Mental Health Awareness Week – mental health in the modern world: Chris’s takeover
Something slightly different for day 6 of Mental Health Awareness Week, this is Chris here, Anna’s husband, and I have been given the task of a brief takeover for this blog. Firstly, because the subject of this blog is my experiences of supporting someone with anxiety, and secondly, because she is busy organising the snacks and refreshments for the royal wedding tea party we are putting on for a few friends and neighbours!
If you can drag yourself away from the wedding coverage, or the FA cup final, or a local street party, or the sun and warmth of a lovely weekend. There are some incredible stories which people have shared through this blog; Angharad, Scott, a Baby Boomer, a Baby Mama and a Generation X’er.
I have been avidly reading these stories and have been surprised each day at the bravery and honesty of the people speaking about their experiences. My own story today is not about my struggles with mental health but living with and supporting someone with mental health issues. Hopefully I have kept it short and sweet so you can get back to Harry and Meghan.
Let me start by saying I’ve never suffered from mental health problems, in fact I’ve never really suffered with any sort of health problems of note (a bad bout of verrucas which I had to get frozen off in my teens is about as exciting as it gets with my medical records!). So I never really understood depression or anxiety or bipolar or any other mental health illnesses, and I’m not sure whether I fully understand now…by which I mean I’m still learning. I think the most surprising thing was the way it can completely debilitate you, and stop you doing day-to-day tasks and it was a totally alien concept to me before I met Anna.
As Anna will admit, she has experienced difficulties with her mental health since at least her teens. When we first began dating, I had put down some of what I now know to be signs of a dip in mood, to just being part of her personality. Yes, I naively thought that when she would panic and argue about little things (famously, for those who know us, about how thick I had chopped the leeks for a soup one day) were normal. I thought that by comforting her in those times and saying it will be OK, and really ignoring the root of the problem, that this would be enough; but, of course, it wasn’t.
It was 2013 when we were both working in a call centre at the time, things had been slowly and inconspicuously spiralling, and she couldn’t go to work, her anxiety stopped her getting on the train or their was a time she got to the front door of the office and had a panic attack and so we went home, sometimes just getting to the front door was too hard. During this time I felt helpless, and I genuinely believed Anna could still get through it, I didn’t know how but I believed it. But at the same time I was frustrated, frustrated by Anna’s head which was stopping Anna being Anna, and by what I felt was my own incompetence at dealing with it; it was then that I knew it was perhaps more than just part of her personality, there was something deeper and scarier. This was the point we decided to go to the doctor.
I went along with Anna who, despite being in such a difficult place, was open and brave and managed to explain all her symptoms clearly, the GP was great and explained that what she was going through was actually an illness, she explained about the chemical imbalanced in the brain that cause low mood and depression. The doctor was comforting and reassuring and all those things you need from a medical professional. Here we are 5 years later and I am still learning how to best support and help Anna through dips, which still happen, and may always happen, but I’m trying to be more proactive with the ways I help and I know that I have learned a lot and she has too.
Obviously my own experiences of supporting Anna through this has had an effect on me, when you support anyone who is really ill you have to make sacrifices, while these are nothing in comparison to being the one who is ill, it can still be very difficult and you often feel unsupported and forgotten and it can be almost lonely. Perhaps that sounds somewhat dramatic, but it was those times people said to me “how are you coping?” which almost took me by surprise; that people would care about my feelings when Anna was battling with depression and anxiety.
I know people have spoken about the norms for their generation and there’s nothing I can really add to their experiences; however, I will say it wasn’t really a part of my education. Even though I studied Psychology at A-level, it wasn’t about issues that 1 in every 4 people will experience. If I’d have learnt about it, if there had been information about what you can do if you’re feeling low, or how to help people who might be suffering with anxiety or depression then maybe I’d have been able to do something sooner. I had preconceptions about medications for mental health conditions which were plain wrong. Both myself and Anna have found it helpful to look in depth at the causes of bad mental health and most importantly we have explored together the ways in which she can maintain good mental health. Like I said, she still has dips, but I see them pretty much instantaneously and I feel better equipped to gauge when she needs to, and when she can pull herself up, and when I need to step in and help.
I’m still learning the best ways to help, and the best thing I have found is to talk about it, be open and honest and remind Anna how to be kind to herself. Looking back, the worst thing I ever did was to ignore what was happening and try to sweep it under the carpet; pretending everything was OK is the stereotypical ‘British’ way of dealing with emotions which is just ridiculous and dangerous. If I think Anna is suffering or going through a dip now I will try to highlight it, really find out if everything is OK, signpost the things which help and do my best to curb or help to resolve or remedy the things which seem to feed the dip, like tiredness or when she is stressed or facing conflict.
I’d still tell 2013 Anna the same thing as I did then, it will be OK, but I know now that it really will be.