(content note for eating disorders and talk of suicide)
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and while other people online have debated the merits and needs of such things, several things I’ve seen discussed lead me to believe that aside from improving access to mental healt treatment, we need a lot more awareness of mental illness itself.
There is a lot of talk of mental health as a slightly fuzzy concept and I’m a big believer in people regarding their mental health as much as their physical health in day to day living. This applies to people who want to prevent mental health problems as well as people maintaining chronic mental illness and should be as natural in our society as brushing your teeth for dental health or washing your hands after being on public transport to minimise the chance of getting the cold.
But all this talk of mental health ignores that there are also actual mental illnesses that are very real things in themselves. It’s like discussing keeping fit and healthy physically without mentioning common conditions like arthritis or diabetes or even acknowledging that sometimes people get the cold or a tummy bug.
I see this attitude most clearly in the way mainstream society talks about food and mental health. Scrolling Twitter this week (which I’ve done a lot of as I’m bedbound this week with ME/CFS and bored) I’ve seen a lot of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek tweets about being ‘you are what you eat’ and saying stuff like how dark chocolate is really good for depression.
Now if you’re feeling down or depressed and having a few squares of your favourite dark chocolate helps lift your mood through being self care or a treat then that is great. Everyone needs simple joys in life and the fact I think dark chocolate is bitter misery is beside that point. My objection is in the idea that a foodstuff is given some kind of exalted status and used to suggest that you could improve your mental health with it if you just tried harder.
My depression is routed in trauma. It’s a secondary effect of Complex PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and is triggered off by reminders, feelings and thoughts that recall that trauma. I also have severe anxiety and agoraphobia (not a fear of open spaces but feeling restricted by not being able to get away from a situation I find frightening) along with panic disorder (basically the fear of having panic attacks when anxious now drives my anxiety) and a restrictive eating disorder. None of these diagnosed conditions respond to medication for me and even my weekly therapy is slow progress so they sure as shit aren’t helped by two square of Green and Black’s or a bit of mackerel.
Having C-PTSD means I see everything daily (and nightly) through the lens of trauma. A small comment or a smell or a memory can take my mood from average to plummeting into depression almost instantly. That feeling might last for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks or a few months. When I’m depressed I start to dissociate which is when I can no longer tell what is real in order to insulate me from reliving that trauma again and depersonalized which when I no longer feel present in my body.
This makes knocking up a green smoothie or a bliss bowl for my mood bloody tricky as on a practical level I can’t tell if that feeling in my gut is hunger or terror or lack of reality. I can’t remember the order in which to prepare a meal, dropping things, burning things, forgetting whole items so the sausages and mash I made have no mash and I don’t remember until three hours later because I also notice I didn’t actually eat the meal I was sure I remembered eating.
The adrenaline surging round shuts my appetite down as the energy in my body goes on delaing with my primal fight, flight or freeze responses so I don’t really want broccoli but I do want the fast easy to release energy of chocolate or tinned custard. That adrenaline also plays disgusting tricks with my stomach and fibre rich foods do not play nice with my guts when my body is basically terrified. Sometimes butterflies in your stomach more like moths.
And on top of that the depressed and anxious inner monologue in my head tells me I’m not worth nice things like feeding myself. It makes me deny myself as punishment for being ‘weak’ and ‘pathetic’ and so self obsessed as to want to eat when I’ve done something terrible like be alive. My limbs feel too heavy and lethargic to start preparing food and I cycle between not caring and not feeling ‘allowed’ to eat.
At its most basic level food is love and my PTSD and all its associated feelings tell me I am unloveable and unworthy and therefore cannot have food (or water or warmth.) Terrible people like me don’t deserve love, they deserve trauma and that’s why I’ve had so much trauma. That’s my just desserts not dark chocolate.
Feeling that onslaught of emotions, fears, half truths, lies and insidious voices drains me and makes me too scared to go out shopping. All those people being near me and all that food to choose from taunting me with how frightening and uncontrollable it is, making me fear that I won’t please that belief in my head that I can earn love by restricting food and instead I will lose control and buy and binge on food I haven’t earned.
That’s how you have a sobbing choking panic attack in Sainsburys staring at a shopping basket with anything that isn’t a ‘safe food’ in it, abandoning it on the ground and fleeing home in a state of chaos that makes it feel unreal and you a failure for not being able to do basic adult tasks like grocery shopping.
Add in my complication of food intolerances that mean supposedly healthy foods make me physically ill and then cause a food intolerance hangover where my body aches and my mind feels so bleak that I lie in bed, craving sugar and feeling like I can barely summon up on the will and energy to wish I was alive, fighting back tears and thinking how restful it would all be if that just stopped for a while.
Those are the worst days when my own gut sabotages my brain in a game of serotonin stand off and I just have to constantly remind myself it’s temporary. Tomorrow when I don’t feel driven to the brink by a tiny bit of butternut squash I’ll cope better. It’ll just be the normal stuff.
Living like that (and with the chronic physical conditions I have) is exhausting and when I do eat I want it to be soothing and comforting and full of energy. My brain is full of arbitrary rules and reprimands so I can’t bear my plate to be the same.
I don’t care if it’s cruel or bad for the environment. Eating meat soothes me and teaches me to love myself and attend to my own needs. I keep emergency steak in the freezer for the worst flashback days when chewing something grounds me into reality. I eat unfashionable sneered at sugary Dairy Milk or Ritter Sport chocolate every morning as a reward for making through another night of my subconscious not giving me a break. I eat in with a combination of fear, childish comfort and dietary intolerances.
So I understand that for some people that dark chocolate fulfils the same need or that the butteriness of a perfect avocado on toast is comfort food and I would never deny them that. Everyone deserves their own choices in self care and the very personal way they nourish themselves but they also deserve not to be shamed for doing the best they can without proper mental health awareness, treatment, diagnosis and understanding.
For every person who tries to tell me courgetti will help me or goji berries will balance out deep seated trauma, there is someone who approves of my restrictiveness because to comfort eat to try to sate pain has become the great sin in modern life. To derive comfort by not eating is noble in a fatphobic culture that doesn’t understand trauma and eating disorders.
I work as hard as possible at blocking out those nannying ‘we know best’ voices with their wellness bullshit and dark chocolate as depression busting food tone but I realised this week of all week’s there won’t be more aware of mental illness (especially lesser known ones despite the last standing knowledge of the ACEs study) unless people with those conditions and experiences speak up and talk about when illness co-exists with wellness and mental health.