So last month on this blog, with #ProjectHappyJanuary, I spoke about some positive things to do to encourage positive thinking and good mental well being. With the mental health charity Time To Change holding the fifth annual Time To Talk Day to raise awareness of and encourage the discussion of mental health issues today, it got me thinking.
I’ve always been a firm believer in practicing what you preach. However, some things have often been easier for me to speak about than others. But with the discussion around mental health at its highest, I thought it was the right time that I join that movement, and try to start that conversation myself, as a young man in their twenties, living in the UK today.
It is why I am choosing to speak up today, about how I have suffered with anxiety in recent years. How I came to suffer with it is something I am only still sourcing the origins of today. But I dare say it probably traces back to when I was at school, over 10 years ago. A combination of not fitting in, being quite badly bullied, being completely hopeless at PE, a setback of sorts when I had to re-sit my first year of A Levels, fear of failing exams/falling behind everyone else. I can safely say, even just reading that all back, that I don’t miss being a teenager one bit.
Certain characteristics of that time – fear of failure, the needless desire to be ‘cool’ and ‘popular’, judgement from others etc – in one way or another, stayed with me throughout my twenties (I have about 18 months left of them at time of writing). So far, my twenties have been a far sight better than my teens were, but not without their external pressures.
10 years ago, whilst sitting my final year of A Levels before I took a gap year, I’d only just got myself a Facebook account. When you consider what that, and Twitter and Instagram have helped bring in over that last decade, although wonderful tools for social communication that they are, they’ve bought in this filtered, supposedly glamorous view of ‘perfect lives’ of others, be they close friends, relations or acquaintances that, to put it simply, are not real. The current buzzword/acronym ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) springs to mind.
In the last 10 years, I’ve been to university, graduated, and I made some amazing friends for life out of that. I’ve also gained passions and interests that I’ve pursued and met close friends through as well. I had a plan in place of sorts after I graduated in 2012. I wanted to do the sensible thing with the English side of my degree, and build a teaching career. Nathan Lowe, my favourite teacher at primary school – who I don’t doubt will be reading this – inspired me to follow that particular path.
When a fortnight shadowing in a local primary, and a rejected PGCE application saw to it that that dream career path didn’t work out, I was devastated. What I’d thought was the dead set, secure career plan suddenly wasn’t. I retreated in to my shell, and I became incredibly secretive and embarrassed about my professional shortcomings in the five years that followed, feeling like I was less of a success than friends or loved ones, because I wasn’t in some high flying career, or because I wasn’t engaged or settling down in a nice place, constantly comparing myself unrealistically. All this despite the huge achievement I’d made of going to university and getting a good degree whilst supporting myself financially and living away from home as well.
I won’t go into the ins and outs of it, but I went through a pretty rough time at the beginning of last year, when years of trying to cover up my anxiety, my feelings of failure and inadequacy, came to a head. I was depressed. I had lost interest in people and things that made me happy – writing for this blog included – because I had said ‘yes’ for so long to certain things, even if I wasn’t comfortable, or even if it was to make others happy at my expense, and as a result, let myself get in a toxic situation, and being in that situation had led me to develop cycles of destructive, negative thought patterns, living in fear, no longer trusting my own instincts, and losing whatever confidence and belief in myself and my gifts and talents that I had.
I eventually got out of this toxic situation around spring time, but I was not in the right place mentally when I did. I needed to build my self esteem up, surround myself with the right, positive and supportive people to build my confidence again, and most importantly, get help. After referral from my doctor, I started CBT therapy sessions in July, and just from talking to a counsellor, I felt years of unnecessary worry and fear slowly start to lift. From talking about how I felt, I realised there was no judgement. No shame of what I’d experienced. Day by day, the old me that was confident, outgoing and determined returned.
I finished my CBT sessions in November, and the things I have gained and learnt from this have changed me for the better – to identify my triggers, to challenge negative thoughts, and to practice mindfulness and positive thinking. Of course, I am well aware that what worked for me may not work for everyone. Everyone’s experience with mental health – be that anxiety, depression, low self esteem – is different.
And whilst my anxiety is something I have greater control over now, I also know I have to work hard to keep at that, which I am. I meditate daily, and I’m starting to exercise again. My first love, writing (on this blog included), has come back into my life in a big way, and I now have several regular writing gigs for other websites and publications that are helping to build a career I’m passionate about.
Some days it is harder than others to keep at it. Some days I overtly worry more than I should. But that’s OK. Because one thing I have realised more than anything this last year is that this is not a shameful thing. This is real life.
I’ve matured the most I ever have in six months, to the point where I am choosing actively to say yes, but say yes to the right people and the right experiences that will bring a positive outlook into my life. However, as I’ve said, my experience with mental health isn’t true of everyone.
But I hope, just by talking about my experiences today, that I have encouraged someone, somewhere, to speak up. It is absolutely time to talk about mental health, and to treat it seriously and to break down the stigmas of it for good. I’ve left some links below to several organisations that support those affected by mental health – Time To Change being one of them.
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