I'm fine, thanks. That's what we say, isn't it, when asked how are you? I'm fine, thanks. But what if you're not? What if you are sinking, struggling, not fine at all?
I live a fairly public life insofar as I have written about myself on blogs and in books, I show up regularly on Facebook live videos, on Youtube and, now, on the new Midlife Movement Podcast. Most people know me as optimistic, generally happy, always smiling.
If you follow my output regularly, though, you will know that I have had my battles with anxiety and depression throughout my life at various points. I always know when I'm starting to "slide".
There are warning signs that I dare not ignore. These include:
In other words, all the things I usually do as a matter of course that help to keep me mentally healthy are the first casualty when my mood dips. Exercise, good nutrition, general self care, connection with other people - all go out of the window.
That last is important. If you've never struggled with depression yourself it is probably difficult to understand why someone who is feeling low doesn't reach out and ask for help. Because, for me at least, that is what I need.
I need someone to say to me, come on, let's go for a walk in the sunshine. I need three healthy meals a day to be put in front of me. In other words, I need someone to step in and look after me when I am incapable of looking after myself.
I need someone to encourage me to talk, but also to just be there with me. I don't need to be fixed, or jollied along. Because it will pass, as it always does (even though when it settles over me, I always think that this is IT - how I will be forever!)
So why don't I simply ask for help? People think that depression means you feel extremely sad. In my experience, as I slide into it, I feel as if I am shrinking as an invisible wall grows up between me and other people. I don't feel sad, I feel helpless. And hopeless. And scared. If it takes hold, I feel very little at all and it is this absence of feeling that traps me in inertia.
When my daughter lived at home for a short spell, she would notice the signs and make me go out with her. Sometimes, that's all it takes. My son is good at spotting the signs and making time to talk with me. The best thing, though, is if I can catch myself early and change my state.
How do I do that? Sometimes I sleep. I listen to my body and stay very still if that's what it craves. I eat the simple carbs, soak in the bath (much more nurturing than a shower!) read a book, watch the clouds scud across the sky...
Because the worst thing I can do is try to carry on as normal. That is a form of self harm for me. Most things you "have" to do can wait for a day or two. It's worth some temporary inconvenience - to others as well as to yourself - to head off what could turn into months of mental illness.
So if I appear occasionally to "disappear" for a few days, know that I am doing what I need to do to stay well and, ultimately, happy. I can't afford to beat myself up because I'm not being consistent every single day. We all operate in different ways and you know what? That's ok.
Why am I telling you all this?
I'm telling you because I want you to know, if you suffer the way I do at times, that you are not alone. That the happiest looking people sometimes have secret battles that you would never guess at. And I want you to remember that what you see on social media is an edited version of life.
Life is messy and sad and uplifting and wonderful... but always worth living.