Maggy van Eijk knows what it’s like to live with anxiety and depression. She knows what it’s like to have intrusive thoughts and think about hurting herself. And she knows what it’s like to struggle with body image and self-love. Why? Because she’s been there. Now, she wants her experiences with mental health to help you better understand your own. So she wrote How Not to Fall Apart.
How Not to Fall Apart is so much more than a collection of essays or a self-help book. For starters, van Eijk wrote it amidst her struggles with anxiety and depression. The book does more than reflect on a time in her life she’d gotten through; it pulls back the curtain on the work she’s still doing to understand and navigate her mental health. Maggy isn’t reminiscing about the good times like Old Rose in Titanic; she’s shoveling coal in the engine room to keep the damn ship on track. She’s a fighter.
Page after page, van Eijk weaves metaphors that hit painfully close to home. If you relate, you’ll feel seen, heard, and understood. And if you don’t, you might gain some clarity on how someone who is struggling feels. On being afraid of her own thoughts, she writes, “It’s like walking around with explosives built into your brain but someone else is carrying the trigger.” And on dissociation, “It’s like my mind folds in on itself. I’m there, but I’m not really there.”
Like I said, Maggy is a fighter. And she wants to share her hard-won lessons with the rest of us. I spoke with her about how to ask for help, how to find a therapist, and how to support a loved one when they’re having a hard time. And, of course, How Not to Fall Apart.
HelloGiggles: You wrote How Not to Fall Apart while you were “in the middle of” struggles with mental health, not looking back on them. Do you still feel in the middle?
Maggy van Eijk: I do, at the moment. It’s very up and down. There were times when writing it I was in balance and other times I wasn’t doing as well. Same goes for now the book is out; a lot of my symptoms occur in episodes. I might be okay one month and absolutely at the bottom of things the next. It feels dishonest to write a book and say, “Cool, I’m all good now! That’s it, difficult period of life over.” It’s not as simple as that.
HG: Not only do you paint a vivid picture of different types of mental health matters, but you also explain what happens when they combine. For example, depression coexisting with anxiety, and anxiety manifesting itself as physical pain. Has learning about mental health, science, and the human body helped you feel power over your struggles?
MVE: Definitely, it just has to be from the right source. I used to obsessively lurk in forums and read up on people with similar symptoms, but constantly reading about other people’s panic attacks would trigger one in my own body. When I saw my first counsellor for anxiety, she actually gave me a book that broke down the fight or flight response a bit more. When I complained about dizziness, she pointed out where and how that was happening in my body. Same with nausea and shaky hands; it made me feel slightly less out of control. It also meant I could try and ease some of the symptoms, like make sure I always have a water bottle on me or go for a walk to unleash some of the panicky adrenalin when there’s too much in my body.
HG: You’ve received multiple diagnoses (and misdiagnoses) through the years. It’s clear that our mental health system, and our conversations around mental health, need to improve.
MVE: In terms of the system, it’s the lack of resource and training amongst the people you end up seeing first that needs to improve the most. In the U.K., that would be your GP. They have about five minutes per patient, and either dismiss you very quickly, or give you a prescription without talking through the various benefits and potential side effects that might arise. My first prescription for anti-depressants came after a series of question my GP read from a blue piece of paper that included things like, “Do you feel like you’re a disappointment to your family?” I’m very grateful for my medication, but I don’t think that’s the right route for everyone, just because they admit to feeling like a letdown.
Conversations around mental health are improving, especially now that there are so many role models speaking out about their own struggles. However, it can feel a bit alienating when you have a celebrity telling you it’s okay not to be okay when you kind of know that already. You’re just on a one-year waiting list to see a therapist, and you’re desperately trying to keep it together. I think the next step in mental health campaigning has to be political, has to talk resources, and has to be about tangible steps we can take to improve care.
HG: You paint a vivid picture of the guilt associated with mental health struggles and self-harm. How do you push through feeling like a burden to ask for help?
MVE: It’s hard. I’m not going to lie, and it’s something you have to constantly work at, especially when new people enter your life. Me asking for help is often an incredibly subtle, blink-and-you-miss-it kind of thing. People in your life who care about you, with a bit of guidance, will pickup on your cues—but it’s important to remember people aren’t mind readers.
Sometimes you have to be explicit and say things like, “Look, I absolutely need you to not go to this party tonight so we can hang out and watch Buffy until I feel safe enough to shut my eyes and sleep without intrusive thoughts or nightmares.” It feels like you’re taking a risk by being so direct, but if you don’t do it, the alternative is worse. You end up alone, anxious and worried about what you might do to yourself.
HG: You use a number of incredibly precise metaphors to describe your depression, anxiety, dissociation, intrusive thoughts, and self-harm. Has turning these feelings into metaphors helped you better understand them and/or explain them to others?
MVE: Definitely. I started writing poetry quite young and, as much as it was awful from a literary point of view, it helped me put into words what I was feeling. The beauty of a metaphor is that it doesn’t have to make sense. It only has to make sense to you.
It works the other way as well not just writing but when you’re interpreting. There were times in university I’d listen to Radiohead and feel the inner me transcend, like a wonderful respite from my daily anxiety. I doubt Thom Yorke intended “Videotape” to be about a girl trying to live her last day on earth, but that’s the film reel that would go off in my head, and it was comforting, albeit a bit morbid. I felt like the song cocooned me, and that can be the safest feeling in the world.
HG: What’s a comforting thing to say to someone when they’re having a hard time?
MVE: It sounds so simple, but just listen. Sometimes people feel the need to rush to a solution. “Okay, you’re feeling like this, so you have to do this, and we can fix this here, and solve this thing here.” That kind of support is wonderful when you’re stressed, but when you’re in the pit of depression, solutions are empty. There are no solutions, because there is nothing, nothing but endless amounts of nothing. For me, the only way to feel that tiny bit better is to just to have someone sit with me and listen if I need to talk. Never be judgmental, but be compassionate. If someone describes a feeling they’re having, say, “That must be really scary” or “That sounds really tough,” not, “Oh come one, get your butt off the sofa!”
HG: Between depressing news cycles and negative Twitter trolls, the internet can be a pretty upsetting and triggering place. Do you ever find yourself logging off and unplugging?
MVE: It’s definitely important to log off, and put a bit of distance between yourself and the constant influx of headlines on your feed. Of course, sometimes this is easier said than done. I work in social media. If I’d log off for too long I’d probably get fired. The way around this is to just curate my feeds. Follow all the golden retrievers on Instagram. Unfollow that girl on Twitter you find super intimidating who constantly bangs on about being on a 30 under 30 list. Make the internet a safe space for yourself.
HG: Do you have any tips on finding a therapist?
MVE: Asking friends and doctors for recommendations is a good place to start. Do lots of googling and arrange initial consultations with therapists where you can see if they’re a good fit. They might not be, and that’s totally okay. Just be really honest with yourself and what you feel you respond best to.
HG: What things in pop culture and entertainment do you think portray mental health “right”?
MVE: For me, the most recent season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend nailed it. Rachel Bloom’s character has the same diagnosis as me: BPD. So already there was that instant familiarity. But I particularly loved the way they highlighted the conflict between really wanting a diagnosis but also being afraid of the label. I’d never seen that done before.
HG: How do you find the strength and courage to write about such difficult and personal subjects? Does it feel courageous?
MVE: I do it mainly because it helps me so much. If it didn’t, I don’t think I’d put myself out there. I’ve had a lot of positive responses from people, and it makes me think that by banging on about mental health, it will empower others to do the same. I don’t think I’m particularly courageous, and I get caught up in my own shame-spiral time and time again, but I try my absolute hardest to be honest and to help others if I’ve found something that’s useful.
HG: On page 1 of How Not to Fall Apart, you ask yourself, “Is this a good idea?” Do you think it was? (I think it was!)
MVE: Thank you! And, yes, I’m pleased I went through with it and created something out of all those difficult times.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?
MVE: It’s been a tough year for reading. I’m an avid bookworm and read 68 books last year. I set out to beat that record, only I’ve been plagued by a more intense depression and trouble concentrating. However, I did finally get around to reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I’m so glad I did. It’s so beautiful and, whilst so far off from my own world, there were passages that made me gasp in terms of how real they felt to me — the feeling of dissociation, love, passion, and jealousy. Would 100% recommend.
How Not to Fall Apart is now available wherever books are sold.