Lives in: Australia
Trigger warnings: parent death, suicide
I am a mentally healthy single woman in my early 30s who has been through two extremely traumatic events in my life. Because they were one off events, and because I had a strongly nurtured early upbringing, I was lucky enough not to develop a mental health condition. But after the second event, I suffered a 4 month long “mental health episode” in which I regularly suffered anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms, and had trouble coping with work and home life. Since then, I have continued to suffer from trauma triggers and grief depression on an ongoing, but no longer constant, basis.
This is my story.
Until the age of 12, I was raised by a single mother who was very loving and nurturing. She always encouraged me and told me that I was capable of doing anything. As a result, I have never questioned my own abilities and have always found myself able to go out and do whatever I want to do. I am certain that my mother’s nurturing encouragement of me during my early years is the reason that I do not have a mental health condition, despite what I have suffered. When I was suffering my mental health episode and I went to my GP and then to a psychologist for help, they got me to fill in a couple of basic questionnaires (the K10 and one other) about my mental state. When I was answering questions like “How often are you anxious?” and “How often are you depressed?”, at the time my answer was “very often”. But when I came to the questions like, “How often do you feel worthless?”, my answer was always “never”. I have noticed that my self-esteem is an enormous point of difference between me and my friends who have mental health conditions.
My mum became sick with cancer when I was 7, and she died when I was 12. I did have a stepfather at that time, but our relationship had deteriorated to a completely dysfunctional level, so I had to find somewhere else to live. I was rescued by my then best friend’s mother. Their whole family took me in as a kind of DIY foster family, and were kind enough to raise me until I reached adulthood. If it weren’t for their kindness I don’t know what would have happened to me. They gave me the best home that was possible for me at that time. However, opening your home and your life to a kid who’s been raised in a completely different environment is easier said than done, and I never quite felt I fitted in. But then, I had a thick emotional wall my brain had erected for me during my mother’s illness and death to protect me from pain, and it blocked me off from everything else too – I had trouble fitting in anywhere or connecting with anyone.
While I had my emotional wall, I rarely felt any pain or stress. I lived my life my way, and flitted about the world having a wonderful time. I almost never felt pain, fear, anger, stress or worry. I also almost never felt love, warmth, relief, nurture, understanding or unconditional friendship. While I was friendly and eloquent when talking about a great variety of non-emotional things, anything personal was kept locked up tightly inside, and, though I did (on rare occasion it got through my wall) sometimes feel concern for the emotional state of others, I could never find the words, or get up the guts, to confront their issues head on.
When I was 31, my oldest friend committed suicide. The suicide of someone you love is always a traumatic and horrible experience to go through. It was particularly hard for me because in the last couple of months of my friend’s life I had taken an active role in trying to help her with her out of control mental illness, and in doing so I had been subjected to significant further trauma, which had gone straight behind my emotional wall and not been dealt with. This was further compounded by the fact that I had also been supporting a close family member through a mental health crisis at the same time. He had been suicidal at the same time as my friend was, and I was terrified to lose him the same way.
What happened? My wall blew up. In one fell swoop, the thick wall that had blocked me off from pain for 20 years was smashed into smithereens, and my mind was filled with thick dust and rubble and extreme, extreme pain. Beneath it all was the ghost of my mother, which would pop out unbidden at unexpected triggers and make me crawl into the foetal position as a panicking 12-year-old girl.
I fell to pieces. A naturally calm and cheery person turned into ball of anxiety and depression. I had more days off work sick in three months than I’d had in the preceding two years. When I was at work, I could barely concentrate at all, and I needed to be on light duties for 4 months. I needed a Mental Health Plan, counselling and ongoing psychological treatment. I could not have got through it without my friends.
I learned so much. While it was bitterly tragic that only after my friend’s death did I finally get a window on what mental suffering really feels like, and what friends can do to help, the silver lining was that my emotional wall was gone and I could now interact properly with others, form much deeper friendships, and develop a more healthy emotional range, which will enable me to process mental damage as it arises to stay mentally healthy in the future.
Also, all of a sudden, I had the words to reach out to others. I found I had so much to say about myself that I had never said before, and that I was no longer afraid of what others would think of my deepest feelings. This openness bred more openness in others as my friendships deepened further, and many of my friends confessed their own sufferings to me, including that a very significant number of them, my already existing friends, had mental health conditions I had not known about. Through this, and through my own experiences, I learned a lot more about mental health symptoms and what friends and family can do to help people through them. That is why I am here.