Striving for stability: talking about my mental illness.
It’s unnerving revealing my own mental illness so early in the life of our blog but if there’s ever been a time to be open and vulnerable, Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 is it. The more of us who speak up, hopefully the easier it will be for others to confess their own struggle or seek help.
I can now say I am pretty mentally healthy. I used to be really unhealthy, mentally ill. I’m limited to my own experiences: depression, anxiety, post-natal depression and at my lowest – this is hard to type – believing wholeheartedly the world would be a better place without me. Enough stalling, here we go.
Trying to get stable(ish)
Undiagnosed depression led to insomnia and manic highs, treatment with alcohol, pretending I was fine, panic attacks, vomiting with anxiety, mental breakdown, diagnosis, life-numbing medication, resigning from work, sleeping all day, being awake all night, cycle after cycle after cycle.
I suffered crippling anxiety - I once got stuck on the tube way past my stop because Panic arrived in the form of a 40 stone monster sat on my lap, crushing me into my seat, not breathing surely dying right there on the Piccadilly line. Mental ill health is so rough and so physical. For two years I pushed myself hard: from my very lowest through slow and steady improvement I studied any technique I could (CBT, mindfulness, yoga), took prescription drugs and practiced every day at being well. I was fortunate, finally I got stable(ish).
I then became pregnant – I was overwhelmingly happy. Together, Hyperemesis (vomiting leading to hospitalisation), a traumatic delivery and hospital admission separating me from my 3 day-old daughter catapulted me into postnatal depression. I think of it as the happiest and saddest time of my life and still get choked up on her birthday nearly 7 years on. It’s terrible to purposefully leave out the happy moments, of which there were many, but it’s less painful and quicker this way. I thought I had got back to my happy stable self and actively avoided those all-knowing depression questionnaires. Fast-forward to my second pregnancy. Hyperemesis mark 2 hit me hard, far worse and this time I had a toddler to care for. I was still wobbly, still a nightmare and agreed to re-start medication to keep it together. My gorgeous boy arrived by C-section. His heart stopped moments after birth, cue lights, alarms, a crash team and me and my husband Hugh, helpless. I didn’t meet him for hours and didn’t hold him until the next day. He was a wonderful baby but he was hard work; he never slept for longer than 2 hours until he was two so, I was a sleep deprived zombie on meds trying not to "lose it". All this left me re-living a post-natal nightmare.
Compared to some my experience is not so bad. Compared to others it was hell. Who cares how it compares? Part of understanding mental health is accepting each person, their feelings and experiences without judgment even if they aren't “as bad” as yours. The competition for who had it worst is irrelevant.
My biggest problem through the whole experience was and is my ability to put on a brave face in public. I used to be excellent at it; I used to fool even my family and closest of friends. My illness was embarrassing to talk about but faking it was dangerous because the swan-like surface masked beautifully my internal turmoil and panic. I’m better at owning up now and Hugh knows when I’m heading for a bad phase, apparently I’m not as good at hiding as I think, he knows my “tell”.
Not just me
The devastation of mental illness isn’t limited to those suffering first hand. I couldn’t grasp how Hugh was dealing with it yet still catastrophised about what he might do now his wife was broken. He never deviated, never shouted, was never angry or disappointed. He didn’t understand but never questioned me. He listened, held, and comforted me yet he struggled terribly. He was incredible. Even now, years on I thank him for not deserting me. If you’re someone helping someone else you can take a look at Mind or here if you're a Dad watching a mother struggle.
This all sits in stark contrast to how I am today. I got help, I had a suffocating amount of help; I couldn’t do anything but get better – I had fast access to an incredible psychologist, psychiatrist, medication and was able to stay home and get well. For me, stability and health come from my faith, my family, exercise and knowing finally it’s ok not to be perfect; that even in my unfinished making it up as I go along state, I am ok.
I still have periods of self-doubt and anxiety, the difference now is I have skills to stay steady even in the blinding dark. I’m healthy but not perfect though sometimes feel like I'm just surviving. I felt a strong affinity when reading the Mental Health Foundation Study, which concluded that as a nation we are surviving, not thriving. Why so? If I start trying to answer I will still be bashing away at my keyboard this time next year. I think too many people are still trapped by stigma, not able to ask for help and even when they do, they can’t always get what help they need. Awareness of mental health issues is increasing thanks to amazing organisations and trailblazers but sadly state funding for education, treatment and research are agonisingly and neglectfully low, especially for children and young people.
Working on it
Read about it, be aware of it, be ready to recognise it and above all, please don’t judge. Mental health awareness is crucial. Having children has made me even more conscious of the life stresses that can arrive too soon. For now I’m concentrating on staying mindful, safe and stable working on it all, daily.
For inspirational folks check out Bryony Gordon on Instagram and her podcasts with her take on why "feeling weird is the most normal thing in the world". You've probably seen it but the article about Prince Harry shows us how it's becoming more ok to not be ok. Pages 19 - 21 of the Mental Health Foundation study have some pointers to looking after your mental health, worth a read even if you don't read the entire document.