My mental health story is long! I’ve not left anything out and it’s how I remember it, but as it started nearly 30 years ago I’m sure my mind has shut parts of it out. It’s not imperative that you read it but I’m writing this to show that you can be in the deepest, darkest place and still come out the other side.
MY MENTAL HEALTH STORY
HOW MY MENTAL ILLNESS BEGAN
I had my first bout of mental illness in my early 20s – a total nervous breakdown. Even though I had seen my mum suffer a couple of years prior, nothing could have prepared me for this.
Although young, I was happily married and living in our forever home. Money was tight but apart from a mortgage, we weren’t in debt. We both had our health and loving supportive families.
I hated the personnel job that I was in so decided to fall back on my trade of hairdressing and set up my own business. I lived on a big estate full of young families so did some research to see if there was a need for a mobile family hairdresser.
There clearly was, so I set myself up with the tax office, insurance, local council, advertising material etc and tendered my resignation. I intended to look for a part time office job as well, to bring in a regular wage until it got established. I was really excited and happy, as all the stressful stuff had been done!
THE BEGINNING OF MY LIFE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
Then two weeks later IT HIT! I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I became very ill almost overnight. My GP signed me off with stress for the remaining two weeks of my notice.
When I didn’t get better he diagnosed clinical depression, put me on anti-depressants, then saw me fortnightly and referred me to a psychiatrist.
The office job had to be delayed but I started to pick up a few customers for my hairdressing. Unfortunately, I did have to cancel some customers at a moment’s notice as panic attacks would strike and render me unable to leave the house. I had to lie that I’d just been sick totally out of the blue! Not a very good start but I had no control over it.
It was extremely difficult going out to work, but on the whole achievable because I knew that I would only be out an hour or two a day. I couldn’t face any more than that. Then I could come home and collapse. Everything left me feeling drained.
SYMPTOMS OF MY MENTAL ILLNESS
I cried a lot and my life seemed very bleak. My mind and body were no longer my own. I didn’t know why I cried as I had nothing to be unhappy about. I just couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I lost interest in everything. I couldn’t watch tv or hold a conversation.
My husband used to hold me close while I just stared blankly into space, feeling dark and unhappy with tears streaming down my face until I fell asleep. I felt so useless, this wasn’t fair on him – he certainly hadn’t signed up for this! But his love and support never once faltered.
As time went on, I seemed to get worse instead of better. The tablets didn’t make me well. The psychiatrist didn’t make me well. I was scared that I would end up in a mental hospital and never come out again. Nobody could tell me when I’d get better or why I had this illness. Nobody could help me and I couldn’t help myself.
I felt incredibly guilty that I was putting my husband and family through this. I felt that I was such a burden on them all and they’d all be much happier without me even though I knew they loved me. I didn’t want to live like this but didn’t want to die either. I just wanted the pain to go away for all of us. I was scared my brain might snap and make me kill myself and for that reason, I was scared to be around knives or rope!
By this point, I really couldn’t take care of myself. My husband would drop me off at my parent’s house on his way to work. If my mum went out she’d take me to my nan’s. I couldn’t be alone. I just sat there watching daytime tv or sleeping. My mum would make sure I ate by feeding me comfort food and bathe me like a child, washing my hair and putting me in clean clothes. It was very bleak.
I was also having dreadful panic attacks. My husband would be driving us to visit his parents and half way there I would tell him he had to turn back. The overwhelming fear of dread was crushing and I couldn’t push through it.
The physical symptoms were horrible but the mental side of it was worse. It didn’t make sense to me, so others wouldn’t have a hope in hell’s chance of understanding. Again his compassion and compliance got us through. He’d just turn the car around and take us home, never criticising or saying how stupid it was.
MY MENTAL HEALTH RECOVERY
My recovery started when I started to listen to some healing tapes by an old Australian Doctor called Claire Weekes. She said to stop looking for answers about why you had it, or when you’d be better, and just accept that you had it, it was an illness and you would recover. She just seemed to say the right thing and after repeated listens, medication and counselling from a clinical psychologist, I slowly started to get better.
I found another key moment in recovery was when I was at the doctors having a routine smear test and got talking to the nurse there. She told me that she’d had depression before. It made me realise that it could be recovered from and that people could hold down successful jobs and lives.
My hairdressing work continued and I took on that part-time office job that I was going to get over a year ago. This built up my confidence. It wasn’t easy but I did it. The routine of getting up and going to work each day helped a lot.
BREAKING THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS
As I’d become friendly with some of my hairdressing customers, I plucked up the courage to tell a few of them about my illness, and some of them had suffered or were suffering too. Then I told some of my office colleagues. Again the same situation – It seemed this horrible illness was everywhere! Admitting it and seeing that there wasn’t quite such a stigma after all helped tremendously. It takes a lot of energy to continuously hide it.
Recovery was slow and most definitely a case of two steps forward then one back. The back steps were scary as hell as you just felt like it had all come back and that you’d never be well again. Eventually, the steps forward grew longer, and the steps back less frequent.
POST NATAL/PARTUM DEPRESSION
The one good thing to come out of this all was that we had found that we could manage without so much money. We had previously thought that I could never have afforded to give up work meaning that we’d never have children.
But now we found that with my husband working an early shift, I could then do my hairdressing when he came home. We could manage on the money and we’d have a doable childcare routine. So we decided to try for a baby. We had our first in 1993 followed by the second in 1995.
Life totally changed with our little family unit. Looking back, I was probably mildly depressed through those early years although it’s difficult to say how much was due to sleepless nights and the usual parental anxiety.
I wasn’t aware I was depressed back then although my Health Visitor said afterwards that she felt I had post natal depression after my first child (now called post partum). I thought I was just exhausted!
Parenting is hard physically and emotionally, so I’m sure many new mums and dads would have felt the same. I think I was a good mum though, they were always my priority and I look back with fondness at the fun and love we shared during those years.
MY MENTAL HEALTH DECLINED AGAIN
My next bout of depression came when they were at Infants School. Thankfully this wasn’t anything like my first breakdown but it was still a major episode. I was so scared that “it” had come back and of course this time I had the added worry that my children would be taken away.
Again I cried a lot, felt worthless and very bleak but I had two little people, a dog and a husband to look after so I just got on with it as best I could. I think that may have given me more drive to carry on. My husband showed the same amazing care and support, reassuring me that it wasn’t like the first time and I was strong enough to get through it again. And that it would go. It did!
I had another couple of episodes during their school years, each resulting in long periods on anti-depressants and therapy sessions with psychologists and counsellors. I think I kept it hidden from them on the whole and their childhood wasn’t affected.
With each episode, I learnt more about the illness and found that as time went on I recognised the signs and could sometimes nip it in the bud with St Johns Wort and talking about it.
MENOPAUSE & MENTAL HEALTH
My last tough bout was nearly six years ago. I could feel it building up for months, I knew it was going to be a bad one but I kept struggling on, crying in secret and trying to keep the dark thoughts at bay.
I didn’t want to be a burden on my husband again so I kept it from him. (He never saw me as a burden, I never see others that way when I’m giving support but when you’re suffering that is one of the biggest things you feel – that everyone would be better off without you.)
I did confide in my two best friends a little but I didn’t tell them the fullest extent of how I felt. You learn to hide it well. My friends said I should go to the doctors but I was determined not to admit defeat. I always feel it is a weakness when it’s my own depression but I see it as an illness in others, or when I am rational.
This time I was at a music festival when it came to a head. Holding a conversation was a struggle so I hid away at the back of the hall until I could take no more. I felt totally alone and scared in a place where I normally felt at home.
Totally unaware of my thoughts, my husband was helping the organisers out on the door, knowing that I’m normally happy flitting around like a social butterfly and watching bands.
I feigned a headache and said I was going back to the hotel for a lie down and there was no need for him to leave. I said I’d have a lie down then come back in an hour or two. I then went back and cried solidly for hours and felt absolute despair.
Of course, I then knew it was time for me to tell him and go to the doctors, I could no longer fight this on my own.
My doctor felt that this time it was due to the menopause, not just depression and asked me how I felt about trying HRT rather than antidepressants. At this point, I would have done anything. So I went on a low dose HRT, blurted it out to all my friends and family and my recovery was pretty swift.
I’d wasted months feeling bad when I could have just said I how I felt at the start. We all know it’s not that easy though!
My anxiety has stepped up a gear the last couple of years, with me often overthinking things. This could be put down to the menopause as it seems extremely common in women my age.
My mind blows things out of proportion and I now worry about things that I might not otherwise worry about when I’m well. I am fully aware that I am doing this but can’t stop it.
I get obsessive about tasks – For example, I like to decorate but I just can’t do it bit by bit, I have to do the whole house in one go which can be tiring and takes any joy out of it. It doesn’t all need to be done at once, but I can’t relax until it is.
And, writing this blog for instance. Even though it was something I wanted to do, I found it incredibly difficult and sometimes overwhelming but I had to finish it, or it would just be hanging over me. I don’t seem to be able to make my brain switch off from an idea without seeing it through.
MY MENTAL HEALTH FUTURE
Over the last decade, I feel far more in control of my mental health, although I get really annoyed when it appears. I now accept that it’s always going to be with me to some extent.
I am comfortable talking about it and people have shared their experiences with me. Many people have mental illness in one form or another. As sad as that is, it is comforting to not be alone.
When I speak to other sufferers they get exactly how I feel and I, in turn, have been able to give support to lots of people. This allows me to know that something positive has come out of this dreadful illness.
So I continue to suffer from occasional bouts of mild depression, and more so with anxiety. I know that the quicker I tell someone, the quicker it goes. I still find this part of it difficult due to the effects that this illness has on your brain.
But do you know what, I’ve got through all of it, and writing my mental health story has made me realise how strong I am. Even though I know I will always have mental illness in my life, I can live with it and I can live a happy fulfilling life too.
Feel free to share any of this series of my self help tips for mental health with friends and family. I hope that by sharing my full mental health story it will help someone out there – please let me know if it does.
SELF HELP FOR MENTAL HEALTH TIPS
SEE PART 1 FOR LINKS TO PROFESSIONAL & CHARITABLE ORGANISATIONS