In September we talked about “Coming Out” on TheGayUk.
This month we’re looking at mental health. I always thought coming out as gay would be the worst it could be (I was raised in a right wing Catholic family, it wasn’t all that easy, although not as bad as I thought it would be). I was wrong. Coming out as mentally ill has been much harder for me and people’s reaction is often puzzlement. I’m not sure why. It happens to one in four of us but oddly, I’m still worrying a little that you’ll think less of me when you read this.
I always knew I’d grow up to be a bit mad. I anticipated angst as a given in my life. I have a good lineage: depression and anxiety stretching back through the generations. My childhood was odd, which is a sure fire predictor, and I was prone to worry, obsession, insomnia, rumination and setting myself unachievable goals in life, right from an early age.
I trundled along successfully, balancing my worry with activity, believing that hard work and frenetic activity could cure all my mental ills. I knew I thought too much about things and labelled myself as a “person of a nervous disposition”. I was the kind of person roller coasters urged to not travel, along with the pregnant and infirm. I knew the answers. I could cope by being busy, working hard and keeping the house unhealthily clean at all times. I knew that if it all came crashing down and I did succumb then there where pills. Pills were the answer and would cure me in a flash if it ever all caught up with me. I was sure of that.
I was wrong in many ways. Episodes of depression coupled with attacks of searing anxiety and obsessive thinking began to plague me from my late teens onwards, finally culminating in me having an episode of severe depression which almost hospitalised me in my mid thirties, leaving me unable to function or work for six months and fragile and struggling to cope for much longer. Instead of being the bright, active, high achiever that I’d strived to become, I became a withdrawn shell, unable to sleep, eat, socialise or find any pleasure in anything. I was tortured and terrified and unable to see that this spell of deep misery and dread would ever end.
I cycled through various types of therapy, developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and nicotine, sampled a whole pharmacy of medication and ultimately just got worse and worse as I got older, not always learning from what happened to me.
I think that, for me, my poor mental health stemmed from a lot of factors which included me being gay. I had a difficult childhood due to my sexuality and stumbled from less than perfect family relationships and a bullying school environment into a destructive relationship with an older man. It’s not that simple, of course, there are also my genes and my environment now and my own personality type. It’s a whole mess of a thing to understand. I sometimes wonder how I expect anyone else to understand or empathise when I can’t even work it out myself.
I eventually did get better and am currently well. I still have highs and lows (as we all do) but I’m much better able to cope. I’ve been luckily enough to find a kind of therapy which suits me and medications which seem to address the imbalances in my dodgy chemical make-up. I view my lifelong battles with poor mental health as a chronic condition, like diabetes or asthma, something unpleasant that is part of me but something I have to live around.
I’ve survived plenty of traumas in the past seven years. I got through the upheaval of a relationship breakdown, romantic disappointments, changes in my job, house moves, bereavement and stress and I’m still tottering along and remain well. I have a job that I love, a great partner and good circle of friends. I hope it continues.
For me, the most valuable thing I ever did was speak to people about how I felt. It wasn’t easy and doesn’t work for everyone but for me telling my colleagues, friends, G.P. and family, that I was ill with depression helped me get the support and help that I needed. Yes, there have been some odd reactions and unusual questions and admitting to serious mental illness does still carry a stigma but on the whole it’s been a helpful exercise for me. Without the support of people (friends and strangers alike) I wouldn’t be alive now.