“Hi, how are you?”
“Yeah, I’m alright thanks, are you? Well, no actually I’m not, I’m not OK.”
I’m not OK.
Three small words, yet three of the biggest words you can ever say out loud. Yet, to so many people – and especially men – these words are almost impossible to say. Some people retreat ever further into themselves, others overcompensate by being overly cheerful as they try to maintain the illusion that they are fine.
No matter who surrounds us – friends, colleagues, loved ones – sometimes we feel all alone and all we want is for one person, just one, to take us aside and ask, ‘Are you OK?’The conversation that opens this post was the first conversation I had with my doctor as I slid into my first crippling depression. It had been coming for around 3 months and getting worse to the point that it was seriously affecting my ability to function in daily life. My grip was loosening day by day as my mental health deteriorated and it was becoming more and more apparent to me that this wasn’t just going to go away.
It was only at this point that I began to realise that what was happening to me was an illness; it was something that was happening to me, not something that I was doing to myself by ‘being miserable’ or failing to ‘cheer up’. I was suffering with clinical depression.
Since that first horrific episode 10 years ago I have suffered a major relapse in 2013 that lasted four months and a smaller one in December 2015. Through these experiences I have learned to recognise the signs that things are not quite right with me; on their own these signs can seem pretty innocuous but if I have a number of them together and they last more than a few days then I know that I need to be more vigilant with and take better care of myself. These signs include:
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling tired all the time
- Waking early / disturbed sleep
- Withdrawing and wanting to be on my own
- Lack of spontaneous thought
- Loss of interest in things that I usually enjoy, especially listening to music
- Lack of patience and becoming snappy
This increased self awareness is an important part of recovery and being able to recognise potential triggers helps me to guard against complacency and tells me, ‘Hey, be careful; you’re not OK, but you will be.’
Why is it so hard to admit that we are not OK, that we hurt, that we’re struggling? Logically we know that everybody struggles at sometime in their life, and yet when it’s us we worry about what people will think, we don’t want to be thought of as ‘weak’ or to ‘let people down’. Maybe we don’t want to admit our ‘weakness’ to ourselves.
Here’s what I’ve learned: admitting that we’re not OK takes strength. If doing so were weak then it wouldn’t be so damned difficult. Confronting our fears, admitting that we need help – that takes strength and that is why it is often such a big step on the road to recovery, to taking some control over the situation and to dealing with it.
Will other people think we’re weak? Maybe some will, but that speaks about them and not about us. We could all use help sometimes and during such times our priority should be in seeking it, in caring about what’s best for us and not the opinions and prejudices of others. And wouldn’t most of us want to be there for a friend or family member that needs us? At such times we really do see the best in people and we can really learn to appreciate the value with which others hold us.
Sometimes what we see as weakness is actually just a characteristic of who we are, free from judgements such as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. The very characteristics that hurt us may actually serve us well at other times, in other circumstances.
We are all a mixture of weakness and strength, of resolve and vulnerability, and we will all face illness, heartbreak, grief, loss and confusion in our lives. The more willing we are to accept that then the more likely we are to be able to ask for help when we need it. This is important. As male suicide rates show, lives depend on it.
As the now former world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury admits that he needs help to deal with mental health problems maybe it’s time to truly recognise that even the biggest and strongest amongst us can feel broken and damaged sometimes.
Admitting you’re not OK may be one of the hardest things you ever do; it is also one of the strongest.
‘I’m not OK.’
And that’s OK.
Matthew’s debut book, Something Changed: Stumbling Through Divorce, Dating & Depression, is available now Click here for info
Help – The Beatles