It took me 30 years to realise my mental health and physical health were the same damn thing
I live in two worlds.
One world you can see, where my health problems ring clear with physical pain that demands my immediate attention; and another invisible realm, where my illness is emotional, and episodic and creeps in quietly through the backdoor of my mind.
My overall health and wellbeing exist in a fracture between these two worlds, but taking an integrated approach to my self-care hasn’t always been easy; especially when historically, I’ve treated my mental and physical health as two separate things.
When I had debilitating asthma, I went to my GP.
When I had crippling anxiety attacks that took over my life, I did nothing.
When I got pharyngitis, I went to my GP.
When I was so depressed, I couldn’t get out of bed; I did nothing.
It took years for me to understand that I should be addressing my health as a whole person and not in parts, as I gradually fell to pieces.
I grew up in a home where I was encouraged to see a doctor when I was sick, and when I went to school, this encouraged behaviour had cultural reinforcement. Even now, as a mother with a baby, I often catch myself singing “Miss Polly had a Dolly who was sick, sick sick, so she called for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick”…
But who should Dolly call if she’s falling apart?
As a society, we’re all very good at calling the doctor when we’re sick. But how quick-quick-quick are we to call for help when the pain we feel is so nuanced and individual to us, that admitting our emotions out loud is often more terrifying than allowing ourselves to ask for the help we need.
Coming out about your mental health isn’t always easy.
I’m second-generation Lebanese British, and my dad doesn’t believe that mental illness exists.
At 18 years old, I was severely depressed and not for the first time in my life, suicidal.
I was given an emergency referral for risk assessment, and my dad dropped me off at the clinic as if I’d told him I was going shopping.
It was impossible to make my dad believe in my condition, and I eventually stopped trying to explain what I was going through because every painful disclosure provoked the same reaction; my fake illness was offensive.
To people like my dad, REAL illnesses are seen, diagnosed and medically treated — like cancer. Anything not assimilated within my dad’s existing definition of sickness is ignored or scorned.
The workplace is another space where I’ve struggled to unite my two worlds.
When I was in my mid-20s, I worked so hard I had a nervous breakdown.
I was so weak I couldn’t get out of bed, and knowing I had to go into work made me feel physically sick. Lying in A&E on a drip unable to move, my doctor told me that if I didn’t start looking after myself soon, the stress would kill me.
I dragged myself back into work because I didn’t know how to request sick leave for a condition with no cure except rest.
I felt like a con, and I told myself that no one would believe me.
For many people, there’s still a perceived stigma that employers won’t understand mental health issues and that it’s easier or quicker to disguise a mental health problem as a bad cold, rather than make the admission that it’s something far more serious.
For me, admitting I needed help again took me back to sitting in the car outside the clinic with my dad.
I couldn’t cope with the pain of being misunderstood again.
While I own the fact that I’ve supported the creation of two separate spheres for my physical and mental health, at 30 years old, I can finally appreciate how detrimental this has been for me.
Mental health and physical health do not orbit our lives with planet-like distance; they exist within us, simultaneously. When they falter, they falter together with the same urgency and need for attention.
By addressing my long term mental health problems with the same respect and care I give my physical body, I stood a better chance of recovery and a much better chance of confidentially managing my future symptoms.
Taking a holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing is slowly becoming more accepted, and there are more resources available now than when I was young and in real need of support.