I have been really struggling this week, hence not posting. Yesterday I had the best day I’d had in ages. I went for a walk.
Let’s be honest, mental illness does become a part of your identity. It’s not all of you, neither it should be the first thing to think about when someone looks at you but once it’s there, you can’t escape it.
I’ve become somewhat of a social leper in my little home town because the presence of my illness in undeniable when I run into people these days. Even when it’s not said, I know that the other person is thinking about it. The awkwardness, the inability to look me in the eye, shifting weight from one leg to another as if you’re already halfway out of this troublesome exchange as quickly as it’s politely possible.
All the questions that make me crumble bit by bit inside.
“What are you up to now?”
“How are you feeling?”
Shit, thanks for asking.
Thank you for reminding me that I don’t have a place in the world at the moment. It adds to my panic and contributes to my anxiety. What in the world am I going to do with my life?
And that’s not all. Not only am I expected to go through this time and time again, I’m also expected to understand them. ‘People don’t know what to say. They don’t know how to deal with it.’ So I’m also expected to be the bigger person to boot. I’m so sick and tired of hearing this absolute horseshit. I’m supposed to be the ill person. I’m so sorry, this must be so difficult for you. Are you all right?
What makes things more difficult is that I’ve been a local news reporter in my hometown and the surrounding area. If you’re a good local reporter, everyone knows that you’re one. I know and have met a lot of people, everyone knows who I am. I can walk past dozens of businesses and say I’ve written at least one story about each of them. I’m also a more exposed figure than a lot of local reporters because I wrote columns and I stand out as the only foreigner.
It’s a role I’ve put forward to the world and now that I don’t play it anymore, explaining myself time and time again is incredibly hard. You have to face up to the life you lost to your illness again, again and again. As I see the places and people I’ve written about, I’m reminded of that role. It’s a constant awareness.
That has nothing to do with being ashamed. I’ll never be ashamed being ill but having to either share or have the awareness that the other person I don’t know or like knows about an incredibly personal part of myself does get to me. Compared to that, writing a blog is nothing.
So yesterday I got on a bus and travelled to the other end of the county. It’s outside the distribution area of the paper so I can say with certainty that I haven’t written about anyone or anything there. Nobody knows me. I don’t have a name or a profession. Walking through the town felt so physically liberating that I shook.
I embarked on a 10-mile circular walk around the lake through the national park. As I pass other walkers, we nod, say hello or just smile. After all my anecdotes have been related to doctors, medications or hospitals, I’m only asked what time did I embark or where a certain landmark is.
It’s a beautiful walk, a mix of forest, beach and wetlands. It’s the perfect weather for it too, not too hot. Forest smells like autumn already. Some people are drawn to the sea, forests are where my soul lives. It brings me straight back to my childhood where I would have to walk through a forest each day to get to school and I would see the seasons change little by little each day.
You can hear the world breathe in a forest. The hum and rustle of leaves, gentle sways of branches. These trees that have stood here for centuries and will continue to do so after I’m long gone. It’s a place where you can be most aware of the passing of time and where time seems to have stopped. If you stood still in a forest long enough you wouldn’t know has it been five minutes or five hours.
Most of Finland is covered in forest, so it’s an irreplaceable part of my national identity, cultural heritage and ancestry. Children are taught to recognise edible and poisonous plants, find their way out of the forest and behave in the presence of animals. The Lake District nature isn’t too different from a Finnish forest, just with fewer pine trees and evergreens and large animals.
At one point the path cuts off and I have to either walk by a road with cars or climb steep uphill over boulders. I choose the latter and I’m surprised how easy it’s to place my limbs and adjust my weight even though I haven’t climbed in ages. This has nothing to do with my mental health. All I have to do is to focus. Put one foot in front another. Reach out. Watch out for the tree roots that are slippery after rain. Try if that branch can stand your weight. Pull. Again.
This is what I used to do before I got ill. This identity existed before I got ill and it’s still there. I’ve lost a lot but I haven’t lost everything. I’m still me.
I meet a couple with two chihuahuas and I tell them I also have one. Their expression changes, like always when people discover kinship. I pet their dogs, discuss the breed, show pictures of my dog and for a moment we share the brotherhood of chihuahua owners. Nobody asks me where I’m from or what I do for living. I’m so far from home that I can rest assured I won’t be running into anyone I know.
Two elderly gentlemen are walking ahead of me and as we reach a gate, one of them opens it for me.
I can’t even describe what it feels like when smiling back at them is enough. It’s the same feeling I got when I was allowed to go on walks from hospital. After a receptionist opened the last set of locked doors, I could be anyone. For a blissful hour or so I wasn’t Ida the patient. I was just a girl in sweatpants and a hoodie on a walk. Just like anyone else.
I know it’s hard to motivate yourself at times but I would wholeheartedly recommend getting out from your regular surroundings, even for a day. Take a day off from being depressed. I know it needs to be spoken about and nothing ever changes unless we all talk, but every once in a while you just want to step away from it and just breathe.
No matter what anyone says about stigma or fighting prejudices, at the end of the day it was just wonderful to be spoken to like a person and not a mental health patient.