Mental health isn’t easy to talk about – here Shelley-Marie Phillips speaks out on the issue plaguing one in four people in the UK.
I remember the first time I felt like I was dying. It was during the summer break from university, seven years ago. My chest suddenly tightened and I felt cold, sharp pains in my head. This was the first of many days where I experienced crippling anxiety, panic and depression. It was like facing the monsters under the bed. I knew they were there, and I knew I had to sleep with them, silently co-existing.
When my relationship fell apart last year, I felt winded. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak. All I could do was sit in our apartment, staring at the walls. Every movement was just repetition, a matter of going through the motions.
My panic started escalating, and things got gradually worse with my personal life. I started to disassociate and black out during attacks. I lost myself in sheer desperation and panic, and I felt like I couldn’t survive. I felt like my life support had been disconnected, like I couldn’t be a person anymore. I stopped doing the things that I loved like writing and photography, I lost all focus, I stopped speaking to people. I thought misery was contagious. I couldn’t be around ‘normal’ happy people. Yet no one is ‘normal’. No one has a monopoly on pain.
During my relationship, I had my feelings dismissed and twisted around. I felt guilty for my emotions. I still have to fight the urge to apologise when I feel upset for what someone else has done. It’s like having to recondition my brain.
My condition was exhausting to talk about, even to the people I had to see every day. Drained, I found myself sounding ‘crazier ’with each breath. I was driven to the brink of insanity by someone I loved more than myself. The more insane I thought I was, the more ashamed I felt.
I was having lunch with one of my best friends when I knew I needed help. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I would never feel happiness again; and maybe I didn’t want to. Pain was easier if I got used to it, like with any human tolerance. A person can train themselves to deal with anything. But to recover from that pain, and then risk having my life, heart and head broken apart all over again, seemed ridiculous.
I first met my therapist on a Wednesday evening in December. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a male counsellor, given my many issues with men. I found that speaking to a man in a positive way, one who listened without judgment was comforting.
My counsellor has worked with me now for seven months, during which time he’s seen me fall apart – and build myself up again. He has witnessed my fear and we continue to work together because I need to make this about me. For months, it was about the person who did this to me.
I didn’t want to tell anyone I was in therapy. I felt like everything in life had built me up for this moment, and if I couldn’t cope with it, then what was the point? I felt I should be stronger, and that I should know better. I felt like it was my fault. I wanted to fix people, to glue things together and take in strays, but I didn’t know how to fix myself. Rescuers rarely do.
I was lucky that therapy was accessible to me. I’m aware this isn’t the case for everyone. I had visited my GP – and refused medication – but eventually gave in to the realisation I needed someone to talk to. Counselling, no matter how you choose to go about it, is worth the time you give it, and it requires you to be raw and patient.
One in four people in the United Kingdom suffer from mental illness, including panic attacks, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and depression. There’s also post-traumatic stress, personality disorders and many other issues that are far more common than any of us think. Your brain is an organ, and its health is just as important as any other part of your body.
Bones crack and muscles tear; we can show stitches, scars and bandages, but we can’t show someone the damage inside our heads. Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Self-care is necessary, not selfish.
People who offer platitudes such as: “Don’t worry about it,” or “You know what they say, this too shall pass…”, and “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” are not helping. A panic attack to me feels like drowning, everything is muffled and blurry: it’s suffocation. Anxiety is a voice in my head making everything a life or death situation. Depression feels like a devil on my back, a shadow behind my shoulder. Depression is the scariest one of all; it starts to feel comfortable.
People are not their demons, we can vanquish any monster. We need to face it and sometimes that means facing ourselves. You don’t need to be alone; you don’t need to mask it with fake smiles and a sunny demeanour.
Counselling has empowered me. I can now talk about my condition. Sharing our stories helps others and maybe for the rescuers, that’s just the cherry on top.
When life gives me lemons, I’m not afraid to wait for something better. I never really did like lemonade all that much anyway.