This article was submitted by NUPSA’s Research Representative, Ashleigh McIntyre, as part of UON’s Mental Health Day.
One of the most important things regarding mental health, for me, has always been about being open and honest about your experiences and being aware of yourself. It is not easy to understand what someone else is going through, and this is often more apparent with experiences of mental illnesses. This can create a false stigma of weakness or inability to cope. Mental illness is a truly personal and unique experience which can difficult to get across to others, especially if they have never experienced it themselves. It can defy logic. Feelings don’t always make sense. And yet, so often we are at their mercy.
For Mental Health Day, I thought I would share some of my own experiences with mental illness, in the hopes of reducing the stigma and promoting conversation around mental health. My own mental health story started a few months after I witnessed an attempted suicide. I was 19, volunteering with a homeless shelter overseas as part of a Gap Year before I started university. One of the residents I was partly responsible for attempted to take his own life. The event itself is mostly a blur. I remember when I finally fell asleep later that night, I dreamt of bright swirling colours and my sister’s dog, a Maltese-shiatzu that was always ridiculously happy. I now know that this was my brain’s way of coping, by blocking out what I had experienced with happier things.
I was given three free counselling sessions, one of which I attended. They told me all the standard things – that it wasn’t my fault, that I had done extremely well, and that it was natural to feel shocked and upset. I knew that. But I wasn’t that upset. Not in a way that hindered me working, socialising or just generally continuing my life. It wasn’t for until about four months after the event that I started experiencing symptoms. The first I can remember is only apparent now in retrospect. I was at a party with some friends and I’d had a couple of drinks. I have always been a bit of a lightweight, but I am typically a very happy drunk.
This particular night, all I can remember is sitting on the stairs, hitting the wall and crying so hard I couldn’t see. I had no idea why. I just lost it. It wasn’t a huge deal at the time – people do silly things when they are drunk. Looking back though, I think it was the first time everything started to sink in. Every now and then, when I was alone, I would find myself crying. Walking down the street, I would burst into tears and have to find somewhere quiet to calm myself down. Doing the dishes. Watching television. What scared me was that I had no idea why I was crying. I would realise my face was wet but have no conscious feeling of sadness or anger – nothing.
“Being aware of yourself is so important, as well as being aware and considerate of those around you.”
It wasn’t until I came home that I really started to see that something was wrong. After a year away, I came home and started job hunting while my mum, stepdad and sister were out working. I walked my sister’s dog, Myrtle, in an expanse of bushland a few streets behind our house. I have always liked it there, mainly for its peace and quiet – and I love the smell of the trees. One day, walking down the track with Myrtle, I started to feel nervous. It felt like I was being watched or followed. No matter how many times I paused and looked around, I saw nobody. It got progressively worse. I thought I saw people in the trees. Hanging. Hiding.
Eventually I couldn’t walk the dog at all. I kept this to myself, staying home either in my bedroom or in the back loungeroom, with my back to the wall so I could see if anyone came up the hallway or through the back door. I would do puzzles or watch television so mum thought I was keeping busy between job applications. I remember my stepdad came home early one day and I didn’t hear his footsteps in the hall on the carpet. He walked in and I was terrified – it was as if a stranger has snuck into the house to take me away. Still, I didn’t tell anyone.
We were at my sister’s friend’s house for dinner one night when mum realised something was wrong. It was a family do, and all the kids were outside shooting hoops. I was feeling uncomfortable and had nobody to talk to. So, I ventured outside to watch my sister and her friends play. It was my first public breakdown. Clear as anything, I could see a man hanging from the basketball hoop. I told myself I was being stupid, it wasn’t real. But it felt real. I ran to the car and hid in the back. My sister ran and got my mum. She was angry at having to leave early. She didn’t know.
A few days later, I went down to see my GP and told her I needed to see a counsellor. Something was wrong. I felt like I was going insane. I was exhausted, all the time; terrified, all the time. She prepared a mental health plan and referred me to a psychiatrist. During my first session I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was such a relief, I laughed. The beast in my head had a name! I attended sessions weekly for a few months. Then fortnightly for two years. My psychiatrist gave me strategies to apply when I felt afraid, and we talked about the event and my family. Sometimes we just chatted. About a year in, after having turned down medication, I asked for a prescription to help me. Then eventually I began to feel normal again.
I still take medication for anxiety and depression. And occasionally, when I am struggling, I make an appointment with my psychiatrist. I wanted to share my experience to raise awareness. There is no shame in mental illness. It is not something you can always control. But you can work with it and try to understand it. Being aware of yourself is so important, as well as being aware and considerate of those around you. I felt weak and pathetic when I was first diagnosed. Who was I to break completely when others see trauma every day? But I have learnt that mental illness is not weakness, it can be strength too.
I am proud of what I have overcome. I hope sharing my story can help you in some way to be proud of who you are, and of your unique experiences and self-awareness.