Over the past decade I have pretty much read every self-help book this planet has to offer. I have fallen deeply for Oprah and Tony, I have turned spiritual to ask the universe for help, I have tapped into various religions and I tried a tonne of goal-setting journals. It would be a lie to say that nothing has worked. A lot of things stuck with me but I learned that my depressed and anxious feelings will always find me. There have been temporary victories at times but everything started to change more fundamentally when I asked others for help, and by that I mean actual people - not youtube videos.
What happened to me?
My depression has been with me fairly severely for about 8 years. It was probably there before but not as noticeably. I was a moody teen but who isn't? However, during the past years the negative feelings became impossible to ignore. Coming fresh out of filmschool I got the first taste of how challenging the pursuit of a creative career is. I have been warned about unemployment, long hours and bad or no pay but nobody gave me a heads-up how tough it would be to stare at the wall for hours with nothing else than your nagging bullying self-doubt. Being a failure, having taken the wrong turn, being completely delusional for even trying to have a career in film - all of those sweet thoughts hit me like a tsunami.
Since those are all good reasons to be sad and anxious, it took me years to let somebody else help me. I just thought I hadn't figured out how to be a successful artist but looking back I realise that my mental health obstacles made everything a million times harder. Back then there was this one clip I kept watching over and over again. It was a round-table interview of the Emmy-nominated actors that year (I think) and Jon Hamm of 'Mad Men' was one of them. He said that having to make money as a waiter while auditioning was not even the hardest part but the staring at the wall was. If I was a dog this would have been the part where my ears stood up. Against all odds of my depressed blur, I was listening. There were people out there, successful ones, who also stared into space in agony? Jon Hamm continued that he first was told not to be handsome enough for the lead in 'Mad Men'. Each time I feel it´s all hopeless, I think of Jon Hamm staring at the wall and being told he is not handsome. Yes, Jon Hamm. I know.
(As a side-note I have tried to find this clip but I swear it vanished. Part of me wonders if this interview ever happened or if I just hallucinated Jon Hamm's spirit giving me some guidance. Either way would be totally fine by me.)
In early 2015 I was working a lot as a 1st Assistant Director and when I was not doing extremely long 16-hour days, I blasted my ears with loud sad music while riding on the tube. As soon as I started thinking negative stuff, I would turn up the volume up to the point my ears hurt. At the time I was seeing a guy who was as unavailable as my own confidence and there were many things I did not want to think about. The music drowned it and I kept telling myself that this is life. Sitting tired on the tube while having Ed Sheeran screaming into my ears that nobody should f*** with his love.
Then one day in early January my left ear shut down. Just like that. I could still hear a little bit but there was a significant difference to my right ear and I kept snipping my fingers in front of them to see how much I actually heard or if it was all in my head. It also felt like there was something stuck in my ear. An object or a huge lump of wax (gross, I know, but I fantasised a lot about managing to take it out and having crystal clear hearing again). I poked around with cotton buds and put hot water bottles on my ear as I thought maybe it would melt something in there. It was not my most logical hour.
I finally went to the medical centre a few days later but was referred to a nurse. The problem didn`t seem bad enough for an actual doctor. The nurse looked into my ear and after a moment he said, "Can I check your other ear, just to see what it should look like?". I was in very capable hands. He said it was probably just a minor infection and I should come back for antibiotics if it didn`t clear up in a few days.
But I was back to shooting more music videos, more commercials, more meaningful stuff the world really needed. My ear took a back seat for a few weeks until I couldn`t ignore it any longer. I was put on antibiotics but nothing changed.
At that time the guy I was seeing decided it was a good idea to not answer my texts anymore which didn't help me feeling any better. This was even before 'ghosting' was a thing. Not that it makes it any better of course.
I went to a birthday party back home in Germany and I took the opportunity to see my old ear specialist, who operated on me when I was a toddler. He did a lot of tests and diagnosed sudden deafness, which should have been treated straight away to prevent long-term damage. (At this point I should have laughed hysterically but instead I nodded calmly). It was too late to do anything else now so I just had to wait and hope it would magically get better. My old doctor sat me down with his warm actor-like smile and had a chat about 'how I was feeling'. I admitted that I had been very stressed, physically and emotionally. I was too ashamed to say that I had been blowing my ears off with music. I felt guilty towards my own body and embarrassed for being so stupid.
My German doctor advised me to see my GP back in London to discuss methods to relieve stress. He explained that our ears are often a good barometer for stress levels and my body was sending me a clear sign. As much as it shocked me, it made a lot of sense.
Back in London I arranged to see my GP (a brand new one!) and got lucky. She was a great listener and took the time to understand my problem. I was put on a waiting list for therapy. If anyone was watching from above, they probably yelled out 'FINALLY!'. I was happy that my GP did not want to prescribe any anti-depressants straight away as I knew so many bad stories of GPs prescribing meds way too quickly.
So I waited. And waited. And waited. I called a few times to enquire about the waiting list and was told to wait a little longer. A few months passed and I just continued as I had been. What else was there to do?
My mind kept spinning and the days became an endless grey blur of days spent in bed. I tried so very hard to go outside, enjoy the park, meet people, socialise but even the thought of having to shower in the morning sent me into the dark pit.
When a friend introduced me to MDMA, I (who had NEVER taken any drugs except for smoking weed as a teen) suddenly wanted to try it. I had always been worried about losing control over my body or dropping dead from a drug-caused heart attack. But at that point I wanted to take risks. I didn't care about damaging my body. As for control? I had lost it a long time ago.
I took the drug and suddenly felt like heaven. My mind was quiet and relaxed. Why isn’t everybody on drugs all the time? Let me tell you: there's a catch. The comedown the next day was hell. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't stop shaking. I swear my room looked grey.
The intensity of it took me by surprise and I couldn’t tell which feeling was the comedown and which was my depression. It all merged into one slimey, stinky bubble.
A day later it still wasn’t better and I called my GP crying. I was seen immediately and she was surprised that I hadn’t seen a therapist yet. It had been over six months since I was put on that ominous waiting list. After a few phone calls it turned out, I had 'fallen through the system': I was not on the actual list. My GP promised their in-house counselor would call me the next morning and that she wanted to see me again in a week’s time. Until then I was supposed to make a decision about starting anti-depressants.
The next day I waited for the phone call and when I answered it, again I couldn’t stop crying. The counselor offered to see me during the following week. I whispered, “Thank you”, hung up and had a full-blown panic attack. A week's time was too long to bear.
The following day was a Wednesday. I was still doing some regular freelance writing work for a tiny company and that day I told my boss, whom I was fairly close with, that I was suffering from depression and anxiety. She said I should just go home for the day.
I rushed out of the office and immediately knew that this was a mistake. Nobody was at home and I felt the panic closing in. I called my Ex-boyfriend, who I was in a relationship for five years before it turned into a genuine friendship. Between sobbing and hyperventilating, I told him that I didn’t know how to continue 'doing this'. He was working on a shoot on the other side of London and it was impossible to get to me quickly. I didn’t realize how bad I sounded. We hung up and I spent a long time in the bathroom as my stomach was acting up.
This meant I wasn’t picking up the phone.
After a while my doorbell rang. Reluctantly I opened. To my surprise I found four police men outside my house. Maybe there was another burglary across the road.
“Are you Mari?”
“How are you feeling?”
At this point my heart sunk. I knew why they were here.
“I’m okay.” I mumbled and felt my eyes welling up.
“We would love to have a cup of tea with you. Can we come inside?”
I nodded and went backwards into my flat, more like a trapped animal than a grown-up woman. Two police men followed me inside, the others left. I guess they were just there in case they had found me covered in blood.
These two guys who were now sitting on my couch, were my age and strangely handsome. One of them asked me to 'tell me story', so I did. At the end of it he said with a genuinely caring smile: “You’ve tried to help yourself for so long. Maybe it’s time you let others try it.” This kind stranger acknowledging that I needed help and that it was okay to not manage everything by myself was exactly what I had to hear.
The police spent a full hour talking to me and they were extremely lovely. When I asked who called them, they said 'someone who really cares about you'. Of course, it was my ex.
Each time there is a potential suicide call, paramedics will automatically come too. They arrived after an hour and yet again they were two incredibly hot guys. So with these four uniformed strangers, who all looked like professional models, we sat down to decide what to do with me. Whilst having these well-groomed guys looking at me so concerned and worried, I could not care less how smeared and puffy my face must have looked. It was all too surreal.
“Do you want to come with us to the hospital?” the handsome paramedic asked.
“I’ll do what you think is best.” At this point I really didn’t want to make any decision anymore.
“You seem quite on edge. We wouldn’t really want to leave you here alone.”
I went with them. Escorted by the police and the paramedics, we exited my house and I briefly thought about what this looked like for the neighbours.
The police men wished me all the best and I climbed into the ambulance. One of the guys did some standard tests while we drove to the nearest hospital. In there, they checked me into A & E. I thanked them and they left. While watching all the other ill people around me, my illness that was so utterly invisible became a real thing.
A few minutes later I was asked into the office of a psychologist. She told me that my ex was on his way and listened to my little story. She wrote 'Generalized anxiety disorder' on the medical sheet. It was the first time I heard that term and I wasn't sure if I should feel relief that there was actually something 'measurably' wrong or if it was something to worry about. Knowing now what the term means, of course I had to worry about it... ;)
We discussed the possibility of staying in the hospital for a bit but the psychologist recommended going home if it was certain someone could stay with me. A hospital stay could potentially be far more traumatising than beneficial, she explained, and I agreed.
She promised that her medical report about me would fast-track my therapy start and that was it. I left and found my ex waiting outside
“Are you angry I called the police?” he asked. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
I hugged him without saying a word. He had done me the biggest favour. I needed the outside world to recognise and hence validate that I needed help. It had to be officially acknowledge that I wasn’t okay.
From then on, I have been on my mental health journey. Recently I was victim of a violent crime, which added PTSD to my plate but all in all I have come an extremely long way.
Ups and downs are part of life and I have therapy once a week to keep the dialogue with myself open. I have learned methods to manage my anxieties and how to breathe through panic or sad feelings. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But the biggest most important lesson I learned is this: Don’t sweep yourself under the carpet. There is no shame in admitting you are feeling bad. In fact, there’s a great deal of strength and bravery in it. Doing my bit to help removing the nasty stigma has become part of my personal mission.
Whether you find the hashtag mentalhealthwarrior cheesy or not, it is quite accurate. I’d rather be a warrior than a worrier but often I’m both. And that’s ok.