One of the biggest barriers to people seeking help with their mental health is a worry – often ironically – that they are not sick enough. That they need to pull themselves together. They just need to get through the next few days or weeks and all will be back to normal. That counselling or medication is for those who are really sick – those who deserve the help. Not for them.
Some of this reluctance is tied up with the complex web of stigma surrounding mental health and worries about what people will think – especially in the workplace or within their families – about admitting (that word says a lot) that something is wrong and they are struggling. Despite the progress of recent years with greater openness in society to talk about mental health and the struggles that many of us (1 in 3 is the statistic that is oft-quoted) experience every day, we are light years away from the healthy place where speaking up and seeking help is the rule, not the exception.
Our collective experience of the last year or so has added an extra layer to the stigma of seeking help, driven often by guilt that others are much worse off than me, especially in the face of COVID and the losses of loved ones, livelihoods, financial security, freedoms and confidence that so many have endured. I see it every day and I do it every day – saying sorry for saying we are struggling though COVID because ‘there are so many people worse off than me’.
This guilt, this talking down our own feelings and experiences, often deeply felt and painful experiences, is damaging our individual and collective mental health. It is making us feel worse not better. It is part of the problem not part of the solution.
So many of us – me included – are prefacing our answer to the question ‘how are you?’ with the words ‘first world problems’ and apologising for saying we are struggling through COVID because we are not in ICU with COVID, dead, dying, bereaved, or out of work or homeless. Just think about that for a second. We are saying that we must ignore our feelings of anxiety, depression, loss, grief, fear, isolation and more besides, because it isn’t as bad as someone else’s awful experience. Put in physical health terms, it’s like saying I have broken my leg, but I am fine and don’t need to go the hospital to get it set and put in plaster because my next door neighbour has broken both their legs.
Like many, I have found this most recent lockdown very hard, the toughest of the three. Like many – probably all – I am hoping this is the last lockdown I experience in my lifetime. I don’t know exactly why this has been the hardest although I have a few theories.
It’s been long. The weather has been pretty miserable. The cumulative effect of the previous two have added to the negative experience, with me feeling a kind of heavy lockdown fatigue. In Merseyside we had the relative joy – and it really did feel like pure joy – of living under tier two restrictions for part of the end of 2020 which gave us a glimpse of freedom, including being able to work in coffee shops and do something I love the most in the world: going out for weekend breakfasts with the two loves of my life.
But like many, I have found it hard to say this without feeling the need to apologise because my struggles during lockdown #3 haven’t been worse or involved greater loss or pain. I have missed my small pleasures. The little things that form part of my daily self care routines that help to keep me well. I have missed the pots of tea to accompany my writing or studying in my four favourite coffee shops. I have missed playing golf with all the wonderful benefits of the fresh air, distraction value and exercise. I have missed bookshops. I have missed the freedom to travel, even small distances. I have missed all my small freedoms.
I write a mental health journal every day and capture the daily self care things I do. This list has been curtailed during locked #3 as some of my go-to activities were off-limits, even illegal. But whenever I was asked how I was managing through the last three months or so I made the same guilt-ridden apology and talked down the impact of these losses – the reduction in my wellbeing activities and the knock on effect that had on my mental health.
I said, ‘oh, listen to me with my first world problems. Poor me not being able to play golf or buy a cuppa in a coffee shop. Poor me.’ And yet, I had one of my worse every episodes of depression during this lockdown – something I captured in its raw quality in a previous post – http://www.amjcomms.com/2021/02/28/i-am-in-the-eye-of-the-storm-what-its-like-to-be-in-a-depressive-episode/ – and have found myself emotional and melancholy a fair amount during this time.
I long to connect with the things I have been denied that give me joy. I have a constant image in my mind of the next time we travel to Ireland, stepping onto the aircraft stairs and then onto Éireann terra firma. I see myself emulating Pope John Paul II kneeling and kissing the ground and giving thanks. It sounds a little silly when I see it written down but it has been a thought that has sustained me over the last few months. It represents for me a return to a place of deep meaning – a place of safety, of happiness, of love. Of purpose.
It symbolises a return to a place and a time I took for granted. It is 18 months since we were last in Ireland – 18 months that has felt like 18 years. Just as this last lockdown has felt like an eternity.
I have learnt a lot through this rocky period. The most important thing – which mirrors much of the learning I have encountered on my psychotherapy training – is the importance of hearing and accepting feelings – yours and those you are seeking to help. Minimising how we feel is not the route to health and happiness. Dismissing how you or someone else feels because it appears less serious, less painful, less important than someone else’s experience is a damaging route to take. It is the road to more pain, more suffering, more anguish.
I have found inspiration and support in a number of places during the last few months, most recently in reading and then rereading Viktor Frankl’s 1946 masterpiece, Man’s Searching For Meaning, which charts his own experience in various Nazi concentration camps and the outlining of his existentialist concept of logotherapy. In the book, Frankl contends that meaning can be found in every moment of living and that life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering. He argues that there are times when suffering cannot be avoided and we have no option but to face it. However, we can choose – we have the free will – to decide how we respond to this suffering, We can find meaning and purpose within it.
I was moved to tears several times in reading his book and contemplating the immense suffering that he and those around him experienced at the hands of the worse of human behaviour. But I was uplifted too and reminded that all suffering is relative – all pain is our own and that nobody can know how it feels to walk in our shoes and be inside our heads. No-one’s pain is more or less valuable or important than anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy in suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering.
It’s not a first world problem to struggle during lockdown. It’s just a problem and one I now choose to accept and embrace. I’m done with apologising. Apologising for this has no purpose.