It was mental health awareness week, and this year, that seems particularly pertinent. I’ve been pondering writing this reflection for a while, and this week seems like a good prompt to actually put it into words!
(OK, I procrastinated… and it’s now the week after mental health awareness week.) But that’s OK too… it turns out mental health crises don’t neatly fit their prescribed one week of the year!
This covid season has put everyone into an unexpected season, where our environment has changed, where we’ve had to rethink much of what we do, where we’ve faced restrictions or changes to much of what we considered ‘normal’ three months ago.
Many of you may already know, I have a mental health disorder label… one of the big ones…, I have Bipolar 1. There has been much talk about mental health in recent years, in helping to challenge the stigma… but most of that challenge has been around depression and anxiety. Many people seem to view mental health challenges as just being about the person… that it’s a sign of weakness… that they really should just try a bit harder and then it would all be OK.
In the disability world, there are the concepts of the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. The medical model views the disability as a problem that belongs to the person with the disability, and not really therefore of concern to others. So for someone that uses a wheelchair, trying to access a building with steps… the medical model suggests the issue is the wheelchair.
In the social model of disability, it’s a recognition that the system is one that disables the person. So in this example, the steps are the issue that creates the barrier for the person using a wheelchair.
This season, where so much has changed and many people that have not previously had challenges with anxiety, suddenly find themselves facing mental health challenges. This isn’t because suddenly many people have become ill, or weak… it’s because this season has changed the rules of society overnight, and many people didn’t have existing coping strategies for this. Society changed, the way that we live changed, and for many people this has created a situation in which anxiety is a really normal reaction.
My hope is that this experience will help us to have a great understanding and empathy for those facing mental health challenges related to other situations and experiences.
During my curacy, as I found myself in an ongoing situation that was particularly stressful for me, I found that spending time being creative really helped me, and I started attending an art class learning to paint and draw. 2.5 years into curacy, my GP signed me off work with stress, then anxiety and depression. I continued to go to my art class.
About three weeks after being signed off work, on an increased dosage of antidepressant medications, and still taking diazepam to help me be calm, I went to my class. It turned out that week we were doing self-portraits. Selina, my teacher, asked us to spend the lesson looking at ourselves in a mirror and drawing ourselves.
My first instinct was to run away. I wanted to be competent and capable, I wanted to see myself as competent and capable, I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror. I was still shaking as I went outside the house, it had taken all my energy just to get to the class in the bookshop, and I wanted to run away. I didn’t. I decided to sit and try and draw myself. As I look back at my drawing now, one of the things I can see is the extent to which depression and anxiety can distort our perceptions of ourselves.
In the three years since, I have now been diagnosed with various neurodiverse conditions too, and I am better able to articulate why I struggled so much with the environment in my curacy. But at the time, signed off with anxiety, I felt a complete failure, and as well as struggling with depression and anxiety, one of the things I found hardest of all was to have any compassion for myself. I wanted to be able to cope, I wanted to be the person I thought I should be, and I was cross and angry with myself for failing to live up to that picture.
A few weeks after the first drawing, on an increased dosage of antidepressants, it turns out that I’m one of the small percentage of people that react atypically to the medication… for me, that reaction is mania… and I even do that atypically. I was fortunate, due to the longer time in mania, before it was identified, I was able to stumble across ADHD and was referred for assessment. The mania induced by the medication escalated, I reached psychosis too, and I was sectioned in psychiatric hospital for a couple of weeks. After I came out of hospital, I continued with learning drawing and violin, to help me connect, to ground, to be. In hospital I had been placed on new medications, to sedate, to numb, to reduce the mania. I had to take anti-psychotic mood stabiliser medication. Two weeks after hospital, still on the very strong medications, I drew another self-portrait.]
Last November, 2019, nearly 3 years after the first drawing, I was on retreat at St Beuno’s.
I was newly diagnosed with autism in autumn 2019, following diagnoses of bipolar 1, ADHD and sensory processing disorder soon after my second drawing.
I have been fortunate to find people that have been willing to walk alongside me, to hold hope and light for me on days and seasons where that seemed impossible. At the time of the last drawing, I was finally able to look myself in the eye in the mirror, and learning to look with gentleness and compassion on the person looking back.
Looking at these drawings reminds me how much I can distort what I see in the mirror. How my own mood or situation can massively change how I’m willing to view myself, and the compassion and care I’m willing to give myself (and others.)
For anyone who is struggling with depression or anxiety, or other mental health challenges today, my heart goes out to you. My prayer is that you too will find people who will walk alongside you, and hold hope and light for you on days when it all seems impossible. I encourage you to have compassion for yourself, to be gentle on yourself, to recognise that there are some things that are beyond our control, and that it’s OK to not know how to cope with everything. My hope is that you will have the courage to be gentle on yourself, and to find the help or support you need to get through today.
I am so grateful for those who have walked alongside me (and still do!) None of us can ever know fully what is going on for someone else, even those we are close to. Praying for us all to encounter gentleness and compassion in ourselves and others.
I think what I’m really saying, is that it’s OK to not be OK, it’s OK to acknowledge that to ourselves, and although it’s hard, it’s OK to reach out, to connect with others and to ask for help.