‘I wish I could say there was an instant fix. And I wish I could say that football had helped…’
It is difficult to know where to begin summing up the events of the past few months, and why I have been away from here for three of them, not least because I know how stigmatised mental illness remains despite the ubiquity of hashtags assuring us that, really, it is OK not to be OK.
I know how the phrase is meant, intended. I know also of the barely disguised eye-rolls when I ask people to repeat themselves because my mind was elsewhere, fighting fires. I have watched enough Channel 4 programmes about job centres and benefits and poverty to see the role mental illness plays and how easily, in a world built by and for the well, it will slice your life chances.
I know of an NHS that I instinctively love but whose mental health system is on its knees. I know of referrals for services I turn out to be ineligible for and ones with waiting lists so long that I leave instead with the same leaflet they have given me for the past three years, and the cost of private counselling (I pay £45 an hour), and the endless search for any antidepressant that touches the sides — notwithstanding the lurch of hopelessness when you learn that the NHS don’t always know exactly how antidepressants work and that they may well make things worse for people, like me, under the age of 25. The paradox of our mental health system is that you must fight for anything when you have never been less able to do so. There is an expectation, from those on the outside, that recovery will be swift as soon as you talk about it. Many of us in the middle know that it is so often a longer road.
I did not feel OK when I spent Christmas Eve weeping on the phone to a GP. I did not feel OK when I spent an evening on the couch with all the lights turned off and a blanket over my head. I was in pain, and exhausted, and hopeless, and all I could think about was how life was too long, and too hard and too draining. If I would struggle like this for the rest of my joyless life — and nothing was bringing me joy back then — was there any point to any of it?
It is not OK not to be OK. I have felt at times in the past year about as far from OK as it is possible to be while knowing that I am lucky that it is not worse still. And I can’t write this as a triumphant piece about how I have conquered depression and anxiety when the reality is that I am learning – slowly, a moment at a time – to find coping mechanisms, and a routine, and a good diet, and hobbies, and a way of living in the present instead of worrying endlessly about the effort of getting through things that might never happen. There is nothing glamorous about my recovery.
Depression has been a relative constant in my life for the past seven years, and anxiety longer. Sometimes it laps at the edges of my brain; on other days, it is more insistent and taking control is like trying to catch the sea in a teaspoon or a pint glass. I feel at once a surfeit of everything and an excess of nothing; there is a fear in realising, when you feel you need it most, that it is not possible to take a break from yourself.
There are periods where it is manageable, or something close to manageable, and I can be productive and interested and creative even when another part of me tells me that I am a failure and there is no point to anything. There are periods where I can hide it, or where I can function despite days when it takes all I have to get through. Do not mistake them for good days, those times when I am ostensibly fine but really riddled with urgency without energy. I cannot concentrate, and my head is too noisy, and I am dizzy and tired, and there is no joy or connection or meaning to be found in anything. And there are periods — sometimes days, other times longer — where all I can do is wait and cry and sleep until the world is a little more yielding.
The last three months were coming. I sat at Manchester United Women’s first game at Old Trafford, in March, with my hood up and trying not to talk to anyone, because if I did then surely I would cry. Likewise, Leicester vs Manchester United (I have nothing against Manchester United, I promise) at the King Power, when I spent all day groaning under the weight of the mask I presented to the world — each conversation, even just asking for directions to the toilet, too exhausting — and desperate to get home. When I finally did, I lay on the floor and sobbed, like I’d been waiting to do since I’d left the house 10 hours ago.
Something had to give, and eventually it did, and I could not write any more or make another phone call or go to a match that I was, if I was honest with myself, too poorly to attend.
I wish I could say that it was an instant fix. And I wish I could say, for the purposes of this website, that football had helped, but if anything it served initially to remind me of how far I’d drifted from the rest of the world. My brother’s friends have got more use out of my Bradford City season ticket than I have because to be around people who care when you can’t feel anything is a unique kind of pain. I watched, indifferent, as faceless players moved in indiscernible shapes and may or may not have scored — I don’t know, because I did not celebrate, and instead I watched it all as if from a cage, face pressed against the bars and wondering what it would be like to feel what other people feel. To feel joy. To care.
The sole reason anything seemed to exist was to remind me of how much of a failure I was. Such is life with low self-esteem. The fallacy of all this is that to be depressed and anxious is to know, too, that life is not promised, and that time goes quickly, and that wellness does not last long, and to ruminate always on the life you are missing out on — I feel it now, at 24. Towards the end of my convalescence — when I felt something approaching ambition again — I ached watching my peers run, eyes open and fearless, into a world that is bruising but ready to be lived at full volume; all while I felt set to be perpetually ill, like a Lost Boy on a Neverland where the sun never rises.
There was a peace in cutting myself off and forgetting, for the first time, about time, and how it is always running out, and how there is noise, everywhere, especially in my own mind, and trying to extinguish, with the help of therapy, the feelings that had torn through my head like forest fires. There were periods when doing that was too much, and I had to just be, and wait until I was ready to face it all again.
And now I am, to a degree, all while learning how to be kind to myself again. I am back at work, grateful to be surrounded by patient people who seem to know me better than I know myself, all of us eager to work out what works best for me for now. I am, I suppose, a few rungs shy of OK, by which I mean still I am still not as well as a functioning adult but inching — inching being the keyword — in a better direction. Crucially, at my own pace, not everyone else’s, in a world where everything is moving quicker than ever before.
From experience, I know how insincere this may read to those in the midst of what I was going through a few months ago. The unfortunate and inconvenient contradiction of mental illness is that so many of us are only well enough to write about it in length on the other side, once we are in some form of recovery. Those oft-shared tips that keep many on an even keel — Go for a walk! Get a dog! Take a shower! Open the curtains! Eat healthily! — are voiced with good intentions but at one’s lowest are like trying to stitch a car crash laceration with a hotel room sewing kit.
The fact that I have made it so far should not mask the intensity of the preceding horrors, but merely demonstrate that they are survivable. I caveat that with the fact that I have been able to pay £45 an hour for therapy, live with parents who look after me and have understanding employers — that many do not should be a rallying call for the rest of society.
Writing this has been hard not because I am ashamed — my illness is too urgent to waste time being ashamed of it — but because of the fear that it is not as good as all of the other things people could read instead, and that I will never be as good as my colleagues, who exemplify all the things I cannot do, and ad infinitum.
Until at some point I take control, pivot, and see the world’s potential as something optimistic and not a contractual obligation or something for me to be burdened by — there lies hope. And with that a future in which I am OK, and well, and steady, and good, and peaceful, and content.
Mind can provide you with the support you need if you are seeking help for a mental health problem. Click here for more information.  
(Photo: Eddie Garvey/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
By Charlotte Harpur
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