health

'I don't cover up the scars from my cancer. But I felt shame about my mental illness.'

Content warning: This post contains mentions of mental health struggles and may be triggering for some readers.

The big bastard of a tumour in my arm is back with a vengeance. I have been so humbled by the amount of love and support I have received. And there is a message I want to share while going through this roller coaster…

What a lot of people out there don’t know is that over the summer of 2013, I began to lose my mind.

How to talk to people with anxiety. Post continues below.

Video by MMC

Before this I was seemingly on top of the world. Cruised through uni, amazing partner and family, healthy and fit, had landed the dream job. But major depression and anxiety in the form of obsessive compulsive disorder horrifically debilitated me for no obvious reason and my whole life changed. What unfolded in the years to come was countless psychiatrist and psychology appointments, month-long hospital stays, a lot of trial and error to find the right medications and treatment, and a huge effort from everyone involved to get me living again.

Flash forward to 2018. I had clawed my way back. Last year my mental health was the best it has been in a very long time. Our plan was to have a baby and live happily ever after. Instead, Liam lost two beautiful friends in shock accidents, and a whopping big tumour grew through my upper arm, so I lost my deltoid muscle. Did I feel a bit ripped off? Yeah. But here is the thing…

I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been, because I’m mentally well.

I have battled mental illness – it almost beat me – but I’ve made it and claimed my mind and life back. I can now deal with anything, because my mind is healthy and capable. I cannot emphasise how important it is to have a well mind. Which brings me to my point…

Mental illness, just like cancer, debilitates and kills people. But we don’t give it the respect, credit, treatment, money, facilities and time it deserves. We don’t talk about it or understand it anywhere near enough.

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Yesterday I apologised to a friend for running late because I have a lot of pain in my arm and it was harder to get myself dressed and ready than I expected. But would I have ever said “sorry I’m late, I couldn’t get out of the house because my OCD convinced me I needed to check every power point was off 50 million times before I could leave, and right now I feel like sh*t because my heart is still racing and I’m worried the house is going to burn down. I’ve already driven back to recheck. Can you help talk me through it?”.

I cancelled plans with a friend because I couldn’t drive with my arm that day, which they totally understood. But would I cancel and say “My depression is pretty bad at the moment, I’ve slept all day today and still don’t have the energy to get up and comb my hair. Do you mind rescheduling or maybe coming over here for a chat?”.

I feel fine telling people about the latest chemo drug the doctors want to start me on, yet if I summon up the courage to tell someone that I take antidepressants and they saved my life, I STILL feel a little bit anxious that they will judge me and think of me differently.

cancer and mental health
Alexandra lost her deltoid muscle due to cancer, but she says she was mentally equipped to handle it. She wasn't always in this position. Image: Supplied.

I walked into the cancer clinic yesterday to collect my drugs with a little bit of pride, because I’m proud of myself for being brave and starting chemo, yet I still remember feeling embarrassed in the pharmacy when the pharmacist said the name of my antidepressant too loudly.

I would never try to reduce my dose of cancer drugs because I’m worried I’m 'just not trying hard enough' to not have a tumour, yet I would try to reduce my antidepressants, because I thought I was just not trying hard enough to not have depression and anxiety.

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I made a conscious decision to not spend my life trying to cover up the scar on my arm. I should be proud of getting through the seven-hour surgery and the months of recovery. But why have I not made a conscious decision to not hide the scar in my mind? I should be even prouder of getting through a mental breakdown and the years of recovery and hard work that followed.

I wonder if because we can’t always see mental illness like we can a tumour, and have no physical “proof”, we have this subconscious belief that if someone just tried a bit harder, they would get better. Does it make us think that people have more choice in if they are mentally ill or not, than they do?

So we feel a sense of shame or weakness for having a mental illness, when we wouldn’t feel shame or weakness for having cancer. You do have a choice in talking about it. You also have a choice in seeking and trying to find the right help. But you do not choose mental illness.

A few things I think we need to do more of: We all need to talk about it. We need to prioritise it. We need to show up for people struggling. You might not know what to do or say. You might feel uncomfortable. But show up. Show your friend with a mental illness as much support as you would if they had a physical illness. We need to be open minded. We need to be KIND.

I don’t want to diminish the gravity of the journey that is cancer and other awful physical illnesses. I have had the horrifying experience of laying in my undies in the tube of a hot and grumbling MRI machine for two hours, wondering if the breast lumps and tumour in my arm have already spread further, drafting a letter to my husband in my head just in case I need to write one for him to read if I’m no longer around. I’ve jabbed myself with countless little needles full of hormones for IVF, I’ve had to become ok with the idea of us maybe needing a surrogate one day when I’ve always dreamt about being pregnant...

But I guess what I’m saying is, despite these experiences... I am ok. And the reason I am so ok, and can handle whatever life throws at me, is because I’m mentally well. And mental wellness is actually everything.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

This post has been republished with full permission.

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