(This is Part 1 of a four-part series on how to get help if you think you have a mental illness.)
For months after I wrote this, I received emails that said all kinds of things. Many were warm and confiding, many were heart-breaking and, yet others were full of questions. The few years since I’ve written this, the one question that keeps repeating itself from various sources, time and again, is “I am sad/unhappy/out of control. How do I know I need help?” The emails always make me sad and somewhat heartened. Sad that so many people go through life with such pain that it stops them from being who they want to be. I am equally heartened because this many people are paying attention to their emotional states, listening to the voice of their hearts and considering that they might need help.
Before I start trying to answer the question that is the headline of this post, I’ll state at the outset that I am no expert. Everything that I list here is entirely my own experience and any suggestions I offer are drawn from how I have gone about getting help, and getting things to be a little better in my life. So with that out of the way, I’ll get on with it 🙂
I’ll go back to many summers ago when I was distraught and it felt like I was being overcome by something I cannot describe. It was the feeling of watching a gigantic, and I mean really fucking enormous, wave rise in front of you, bearings its dipping fangs and threatening to completely obliterate you the minute it loses its battle with gravity. And you? You’re rooted to the spot, like you’ve been many times in a dream, unable to move and save yourself. This feeling attacked me often and intensely when I was a teenager. I have still not learnt to identify it or name it. Overwhelmed? Panic attack? Anxiety? I don’t know and, honestly, now I don’t bother with labels. I just know I am unwell and I (almost always) do my best to take care of myself. This feeling never really went away until therapy started kicking in but I got better and better at hiding it, or worse, escaping from it. And at my worst moments, I’d tell those around me, “Help me, there’s something wrong with me. I need help.” People around me knew just as little as I did, and therefore there would only be helpless hugs, or empty consolations or brushing away of things.
It was when things broke down completely — including me — that I realised I needed some level of help. A very personal incident finally pushed me over the edge and I went to a doctor to get diagnosed. The story of my diagnosis is for another post, one I want to pay particular attention to because it was not something I’d wish on anyone at all.
In the meantime, however, here’s how you can decide that you need to go to a therapist.
- When your life falls apart: Simply put, if your heart or your hands or your legs weren’t performing the functions that they were meant to, you’d see a doctor. Similarly, when your mind doesn’t do what it needs to do, you need to get help. What does that mean? Because the mind is tricky and it’s always working; and while it’s working, you think you’re doing the right things, behaving the right way, making the right decisions. And yet, outside of you is chaos. You don’t eat on time (or at all), you probably don’t sleep well (or at all), you’re short tempered, unable to meet even daily goals, you probably overspeed, have accidents, bad relationships. You probably are never able to make decisions when they need to be made because that action paralyses you, and then, suddenly you’re at a point in time when you need to make that decision. So you make that decision last minute, under compulsion, with no more time to consider the matter carefully. You probably miss deadlines, flake on a lot of plans, lose your temper really easily. Needless to say you’re unhappy a lot. The above list is for high-functioning individuals who, despite keeping their jobs and relationships, still find themselves fighting with or being drowned by dark thoughts, for want of a better phrase. When nothing in your life is working, and you find yourself justifying all your fuck-ups (because face it, not being able to perform with a steady mind is going to fuck things up even if it wasn’t intentional), blaming everything else for your circumstances and unhappiness, it might be time for you to consider getting help .
- If you’re not high functioning, then this is simple. You’ve probably been sitting in bed for days, have barely eaten or washed this week, you’ve disconnected possibly every phone call that’s come in and have lived your life entirely online. You’ve cried incessantly, you’ve opened up to perfect strangers because the pain inside you felt akin to strangulation. If you’ve done this for over a month, you definitely need help. There may be no diagnosis, there may be no medication (thankfully) and it might be a really mild depressive phase, but catching it in time and fixing it is key. Even better, your treatment might only include a therapist talking to you to get you back on even keel for a bit, asking you to exercise, pick up a hobby.
- A third way to consider getting help is when a trusted and trustworthy friend or family member gently suggests (not when you’re having fireworks burn up the room “You’re crazy! Get your head checked”) that you might want to consider getting help for the sake of your own peace of mind.
For me, it all comes down to functioning. People say the point of therapy is that it should open up the pathways to happiness. I call BS on that. The point of therapy is to help you get on track and function fully, individually, to be able to help you achieve your goals and above all, treat your mind and your self with respect. If happiness, as we define it, is the byproduct of that then, yay.
I’d like to once more stress on the functionality bit. It’s not just doing your daily chores and completing your work responsibilities. It’s being able to function in all areas of life without wanting to slash your wrists or overdose yourself every second day. What areas of life would I say these are? Being a productive, contributing individual: be that at work or home. Being a person capable of love, empathy and kindness: towards strangers, friends, family, oneself, and other living beings you might be fond of. Being a person who takes joy in their talents, passions and hobbies: to function in this area is to be able to give yourself time that is exclusively yours. This is essential to feeling fulfilled.
I went to therapy because I didn’t love myself (my therapist would argue I still don’t). I went to therapy because the thought of death was blissful (it still is, many times). I went to therapy because I had two little children and I knew needed to be there for them, in spite of believing that anyone else would do a better job of raising them than I would. I went to therapy because every day was a real struggle. It was morning too early and day light felt like scalding water being poured on me relentlessly. I went to therapy because, finally, after all is said and done, our spirits genuinely subsist on hope.