Oh dear. I’ve been away for quite a while, haven’t I? It was not by choice. Although, to clarify, I did choose to step away because I could not muster the energy to focus and think in order to produce something worth publishing online. All of my energy was getting drained by trying to keep it together, which then devolved into trying to maintain the appearance of holding it together while half of my brain was a jumbled mess.
Bear with me with this post — I swear I did not write it to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week. I’ve had this on my queue for a while, second-guessing why I should be sharing something so personal, something that is trivial in the grand scheme of things. It was primarily a cathartic exercise. But I found it funny that coinciding with this week is a personal lesson that mental health is not like being struck down with a cold — you take your meds, let it do its job, then you’ll be good as before after a few days.
Uh, no, Gemma, mental health and mental illness is more complicated than that.
I welcomed 2017 while on holiday with my family in the Philippines. I was relaxed, refreshed, and felt ready to come to grips with my new job. I was happy that I seem to have exorcised my desire to read light and fluffy books because the new year was bringing in an incredible amount of literary fiction that I, unfortunately, always need to be in a right state of mind to appreciate and properly review. I was hitting a stride with blog networking. I believe I have somehow figured out how to deal with Instagram’s messed up algorithm. Basically, I felt positive about everything.
But the new job did not turn out in the way I was hoping. I was in my last job for five years, which is long enough in today’s standards (my parents would say differently — they’ve worked in the same company they started with until retirement), and I did think it was going to take some time for settling in, to be familiar with the new environment and feel confident in the new skills I had to learn. But the expectations were different; everyone seems to think I should know everything just two months in. By mid-February, I was getting paralysed by anxiety. I did not know what it was, could not put a name to it until the physical symptoms started manifesting in such a way that could not be ignored — my stomach was in a perpetual twisted ball, my heart was pounding making sleep difficult, my hands would shake a little.
I turned to my usual coping mechanisms which are reading, bookstagramming, social networking, but I found that none of them could light me up and make me feel unstressed. I could not feel the spark I would usually feel when reading. I looked at all the other books I was looking forward to, those books that I was saving up because I knew it would be an experience, but there was none of that in any of the varied selection I had on hand. I did not feel like going on bookstagram, or reading and commenting on other blogs, or doing much of anything. I did not feel like doing the laundry, did not feel like cooking, and most of all, I did not want to go to work.
And yet I had to. All my efforts were concentrated on trying to function as normal, and so I had to cut off the other stuff — photography, blogging, bookstagramming. I still tried to read but there was not much joy, and I found I kept reading some sentences over and over to make sense of it. Then I started feeling like wanting to cry at random points of the day for no reason — while folding the laundry or while reading a book (it wasn’t even a tear-inducing passage!). I thought, maybe it was hormones? It was almost time for that monthly annoyance. Still, I knew; at the back of my mind, I knew. I was never emotional during the PMS period, just ravenous for junk food.
I’ve seen the GP and was given and directed to the support I needed. I was given medication (for anxiety at first, then a low dose SSRI for the low mood, although I decided to try St. John’s Wort first), referred for counselling. If you live in the UK, you know how hard it is to get appointments for these things. By the time I saw the counsellor, the St. John’s Wort has done its job (I was shocked it worked, to be honest), I felt like I was getting the hang of the new job and finally settling in. I was back to reading, I felt like taking photos for bookstagram again, and I wanted to blog again. The counsellor thought I was doing well; I could see that she as well as my GP saw it as a temporary rough patch, with the medication enabling me to handle the recent challenges. I could understand their point, and so happily started tapering off St. John’s Wort until I didn’t take them anymore.
My “mild-to-moderate” depression (as the GP called it) with anxiety blocked me from reading and writing. I looked all over the internet to figure out whether it does affect one’s creativity that way. I read an article where Otessa Moshfegh talked about how her dark thoughts found purchase on paper, writing stories in a non-destructive way of exorcising them. I couldn’t write though. Why? How does she do it? To sit still, to organise my thoughts, it felt impossible, a waste of time. I would prefer to just read mindless gossip sites instead of subjecting myself to that torture, another wasted time of having produced nothing. Then I remember Jessie Burton sharing on her blog how writing her second book while battling with anxiety and depression was difficult. Now that I could relate to! But it was then that I finally realised — mental health problems are very individual experiences. My anxiety is different from someone else’s, and what works for me may not produce the same results in another.
As for my lesson learned during Mental Health Awareness Week 2017? Well, as I mentioned, I wrote this blog post around two to three weeks ago and at that time, I said that I’m feeling better. But at the date of posting, I’ve been off the medication for two weeks, and I’m again experiencing the somatic symptoms and tearful urges. It seems that this is not at all similar to having a bout of the cold or a tummy bug. Apparently, you don’t just find the medication that suits you, take it until you feel better, let it help you get over your crisis, then taper it off and voilà! All cured!
Now you may be thinking: everyone and their neighbour seems to be “coming out” with their mental illness lately. You might believe that this post is just to be in vogue, that declaring yourself to be struggling with mental illness is the “it thing”. If it is, I would really rather not be in on this trend. But I’d like to thank anyone and everyone who has had mental health problems and has shared about it in the public world of the internet. Without your voice, it might have taken me longer to recognise what was happening to me, to know what various options are out there for help, to understand that it is a problem and not just something I can and should get over with through sheer will (which is what I would probably get if I were back in my birth country). Wherever you are in the journey, doing better or still struggling, I only wish you the best and that you have the right help and support.
P.S.: And so I do apologise to publishing companies’ marketing teams when I couldn’t put a review out on time or post more about the book on Twitter and Instagram, not to mention the lovely people who have visited the blog and commented!
Let’s have a chat!
How has mental health problems affected your creative output? Did you find it difficult to produce something, or did you find yourself more productive?