Before I write about how gardening/allotmenteering is good for mental health and other positive approaches to ‘improving’ your mental health, I thought it would be useful to provide a little context. To illustrate where I’m coming from and also where I am not coming from!
I have always been described as ‘sensitive’, a ‘deep thinker etc, or by less polite people a mental. My mum remembers that the first panic attack she was aware that I had was at age six. I was at school and the teacher started shouting at some naughty pupils. Although she wasn’t shouting at me, I became inconsolably upset and they had to call my mum into school. After some reassurance and some soothing words I returned to the class-room.
Years went by, as they do and my way of reacting/coping (or not coping lol!) became firmly programmed to ‘freak out’. As my teenage years progressed I became more and more aware that most people did not react to things the way that I did. I hid things well from people and isolated myself from my peers by sticking my head in a book. I also developed problems with eating, and various other self-destructive behaviours. The advice of the day ‘was to toughen up and to calm down’ – sound advice but I had no idea on how to do this, all I knew was how to panic and as I ate less and less my body lacking its fuel, also began to panic. Its so obvious to me now – how the hell are you gonna feel ok if your body is working in ‘starvation mode’. Its a simple biological fact. I also had no idea what it felt like to feel peaceful for prolonged periods of time or
how it felt like to feel confident and strong in yourself – therefore I didn’t really know what I was aiming for. To put it bluntly I felt like a freak.
I left home at 18 to study Psychology at University – perhaps the first serious attempt to find my ‘cure’. All the theories and models helped me to more clearly develop my ‘opinion’ on mental health/craziness. However, the cure seemed ever elusive – heavy therapy, heavy medication or my favourite, perhaps a revolt of the masses, overthrowing consumerist, capitalist society. None of the options seemed particularly achievable or palatable. However the hot-bed of activity and ideas that is university life meant that I picked up a few more tricks and non-coping strategies. How to drink so much you forget who you are and how to completely avoid the world by sleeping a lot. My poor body – no food, poison and being put into artificial stasis. Unsurprisingly things got worse. I became scared of people, generally believing that most people are horrible. I got a job working with adults with learning difficulties and spent the rest of the time at home – drinking in the evening and hanging out with the friends I shared the house with, with whom I felt safe. We were all a bit chaotic and I always did my freaking out in private, so I managed to keep my dark, shameful secret – that I was a mentalist. I felt let down – I had been told by teachers, society etc that to have a good, enjoyable life you have to work hard, get qualifications, get a good job etc etc – I’d done that -surely I shouldn’t be feeling worse?
I decided a year after finishing at university to go to another one and study social work. An excellent choice, I thought – I can now help people to deal with the ‘real-life’ crap that goes on, not all those theories written by academics in their ivory tower. I was going to save the world. I hadn’t realised that I needed to save myself!! I continued to run from the real issues.
I moved to a a new city. I didn’t know any-one there and I had never even been there before. I became extremely depressed, distraught, self-destructive, self-neglectful and boring. All i could think about was how bad I felt.
Now I get to the point of all this – because it was then that I reached out for help from the mental health system. My family urged me to get help because it had got past the point where I was able to hide it. Also my social work tutor knew of my problems after I’d blubbed to her one day. She was great and very supportive (very much the social worker), she urged me to go to my GP and ask for Prozac and some counselling. She told me about all the wonderful research about the efficacy of combining prozac and cognitive behavioural therapy, the lack of side-effects, not to worry, everything will be ok. I felt very soothed and reassured.
I had always been extremely dubious as to the need for drugs for mental health, sceptical about ‘psychiatry’ and sure that the best person to sort myself out was me. Besides everyone was raving about Prozac, drop one and reclaim your life – no side effects, no addiction – easy peasy. Also doctor knows best, doesn’t s/he!So against my better judgement I went to the GP, spilled my guts, thanked him for the prescription and waited for my appointment with a counsellor.