Talking about mental health

- a conversation topic that should be more normal


A couple of weeks ago I read a blog post from a friend about mental health. I thought it was a very brave thing to do, because I know that people often can be judgemental about such things. However, given that 1 in 6 people experienced a common mental health problem in the past week [1], I think it's absurd that this subject isn't more normalised, along with other things that are also in my list about conversational topics that should feel normal:

  • Men openly talking about their feelings and supporting each other emotionally.
  • Periods, abortion, breast-feeding, female masturbation and many other things concerning female anatomy.
  • Gender, gender neutrality and transgenders.
  • Families that are not constituted with one man and one woman

I have not been public in the past about dealing with anxiety. There's a history of mental health issues in my family, but it's normally dismissed as being "annoying" or "crazy" instead of taken seriously and supporting to seek treatment. I never properly handled this until very recently. I still feel like it's taboo and there's a big lack of understanding towards it. I have lied about this in the past. Normally, recognising it would make me feel more anxious. Some of my friends know about it, and that's it. Few times I brought it up conversationally with colleagues or acquaintances, but not going into details about it and shrugging it off like it's not a big deal.

It is a big deal. Last week I went to AlterConf [2] for the first time and mental health was a broadly discussed topic. For the first time I began to feel comfortable talking about it. I recommend anyone interested in the topic to watch the relevant talks once they are published online. Because of that, I decided to add my own perspectives about it and make a post about mental health as well.

I suffer from chronic anxiety and sometimes waves of depression. Meaning that I have suffered from depression in the past, and I consider myself OK at this moment, but the anxiety is something that's always with me. This has affected my life in different ways:

  • Sometimes I have panic attacks.
  • I have hidden these events from my family. Being abroad, there's already much anxiety towards me, and I feared I'd make their mental health worse.
  • Sometimes I spend various days without leaving my apartment.
  • I discovered I'm very prone to substance abuse and I worry about it when I drink. E.g. drinking with friends in a party is fine, numbing myself alone isn't.
  • When I was a teenager I had seizures, probably from extreme anxiety (which was undetected at the time).
  • The seizures led me to being misdiagnosed with epilepsy and having to take ridiculously strong medicine that turned my life into shit, making me half-doped all day, destroying my grades at school (which was very heavy on me because I was used to being straight A student without efforts) and probably increased my vulnerability to depression, leading to a whole new bunch of problems.
  • It has affected romantic relationships in the past.
  • It affects how I handle contraception because pills generally make it worse.
  • Sometimes I have muscle twitches, nervous tics and my back can spontaneously become so tense that it will cause a contracture. It is very painful.

After a horrible depression wave incident, I actively tried my best to change my habits and behaviours in ways I'll describe later. It helped a bunch. But what actually helped was, of course, looking for professional help.

With years of feeling like shit, dropping meds, taking them again and switching doctors, I finally managed to find a neurologist that identified that I didn't need to take the epilepsy meds after all, that I was too anxious and gave me the OK to drop the old meds and take anxiolytics. That was a life changing thing to me. I never had a seizure again and I was feeling good. The doctor did prescribe them with the intention that I should eventually not need them anymore.

Once I moved abroad for an exchange program, I didn't follow this up with a new doctor. Reasons were I thought I'd be back home after one year, and somehow I felt confident that I could drop the meds after a while. It wasn't the case for either and I spiraled into a bad situation easily. Of course, I should have expected this would be the case given many other complicated things happening in my life at that moment:

  • Making plans while having a very difficult financial situation to solve.
  • Finishing a master's.
  • Doing multiple visa applications.
  • Moving a lot.
  • Having a shitty romantic life.
  • Getting to new places with new people, new jobs, new languages and no friends.
  • Being Brazilian, the impact of the lack of warmth of the weather and the people and other cultural shocks was non-negligible. These just are things I wasn't used to and it clearly had a big effect on my behaviour as well.
  • Those are things that clearly would have been difficult on anyone, but given my health situation it nearly disabled me. I eventually sought professional help, but when you're in a weird state, this too is one of the things that I started procrastinating. I really wanted to feel better, so, as I mentioned before, I did take a series of steps to help me with that. Then at some point, I felt I had it together enough to finally register at a GP and sort this part out as well. So here are the things I did***:

    *** Apart from "seeking a professional", these are not advices, please take this with a grain of salt, they are just my own experience on how I handle some aspects of my life. I decided to describe this because I friend did ask me how do I cope.

    Being gentle with myself (1)

    I used to beat myself up for not being able to do as much as others seemed to be doing effortlessly. When I reduced my working hours while I was in uni, I felt guilty for a long time, feeling I wasn't capable. It took me some time to absorb that working while studying in the first place would be a struggle for many and that I wasn't a weirdo for feeling drained. Whenever I spent a day hidden from the outside world watching netflix in my cozy blanket, I felt like a piece of shit for being useless and not productive a whole day. This had to stop. Not the netflix, but how I thought about it. Instead of feeling drained until such days just fall upon me, often in critical weekends when I had to be doing something else, now I plan them ahead and call them resting days. I recently learned what is the "spoon theory" as well, which explains this a lot.

    Being gentle with myself (2)

    I'm a human being and sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes I hurt others too. The realisation that I erred on others is what weights most on my anxiety waves, it makes me literally throw up sometimes and I have a bad time handling that. I didn't find a good way to work this out yet, but understanding that it is connected to my anxiety helps me let it go. It helps me stop telling myself that I'm a big fuckup (and continue to do fucked up things) and instead try to apologise and work it out.

    I recently started saying "no" to more things than "yes"

    There are many nice things I'd love to participate on, but I don't want to stress over having to do too much anymore. It is not very enjoyable if I get to that point. It is OK to turn down opportunities sometimes. I don't have to grab everything.

    Being cleaner

    It's very easy for me to let the mess pile up when I get home very late. I am tired after work, I don't want to do it, and nobody is going to see it. And it is very easy for me not to feel guilty about it, because I am a generally disorganised person anyway and I don't mind the mess very much as long as it is not dirty. The problem is that, by doing this, I am not considering how much the cluttered space is just not as enjoyable as a pretty cozy space. The hidden displeasure of that did cause an effect that I did not give enough credit. My room is still a bit messy and my kitchen needs some cleaning. But as a consequence of saying "no" to more things, I can do some organising or cleaning instead. I started with little things like making my bed most mornings (an activity I considered useless for my whole life), and it did cause an improvement on how I enjoy my time at home.

    Listening to happy music

    I started profiling the kind of media I consume. I have a happy playlist I tune in as often as necessary. Radiohead is banned for life. Maybe I should also stop watching Grey's Anatomy?

    Maintaining a bullet journal [3] [4]

    My memory is shit and I tend to procrastinate a lot. This resulted in me spending weeks remembering about changing my Monzo pin at 3 am, and forgetting about it the minute I passed in front of an ATM. Such things do make me feel like a piece of shit and getting me to a state where I feel I have so many things to do and I'm not doing anything, so my anxiety spikes. Turns out that when I write what is it exactly that I have to do, sometimes it is not that much. And by writing and crossing them out, I get a satisfaction. Even if I just crossed something very little, I feel like I have done something of my day, and I go to bed feeling better. The reason I preferred that over maintaining something like Todoist, for example, is that the journal can hold more things than to-do lists, the time organisation is better and the muscle memory of writing helps me retain things better. It also helps me track habits, mood, and other things. It does make me look like an organisation freak now. But I don't have the journal because I'm organised, I have to have it for the exact opposite reason. It works and I'm very happy with it.

    Taking sick days at work if necessary be

    Fortunately I have never been in a bad shape often enough that it caused a situation with any employers before.

    Being upfront with people that matter

    I just started a new relationship, and after telling my date that I had anxiety, the way he reacted was one of the factors for me wanting to continue seeing him and even start a relationship. I'm still planning to talk to my mom about this. Unfortunately I believe she has similar problems and would feel too strongly in accepting it. Hopefully talking to her about my own issues will alleviate this. Our relationship has been complicated in the past, so I'm working on trying to express this on the best way.

    Taking my meds

    Many of the things on this list helped me get in a good enough shape to seek professional help. Others I was finally able to do only after being treated.

    Getting a support network

    The worst part of having been misdiagnosed is not being able to understand what I had and not having the information to look it up and talking to others about it. It helps so much. I feel glad I found environments where I feel I can be open and hear others being open. I feel glad not being the weirdo. It gives me tools to work it out, accept myself, learn how to handle things, instead of just keep being and feeling weird.

    I'd like to thank everyone who has given me support on this recently. You are all fantastic! ✨