A couple of months ago, I moved to the coast. I can see the sea from my bedroom window and, at the moment, every morning I can see slightly less beach than I could the day before. The tide times change and the landscape is in a constant state of flux. It’s never the same and yet it always seems to be different in the same way.
Perhaps it’s because the move has unsettled me, but at the moment my anxiety seems to be swelling and breaking with the tides. The doom is the shoreline, distant but distinctly visible, slowly creeping forward until I’m in over my head with no defence but a suddenly soggy towel. I’ve been here before. For me, mental illness feels a little bit like a hangover, in that I have to believe that I will eventually get to the end of my feelings, even though they feel endless, and because you get kind and well-meaning advice from people, which more or less amounts to “Why don’t you go back in time to last night and replace half of your drinks with water?!”
All I can do is try to be kind to myself, to remember that I don’t need to feel bad for feeling bad, and that it’s OK if I’m not going to the gym, or replying to emails, or working on a novel. In the middle of the afternoon, when I feel as though I’m drowning, I stop what I’m doing and lie on the sofa with my eyes closed and half-listen to an old episode of Sex And The City, as if it were a radio play, occasionally opening one eye at the mention of Birkin bags or Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes. This is also exactly what I do when I’m on day one of an especially crampy period, or I’m at the beginning of a cold-that-could-be-flu – plus or minus a hot-water bottle and a bowl of Heinz Cream of Tomato.
When you empathise with someone else’s mental struggles, you’re revealing your own humanity and vulnerability
Madalyn Parker, a web developer based in Michigan, went viral when she emailed her work colleagues to say she was taking the rest of the week off to “focus on [her] mental health” – and she shared the reply from her enlightened boss, who wrote: “You are an example to us all.” Parker has sparked a global conversation about mental-health care and how we manage it. Admittedly, I’ve worked with people who’d take a sick day if they sneezed twice in a row, and people who will insist on coming in with a forehead hotter than a panini press, but broadly speaking if we’re significantly, physically poorly, we stay at home. Yet how many of us would feel comfortable sending the sort of message that Parker sent? I know I would – and have – felt better about saying, “I have chronic diarrhoea,” than, “Today I’m just too sad to function.”
The difficult thing about mental illness is that when you’re suffering, it’s especially hard to ask for the help and support that you need. Parker told CNN she has chronic anxiety, depression and PTSD. I’m guessing she has been living with these conditions for a long time, and learnt to read her feelings and work out when she needs to take some time off. Most of us know how our bodies work. We’ll stop walking when one knee starts to feel stiff and clicky, and go home for a hot bath. We’ll avoid the prawns because we know there’s a chance that they’ll result in a dodgy stomach. We stop drinking coffee after 4pm because we know we won’t be able to sleep if we have any more caffeine. Still, when it comes to our minds and emotions, we are always, if asked, “fine”. We don’t allow ourselves the space to feel our feelings – and it’s unusual that anyone gives that space to us, unasked.
When you empathise with someone else’s mental struggles, you’re revealing your own humanity and vulnerability. I think one of the reasons that the stigma around mental health persists is that so many of us are frightened of addressing our own issues. If you’re going to give your employee time off to deal with mental health, you have to acknowledge that you might need the same support at some stage. You have to be extremely strong to admit and address your own fragility. We hide from it. We treat that part of our brains like a cupboard under the stairs, chucking in bad, sad boxes every so often, but keeping the doors locked and the lights off. If you couldn’t imagine getting an understanding response to an email like Parker’s, I suspect there’s a strong chance that your boss needs time off as badly as you do.
I love the fact that the mental-health conversation is ongoing and in 2017 discussing mental illness feels easier and more natural than ever. Still, that definitely doesn’t mean it’s easy. Parker’s actions are courageous and inspiring. I want to live in a world where we all feel that we could send that email to our bosses and receive an empathetic response. However, this requires an enormous cultural shift. We need to acknowledge that our brains are just as fallible as our bodies and be encouraged to monitor our mental temperature. I will never be “cured” of my anxiety, but after years of learning to listen to myself, I’ve started to see a pattern. I can read my mind like a tide timetable. It might feel different, but it keeps changing in the same way, and I know that nothing good can come from swimming against the current. All I can do is lie on my safe sofa island and tell myself it’s OK to stay there until I feel strong enough to swim back out into the world.