In 2017 I was really unwell but refused to admit it to myself. I was stubborn and – in hindsight – in denial. On one particularly stressful day, having just started a new job, I’d suddenly bounced off a wall and nearly collapsed. Seemingly out of nowhere. Dizzy, I had to sit down and then left the office early. This incident kicked off a 6-month period filled with doctors’ visits, tests, research and an uncomfortable belief that I was dying. I mean you don’t just fall over for no reason at 27, right?! I had to have something suitably awful wrong with me.
I went to have my head scanned… nothing was physically wrong.
As time went on though, other things began to go wrong. I felt like my head was constantly full of cotton wool. I wasn’t sleeping. I developed rashes and experienced frequent heart palpitations.
More tests…my heart was fine.
So what then? Well… as I would discover months later, I was suffering from ‘burnout’ and this had manifested as something called ‘GAD’ or ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’. The doctor confirmed my diagnosis and put me on a course of ‘Sertraline’ and that was that.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS MENTAL HEALTH. ONLY HEALTH.
I was still pretty skeptical, I mean… I’m Kier. I know myself. I’ve been solid as a rock my whole life and I certainly don’t experience ‘anxiety’ in the medical sense. Surely not? After all, I’m a performer. I’m familiar with nerves and how to handle them. Well, I was a fool.
Being a nerd, my natural next step was to read everything I could find on anxiety, burn out and mental health more generally. My conclusion? ‘Anxiety’ as a word is very misleading. Although what I was feeling was triggered by mental stimulus, my symptoms were far from ‘mental’. They were manifesting in all sorts of inventive ways, and usually very physically.
You see, what doctors refer to as GAD, is actually an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain that causes your body to over-produce stress hormones. Normally these hormones are very useful – they do things like help you to wake up and focus – but in large quantities they can wreak havoc with your body, leading to all the ‘physical’ abnormalities I was experiencing.
Relief … ‘Relief’ might seem like a strange reaction, but for whatever reason, the knowledge that something biological had caused my distress actually made me feel a lot better. Knowing that something had simply gone wrong – as can happen with any complex machine – and all I needed to do was to find the fix, was strangely comforting. You see, my brain was suffering from a lack of serotonin, and Sertraline (which is an ‘SRI’ or ‘Serotonin Reuptake inhibitor’) could help to stop my brain from burning through the serotonin too quickly. This meant that after a little time, things started to balance out.
Now don’t think for a second that all mental health issues can be categorized like this. I was lucky. Very lucky. Generalized anxiety is very treatable, but others aren’t quite so simply. Regardless, this leads me back to my opening statement: There’s no such thing as mental health. Only health.
Ultimately, our brains are finely tuned machines and inevitably sometimes things go wrong. Now for some people these issues can develop over time, or following a traumatic event, or even because genetics dictated it. But the reality is the same: some of us are lucky and some of us aren’t.
And my friends, THAT is why it’s important to combat the stigma surrounding mental health. There’s no such thing as mental health in my mind. Just health. Some people are born with these problems and some aren’t. But we’re ALL at risk. So be kind, and the next time someone opens up, listen. Empathize. Support. Just because an illness doesn’t manifest obviously, it doesn’t mean that it’s not real – potentially devastating – for the for the person experiencing it.
So that’s why there’s no such thing as mental health, only health. The very term mental health can make these things seem imaginary, but the impact in reality, can be very very real.