From a very, very young age, I’ve learnt that mental health is something we do not talk about. Ever. Unless it’s in a small, quiet room with someone whose name starts with Dr or you’re paying someone by the hour, just so you unbottle all the junk messing up your grey matter until the next appointment comes around.
It’s been hidden away.
Sordid and shameful.
I was never allowed friends over to play or have tea with or make dens with when I was little. In case they saw something. My mum’s bottles, scattered over the carpet, empty and silent. Or her hoarded, collected mess. They’d know, and that simply wasn’t allowed.
As I got older, and I began my own epic journey through the NHS and assessments and therapy and “Tell me Cassandra, have you any traumatic memories from your childhood?” My mum would take me, keen to coach me on what to say, what not to say and “Don’t tell them about my drinking.” Before the door was even closed behind me and the counsellor and I’d located all the exits in my mind and where they kept the ever-present box of tissues, without realising it, I was already keeping secrets. Don’t mention this, don’t tell them about that and never ever mention the gin problem.
Although I write openly (possibly too openly) about the state of my head on here, I still struggle very much in real life. It’s wrong. We don’t go there. No one needs to know. Keep it schtum. And on and on and on. I’ve lied to taxi drivers when they’ve asked, taking me to strange buildings in the late evening, instead of just saying, “Oh yeah, I’m going to therapy.” I’ve come out with preposterous lies, “I’m going to a yoga class.” Or “I’m having acupuncture.” Like, seriously, FFS.
The pills I’m currently taking, the ones that make it impossible to function in the mornings, the ones that leave me 20 minutes in the morning to wake up as a grumbling, growling mess once Noah’s sat on my head and said rather urgently “Mummy… The clock says eight, two, zero…” and get my shit together and deposit him to school, avec lunch bag, book bag, suncream applied and teeth brushed. Yeah? Yeah, those ones. They’ve shat all over my “must never be late, must never be late” mantra. They’ve flung my at least sort-of-pretending -to-be-holding-everything-together out of the nearest window.
They’ve left me pretty naked. No amount of Bobbi Brown Under Eye Concealer can save me. And a “Whoops! Woke up late!” said in the jolliest tone you can manage while your mates pass you in the opposite direction, somewhat bemused – just doesn’t have the same effect
four fourteen days running.
I did the unthinkable the other day. Seeing the usual gaggle of mums gathered around the school gate, having already dropped their children off, I almost fell to the ground into an army crab crawl to the nearest bit of shrubbery until they left. I tried. But Noah didn’t join in. Instead, I was forced to hope my literal bed hair was mistaken for stylishly dishevelled and camouflaged any coffee stains upon my clothes rather artfully with my scarf.
Once I’d done the mock hurrying into the playground / eye roll and “Come on, darling, quick quick!” and saw the kid into his classroom, I made my way back to the gate and all eyes fell on me. “Everything OK?” and then there was silence.
Before I knew it, my censorship button still asleep, I said it.
“Oh, just the new antidepressants I’m taking. They’re making so drowsy, I can’t wake up.”
Just like that.
Twenty six years of secrets, of keeping the truth hidden away. Of smoke and mirrors and biting my tongue.
The silence that followed felt like an eternity.
But do you know what? Nothing happened. No one screamed or ran away, or gathered their pre-schoolers into their petticoats, shielding them from the mental case. Nothing happened at all.
It was OK.
The secrets were dispelled, the mystery revealed and somehow, the world didn’t end.