I was standing in the pharmacy smelling different essential oils that promised me Zen. I picked them up one by one, inhaling the scents. There was one for stress, and one for sleep, and one to help me breathe properly. ‘Breathe deep, slow down,’ it read. I breathed in. It was short and shallow. It was the opposite of deep. I could feel my anxiety...
I picked up the tiny brown glass bottle, which promised to fix my breathing, then accidentally dropped it. It smashed all over the floor. The aromatic scent filled the store and I stood awkwardly next to my puddle of oily Zen, apologising to the shop assistant. I wanted to tell her the puddle was a bit like my mind at times; messy and slippery and often a hazard. Instead, I offered to pay for it, but was told it was no problem, it happens all the time. I wondered how many women looking for serenity walked in and dropped their glass bottles. I picked up another and purchased it. I sat in the car, closed my eyes, and breathed in my new oil.
Anxiety is hard to describe to someone who doesn’t experience it. Just relax and let go. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. Don’t take things too seriously, be chill. Sure. I get all of that. But none of it helped when I found myself sitting at my desk picking the skin off my lips. They started to bleed. I didn’t realise I was doing it until I tasted the blood. It didn’t help when I jumped from tab to tab on my laptop, unable to focus on one task for longer than a few minutes. I started scrolling Instagram, swiping through the lives of others. They don’t look anxious. I bet they don’t make their lips bleed. I closed the app. I couldn’t concentrate. Focus. My breathing changed. I started taking short breaths that didn’t reach my stomach. I picked up my new oil. Just relax. Anxiety doesn’t like to chill out – it’s her idea of hell.
A friend of mine has been on antidepressants since she was 14. In the beginning, she just wanted to be alone in her room all the time. She needed to escape, to disappear, so she’d lie under her duvet and pray no one would ask her to come out. ‘I wanted to be by myself all the time. I’d lie in my bedroom feeling like no one understood me. Large crowds would give me panic attacks,’ she told me. Breaking point came when she was crossing the road with her mother. There were pedestrians everywhere and she had a panic attack. She was taken to the doctor and diagnosed with depression. She started taking Cipramil, an antidepressant medication, and twenty years later, hasn’t stopped. She doesn’t know what it would be like off the pills, but she doesn’t want to find out because she still feels all the highs and lows of life. ‘They’re not a magic bullet,’ she said to me once. But they help her to cope. She’s less frantic and fragile. She doesn’t crack as easily. It took her years before she admitted to anyone, she had depression. The shame of admitting her brain was sad was too much, so she hid it and instead started partying at 16 as an escape.
We tend to hide the fragility of our mental health because admitting we can’t cope with life makes us feel like failures, especially when we convince ourselves everyone else on Instagram is living an award-winning life. We’re told we have one life, so we’d better make the most out of it. Or life’s short – enjoy every moment. Life is short. We should make the most out of it. But conquering our mental health issues isn’t as straightforward as that. Just ask the one in seven Australians who will experience depression in their lifetime or the quarter of Australians who will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime.* As the poet Atticus writes in her book Love Her Wild, ‘Depression is being colourblind and constantly told how colourful the world is.’
‘It’s more socially acceptable for you to say that you have broken your leg than it is to say you feel like your brain is broken,’ said Pandora Sykes. She’s right – no one wants to open small talk with ‘Guess what, my brain might be broken. Any ideas?’ Mental health is still an enormously taboo topic. And because we can’t see mental health, it makes people uncomfortable. They don’t know where to look.
‘Morning! I just sat on the floor of my shower and cried my eyes out because I feel so hopeless and unworthy. Coffee?’
‘Hey, how’s it going? Have you ever tried Lexapro?’
‘Don’t mind the bandages. I self-harmed today.’
‘I get so anxious I pick the skin off my lips. Want to be friends?’
No one wants to be the person who comes along and dumps a pile of mental health woes in the middle of the room. Here it is everyone, take a good look, what do you think? And to be honest, mental health is deeply private. We even hide it from our loved ones. A woman I know hid the fact she was on antidepressants from her husband, for fear of looking like she couldn’t cope. She only told him when she was ready to come off them. It’s only when we break, like my friend did on the street that day, that we get help.
Telling someone you’re seeing a psychologist goes down a little like telling someone you’ve just had a sex dream about their husband. It can get awkward. When Ella Ward was diagnosed with cancer, she started documenting her journey on social media. She wrote an article for The Grace Tales about the therapy taboo. ‘In this age of the overshare, I’m a bit bewildered at how stigmatised mental health treatment still is,’ she wrote. ‘I can bounce out of work early for an acupuncture treatment, but tell colleagues I’m off to my psych appointment and they go a bit blinky and weird. So, let’s be clear: I have been medicated for anxiety, I have been in regular therapy, and I have been without either. All approaches have their merits, but I credit a lot of the good work my brain does to the mental pit stops I make at my therapist.’ It’s true, we freely share all the things we’re doing to improve our wellbeing – spin classes that feel like we’re reliving our glory days in nightclubs, vagina steaming, even detailed descriptions of colonics – but the good old-fashioned shrink, that’s not so cool.
I was 38 when I first decided to see a psychologist. To finally talk about the things in my brain I was most ashamed of. I sat down on the grey couch in her tidy office and waited for her to ask me all the big questions. Here I am. Ready and waiting. Fix me. Instead, she said nothing. I did what I often do when presented with silences that feel like the sensation you get when someone scratches their fingernails down a chalkboard: I got verbal diarrhoea. At the end of the session, a little like the aftermath of a stomach bug, I felt lighter. I returned the week after, and the week after that. Finding someone who would simply listen was life changing.