At 17 I left home, by 22 I was married, divorced at 26 but I never truly felt grown up until I was 30. That was the age I decided to (wo)man up and ask for help with my failing mental health. I had been experiencing bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia since my teens but when the issue came up with my GP it was always by accident. Luckily my doctor wasn’t clueless and when I would say “Oh, I have a twisted ankle and by the way I haven’t slept properly in three weeks” he would always probe me on the insomnia rather than the ankle. I fell into a cycle of taking some tablets, being referred for counselling that I inevitably cancelled after one session and eventually feeling “better”.
In early 2012 I turned 30 and had everything I could possibly need: a job I enjoyed, good friends, a loving family, money in the bank and a roof over my head. I had nothing to be sad about but I felt completely and utterly empty. I was given good news by people I loved and I couldn’t raise a smile. I didn’t suffer from low mood – I had no mood. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and would find myself reading the same article in a magazine repeatedly and not absorbing the words. I became so forgetful it scared me. I would look at people I know and struggle to recall their names and forgot my PIN number so many times I had to save it in my phone to avoid embarrassment in the supermarket.
In March 2012, I made an emergency appointment at the doctor after I realised that I had been subconsciously stockpiling paracetamol. I wasn’t sure if this was because of genuine forgetfulness or if I was planning a suicide attempt. My appointment was due to last 10 minutes but I left after half an hour with a puffy tearstained face, two prescriptions and an urgent referral to the local mental health assessment centre. I had completed the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) and was found to be severely depressed. I remember my doctor asked if I planned to take my own life I said that I had no real plans but every night I went to bed hoping I wouldn’t wake up. That’s when the tears started. It was the first time I had ever said that out loud.
I would love to say that after that day everything fell into place and I was miraculously well again. Unfortunately that was not the case. My depression wasn’t triggered by anything specific and I didn’t gel with the counsellor I saw. I took the medication and whilst this helped with the depression my anxiety increased. My insomnia spiralled out of control and I had a constant sense of impending doom. I was convinced horrific things would happen to my family and had nightmares about car accidents, fires and violent deaths. But rather than give up, every time I felt worse I kept going back to my GP. My medication was changed, I self-referred to a work place counselling service which was much better suited to me and I started talking to people about how I was feeling. My mental health issues were always my dirty little secret, I was ashamed to tell people I was close to how I was feeling because I didn’t want to be judged.
I just started to feel a little lighter in mood then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2012. It was as if all the nightmares had come true. In my head I felt like all my anxiety had been justified and that I was somehow right to be so paranoid and pessimistic. I now realise this was my broken brain speaking. What happened to my physical and mental health during the period of mum’s illness and the time following her death were devastating but I truly believe that I wouldn’t be alive right now if I hadn’t sought help before the shit hit the fan. I don’t believe in psychic abilities but I have always had a decent sense of intuition. Maybe in the months before mum’s diagnosis my brain started sending me signals that I was going to need all the help I could get.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I am saddened that in 2017 many people still can’t talk openly about their mental health. They are ashamed, disgusted with themselves, misunderstood and maligned. I have been called selfish, lazy, an attention seeker and a psycho (that last one was from an ex-boyfriend, charming fellow). But the more we talk about mental health, the more normal it becomes. The more I talk to people about what I am experiencing, the more they understand. If you keep cancelling plans because you are too anxious to leave the house, tell someone that rather than make up a bullshit excuse, they are more likely to offer to help or come to you. Some of the best friends came to see me when I couldn’t face the outside world.
I am not “cured” as mental illness is something I will always have in some form. I deal with life one day at a time, take medication as anyone with a long-term health condition would and just try to be as kind to myself as possible. Remember, asking for help isn’t a sign of failure. It’s scary and the process may suck sometimes but talking about how you feel may just save your life.
If you or anyone you know may be suffering from mental illness please seek professional help. I found the following websites and podcasts helpful:
Mental Health Foundation – Practical advice to help with your mental health and well-being
Mind – A-Z of mental health, an online community and tips for everyday living are just some of the excellent resources
Samaritans – if you are in the UK or Republic of Ireland you can call Samaritans on 116 123, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This number is FREE to call. You don’t have to be suicidal to call.
Bryony Gordon’s Mad World Podcast – A ten part podcast series in which Telegraph journalist and OCD sufferer Bryony discusses mental illness with a different guest every week. The Prince Harry episode gained worldwide attention and started a lot of important discussions around mental health.