Joanna O’Malley opens up about living with mental health issues.
I’ve always been willing to discuss my mental health in person. However, I have never talked about it publicly online for two reasons: I never wanted to be defined by an illness because I still worry that there would be a stigma attached to it which would alter how people saw me, and honestly, I worried I’d be less likely to get employed. That could make me a part of the problem of stigmatisation, but as someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety for over six years and spent five of those on meds, I feel like I’ll forgive myself for not wanting to discuss an issue I struggled with greatly in an incredibly public manner.
So why bring it up now?
Last week someone asked me the question: “so how did you get better?” as if they were desperately looking for some quick fix. That question got me thinking, and so here we are.
What did my depression/anxiety look like from an outsider’s point of view? In secondary school, I looked like the kid who thought they were too smart for class and who’d stay at home instead of attending and I’d laugh along with that. In reality, I sometimes really didn’t feel like, and often just couldn’t bear, getting up in the morning and instead felt like crying for absolutely no reason to the point where I’m pretty sure I missed about 45% of my Leaving Cert cycle classes. In college, I looked like the person who was too busy doing society work and photography jobs to go to class.
Sometimes that was true, but I’m still involved with societies while in final year and have three jobs, and I rarely miss class or my assignments (all-nighters are way easier when not on meds!). What was happening was that I felt anxious at the thought of feeling overwhelmed in a classroom of over 300 people for an hour or facing my degree in any real way because I was already “behind” and it was too overwhelming.
How did I get better?
I suppose I should start by saying I’m more comfortable discussing the topic now given that I’m almost three years off meds and I can honestly say I no longer feel like I have either depression or anxiety and haven’t for a year or two. Does that mean every day I’m smiling, never stressed or never tearful? Absolutely not, but it means I no longer feel like I won’t ever be able to overcome my problems; the world doesn’t feel too daunting to leave the house, and I now deal with stress a lot better. I also like to smile way more, and that’s just lovely.
“I learned to recognise when my illness would give me a “bad day” and how that was ok and, on those days, I needed to actually be kind to myself.”
One reason why I had depression/anxiety for so long was because it took a while for me to treat/get the treatment that suited me. I want to acknowledge that I had an incredibly supportive family and friend base. As well as that, both my secondary school and university faculty could not have been more accommodating/helpful, although I do know that not everyone is this lucky. In trying to find the best course of action for me, I ended up seeing (in order) a psycho-analyst, two psychiatrists, a college counsellor, a GP, another counsellor, and a final psychiatrist to figure out how to get off my meds safely. First off I needed meds for a while, and that’s absolutely fine and what I needed at the time. It wasn’t forever, but I’d always say if you’re struggling you shouldn’t fear taking medication. After that, I finally convinced myself that if I don’t exercise within a week, I’m probably at least 10% more likely to cry for no reason at some point. I learned CBT techniques to put everything into context, so my over-analytical brain wouldn’t blow everything way out of proportion. I learned to recognise when my illness would give me a “bad day” and how that was ok and, on those days, I needed to actually be kind to myself. I learned to avoid triggers. If I was having a bad day and supposed to be seeing my friends for drinks, for example, I might give it a miss.
“It took me five years from being officially diagnosed and getting treatment to feel better.”
It took me five years from being officially diagnosed and getting treatment to feel better, and I had to work incredibly hard to get there when sometimes I really didn’t want to. So honestly, if you have depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, this probably won’t give you any tips to fix you quickly. The reason I’m sharing it is because I’m hoping that if you’re reading this and you’re currently struggling with anything that you may feel less alone, and just perhaps you’ll not want to give up. It does get better and if you’ve been feeling a bit off for a few weeks, don’t be afraid to talk to a counsellor, to your friends or family or to ring a helpline because it’s always better to look after yourself when there’s any doubt.
Finally, I’m sharing this because I’ve come out the other side and I now feel I can say just because I had depression/anxiety it didn’t make me “less employable” or “weak.” The thing most people don’t realise is that depressed people are some of the most successful people who you just don’t realise are struggling. I now feel like depression/anxiety is one of the greatest (and honestly horrible) endurance tests I’ve ever passed and I know if it rears its ugly head again I’ll be ok… and I honestly believe so will you.