TRIGGER WARNING: mental health, anxiety, depression, suicide
Ironically, I'm writing this blog post on a rubbish mental health day. But they're pretty rare nowadays. Six months ago, in November last year, every day was a rubbish mental health day.
I've always struggled with anxiety, panic attacks and low self-esteem, and I've had bouts of depression in the past. But at the end of last year, I was in a really dark place.
I literally felt like my life was a joke. I like to walk along the pier head when I'm feeling down, and on this one particular day, I had reached my lowest ebb and while I wasn't suicidal, I wouldn't have been too fussed if I fell into the river. That makes it sound very dramatic, but I'm just being honest. Anyway, that was the day I decided that this couldn't go on, and I took myself off to the doctor's the next day.
So six months on, what have I learned?
Admitting I was struggling was only the first step
For some reason, I thought that going to the doctor's would magically cure me. It did not. But it was a positive step in the right direction towards helping myself.
I put off seeing a medical professional for a long time because it hadn't helped me in the past. I've been prescribed anti-depressants without really being asked how I was feeling and what I thought would help, and I've done CBT which, in my experience, is a bit of a one-size-fits-all technique which anyone who's googled "how to deal with anxiety" will already know.
But my new GP was and is amazing. She didn't try to force any treatments on me, she listened to what I was saying without judgment and she reassured me that I wasn't being overdramatic. It really helped that she isn't someone I know in my personal life, so she could offer an objective perspective.
It was a huge step forward for me to tell someone how I was feeling, because I usually can't bring myself to say anything other than "I"m good, thanks! How are you?" when someone asks me how I am. I'm not sure if that's because I don't want to make a fuss or worry people, but it isn't healthy to keep it all inside. So if you're like me and struggle to share your feelings when you're feeling bad, try to speak to either someone you trust, or an outside person like your doctor or a therapist.
I'm looking at private counselling at the moment as I still don't feel comfortable telling my close family and friends how I feel a lot of the time, and I think it will do me a world of good to be able to have an honest chat with someone who I don't have a "responsibility" to.
Something had to give
There were a couple of things contributing to my period of depression, but the big baddie at that point in my life was work. I'd been at my job for almost four years, but from the start of 2017 it changed and started to become something I loathed.
The goal posts were constantly being moved so projects were never right, I was being contacted by work during weekends, evenings and holidays and told that I needed to check my emails while I was on holiday (this is not okay!) and I was doing about five different roles alongside studying for my accountancy exams. I was burnt out. As someone who puts a lot of importance on their career, this was crushing.
When I saw my doctor for the first time, she signed me off work. I won't go into it, but this was handled terribly by my employer. So, I did what you aren't supposed to do. I quit.
It was something normal, sensible Julia would never do. I'm independent, I have rent to pay (and I worry about other people's opinions)! But I knew I'd find another job. And I knew that I'd rather be broke than live my one life devoid of happiness.
It's easier said than done, I know, but if there's one aspect of your life in particular that stresses you out, try to eliminate it, or put steps in place to get rid of it. It has honestly improved my mental health so much.
I've learned to recognise my triggers
I used to be quite oblivious to what made me feel anxious or sad. I knew that I wasn't keen on crowds or loud people, but apart from that I was totally in the dark, so I couldn't work on overcoming the things that triggered bad feelings.
I started writing down where I was and what I was doing when a panic attack came on "suddenly" and pretty quickly, I was able to connect the dots to work out that these things weren't random - there was a pattern!
I know now that it isn't necessarily crowds that make me panic, but feeling like I'm trapped and can't escape, so if it's really busy I make sure I have an "escape plan" and I mentally prepare myself if I know somewhere will be busy - this makes total sense as people are always dumbfounded that I get panic attacks but don't have a problem getting the tube, it's because I'm already mentally prepared for the chaos!
I also need to know my limits. I can't force myself into a situation which is going to upset me until I'm ready, and I shouldn't punish myself for not being able to do certain things every day.
Sometimes you can't avoid your triggers, and in that case, you have to learn how to deal with them.
My cousin died on Christmas Day a couple of years ago when she was 26, which is the age I am now. So I knew that turning 26 would be difficult, obviously every Christmas is hard but this one in particular being the age she was when she died, and I know that my birthday next month is going to be horrible as I'll now be older than she was when she died. But because I know that this will make me more vulnerable, I can at least prepare myself and give myself a bit of a free pass to let myself feel sad and then move on, rather than trying to ignore it.
Ironically, one of my triggers is reading about mental health, which is why I'm not as active as I should be when it comes to campaigning for better mental health support. But again, I'm working on why that triggers me and how I can get over it.
There doesn't have to be a reason for every feeling
As much as there can be triggers for a mental health dip, sometimes you're just feeling a bit sad for no reason. Take today, for example. Nothing "bad" has happened. And yet I've felt really sad and anxious all day.
Sometimes people get questioned over their poor mental health because there's no reason behind it, or they're very privileged. There doesn't have to be a reason. Anyone can be affected by mental illness, no matter how privileged and seemingly perfect their life is.
The key is knowing that these feelings will pass. I need to remind myself that I won't feel this way forever, which I sometimes forget. And if I feel down for more than a few days, then I need to take action to help myself, whether that's seeing my doctor, having a chat with someone I feel I can trust or biting the bullet and booking a counselling session.
My mental health doesn't define me
Feeling anxious or going through a spell of poor mental health is so common, and I hate when it's implied that people who struggle with their mental health aren't capable of dealing with "the real world" or won't go far in their career.
So many successful people, especially creatives, have mental health issues, including Russell Brand (my bae), Cara Delevigne and Fearne Cotton. More people need to realise that mental illness isn't a sign of laziness or being unreliable. In fact, I'd say I work harder to show up and be amazing at what I do because a) I want to prove to myself and others that I'm capable and b) my biggest anxiety trigger is the fear of failure.
I have anxiety, yes, but I have so many more important qualities, like being kind, creative, hard-working, funny, excellent at Alan Partridge impressions...the point is that mental health doesn't get to define us, we do.