It's Mental Health Awareness Week, and we're looking at people's experiences of mental health issues - their own and those of their loved ones. Here, our writer describes why she struggled to talk to her parents about her problems.
When you talk about keeping secrets from your parents, people think of the big stuff: you haven’t told them about a new partner that you know they don’t approve of; you got fired; you’re taking drugs.
But for me, it’s always been about the little things. There’s a huge list of tiny details I’ve not shared over the years, to the point that, in the end, I’ve presented myself as a completely different person to who I really am.
In their eyes I’m successful and satisfied, taking a career break to travel the world. But the truth is I’m burned out, lost, and struggling with feelings of colossal failure.
Graduating in 2012 in the midst of the recession, I thought I’d never get a job. But I’d done a lot of internships while at university and was soon offered a position as an assistant at a publishing company. I felt so lucky. I remember calling home on the day I got the offer and everyone was so pleased.
I was the first person from my family to have a degree, and I worked hard. My mum was a housewife and my dad’s a teacher. They pushed me to get into good schools and pass my exams.
Now, I’d landed a job with a big American company. It was the first step towards making a lot of money, getting promoted, getting married and having 2.4 children. But it didn’t really go to plan.
Every time I talked to my family about work, they’d say, "That’s brilliant, that’s so promising. This is you going places." When my salary hit £20,000, I was already earning more than my parents had ever been paid. I felt like I was fulfilling their goals and that gave me satisfaction and a sense of purpose for a while.
But, gradually, my workload intensified until it was eating up my entire life. I’d wake up on a Saturday morning to endless to-do lists that needed clearing before Monday, my room filled with unread books I never seemed to have time for.
I just about managed to stay on top of my work, but I felt like I was failing in all other areas of my life. I wasn’t going out with my friends. I wasn’t dating. And I felt like the fact that I hated my job was itself a failure - why was I so ungrateful for this amazing opportunity?
I was also travelling a lot for work, often driving around the country in my own time to make appointments. I raised it with my bosses and their response was that my performance was fine. I was hitting my sales targets and they were pleased with my work. But I couldn’t help asking myself: is this how life is meant to be?
I’d moved back home after graduating to save money, but found myself making up more and more excuses to get out of spending time with my family. I’d say I had paperwork to do, or job applications, or that I had to oversee an event. I gave them the right reasons for me to be too busy for them. But the truth is I just couldn't face answering their questions about my life.
Eventually, though, I opened up to Mum. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told her. My parents are silver lining people. She just said, “You know, there are two ways of looking at life. You can either see the bad or you can see the good. Everything will be ok.” In me, they saw someone who had money, a company car, and was meeting new people all the time. Wasn’t I lucky to have those things?
I felt the weight of their expectation, so I put on a brave face. It was easier to let them believe I was living the dream than to explain that my life was actually a nightmare.
Things came to a head last May. I was driving down the M25 on my way to a client meeting. The traffic was crawling along, I was running late, it was raining, and my phone was ringing. I was trying to work out where to pull in to take the call when someone cut me up. It was a small and stupid thing, but it opened a floodgate. Suddenly, I was hysterically crying on the motorway. In the end I had to sit on the hard shoulder and just let myself cry and cry.
I thought, "I’m 26 years old. This is not what my life is meant to look like."
Three months later, I quit my job. I had no savings, no work lined up, and I’d just booked a really expensive trip abroad. I had no idea how to tell my parents. As a family, we don’t really talk about deep, meaningful things. We just put something on the telly and chat around it – it’s not the right environment for discussing existential crises. So I just didn’t tell them.
One night, halfway through dinner, Mum responded to something I said with a comment along the lines of, "Suck it up and move on." I was feeling so sensitive that I just got up, left the house with no shoes on and drove off. I ended up about 25 minutes away where I sat down and texted my mum, "I’m leaving my job and I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I can’t keep doing this. I really need you to understand." I told her I wanted to go to the doctors and try cognitive behavioural therapy. She told me that was stupid, and a waste of time. After that, I completely stopped trying to talk to my parents.
Now, in an odd turn of events, I work for my mum. I'm at her store five or six days a week, putting on a smile and doing whatever needs doing. I scrape by with a second job in a bar. When people ask her what I’m up to, she tells them I’m taking time off to travel and explore my options. I think she really believes that.
Sometimes my parents ask what jobs I’m applying for, and I make them up. In reality, I don’t have the energy or emotional stamina to spend hours on job applications for positions I feel like I’ll never get. At the same time, I can’t tell them I can’t afford to move out, or to buy things, without completely destroying their idea of me as a ‘good daughter’.
Recently, the subject of relationships came up. I’ve basically been single since I was a teenager and generally avoid the subject with my family. But, on my birthday, one of my sisters asked what everyone would wish for if they had three wishes. My dad said, "Nice husbands for all of you." I just thought, "Oh my god, that’s so far off anything that’s going to happen". It’s another way I feel like I’m disappointing my parents.
I’ve actually now been offered a job by a competitor of my old company. It’s money, and I could potentially move away. But I don’t know if I have the balls to do it again. Of course, I haven't told my parents about it.
Information and support is available from these organisations for mental health issues.
As told to Tomasz Frymorgen
This article was originally published on 8 February 2018