We are getting good at talking. At least, we are better than used to be. We can talk in our workplaces, our homes, our schools and with our friends. We can talk because we are brave. We can talk because – sometimes – we have no choice. We can talk because it’s the only way to be understood.
What is important is that people listen.
What is important is that people understand.
When I talk about my mental health, I do it because I want to share me. I do it because it’s a normal part of my life. I do it so that other people might feel more comfortable with sharing their own experiences. I do it because I know that I must if my children (who will probably struggle with mental health issues – it runs in my family and one in four people do) are able to live in a world where they do not feel that they have to suffer in silence. I do it because I bloody well want to.
Where the problem lies is that I’m never quite sure whether people want to hear what I have to say. Anxiety and depression and and OCD and Anorexia are part of my life. They define what time I go to bed and what I have to eat at lunchtime. Sometimes, they make things harder. Sometimes they mean that I have insight or understanding of something that other people don’t. They are part of me.
And, yet, the question that most people ask me most often is ‘when will they go away?’. The answer, of course, to this is that I just don’t know. There is no timescale, and no surefire cure. OCD has been part of who I am for so long that I have lost count of the years, never mind the ever-changing obsessions and compulsions that have – at times – overtaken everything else in my life. It’s just part of who I am. If I’m entering a room, I’m stepping over the threshold in my own ‘special’ way because I have to. If I’m writing, there will never be four words on a line or in a sentence. It’s just part of who I am. This is not a declaration that I don’t want to get ‘better’, just that my understanding of what ‘better’ is is probably very different to yours. When people ask me when my mental illnesses are going to go away, sometimes it feels a bit like people are asking me when I’m going to go away.
It’s probably hard to understand, but my mental health doesn’t affect my life in lots of ways anymore. It’s the same as knowing that every day you will have to clean the kitchen floor after dinner. It’s annoying sometimes, and sometimes you really can’t be bothered and just want to smash something but – most of the time – you just get on with it. Some days I don’t want to eat. Some days I would really rather give up and hide in the dark. Some days I don’t want to step over thresholds, but most days I just do it.
So, when I talk about it, it’s because it’s relevant to something that I’m saying, or it’s part of my every day experience. It’s because I trust you and like you and want you to be part of my life. It’s not because I want to shock or centre every conversation around myself. It’s not because I need you to feel sorry for me. It’s because I want to talk to you about a large part of my lived experience.
I’m not saying I want you to feel honoured, or that if I don’t talk to you about my mental health it’s because I don’t like or trust you.
So, if I do that, please just listen (chances are you’re already doing a fabulous job of this…). Answer me and talk to me and ask me questions if you have questions. Talk about mental health in exactly the same way you’d discuss physical health, or your favourite type of cheese. Please don’t assume I’m doing it because I’m having a breakdown or because I want special allowances or treatment. The people I work with are amazing at this. They are the best listeners.
Because talking about it as the everyday topic it is (or should be) is the way that we’re going to normalise talking about mental health. This is the way we’re going to help people to understand, and people to seek help, and people to start making steps towards recovery.
You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or a therapist to listen. You don’t have to have had previous experience with mental illness.
Chances are you’re probably already quite important in that person’s life.
You just have to be yourself.