Mental health awareness and resilience: a personal reflection

My blog has always been a place for personal reflection. This post is no exception, but comes with a very clear trigger warning: if you are struggling with your mental health at the moment, you might not want to read on.

This weekend I presented my first RAFAC mental health awareness and resilience course of 2020 to ten adult volunteers in Kent.

For me (and, yes, as an instructor I know I am biased) the course is one of the most important of all of those available within our organisation.

Young people are under an immense amount of pressure and face many different individual risk factors, and I believe that as volunteers working with young people it is important we understand those risks, the effects they can have and what we can do to help support our cadets.

But this article isn’t about the course, and I have no desire to betray either the contents of the course or the confidences of those who participate. Instead, this article is about me: my own personal reflection.

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What would your suicide note say?

This post comes with an emphatic trigger warning

Being afflicted with Bipolar Disorder is one of the most incredible and yet terrifying, joyous and yet soul-destroying feelings in the world.

The periods of elation often feel like the greatest days of one’s life; the highs can spark an almost infectious level of satisfaction and are where I find the height of my creativity. Yet they can also be the source of increased risk, and, in reality, it is no less important to control episodes of mania (or hypomania).

The periods of depression, however, almost always feel like the end of life itself. Whilst trapped in the dark and lonely embrace desperate and despairing cell of one’s own mind, the only way out can often appear to be stopping the slow and painful beat of one’s weary heart.

My Bipolar Disorder is classified as Bipolar II, that is to say the highs are only mild (hypomanic) compared to those with the more severe Bipolar I (manic). The lows (depression) are also usually much more frequent than the highs.

I have often spoken about my Bipolar as a matter of fact: it is an illness and I suffer from it. I have never spoken about how it as a form of my personality. Until now.

One of my greatest passions is writing. Whether it be blogging, poetry or fiction, I love expressing my creativity and innermost thoughts through the medium of the written word. It would, therefore, come as no surprise to learn that one of the things I think of most when I am enduring an episode of depression is what would be in my final piece of writing.

What would I write in my suicide note?

During my deepest period of depression, in the winter of 2012, I was prompted to seek professional help for the first time. I was diagnosed with depression initially, but Bipolar II followed and treatment (such as it was) continued until November 2013.

That low point was the only time I had been so hopelessly depressed as to stop thinking about what I would say in my final goodbye and actually put pen to paper.

To this day, I cannot recall what I had written, nor where the fruits of my labour had come to rest, but now, as my personal circumstances have triggered a new episode of depression spiraling dangerously close to the severity of the one I experienced in 2012, I find myself considering that question once again.

The suicide note is not just about saying goodbye to people close to you, it can also be used to open your heart and reveal the trauma you have been living with – or posthumously settle scores with people you feel have wronged you. When Elliott Johnson, a young Tory, took his own life at the age of 21, he left a letter to his parents claiming that he had been bullied by more senior Conservatives. Just one paragraph on that letter was enough to force a government minister to resign and open a dark secret of the Party which continues to unravel.

Clearly, I have no such explosive skeletons in any cupboard of mine, but surely everyone has something to confess to the world which they would only like to announce on their deathbed? My list of people who I feel have wronged me would run into a few pages, and I would need to decide whose offences were severe enough to spend the energy necessary to include them in my farewell address.

Am I just overreacting? Will I actually fall so deeply into despair that I end up writing another final letter? Will it be the last thing I ever write? Honestly, I don’t know, but the very thought terrifies me to the core. The personal circumstances which have led me to this point show no signs of improving any time soon; now that the illness has taken hold of the problems and claimed them as its own, there is no telling how far it will go.

While I was living in Barcelona, it was, undoubtedly, difficult not earning money. But, for a number of reasons, I was coping and I was happy. I love my homeland, but since I returned four weeks ago, my life and my happiness seem to have crumbled around me. The future I was planning and looking forward to in Catalunya now seems unlikely (at least in my anxious and pessimistic mind) to ever materialise. The dream I have held for many years – and desperately tried to cling onto for the past few months – is dead, and it is difficult for me to see any way to revive it. No other thought I’d ever had about my future even comes close to what I had moved to Barcelona to build, and, honestly, I cannot see any of the alternatives ever making me happy.

The other problem I face in avoiding the worst case scenario is that now I am back in Medway, my fate is, to a large extent, in the hands of an overworked and under-resourced mental health service. Don’t get me wrong, every contact I have had with them in the past has been helpful and professional, but it is incredibly difficult to get that all-important first contact. Mental health services in this country are still the poor cousin of physical health services, often forgotten about by the politicians and suits in offices making the decisions which matter. Those of us who need to use those services, especially in a crisis, only ever end up suffering.

The truth is that I don’t actually know what I would put in a suicide note this time around. There is so much more going on this time that I cannot make sense of it for long enough to put it into a logical order. And, no matter how low I sink into depression, I honestly do not think my vanity would ever allow me to end it all without first having been able to write my last goodbye, clearly and unambiguously.