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Clementine Ford: If You're Struggling With Mental Health, I Am With You In The Dark

Towards the end of last year I suffered a minor mental health breakdown.

It was the latest in a long line of similar breakdowns that have occurred throughout my life and, as with all the others, there were times when I feared this would be the one from which I couldn’t recover.

I first remember experiencing the nauseating, terrifying shift of mental stability when I was 12 years old. I had always been an anxious child, prone to excessive worry. I fretted about my health, seizing on any perceived deficiency in my general sense of physical well-being and obsessing about it constantly.

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I poked and prodded my body to test it for how easily it bruised, fearful that any mottled skin would be a sign I had developed leukaemia. The dull ache of flesh that is part and parcel of any growing limbs was automatically assumed to be the onset of bone cancer.

When I was eight, I fell off my bike at the end of a long gravel driveway that had become slippery in the rain. Twisted on the ground, I looked at my bare feet; the stones had scraped the skin clean off the side of my foot. From the ferocity of my screams, you’d think I’d glanced down to see the whole thing hanging on by a thread.

I had always been an anxious child, prone to excessive worry. (Image: Getty)

My parents knew I had these peculiar obsessions and anxieties, but this was the '80s. Nobody talked about mental health then, particularly not the mental health of their children. And so it skulked alongside me into adulthood, my sinister shadow from the upside down.

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At 12, it cornered me one afternoon and kept me from the sunlight for months.

At 21, it found me one night in bed and trapped me in a glass jar through which everything looked and sounded distorted except the terrible prophecies of doom it whispered in my ears.

Ten years later, it came to me on a summer day and knocked the breath out of my lungs when I wasn’t looking. At 35, when I was pregnant, I felt a twist in my belly when my baby was kicking me and I knew it was in there too.

Everything looked and sounded distorted except the terrible prophecies of doom it whispered in my ears. (Image: Getty)

And then, last year.

I had been working non-stop and travelling frequently while trying to juggle the pressures of mothering a small infant. For what felt like months I’d been living out of a suitcase and lurching between one time zone and the next. I thought I was okay. I had felt okay. But the thing about mental illness is that you never know quite when the rug is going to be pulled out from under your feet, leaving you feeling like you’re walking through an unsettling dreamscape.

When I was 21 and trapped in the jar, my hypochondria flaring out of control, I went to the doctor determined to secure a diagnosis for what I assumed was a comprehensive neurological condition. Instead, she perfunctorily informed me that I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s a condition that will affect roughly six percent of the Australian population at some point in their lives, and is characterised as a more pronounced form of anxiety that lasts for six months or longer. (For a list of symptoms typical of GAD sufferers, see Beyond Blue.)

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In addition to GAD, I also learned I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and that this flares when I’m going through a particularly bad period of mental anxiety. In the past, my OCD manifested through the repetition of patterns and behaviours; I had particular rituals for washing my hands and leaving rooms, and these all had to be completed in a certain way and within a certain time frame, otherwise I believed something terrible would happen to me or someone I loved.

Mental illness can blindside you, leaving you feeling like you’re walking through an unsettling dreamscape. (Image: Getty)

These days, my OCD is characterised more by looped thinking. You might think that’s less exhausting than having to say the Lord’s Prayer eight times perfectly before you go to sleep at night, but the opposite is true. Having the same fears and anxieties play on repeat in your brain is both tiring and frightening. In my worst periods, I have experienced suicidal ideation -- not because I wanted to die, but because I just wanted to stop my mind from playing the same scenes to me over and over and over again.

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None of this is easy to talk about. Even though there are three million Australians living with anxiety and/or depression, we’re still not very good at understanding what it means to be mentally unwell. There’s still too much stigma associated with being mentally ill, and people fear that speaking out will lead to being judged or ostracised. Where mental illness intersects with other discriminations and oppressions, the fear is even more pronounced.

I have recovered, mostly, from my most recent decline. But I choose to speak out frequently about my own relationship to mental illness because I think it’s important for others to know they’re not alone.

If you’re struggling, please know that you’re not alone. (Image: Getty)

Mental illness is incredibly lonely, and mental breakdowns are even worse. I have been caught at the bottom of a dank, dark oubliette numerous times in my life, and the thing that has helped the most has been hearing the voices of other people who are either down there with me or who’ve managed, with the help of others, to pull themselves up out of that hole.

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If you’re struggling, please know that you’re not alone. I’ve been where you are and I will likely find myself down there a few more times. This is true for all of us who fight this fight. We are with you in the dark. We are back here in the light. We can form a chain to help you find the way out.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about anxiety, depression and mental health contact beyond blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.