In the mirror, I apply a sweep of bright-red lipstick. I don’t know much about the woman I’m meeting. I found her profile on a website where you search for this sort of thing. But she has a kind smile in her photo and wrote that she understands this is a strange way to meet someone. I absolutely concur. I think we’ll get along.
I’ve chosen my outfit carefully. I want to look together, smart, maybe a little bit stylish, but like I’ve made no effort too. As I nervously prepare to leave the house I’m already formulating the small talk I’ll offer up to ease the awkwardness of those first few minutes before we get down to business.
I’m not about to cheat on my husband. I’m off to my first counselling session. Like one in six people in Scotland, I’ve long suffered from mental health problems. In my case, I got an unlucky double whammy – a long line of generational mental illness featuring big-ticket items like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and then a childhood deprived and chaotic enough to ingrain the belief that the world was a harsh, frightening place.
I recently told a friend that I white-knuckled my way through my 20s, on a rollercoaster propelled by my messed-up brain chemistry. I grew up in working class communities where mental illness was simply called being ‘highly strung’ and everyone had problems with which to contend.
The idea of talking therapy never even occurred to me – that was for rich women who wore pearl earrings and called olives ‘amuse bouche’ without any irony. My dad had been addicted to Valium and so I had a deep fear of mental health medication. Instead, I used crying on buses, extreme diets and enough booze to satiate a tanker full of sailors as my main coping mechanisms. Not so much crutches as sticks to beat myself with.
Next in this issue
But when I was 32 an amazing, astounding thing happened – Random House decided they would publish my first novel. Me, a girl who grew up in what other people thought were the worst parts of Coatbridge, who had left school at 15 to work as a waitress – I was going to have a book published.
Because that felt like a fairy tale, I began to believe that maybe magic was possible. Maybe a different future was possible, and so I went to the doctor and I told him I was scared all the time and I couldn’t stop crying. That, though it looked to everyone else as if I was smiling and waving, I was drowning.
The doctor was gentle and entirely unfazed by my decade-long secret. First, he prescribed little pink pills to ease my sudden bouts of anxiety that would lead to me twitching and gasping for breath. Later, we supplemented these with lemon and lime Prozac capsules, which settled over me, subduing my ever– present feeling of dread like a warm, soft blanket.
I do wish I hadn’t left it so late. I wish I had gone to the doctor sooner, sought out sliding-scale or free counselling. I wish I had known that simply seeking help, admitting I wasn’t OK, would feel like a pressure valve being released. That the one step forward, one of the hardest I’ve ever taken, would be enough to motivate myself to take another step forward and then another until I reached ‘here’.
‘Here’ for me has been no picnic in the last three years, but it is manageable in a way it wasn’t in the past. Ironically, now I have access to counselling regularly, I probably need it less than ever. Over a decade of mental health medication that works, dipping in and out of low-cost therapy, meditation, sleep hypnosis, exercise – plus, honestly, luck and cathartically writing about my own experiences means I’m doing OK.
Today I hurry through the Glasgow drizzle. For once this counselling is not an Elastoplast on a broken arm. Instead, this is maintenance on the life I have built. I walk down into the office; two small, green, velvet chairs, a box of tissues on the table between us.
My counsellor smiles, warm, professional. Her accent reminds me of the strong women I grew up with. She asks, ‘How are you feeling?’
I smile and I tell her, genuinely, ‘Actually, I feel really good.