One in three of us will, at some point, experience an issue regarding our mental health; be it depression, anxiety or something else. As a person who lives with the something else, I was falling deeper down a hole I thought I couldn't escape from. I was twenty five when I was finally formally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, not long after, more issues began to peek their heads out in the form of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder among other things.
I would say that I get asked a lot about how I cope with my mental illnesses but I don't, the only people who ask me about my mental health is other people who suffer from mental health issues, my psychiatrist or my parents but that's ok. I don't expect people to ask me, it's a difficult, gritty question which is never straightforward and almost always a little uncomfortable. When I am having a period of stability I'm "improving", "getting well" or some other arbitrary cliché. Fact of the matter is that in my case, and for many people who live with similar issues, recovery isn't in the cards. Through intensive therapy following my official diagnoses six years ago I have made steps in managing my conditions a little better but it's a very slow and very unsteady race. So what would I say if somebody asked me how I coped? One day at a time, if it's a bad day, an hour at a time. Planning for the future becomes a pipe dream that you shoot for but when you're concentrating too much on getting through the next twenty four hours then only the strongest of goals remain.
Six years ago I was a mess, I lived away from my home city of Liverpool and had set up in Manchester with some friends. I was drunk most days of the week, I was in with a rowdy crowd and spiraling out of control while caring for my partner at the time who also suffered from severe mental health issues. A year later I moved back to Liverpool with my partner, let's call her Jane, she would prefer a pseudonym I think. Jane was just as unwell as me, maybe more so and that made things eventually become toxic and irreparable, eventually we went our separate ways and it was just me. I was there, alone in a house with my Dog, a pile of empty beer cans and all the time in the world.
During my time back in Liverpool I had, in times of rare sobriety, socialised a little and made some new friends who decided one day on a trip to the local bouldering centre; the Climbing Hangar. None of us had been to a climbing centre for many years, if, at all. I think anyone who has met me or seen my social media pages knows the story about my climbing career and where that has led me but this isn't about my achievements as a climber. I want to stay on the story of what happened behind the mask, the veil or facade, whatever you want to call the fake smile that we put on to make people feel less uncomfortable. I found, in climbing, a way to let out all of the anger and frustration in a non self-destructive way; a way to reign in my erratic thoughts and thought processes, the most important thing is that I found a way to survive.
We all know of the stigma of mentally ill people; they are liars, attention seekers and untrustworthy. They are right on one front, we are liars. We lie to our loved ones, our friends and our families every day. We tell you we are fine, just tired or it's been a busy week because we want to spare you in any way possible from having to even glimpse how life can be. Sadly, we can't hide this from you no matter how hard we try. We can't hide the sadness or pain in our eyes, the scars on our bodies or the trail of wreckage behind us but that doesn't mean we won't try to protect you, all of you, from seeing life through our eyes. We want you to be okay as much as you want us to be okay. Mental Health Awareness Week is an excellent thing to have in place as it shows people who may have begun to experience mental illness that the world isn't the cold, grey and lonely place we see and that people are trying to understand and help.
Climbing saved me, it helped me take control of my life by re introducing the idea of safety, awareness and physical health. Concentration is something I still have difficulty with but focusing on beta and honing a technical climbing style has helped me with my thought process and being around people who don't give a shit about my eccentricities or peculiarities has helped me feel included and accepted. Just walking into my local centre and having the staff say hi to me on a first name basis, ask how I am and even know the little things like that I always take tea before I climb (shouts to P.K for that!). It makes me feel like I matter and that is what it's all about.
Through climbing I have managed to remove the daily handful of medication that is designed to help, they never really worked for me and after almost fifteen years of trying different types and combinations both myself and my psychiatrist agrees that they aren't for me. Honestly, he is shocked but enthusiastic about how much throwing myself around a wall a few times a week has kept me stable and aware. I hardly drink now and it's always in moderation, I care for my physical health much more than I ever have and at thirty years old, after spending more than twenty of them unable to answer why I feel the way I do; It no longer matters why I am how I am. What matters is what will I do, what will we do and what will you do to make your time on this earth one that will be celebrated and remembered.
Mental Health Awareness Week is wonderful and every year people learn a little more, accept a little more and become less afraid to confront the Elephant in the room. For me, it's just nice to know that we matter. This isn't an easy way to live, there are a lot of assumptions that are still made, people can think we have it cushy when we can't work and receive benefits a lot of the time, we are drunks and drug addicts; that's what messed us up. The stigma must stop, usually it's the other way round, something happened to make it that way and alcohol and drugs were the way to cope. Sadly that can be the way the story plays out but hopefully we can change that story and every other fallacy about this highly misunderstood range of health issues. Together we can finally unlock the cages that we have been metaphorically and literally locked inside for centuries.
Don't live in fear, fight for your place on this earth and fight with everything you have. Fight hard and know that you are not alone.
Gerard West (IG: climbcentric | FB: facebook.com/climbcentric)