing about this is to try and normalise talking about mental illness.

The supermarket giants were probably motivated by profit with the costumes they produced, and i am glad that it started a conversation in the press (and that they are going to be donating sizeable sums to mental health charities). But I think it is in more subtle ways that we (and i include my former self in this) dismiss people who are suffering with mental illness.

Ignorance can create a grace deficit.

Whilst the issues that surround mental health continue to be talked of in hushed tones, if at all, then people – who are suffering – will find it harder to get the help they need. Hence my honesty.

My story is not that extreme. It is also not neatly concluded – i don’t have a ‘clean bill of health’ certificate that ensures i will never again find myself struggling to hold it together as the world seems to slide out from under my feet. Right now i am well, and i am learning to put some things in place to maintain that.

I have written and re-written this post. When a subject is not often spoken of it can scary to be the one to bring it up.

18 Comments
  • cheeriosmilkandspoon
    Posted at 16:11h, 04 October Reply

    Well done for being so honest, it’s very refreshing and I wished I had read this when I was in the same boat as you after my second pregnancy.

  • Jo jacko
    Posted at 16:23h, 04 October Reply

    Elli i applaud your honesty. I underwent a course of cognitive behaviour therapy this year, it was great. I’d kicked against having it cos it sounds so simple i thought “i know how to journal etc”, but actually it really helped. God Bless you in the journey towards fully healing your mind one day at a time xxx Jo

  • Jen Oliver
    Posted at 17:38h, 04 October Reply

    So honest! This will help so many silent sufferers. Well done for sharing xxx

  • Janet Burch
    Posted at 21:43h, 04 October Reply

    thanks elli x

  • adam
    Posted at 12:34h, 05 October Reply

    So beautifully written! Love your blog Elli x x x

  • Kate
    Posted at 22:49h, 05 October Reply

    Great Elli! I think having an actual diagnosis is helpful. I kept thinking ‘Oh yes, that’s why…….etc. etc.’ it made sense of situations I had been in and my response to them. And when it happens slowly and you don’t recognise it, it’s so easy to put it down to other things such as busyness or circumstances or lack of sleep rather than being unwell. A diagnosis can give people permission to be ill and that’s when recovery can begin, however small the steps seem at the time. Thanks Elli, blog on my friend…..

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  • Rhiannon Adams
    Posted at 21:21h, 09 October Reply

    Hi thank you so much for writing these blogs. I recognised a lot of what you said as I was diagnosed last year with PND. I now help run a support group for parents struggling with PND and depression, anxiety etc. It’s called Parents Supporting Parents in Poynton. Xx

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  • Shahana
    Posted at 16:04h, 14 April Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 when I was 14, so I suppose I was lucky in that I didn’t have to wrestle with pre-conceived ideas about mental illness. It was a relief for me to have some idea what had happened. As time has gone by, I have had multiple episodes, though, and I’ve been told that they will likely only get worse as I age. I share this not because I feel the need for pity, but because it was a bit of a call to action for me to start writing about mental health as well. There’s a need to open up the dialogue about how mental illnesses affect us on a day to day basis, and that getting help can mean the difference between a short, desperate life, and a long one filled with moments of joy and opportunity.

    It starts with talking about those dark times, no matter how embarrassing they might be. So, thank you. <3

    • ElliJohnson
      Posted at 12:50h, 16 April Reply

      It really does. Go for it and thanks for your message, Elli x

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