Milonga

We Are More Than A Diagnosis

7 May 17 illustrations: Matt

Matt is 42 and currently a full-time student. He also lives with depression and cyclothymia. We caught up with him in honour of Mental Health Awareness Week to talk about his own experience with mental health, in the hopes that it will encourage others to open up themselves.  

I was diagnosed with depression at age nineteen. However, more recently diagnosed with cyclothymia – a chronic bipolar disorder that is characterised by cyclical mood swings that fluctuate between highs and lows that can impact on daily life. There is very little awareness of this disorder – sometimes referred to as Bipolar Light – which I find infuriating as there is nothing ‘light’ about any mental health illness.  I am not a fan of labels, but a diagnosis can help you understand and explain your condition – but we are more than a diagnosis.

I really felt like something wasn’t quite working in my head from a young age. Say, eleven. Not until aged 37 did I make concerted efforts to really find treatment and services that could help and that worked for me. I had seen many GP’s, a few psychiatrists and accessed counseling services over the years – but by facing my health head-on, it gave me more motivation and courage to seek help, ask questions, and really look at my life.

I have been on medication and currently not on any.  I found the most helpful have been talking therapies and a group I joined which looked at Mindfulness and Managing Emotions; this was a group programme that I attended once a week for twelve weeks. The great thing about this group is that diagnosis wasn’t really discussed – we were a group of people all looking to get help but support each other in navigating the challenges we all faced. I am retraining to be a Medical Herbalist, and hope to work with people in the future on how herbal medicine may be suitable to help manage some conditions, as well as working with people on nutritional advice, exercise and to maintain good mental health.

For me, exercise, healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle incorporating other therapies such as herbal medicine and hypnotherapy is by far the best way to combat my illness. It is hard and at times I have bad days or slip up, but for me, my mental health condition is something that needs constant work. I live with it, but I control it by being kind to myself, self care and compassion. Knowing your triggers and situations that help and hinder your illness. Don’t compare yourself to others, fresh air and sunshine. Sounds simple – but it’s not when you live with a constant gremlin in your head it can be hard. That gremlin undermines you, doubts everything, is your worst critic, lives in the past and remembers only the bad stuff. It can be extremely hard. My garden and cat really help – enjoy your hobbies, just going for a walk every day does you a lot of good too.

A combination of talking therapies, healthy eating and exercise seems to work best. There have been times when medication has lifted me out of the depths  when at rock bottom, but for me it only served that purpose. It masked the reasons for feeling how I was, but at times there can be no reasons. That is the scary thing about mental illness; it is unpredictable. Everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  Therefore more understanding and time is needed to work with people on what can get them better, what they can they do and  what other services do to help people.

If it comes up, I do talk about my mental health with people around me; you find other people share their own difficulties.  It all depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, though, people have a lack of understanding, and find it difficult to put themselves in your shoes. I have had people ask “what have you got to be depressed about?” and “pull yourself together.”

I do think there’s more of a stigma surrounding men’s mental health issues, because it seems very much a cross cultural issue that men should be men and man up. I hate that phrase. What does it mean? For me I think there is a lot of pressure on men, especially young men, to live up to certain expectations, or fulfill obligations. I am not saying this doesn’t affect women and girls – it does. But maybe men historically have been expected not to talk – and so it continues. Mental health is so broad it covers so much – there is a lot of prejudice and worry about how a diagnosis will influence your life, your future, job opportunities…

Matt’s Advice:
You are not alone, it can and will get easier.  Be compassionate towards yourself, find someone to talk to, access services – they are out there.  Be selfish – and that is hard – but put yourself first. Say no to things that may be affecting your mental health. Focus on the positives every day. If you have a bad day, accept it as such but work hard on getting better. Talk. Talk. Talk.

If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with your mental health, there are people that can help. You can freephone the Samaritans, any time, on 116 123.

The Samaritans website

Nottingham Insight Healthcare website

Mind website

CALM website

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