At the mouth of a cave, the light floods in. The further into the cave I recess, the more the light fades. Eventually, it cannot be seen at all and darkness ensues. So it is as I explore writing; at first I sat in the entrance to the cave and wrote about what the light touched, but eventually I went inside and began to explore the light-starved caverns, the hidden lakes.
Writing has been the cheapest form of therapy; it has enabled me to explore the smorgasbord of emotions within me – those which I express and those which I internalise. I can write the emotions that I cannot speak and it’s more cathartic than I could ever explain, and it’s a catharsis that I need.
For a number of reasons, I ended up pretty low last year. After years of concealing and supressing emotions, I suddenly discovered that I was at capacity after an event that my brain couldn’t process. I was plagued with severe and constant headaches as I fought to push the emotions down and they bubbled beneath the surface. I developed a range of techniques to enable myself to function and, through these, I was just about able to ‘keep up appearances’. I was good at feigning normality: I could laugh at jokes and I could manage to hold up my end of the conversation, but it exhausted me and when I got home in the evenings I would just sit and cry. I struggled to sleep, I struggled to get up in the mornings. Sometimes I couldn’t go to work because I would start crying as I was trying to get ready and just wouldn’t be able to stop.
One day, my mother phoned me and discovered that I was crying. I told her how low I had been over the preceding months. At first, she tried to jolly me along (“count your blessings!”) but as I pressed my point and explained myself, she grew concerned.
“You need to go to the Doctor. This isn’t right. You are depressed and need to get some pills. You also need counselling. I will make enquiries.”
It was the lifeline that I needed. I soon began taking antidepressants and attending counselling sessions, which were one of the hardest things I have ever done. The sessions were an hour after work each Tuesday and my counsellor had to work to unravel many years of emotional repression. If I recounted life events that challenged me then I couldn’t speak about them in the first person.
“I want you to repeat what you’ve just told me,” my counsellor said to me, one day, “and I want you to tell me about it again but using the word ‘I’ instead of ‘you’.”
By the time I had finished repeating the story, I was trembling violently, wringing my hands, tapping my feet on the floor, sweating and crying. I later marvelled that my inability to express emotion had caused such a strong physiological reaction.
Writing gives me the space to explore my emotions at my own pace. To work through them; drawing out those which weigh most heavily on me. All the feelings that I carefully taught myself to conceal and suppress can be bought to the fore. I can express these emotions, either by pretending that they belong to one of my characters or by writing a piece about them; if I write in the first person, who’s to say that it’s fact or fiction? And writing under a pseudonym does it really matter?
I recently wrote a passage in my story in which one of my main characters was leaving the family home in difficult circumstances. Writing this part of my story enabled me to excavate my own excruciating experience of leaving the farm where I was born, which had been traumatic and painful for a number reasons that I won’t go into here. I reflected on the emotions, committed them to paper and relived them. They were emotions that I had shut away in my mind for a long time and they needed to be aired as part of the ‘moving on’ process. They are emotions and experiences that I will never let go, but with the perspective of writing I am able to pick up the events like a pebble from the beach, examine them, and then put them back again – a little more comfortable with them than before. Soon, I will have bled all the deeper emotions onto paper and I will be intimately acquainted with each of the pebbles on the beach; the good, the bad and the ugly. Writing will have enabled me to reach an equilibrium of emotion and to find peace.
This post came about because I was reflecting on how cathartic and healing I have found writing to be. Writing has always been a crutch for me; I have been keeping a journal since I was nine years old and it’s been something that I have drawn great strength from. The tone of my posts over the last few weeks has been rather sombre, so I wanted to write this piece as a sort of explanation. I promise that there will be some more up-beat posts in the weeks ahead!
It was recently Mental Health Awareness Week and I wanted to write something to mark it, but I wasn’t sure what. My brush with depression (I’m now both therapy and anti-depressant free!) was a real eye-opener. It wasn’t the first time that I have ever been depressed, but it was the first time that I have allowed myself to be talked into getting help. This time around, with the diagnosis, the experience was different and I suddenly discovered exactly what the stigma around mental health conditions feels like (perhaps I might have experienced this before if I had been in the workplace at the time but I was still in education.). It was such a lonely place and I’m indebted to the people who helped me, especially my mother and my wonderful husband.
Statistics about mental health conditions, particularly depression and anxiety, speak for themselves – they are so extremely common… so why are we still afraid to talk about them?! I told very few people about what I was going through last year. I didn’t even tell my colleagues, which was pretty silly because they knew something was going on (I had pretty bad side effects when I started on the medication and used to sit at my desk shaking… yet denying anything was wrong!). I am publishing this piece for the same reason that I published my piece about loneliness – because I want to add my voice to the throng of people saying that it’s time these issues were destigmatized and discussed openly.
To those experiencing depression or any other mental illness – you are not alone.