This is a very hard subject for me to broach. Its hard for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is because I am going through one of those phases where every thought I have seems contradictory. This is anxiety, I know it is, its my brain not trusting what it tells itself.
Its also hard because I don’t want to offend or say something ‘wrong’. I know that online you are likely to offend someone just by saying hello, but this is a sensitive subject to some, and I feel I should point out from the very start that this is my opinion, based upon my experience. It will not be the same for everyone…
I am someone who spends a fair amount of time online. I always have been, from using dial-up in my brothers’ bedroom to using the internet for work and my own passions (this blog). It was only natural then that when I was first unwell with my mental health and at home a lot of the time, I sought comfort online. I very quickly found a forum for people with mental health issues and on that forum I made friends – some of which I still have nearly a decade later.
The me that sought comfort then feels like a different person to the one writing this, now. I am still me of course – I am still brunette, quiet, sensitive. I am sat in almost the same place, I still have a dog (albeit a different one) nearby. But in many ways, I am not the same person; I have changed, I have had to. I have had to educate myself about my own mental and physical illnesses, I have grown mentally, spiritually and also physically. I have learnt things about myself through therapy, through pain and through heartbreak. I have experienced amazing joy and happiness, but I have also reached points so low that I have questioned whether I would ever surface from the pit of my despair. I have found incredible, amazing friendships and I have lost people who I thought would be in my life forever.
And you will have done similar, I am sure.
Because we are all constantly growing, learning and evolving – even if at times it doesn’t feel like it.
When I was a member of this forum, I like to think I helped people. I am still in touch with someone now who has thanked me very recently for the help I offered – and I was helped too, by others. People who reached out when I was frightened and lonely and daunted by things happening to and around me. For nearly 11 months, back in 2010, I struggled to leave my house – I had agoraphobia, I couldn’t even walk my dog, let alone go to work, so this community formed a little extended safety net of people. My boyfriend (now husband) was amazing, but he didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what was happening, my parents were the same (and also ninety miles away). These people though, they got it, they understood, and that was great and what I needed – I needed to feel understood, less alone and less freaked out. They were, quite literally, a lifeline.
I have found little mental health ‘communities’ in other places online throughout the years. I have spoken to people dealing with their own mental health issues and I have marvelled at how people experiencing anguish so great will help others without a moment’s hesitation. I have had wonderful, expansive conversations that have helped my own recovery and growth and I have watched as friends have recognised issues, sought help, and bloomed. I have talked friends through relapses and confided in them about my own in moments of darkness and struggle. I have felt fortunate to have all of this help, experience and solidarity at my fingertips or at the push of a button and I have felt my heart swell as I watch the bravery of others as they tell their stories, and help, one voice at a time to break down the stigma and confusion surrounding mental health.
But I have also seen the flip side.
Because there will always be one; I have formed a codependent relationship with a man who’s struggles with his own mental health threatened to destroy my own self-worth. I have lost friends because we have been at different stages of recovery, I have cried and grieved over people that I will never have the chance to meet. I have seen how predators can wheedle their way in, gain trust, lie and leave people (including myself) in ruins. I have seen whole communities turn against one person for having an opinion or saying something out of turn and I have not been in a place strong enough to make a stand for either side. I have watched the steady decline of friends who I have had to accept that I cannot help in any way other than being there, listening and offering brief words of comfort or support. I have found myself being triggered and have had to work out the underlying reasons why and work very hard to heal myself – that one, is still a work in progress.
I have had to also learn the difference between online, and real life – but also, how closely the two are linked.
Yesterday, I had a pretty bad day. It was a bad day for a number of reasons – I was in a lot of physical pain and as a knock-on effect, my depression was simmering and bubbling away. My anxiety was through the roof- as it has been for nearly two weeks now and I was, exhausted. I slept a lot, but in moments of wakefulness I scrolled through Twitter. This… didn’t help.
What happened yesterday on Twitter isn’t the issue here, I think anyone who knows anything about mental health can agree that asking someone about their self-harm scars, is wrong. But what impacted me, more than that – as a survivor of self-harm and as someone who still struggles with that and has scars – was the reaction and subsequent fall out.
There are two terms that are banded around Twitter a lot; ‘Mental Health Community’ and ‘Mental Health Advocate’. Now, I am not saying that either are bad – to be able to access support and companionship online regarding illnesses that are, by their very nature isolating, is wonderful. But it is wonderful only when it works well, when difficult subjects are handled sensitively and when those involved appreciate that every-one is fighting their own battles.
I will not be putting the words ‘Mental Health Advocate’ into my Twitter bio at any point, not because I have anything against advocating for better understanding around all mental health disorders but because I feel I am wholly unqualified to make such a claim about myself. According to a post I saw yesterday, a ‘Mental Health Advocate’ must have an understanding of all mental health conditions – and I am sorry, but I don’t. I rarely understand my own, never mind someone else’s and it would be wrong of me to profess that I do.
Mental illness is not like diabetes, its not like a broken leg. We know about diabetes – we know what causes it, we know the symptoms and we know how to treat it. I know there are complications and its not always as straightforward as that, but it is a case of cause and effect. Same with a broken bone. Mental illness is different, it is vast, it is – even by medical professionals – at times misunderstood and misdiagnosed. I have depression and anxiety but my symptoms can vary massively to someone else that has depression and anxiety. I have an unhealthy relationship with food – but I am neither anorexic nor bulimic, even though I have exhibited symptoms of both. I am a survivor of trauma, and I only found that out about myself within the last six months. I exhibit signs of other mental health disorders, but I have not been diagnosed as having them. I also have a physical illness that has, possibly, been brought on, in part, by stress and trauma.
And that is me, just one person. I struggle to understand my own behaviours and reactions to things – that is why I go to therapy, that is why I spend a lot of time working on myself and trying to recognise what is me and what is my illness.
I can empathise with other survivors of trauma, with people who also struggle with food. I can go to group therapy alongside people who have also fallen under the same diagnosis, but I can still exhibit wildly different symptoms from them. I can listen and understand and learn, I can help to validate someone’s feelings and offer them comfort – but I am not a medical professional and I am not immune to being hurt or affected by someone elses actions. I can understand that mental illness – whatever the ‘label’ can make any of us act in a way that is out of character or in a way which we later come to regret, because I have been there and done those things myself.
But putting that title upon yourself – ‘advocate’ – is pressure. I have seen posts by people asking others what they believe a good advocate is, what they need to do in order to earn that title, and honestly, I would tell them not to worry about earning it in the first place. If you are here, if you are fighting mental illness and still waking up each day, if you are sharing your stories and helping others with their recovery – and even if you are not, even if you are just working on yourself and growing and learning each day, then you don’t need an additional title to validate your worth.
It is not up to me to tell others how to behave online and it is not up to me to say what is right and what is wrong, but yesterday was incredibly eye-opening. I have unfollowed a lot of accounts and I do not believe that anyone had any malicious intent, but for me, dealing with my own mental health, seeing the posts and the comments that were being posted by ‘advocates’ made me really question the value of that self-imposed title. I have no doubt that there are wonderful people who advocate every day on Twitter, or any other social media platform – with or without that title. But, I would always exercise caution, and advise that others do the same, because online isn’t the same as real life, but the fall-out from it all can be life-alteringly real.
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