Another Anna Akana Video I’m Grateful For

In the middle of my recent bout of depression – the worst one I’ve had – at my lowest point, an Anna Akana video appeared in my YouTube subscriptions. It was called ‘the voice’ and it was about her new short film that was being released the next day.

She talks about how, while 2017 was the best year of her life, her depression was also at its worst. There was a voice – that felt like it was in the room with her – telling her to kill herself. And it got to the point where she had a plan for how she was going to go through with it, which is a major red flag.

“I was just so in pain and I just felt like I had nothing and like I was nobody and I wasn’t worth anything at all and I literally… I have this big whiteboard on my wall and I wrote out DO NOT KILL YOURSELF, like all across it. I put it on post it notes and I put it on my bathroom mirror and like… everyday when the voice came and I would be like ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’”

While she still struggles with depression, she says she’s out the other side of that particular battle and she credits getting through to all the mental health education that’s out there and all the things you have to do everyday, hoping that they add up. She also made this new short film, pouring everything into it because she needed something to remind herself of why she’s here. It’s about the moments she wanted to die and all the things she had to live for. I would include it in the post but I just really want to focus on this introduction video (but you can find the short film here). Maybe I’ll write a full post about it when I’ve sorted out all my feelings about it.

I am so grateful for this video. Talking about this stuff is so hard and so to have this raw and uncut video where she talks about this experience but also how she got through it was and is so important to me. It’s helped me in this incredibly hard period and so I wanted to share it here.

“Please don’t kill yourself if you’re also suicidal… just don’t do it. There’s a lot… there’s a lot of great things to live for.”

Describing Depression

I love words. I LOVE words. And that’s so viciously ironic for someone living with Autism and mental health problems because they are so difficult to describe, to talk about, to truly put into words. I’ve talked about how much I write and how much I document (this post here) and every now and then I think, “Oh my god, I’ve got it. That’s how it feels.” And then I go to therapy or I talk to a friend or teacher and I go to describe how I’m feeling and I’m just left scrambling. Because these things are so hard to put into words.

Let’s talk about depression specifically. This one seems to have a lot of metaphors attached to it:

  • Living in darkness – With the associations between light and good and happiness and therefore the associations between darkness and bad and sadness, the connection here is obvious. It’s also a metaphor that fits with the feeling lost and directionless and not knowing how to move forward. And living in it implies a terrifying finality.
  • Winston Churchill’s black dog – We can’t know for sure what Winston Churchill’s mental health was like, whether he suffered from mental illness, from depression, but he did describe periods of great despair that he referred to as his ‘black dog,’ that came and went as it pleased. (While I can understand this metaphor, I personally really don’t like it, being the owner of the the gentlest, sweetest black dog and therefore nothing like Churchill’s description.)
  • Having a dark cloud follow you around – Weather metaphors are common in mental health, maybe it’s the all encompassing nature, maybe it’s the lack of control we have over it that makes it a fitting metaphor.
  • Being surrounded by fog – Similar to the weather metaphor, it’s uncontrollable and overwhelming. It blots out the sun, makes good indistinguishable from bad, makes it difficult to make your way forward.
  • JK Rowling’s dementors – Everyone who’s read Harry Potter knows of dementors and the effect they have on people, essentially sucking the happiness, the joy, the life out of people. JK Rowling has talked about how dementors are the embodiment of her depression, not unlike Churchill’s metaphor.

There are more, of course: everyone has their own descriptions (and they can change depending on the particular state of the depression). On which note, I thought I’d throw in a few of my own:

  • Feeling like I’m filling up with water – When I’m deep in depression, I feel like my body is filling up with water and the water level gets higher and higher until it’s reaching my mouth and nose and I start to feel like I’m going to drown in it. And sometimes it feels like something more sinister than water, like ink or oil.
  • Feeling like I’m deep underwater – Sometimes I feel like I’m in it so deep that I can’t even see the surface so I don’t even know, which way to swim. And down there, I feel so alone.
  • Having a black hole in my chest – On a day to day basis, it drags everything in, making it difficult to even know what I’m feeling before it’s gone and on bad days, it’s so strong that it can feel hard to even stand up straight.
  • Feeling like there’s a darkness inside my chest, but deeper than is physically possible for a human body – That’s the only way I can describe this sensation. I understand the dimensions of my ribcage but it feels so much deeper than that, miles deeper. And there’s a darkness there, an ache, like this incredibly deep well of misery.

I posted this on Instagram a while ago:

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“Ever since I saw @littlepineneedle’s post and the hashtag #seemyinvisible, I’ve been thinking about it and how I could visually represent the things I struggle with. But in the end, I decided just to look at how I’ve been feeling lately. My mental health is a constant balancing act but lately, my depression has been overwhelming. It feels like there’s a black hole in my chest that’s trying to suck everything in and it’s all I can do to stand up straight. Nobody can see it and that only feeds it. It’s been really inspiring to see so many people sharing their stories over the last few days. This is one of the reasons why #mentalhealthawareness is so important: it helps us to feel less alone.” (x)

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to do with this blog post. I guess, I’m just trying to put this thing into words.

So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)