Why I Had to Hit Rock Bottom to Learn How We Must Break the Silence around Mental Health
Here I am, starting a project extolling the virtues of speaking up about mental health concerns and I realise I haven’t shared my own experience yet. I have no concerns telling my story, but this project isn’t my story. The idea is to tell everyone else’s story, yours included.
But it occurs to me that I will probably have to take the first step and that it makes sense to show you where the story of Taboola Rasa began, long before it had its name.
A Whisper of Depression
Mental health issues have always been present in my life. I may not have known the right words them, I may not have recognised them for what they were. But the word depressed slunk into my life early on, as a careful whisper spoken in combination with the words my father.
My dad had probably been depressed from his early teenage years on. But if you were born in 1939 and grew up in post-war Austria, you simply didn’t have depression. Suffering from mental health issues was then seen as weak — as it, unfortunately, still is way too often today. But back then, it wasn’t even talked about and it wasn’t treated. You were told to suck it up.
I think that, as a consequence of his depression, my father was unhappy for most of his life. I can’t ask him anymore (and I doubt he’d have an answer for me). Most of what I think I know about his mental health status I have pieced together on my own since his death almost 6 years ago.
A Mental Health Cocktail of Grief and Stress
In 2010, my father suddenly passed away during a routine hospital visit over Easter. His sudden death and the kind of decisions I had to make that day as the only family member present were a lot to deal with.
Grief piled onto stress from juggling two time-consuming jobs. My mother, in her own grief, made demands I couldn’t keep up with. After a lifetime of insomnia, I slept even less than usual. Amidst the emotional rollercoaster, my wife and I got married.
The virtually infinite amount of energy I had always believed to possess was tapped out. I started to decline fast and, within two months after my dad’s death, I burnt out.
Getting Diagnosed — or Not
I went to a psychiatrist, thinking I’d get some help. But the doctor only heard that my father had died and promptly diagnosed me with an adaption disorder. I was stumped. That didn’t feel right. I knew grief, and I knew that whatever I was experiencing wasn’t just my incapability to deal with the loss of my father.
I asked the psychiatrist — who never took more than 10 minutes to talk to me — for help. Her version of help was to shrug and put me on light antidepressants. When I kept telling her the pills didn’t really work and that I thought she had misdiagnosed me she finally sent me on to someone else, “someone who might be more fitting for me”, she said.
In the end, that was the one right thing that doctor ever did for me, because it led to me finally being diagnosed with ADHD, at 27 years of age. As it turned out, the grief had been the catalyst for the burnout — and the burnout was simply a symptom of a lifetime of burning the candle at both ends because I was compensating for my ADHD.
In the months after my diagnosis, I learned a lot through reading, online forums and therapy. I learned that I wasn’t lazy, but that my brain chemistry was simply off, leading to me getting distracted easily and leaving things undone often. I learned that I wasn’t socially inept, but that my filter function was faulty.
But, most importantly, I learned that I wasn’t alone, thanks to online forums, social media and, over time, even through meeting fellow ADHDers IRL.
Talking about It
At first, I was simply too exhausted to hide what I was going through so when someone asked me how I was doing, I replied honestly. First, people would be taken aback because this kind of information is still considered private. People expect you to keep anything related to mental health under lock and key.
But, once they had accepted that I wasn’t ashamed to talk about this, many people’s behaviour changed. They started asking more questions, mentioning a depressed relative here or a burnt-out friend there. At some point, they even started sharing their own mental health issues.
In 2014, my partner and I decided to offer a mental health session at a barcamp. We expected only a handful of people to show up but were overwhelmed by the onrush of people gravitating towards our session.
The most important thing I have learned from all of this is that mental health is relevant. There is a certain demand for talking about it, for sharing, for exchanging war stories.
Breaking the Taboo
It only takes one person. One person to open up about mental health, to speak openly, to break the taboo and put themselves out there, blatantly ignoring the stigma attached to not being alright in the head. It puts others at ease, makes them feel safe and less exposed to judgement, so they, in turn, can start talking about it and put even more people at ease.
The only way to break society’s mental health taboo is to put ourselves out there, bravely, and say: “I struggle with mental health issues. It doesn’t define me, but it is a part of me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me weaker. At best, it makes me stronger. That also means that you are not alone in this either.”
Yeah, but I Know the Way Out
It’s like the story that Leo tells Josh in The West Wing about a man who falls into a hole and his friend who jumps into the hole with him. The first man asks his friend why the hell he jumped in with him. Now they’re both in the hole! And the friend says: “Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.”
Less judgement also leads to more people being able to ask for help. And more people getting the help and support they desperately need can lead to fewer suicides, fewer lives wasting away under the yoke of mental health concerns which remain unnoticed and untreated.
If someone around my dad had talked openly about their mental health issues, maybe he would have been able to get treatment instead of having to be ashamed of it all his life. He might even have gotten to be happy.