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Health

Why people should stop telling me I seem too happy to struggle with mental health

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Anxiety and depression are complex, nuanced, and multifaceted by nature - there is no such thing as being too ‘happy’ to be depressed

Anna Freeman

17 Mayo 2018 13:13

I can’t count how many times someone has said to me: ‘You are the last person I thought would struggle with anxiety and depression.’

I had my first panic attack at the end of first year at university. A year of firsts it had been: parties, drinking, drugs, weight gain, the occasional assignment - and my first major break-up with a person I was infatuated with. It was a nasty break-up. The kind that aches and knots in your stomach.

I was sitting in a cheap eats Indian with my friends before leaving Manchester (UK) for summer when my whole body suddenly crumpled. It was an unexceptional evening. Nothing to fear. But I could hardly catch my breath. A sharp rush of terror crept up my spine. I looked down, my hands had curled into fixed claws. Vision blurred, with the floor disappearing from underneath me, I ran away without saying a word. I was dying, I thought.

I spent the next eight hours in the bathtub of my dank shared bathroom in student halls hyperventilating alone. I can still remember how the off-white porcelain felt under my grip; how the tub had become my refuge from an impending death. Lime green paint peeling off the walls. The drip-drop of our malfunctioning tap.

Although I, of course, survived the night, my anxiety-free self didn’t. The proceeding years marked some of the worst of times - and some of the best. Because my mental health journey - although tectonic-shifting, momentous, overwhelming, for me - is largely unremarkable.

The prevalence of mental health discourse now is so starkly different to what it was seven years ago. I didn’t know anyone who had suffered from a panic attack. No one talked about anxiety. Depression? Definitely not. My doctor told me I was anxious and depressed. I thought: I can’t be depressed because I feel happy a lot of the time. I still go out with friends, I still party, maintain a life and seem OK to people that don’t really know me. Sure, I feel panicked, terrified, can’t eat, can’t sleep, and feel like I’m losing grip on reality, but that’s fine. In my naivety, I thought people with depression were bedridden; unable to communicate. That they cry all day and can’t function. That’s wasn't me.

I didn’t grasp the nuances of mental illness; how it is multifaceted by its very nature. I felt incredibly isolated trying to be the person I was before - happy, lighthearted, confident, the things I thought people liked me for - while coming to terms with the fact that I actually wasn’t the same at all. My parents, although well-meaning, couldn’t make sense of it. ‘You have everything you ever wanted - why aren’t you happy?’ So I just pretended to be.

Guilt led me to constant performances of happiness that I perfected like a fine art. Oscar-worthy sometimes. I used to look in the mirror and ask myself: ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why can’t you just shake yourself out of this? You are so lucky.’ It has taken a lot of reading, writing, therapy sessions, antidepressants, jokes, relationships, and all that’s in-between, to realise it’s not shameful to have an anxiety disorder. And there is a difference between feeling sad and happy, ie. normal emotions, and experiencing depression.

I used to get a kick out of people telling me they just couldn't believe I suffer from anxiety. It meant that my performance was good - it was working. I realise now that I kept up the performance to alleviate other people’s anxieties, rather than my own. I could see it hurt my family and friends that I wasn’t the ‘old me’. The person I so desperately wanted to be again. But I slowly came to understand that there is no old or new me. There’s just me. Anxiety and all.

Nik Macmillan

Thrill has turned into resentment when people now tell me they can’t believe I struggle with my mental health, as if it’s a weakness that has been so expertly contained. What does someone with an anxiety disorder even look like? Zayn Malik? Emma Stone? Oprah Winfrey? Because they have all spoken about their struggles with anxiety, too. If we have learned anything from greater awareness about mental health it is that the issue is complex, intricate, and it has many faces. I have more good days than bad now, but my mental health is a work in progress - an evolution of sorts.

It can be agonising and frustrating at times, and almost undetectable at others. High-functioning in moments, debilitating in moments. Anxiety is the little bitch sitting on my shoulder telling me to hide under my duvet and binge-watch crap TV instead of interacting with the world. I am better at telling her to fuck off now, but she’s always there.

Mental illness does not work in a straight line. It is not rational. There is no cure or quick remedy. No holy grail. No magical injection or course of antibiotics. No books or podcasts that will make it go away. I have stopped hoping that one day I will wake up and be fixed because I am not broken.

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