Staying afloat

A cartoon of a bald man with his head just above the waves

Everyone manages their mental health differently. For me, it’s about treading water to keep my head above the waves.

As a teenager and twenty-something I was a wreck: depressed, often thinking about suicide, prone to panic attacks and insomnia.

Now, in my mid-forties, I still have low days, still don’t sleep well, and sometimes catch myself saying “Ugh, it would be easier if I was dead.”

But it’s under control, generally speaking.

That’s thanks largely, I think, to a single course of counselling on the NHS. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, or isn’t enough, but it worked for me.

It helped me stop worrying about what I can’t control (sleep); to let myself step off the high-achiever treadmill; and to address the scars left by childhood poverty.

I’ve also learned to talk to my other half when things feel bad – which isn’t often. Sometimes just verbalising it makes it go away.

That’s especially true of what I call, coyly, “the old SI” (suicidal ideation). Mostly, it’s an escape valve thought, an extreme form of “Ah, fuck it all.”

Stability and routines help, too. A wise friend once told me there are two types of people in the world: those who want a rollercoaster ride and those who want a steady life.

I’m the latter.

I wake up at the same time, seven days a week.

I know my plans days and weeks in advance.

I run on a set schedule.

Oh, yes, that cliché: I hate running but I have to take my medicine. If I skip a run, my mood dips noticeably.

I can also be thrown out by working late or at weekends, which doesn’t happen often; by too many social occasions in a row; or by, oh, you know, global pandemics.

Things like that interrupt the rhythm of my little legs, churning away under the waves, causing my head to dip below the surface.

That need for stability has probably prevented me being successful as a writer, to a degree. I need a nine to five job to cling to and it’s hard to write when you’ve been working all day.

But I also know that I’ve been lucky to enjoy 15 plus years of relative calm.

I don’t take it for granted. After all, it might only take one bad day to drag me right back down.

This quick post is a risk in its own way. “Talk about your mental health!” we’re constantly told. It’s good. It’s healthy.

Well, not for me. It’s like picking at a scab. I’ll decide when to do it, thanks, and might never do it again.