I don’t know how to talk about my mental health.
I can write about my mental health. Writing makes me happy and I have always found comfort and escape in words. I love the feeling of being stuck in my head, even if it’s not always the best place to be. It’s conversation I find difficult.
Last week I had to phone a colleague and discuss the title for an upcoming event about mental health. The event is hosted by a group of healthcare experts who select topical subjects, like mental health, to debate. I felt their proposed title that questioned the need for prescription medication could possibly offend people who rely on medication to manage their daily lives.
People like me.
I tried to keep my voice steady and professional during our conversation. The phone’s receiver felt hot and it slipped in my sweaty palms. I kept my eyes closed so I wouldn’t have to see myself admitting to a near stranger that I need medication to manage my anxiety. My heart pounded and I felt lightheaded.
My colleague was understanding and immediately agreed to change the event’s title. They also thanked me for being so honest. However, despite the positive outcome I felt ill for hours after our conversation and it was impossible for me to focus on anything but my anxiety. I know I should have felt empowered but I just felt exposed and weak.
There is a definite trend to talk about our mental health. This trend is reflected in initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day and the UK’s Tea & Talk event that both promote open conversations about mental health. Earlier this year the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince Harry championed the mental health charity, Heads Together, as the Virgin London Marathon Charity of the Year. All of these worthy initiatives are meant to de-stigmatize mental illness.
But what do you really say and how much do people really want to hear?
I feel conflicted. I am at a point in my life where I am committed to speaking out about my anxiety, but I am equally scared of being defined by my illness. I don’t want my anxiety to be the only thing people see when they see me, but I want it acknowledged as a significant part of me. I don’t always know how to answer the question, “How are you?”.
My defence is to make fun of myself or apologize for “my craziness”. When people remark on my slim build or what appears to be my endless energy, I joke in reply that “my anxiety diet” keeps me awake and knots my stomach to make eating unappealing. I tell people “I am crazy” when I show up early to everything and keep excessive lists about everything from my groceries to my running mileage.
These are not supportive or truthful things to say; not for myself and not for those in my life.
The first time I really talked about my anxiety was the day I was properly diagnosed. My husband joined me at my doctor’s office to make sure I didn’t hide behind another mysterious illness. This final appointment took place after nearly a year of going to doctors for everything else but anxiety. I was addicted to finding an answer that wasn’t related to my mental health and visited various doctors for suspected colon cancer, multiple sclerosis, strokes, cataracts, and fungal skin infections. Anything but my mental health. During one of these visits, a doctor told me I was suffering from anxiety and gave me a medication sample. I was so offended, I threw it in the garbage the moment I got home.
I know now that was one of the most important and difficult conversations I will ever have about my mental health. I admitted I needed help and that conversation started me on a path of recovery and acceptance.
I want to be more honest when I speak about my mental health. I want to do it a way that doesn’t make people uncomfortable or make excuses for my illness. I want to be able to tell people that despite the medication and the deep breaths, sometimes they aren’t enough and I struggle to get through my day. Just like sometimes you need the extra-strength Aspirin to relieve a terrible headache.
After my last post, I received several emails from strangers that started with, “You don’t know me but…”. These strangers trusted me enough to reach out blindly and share their own mental health experiences. They reminded me why it’s critical that we keep talking and being honest about our mental health.
I will learn to keep talking even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult…
About Erin Hallett
Erin Hallett is a higher education professional living in London. Originally from Victoria, British Columbia she moved to London in 2015 to pursue her dream of an international career. Erin is passionate about writing and hopes to use her voice to raise awareness for mental health issues.