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29th December 2009.
The day I was brave enough to tell my friend I had been diagnosed with depression.
The diagnosis had come a number of months earlier and the prescription for anti-depressants shortly after that.
As we trudged through the muddy fields in the week between Christmas and New Year, trailing behind the gaggle of friends and assorted children – out for a walk and pub lunch on a wet day in the holidays – I dared to let her in on the secret I had been carrying.
Rewind three months and you would find me sitting in a therapist’s office weeping. My husband had strongly recommended (insisted?) I make an appointment. Anything to stop his wife completely unravelling.
As I sat there all my hidden assumptions about mental illness (that it affected weak, spineless and lazy people) were exposed as I grappled with the fact that this was me we were talking about. I ping-ponged back and forth between relief (maybe I hadn’t been lacking in faith or self-control all these years, maybe I was actually ill?) and shame (how had I ended up here? I thought I was stronger than this).
Fear hung over me as I wondered what it meant and how I would cope and how much I had damaged my children already and if it was repairable.
It has been a long road of discovery. Complicated and twisty. And it has changed me fundamentally.
Matt Haig took to twitter recently to say:
People make a big deal out of how BRAVE it is to talk about mental illness. Well intended. But we need it to not be brave. Just ordinary.
And I am with him 100%.
(Matt Haig is an author of numerous books including “Reasons To Stay Alive“, a memoir about his battle with depression and anxiety, a book I found moving, helpful and encouraging when I read it last year. Highly recommended. He is also prolific on twitter.)
But it isn’t easy. The muscle of vulnerability has to be exercised and strengthened.
Mental illness is more widely spoken of now than it was seven years ago when I nervously admitted the reality of what was happening to me. I read about it often in the paper and occasionally see characters on television who are grappling with these issues.
Yet it can still be a hard thing to discuss. Especially at diagnosis, when the truth is startling and new.
It is going to take some time for talking about mental illness to move from brave to ordinary.
It takes courage to accept you are ill and start the journey towards health not knowing if you will make it and how much it will change you. It takes courage to believe depression is not your fault and does not disqualify you. It takes courage to remember mental illness does not make you any less worthy of love and belonging.
And it takes courage to be honest, to be vulnerable, to hold up your hand and say ‘yes, this is me.’
As my confidence grew I found myself writing and talking more and more about my experiences. My despair, my anxiety, my daily battle for hope and peace.
I have learnt ignorance creates a grace deficit.
The less we speak about mental illness, the less it is understood and the more isolating suffering can be.
I soon discovered, far from it being a taboo no one wants to discuss, people are often desperate to find a safe place to discuss their mental health. There are many people silently suffering, waiting and hoping for someone else to be the first the put down the mask that shows them holding it all together, so they can also relax and find acceptance right where they are.
These days I often find myself in the kitchen at a party, or in the car, or over text, providing a safe place for someone else to be brave. I feel privileged to be here, to witness the courage of others because I know every time we proclaim the truth that mental illness is not a sign of weakness and that we are loved unconditionally, shame has to take a back seat and hope bubbles up.
And all those years ago as we stood in the mud in our wellies my friend offered me what I am able to offer now, a listening ear, a friendly smile, a hug, acceptance.
As I stepped out and was brave enough to be honest about my pain, confidence grew for I was no longer alone and a seed of hope was planted: what else might I be brave enough for?
Elli Johnson. Writer. Photographer. Child wrangler. (Over)thinker. Beauty seeker. Professional tea drinker. Mental health advocate. I’m learning how to live and writing about it as I go, follow me at thehippochronicles.com, on twitter @MrsElliJohnson and on Instagram @ellijohnson
A NOTE FROM BECKY: If, like Elli and I, you struggle with depression and/or anxiety, join us in the Facebook group: RESILIENT. It’s a safe place for those of us living with anxiety and depression who desire a community of people who “get it.”
Ready to live more bravely? Find out how brave you are by taking the How Brave Are You? Quiz and joining the Choose Brave: 5 Day Video Guide to Practicing Courage.