Today is World Mental Health Day and I will be spending it hosting a stand at a Mental Health Conference in Cardiff Bay, talking with many people about the importance of mental health, the need to tackle stigma and discrimination particularly in the workplace, and possibly my own mental health experiences. With 20 years of dealing with depression, I have my fair share of experiences but this blog deals with one constant factor throughout those two decades of mental health problems.
Anybody who knows me will agree that this is one of my distinguishing features, almost a catchphrase or slogan. I admit that I do it quite often. My close family and friends will happily confirm this for you.
I apologise. A lot. I mean, a lot!
Okay, not that big a deal, right? Sometimes it is not only appropriate but considered decent manners, especially where an apology is warranted. I spill a drink on some work papers a colleague was reading? Sorry. I forget an important date or event that I really should remember? Sorry. I drop an unnecessary expletive into a conversation where it is not warranted or appropriate? Not really common for me but still, I would say “sorry”.
So why apologise in relation to my mental health problems?
I will give you a couple of scenarios:
Sitting on the sofa at home, something on the TV which is white noise to my thoughts. I am too busy battling the demons inside to pay much attention to the outside world so when my friend asks a question about something on the TV, I am unable to answer. I apologise.
Watching my nieces play with their dolls in front of the fireplace though in truth, my mind is contemplating the despair of whatever my current challenges are in life. I am supposed to be paying attention and when they stray too close to the fire for their safety, I yell a little too loudly. I apologise.
Lying awake at night, the battle raging in my brain causing a bout of insomnia. Restless, I stir and wake my wife. It is only 2am, way too early to get up and I have disturbed her sleep. I apologise.
None of the scenarios are particularly disastrous. And none of them have really caused any pain or suffering to anybody else. You could even argue that none of them are my fault; I am the one dealing with the problem but I have not purposefully set out to injure or disrespect anybody. That one word – contrary to what Elton John might have told you – is too easy to say and not always warranted in these scenarios.
But I will continue to apologise.
Mental health problems – whatever they may be – are very personal issues for all of us. However we choose to deal with them, it can be a difficult process and often we do not wish to involve others in our inner battles. Sometimes though, our mental health problems do spill out, impacting those around us and especially when it affects the people we love, we can feel an obligation to act contrite. After all, we do not want to hurt anybody with our pain.
I do not apologise for my mental health. That is the important distinction here. I accept that I am somebody who has suffered and will continue to suffer from these issues. Over these twenty years, I have come to realise that this is part of who I am, my personality makes me susceptible to bouts of depression so I have learned how to deal with it in the best way possible. That is nothing to be sorry about.
I do not apologise for causing any actual pain. In fairness, most of the time I have not offended or wounded anybody with my struggles. The people in my life are incredibly supportive and would not begrudge me the odd distraction or poor reaction to deal with these demons. Sometimes they get more upset that I am apologising for something that they believe does not warrant an apology (I stop short of apologising for apologising…most of the time).
I do not apologise for who I am. I can not because it is not something I need to feel remorseful about. Why should I? People who know me accept me for who I really am so I should not worry about offending others with my existence. Everyone has mental health and 1 in 4 of us are faced with a mental health issue or condition at some point so it is not uncommon enough to need an apology.
The truth is that I apologise because I need to do it.
When I was treated for severe depression in my teens, one of the biggest “black thoughts” swirling around my head concerned the damage that my condition was doing to my relationships with others. My parents, my family, my friends…I could tell that my mood affected them as well as myself. They would worry if they saw me go quiet, panic if I went missing for too long, show concern if they felt I was acting in a way that demonstrated I was in a dark place. I caused tears in too many eyes and each tear fuelled my self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.
I am a sensitive person, very empathetic when it comes to the emotions of other people (as I guess many of you with lived experience of mental health problems will attest to, yeah?) so the effect of my depression is something I have been conscious about my whole adult life. The belief that my problems cause problems for other people can lead to a swirling cyclone of emotions, damaging my resolve to deal with these problems and dragging me deeper into the void of depression. The last thing somebody with a mental health problem wants is to cause the same problem in somebody else, especially the ones we love.
So, I need to say sorry. It is not about what I have done or how you feel about it. It is to stop me from being washed away in the tide. It is to stop my depression from growing in strength because if I believe that I might have hurt you, I need you to know that I am aware of that and that I regret it. That way, I can accept that I have atoned in some way and I will not feel so bad about it, so bad that the whole problem gets worse and worse.
This is a very personal blog, for once. You may read this and find some truth relating to your own struggles. You may find nothing familiar in this story.
It does not matter.
This is my coping mechanism, the sandbags I place against the tide threatening to drown me on a daily basis. I know it can seem a tad annoying but I need it to survive. Some days are so bad I am apologising for everything (or so it feels) but if people know why I do it, they understand me better. It is just another one of those small things that make a big difference to someone with poor mental health so the next time you hear me mutter an apology, remember that this is my automatic response to an invisible problem.
Hopefully, you will find I am as willing to support you in your challenges as you are with mine.