I can’t remember exactly when I first noticed that I had a tendency to feel anxious and depressed. By writing this I am taking a mental journey back in time – this is what I recall. When I was 11 one of my closest school friends passed away. Completely unexpectedly. One day she was there, hassling me for one of the cakes I’d baked in Home Economics as I ran to get on the school bus, and the next she was gone. We were told in the morning by our form tutor that she had died. We were given no explanation and we were not allowed to call our parents (this was the eighties, so no mobile phones etc). I was so confused. My sister came to the classroom to offer me comfort, knowing how this news would affect me. We were allowed a few moments of hugging and then were told to go to our lessons. The Maths teacher scolded us (myself and my dear friend D) for crying – 30 mins after we had been told the news. It was the longest day – I just wanted to get home to my mum, to the safety and comfort of home. Our small but perfectly formed friendship group had been broken – irreparably.
My friend D and I continue to be friends to this day – I love and respect her deeply. We share a grief that we have not really spoken about until recently and I get great comfort from knowing that she ‘gets it’ and both together and as individuals we are finally attempting to process the impact that the loss of our friend had on us all those years ago.
From that day until now I have an irrational fear of someone I love being hurt/dying. I recognise that most people have a strong sense of protection over their loved ones but for me it can take my breath, completely overwhelm me, manifest as night terrors and leave me in a state of complete fear and panic that I now recognise as being beyond ‘normal’. Was losing my friend at a young age the start of my journey with anxiety/depression? Perhaps. At a similar age (I can’t remember if it was before or after the death of my friend) I began to pull out my hair. This usually happened when I was in bed in a state of semi-consciousness. I would pull out huge handfuls and stuff it down the side of the bed. My mum made me wear gloves to bed in an attempt to reduce my hair pulling. This lasted a time – I don’t recall how long – and then stopped. Looking back I see that perhaps this too was a symptom of a young person struggling with incomprehensible feelings; who didn’t know what was happening or how to cope with it. As an adult I am grateful that my children are growing up in a world where mental health is better recognised and is (to a certain extent) spoken about more freely than ever and that support, in various forms, is available.
I awoke to palpitations that were unbearably strong – I thought I was having a heart attack. It was frightening, but I felt too embarrassed to tell anyone.
At the age of 17, I went with friends to see a band at our local College where I was studying ‘A’ Levels. I absolutely love live music, as I still do now – feeling the bass and the kick drums resonate through my body is one of my favourite feelings – like the music is somehow hugging my soul – I love it! I stood near the front as the band played their first few songs, never one to shy away from a ‘mosh pit’, I was right there – right in the moment, feeling happy and content. Then I was outside, on the floor. As I opened my eyes I saw two rather burly looking security chaps leaning over me, they were saying things like, ‘she’s obviously just pissed’ and ‘bloody teenagers can’t hold their drink these days’. I wanted to react, to shout ‘actually, I haven’t been drinking’, but nothing came out of my mouth. I lay there, undignified, as people stepped over me, until finally a friend came over to see what was happening. After a glass of water and a chat with my friends I felt much better and decided to call it a night and went back home. The next morning I awoke to palpitations that were unbearably strong – I thought I was having a heart attack. It was frightening, but I felt too embarrassed to tell anyone. They subsided and I went about my day. By now, I was feeling a little concerned about the ‘blackout’ at the college gig and the overwhelming heart pounding, so I decided to take myself to the doctors, who suggested that I was experiencing symptoms of stress/anxiety and it was probably due to the fact that my ‘A’ Level exams were coming up. I was not offered any support, medication, counselling etc at this time and was told ‘I’m sure you’ll be just fine’ – so that was that.
My exams came and went and I was thrilled to get into my first choice university and so life went on. Fast forward three years when my final exams were coming up – I had led a reasonably hedonistic student life, so was pretty used to feeling groggy and strange, but on this particular occasion, I felt decidedly odd. I then spent 5 days in bed. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was sick and felt nauseous all the time. I had only been in a relationship with my now husband, for about 3 months at this point. He could see that something wasn’t right and contacted the on-campus doctor, who decided to admit me to the university ‘hospital’ where I stayed for a few days. I don’t remember much about this to be honest, but I knew that my body was reacting to the stress and pressure of the exams. It was like I just started to shut down and I felt I had no choice or control over what my mind and body were doing which was very frightening. Luckily my Tutor agreed that I could do my exams a few days later than everyone else, to give me chance to fully recover. I hadn’t fully recovered when I sat those exams (two days after coming out of hospital) and twenty years later I still feel resentful that I was told ‘it’s now or never’ and I completed my degree under such stress and strain, as I was so unwell.
So I guess it all began with these examples of anxious behaviour, that came and went over a period of a few years. The word ‘anxiety’ wasn’t really used and I remember feeling such a sense of embarrassment and failure that there wasn’t anything actually (physically) wrong with me, I just couldn’t cope with the pressure of exams, of other people’s expectations, of life. Other people seemed to cope, why couldn’t I?
After leaving Uni, I had a couple of glorious, anxiety free years getting to know my wonderful future husband (who at the time played in a band and was beyond cool in my mind!) and travelling and working and just generally enjoying life.
A couple of years after leaving Uni, I discovered I was expecting (a shock but a lovely one at that!). A (now 17) was born in May 2000. She was and is the light of my life, but as a new mum living well over 100 miles away from any family members I quickly felt very isolated. My other half was working long days and I just felt completely alone – the depression crept up on me. Eventually I went to the doctor who put me on a low dosage of a commonly used anti-depressant. It helped for a while but then wore off and my dosage was increased – and this is how it went for years, trying new and higher doses of various drugs to try to help relieve my feelings of uselessness, low self-esteem, anxiety and over whelming sadness. I would spend hours crying and thinking ‘what is wrong with me?’. I have an amazing partner/best friend and a gorgeous healthy child. So why did I feel like shit all the time? Then came the guilt – overwhelming and suffocating – how dare I feel so sorry for myself when there are so many in the world with so little – I’m disgusting! I envied people that seemed happy and care-free, I spent hours wondering if I was somehow being punished for something? Some days I felt so angry about it I honestly felt like doing something crazy – smashing things up, stealing things, running away, hurting myself (often the thought of physical pain would seem preferable to the mental pain that seemed impossible to control and endless). I didn’t do any of these things.
Looking back, the fact that I internalised most of this didn’t help. I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone how I really felt. Over the years I realise now that this really did exacerbate my symptoms. Sadly it took me another 15 years to really start to speak honestly about my mental health issues which were slowly getting worse. Life went on and I experienced a huge amount of joy mixed up with crippling lows that were utterly debilitating (on the really bad days I couldn’t leave my bed, I would cry for hours, days even, and feel such emptiness and uselessness. I would think seriously about taking my own life as I couldn’t comprehend exposing my husband and my girls to a moment more of the misery that I was forcing upon them). I would imagine that my husband would get together with someone that I liked and trusted after I’d gone and they would be a wonderful step-parent to my children. Together they would do a much better job at ‘life’ than I could. I would torture myself with these intrusive thoughts almost continually. It wasn’t helpful.
In 2004 and 2006 our daughters B and C entered the world. All three of my children bring me so much joy – I look forward to seeing them every morning when I wake up. They are all brilliant – they have saved me! Sometimes I think that perhaps the fact that I have three amazing healthy kids and a wonderful husband is compensation for the mental torment that I endure every day. I feel so lucky to have them and I’m not exaggerating when I say that they really have kept me alive. Suicide was a recurring thought, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to discuss that just yet. I have always hidden my depression and anxiety from my children (until recently that is). If I was ‘bed-bound’ I would tell them that I had a terrible headache. If they caught me crying, I’d say that I was just a bit tired and that the tiredness would make me tearful. They believed me – why wouldn’t they? So, for many years, this is how we lived – until my ‘headaches and tiredness’ got unbearably bad.
I trained to become a teacher back in 2001. ‘A’ was a year old and I figured that teaching was a decent profession that would work well for us all. At the beginning I found that teaching suited me well – it was like donning a mask everyday and playing the part of someone else. I was good at that! For a number of years I floated through, meeting some wonderful colleagues and students along the way. I enjoyed working in education and found being around young people an absolute pleasure. I was also very busy – which gave me less time to ‘over-think’. The depression was always there however, like a clown hiding in the wardrobe waiting to grab me (I think I watched the original Poltergeist too many times as a kid!), but I was able to get through each day relatively successfully – I now know this is described as ‘high functioning depressive illness’. In fact, I think most people I know, including my family would be shocked to know that depression and anxiety had such a hold over me, as I was so good at hiding it. Hiding is exhausting. I was the always the one that would sing loudly, do silly dances, make others laugh – anything to distract from the ‘real’ me.
I stopped taking it and tried something else including various anti-psychotic drugs – they work to block receptors in the brains dopamine pathways.
In 2012 I was referred to a Psychiatrist after I told my doctor that I no longer wanted to take medication but wanted to try another approach to managing this illness. I spent a few months under the care of ‘S’. He diagnosed me with Bipolar Disorder (which, for the record, I and those around me feel strongly is a misdiagnosis) and gave me various anti-depressants and subsequently, anti-psychotic drugs to try. I was disappointed when I realised that he was very pro-drugs as I was so keen to try a different approach (naively I though a Psychiatrist would be more like a counsellor/therapist, but that was not the case). I thought I’d give it a try as he was the expert after all. Fast forward about 18 months and I had tried a number of the afore mentioned medications – non of them suited me. For example – Lamotragine is an anti-convulsant, used to treat seizures as well as Bipolar Disorder. I took this for a few months and experienced side effects including dizziness, memory problems, blurred vision, shaky legs and dry mouth (the dry mouth was unbearable!).
So I stopped taking it and tried something else including various anti-psychotic drugs – they work to block receptors in the brains dopamine pathways. Basically too much dopamine (a chemical that is released to help regulate our emotional responses) can lead to psychosis, so the idea is to attempt to reduce production of this chemical. Again, the side effects seemed to outway the minimal positves, so I stopped. Eventually we arrived at Lithium. I went dutifully to see the nurse to get my bloods taken (you have to have this done every couple of months when you take Lithium to ensure that the levels are correct as the body naturally produces its own Lithium). I picked up my first prescription of Lithium that day and went home. The lithium was placed in my bedside draw. I was scared to take it.
I read through the list of side effects – a practice that had become a routine part of my life at this point. Lithium:
- tremors in your hands
- dry mouth, increased thirst or urination
- nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach pain
- changes in your skin or hair
- cold feeling or discoloration in your fingers or toes
- feeling uneasy
- impotence, loss of interest in sex
As I sat reading these I felt something. Some kind of rush – adrenaline maybe? How you feel when you’ve just had some exciting news. I knew then, at that very moment, that I was not going to take the Lithium and I also knew that I would never take medication again as a form of treatment – and I haven’t. Don’t get me wrong – meds are a life saver for many individuals who suffer unbearably with a variety of mental health problems. For me however, the side effects always outweighed the potential positive. It’s not like I hadn’t tried. It was time to move on. Finally. These drugs had been a part of my life for the best part of 20 years and if anything, I felt worse. Making this decision made me feel strong and in control, for the first time in a long time. It felt good and the feeling lasted quite a while.
The most important part of my life is my family – above all else. I am so concerned that my children don’t pick up on my depression/anxiety, that I am often over-protective of them, and harsh on myself – trying to be the funny, happy, care-free, helpful, inspiring mum 24/7 is knackering! Much of my anxiety is entrenched in the notion that someone will harm my kids. Now, I realise that all parents are protective of their babies (evolution and all that), but what I didn’t realise was that the way I felt was extreme and irrational and fundamentally not ‘normal’. I had recurring dreams that would haunt me about how my children would be hurt – I can’t even type them down as they are too upsetting to think about, so I’ll move on quickly! I did everything with/for them. I rarely let them stay elsewhere as I needed to be near them. I thought about them all of the time. I watched them all of the time.
I was also carrying around a lot of anger at the world for all the hideousness that we see daily on the news. Perhaps my depression and anxiety wasn’t unfounded after all, with so much misery going on. I started to be a lot more mindful of what and when I watched certain documentaries and news programmes as they would deeply affect me and linger on for months in my mind – I would lose sleep and feel a constant sense of impending doom. Pounding palpitations were by now a normal part of my day – sometimes happening continually for hour after hour.
I read about ‘depressive realism’ – the hypothesis developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson, that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than do non-depressed individuals; perhaps I wasn’t depressed after all, but hyper-sensitive to all the misgivings that go on in the world, that I am helpless to do anything about – who knows?
When I met Cognitive Behavioural Therapist ‘L’ in March 2017, she made me realise that although my thoughts were understandable, they were using up huge amounts of energy. I needed to stop obsessing and allow them (my children) some independence. L is now guiding me cautiously through trying to understand myself a little better. Currently we are working on self-esteem – which for me has always been very low. I met L as a result of the breakdown that I experienced in January 2017.
The End (well, sort of)
The culmination of my anxiety that focused on my children, dealing with depression in secret and trying to be a good teacher whilst being bullied by a group of students at the secondary school I was at (that’s another story!), led me to come home from work on Monday January 30th 2017 and start to cry – I didn’t stop crying for 3 weeks. In the few previous months leading up to this point I had experienced two panic attacks in school – these were a rare occurrence for me, but it freaked me out as I felt very exposed and vulnerable and began worrying about even leaving the house. Going to work and being on display all day was becoming unbearable, but I had to keep going! What choice did I have?
I would have raging diarrhoea (sorry, TMI!) when I got to work on an almost daily basis and would go to the toilets between lessons to cry. I developed a stutter that my students were beginning to notice and my memory was really struggling – I would often forget what I was saying mid-sentence. Many people do this I know, but it was happening to me every half hour and as a teacher, that’s not good.
My husband took me to the doctors – it was an unpleasant experience as I knew that this ‘episode’ was different, it was like all the bad moments I’d ever had in the past rolled into one. I honestly thought for a number of weeks that I was going to die. My body felt so wrong and I couldn’t think, I just cried. I had a panic attack outside the doctors surgery and had to be manhandled through the door by my husband– thank goodness he was there; he really has been my rock throughout this experience but it hasn’t always been easy – he has found it difficult over the years to understand my mood swings. I would often look for a reason for my ‘upset’ and that made him feel blamed which he openly told me made him want to shut down. He admitted that he didn’t understand what was happening to me and whilst he’d do his best to comfort me, I would often reject him, which in turn, made him turn his back on me. As a person with depression/anxiety, I just wanted him to ‘get it’ – and I know that after our long journey together, he now does. This time though, he could see that things were bad and he has held my hand and been patient every step of the way. We make a good team and for that I am eternally grateful.
The doctor told me that I was suffering from acute stress and anxiety. My body was in a permanent kind of ‘fight or flight’ mode. Most people experience this when they are surprised or frightened etc, but I was experiencing it all the time. Constant production of adrenaline – no wonder I thought my heart was going to pound out of my chest. She told me that often people suffering with stress will go to A and E thinking they are having a heart attack as the symptoms they present are very similar – I can totally understand that now.
I was signed off work – I sat in my chair at home for week after week after week. In an almost catatonic state, I couldn’t do anything. Making a cup of tea felt like a huge victory. I went back and forth to the doctors and she helped me to understand that what I was experiencing was what many people describe as a ‘breakdown’. This was hard to hear, but with time it actually became quite heartening as I realised that because I had reached rock bottom, perhaps the only way left to go was up.
For the first time in my life I was truly honest with my family; mum and dad, my sister, my husband and a slightly edited version for my darling children and I for the first time in such a long time, I felt FREE! The shackles of secrecy and lies were starting to come undone and it felt bloody amazing. After feeling so utterly embarrassed and pathetic for having struggled with mental illness, I now felt empowered by it and I wanted to tell EVERYONE.
‘Hey Mr Postman – do you know that I am signed off work with stress and anxiety, oh and I’ve struggled with depression for 20 years too!’ (Don’t worry, I didn’t collar the postman).
So I told my family how I found teaching stifling and that it brought out the worst in my anxiety and that I desperately needed to get out of the profession and that I wanted to seek alternative treatment for my depression and I wanted to be a better, less anxious mum to my children and I was prepared to fight for my mental health to improve, etc. They couldn’t have been more amazing. My parents were away on holidaying when this all ‘blew-up’ and I felt selfish for burdening them, but my mum rang me every single day to talk to me about positive things and keep me occupied for an hour before I returned to slumping in my ‘catatonic chair’. Thank you mum – I love you. My sister took me under her protective wing and supported me in many ways – making me feel like I was a good mum and a good person and that I was strong and capable.
Then unbelievably, I was offered a job working on a new project – this was it, my get out. I could leave teaching and start again in a profession that I could be inspired by and passionate about. My wonderful husband has stuck with me through all of the dark times – holding me, reading to me, loving me, cooking for me and being the best dad ever! My best friend – I have so much love for this man. And my children – my reasons for being – they have dealt with their mum’s strange ups and downs like pro’s and I am enormously proud of their compassion and maturity. Thank you for being your brilliant selves, I love you all endlessly.
So, here I am in 2018, writing this. I continue to be medication free and I have recently had my final session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy after an intense 12 months of attempting at least to see the world through a different lens. I try to drink plenty of water and eat well (although I totes need to work on this!). I drink a lot less alcohol than I used to, which I now clearly see had a hugely negative impact on my mood. I am working from home and have the mental space to work on simple daily routines such as walking my dogs, spending quality time with my family, researching and writing.
I feel lucky and I feel good (mostly), but crucially, I feel different, I feel forever changed. I know that the changes that I’ve made to my life in the past 12 months are the right ones and for the first time in as long as I can remember I can feel a sense of positivity, even excitement for the future. I still feel guilty, as I know that there are many people out there who are suffering with mental illness who do not have the support of family and friends like I do. But I am learning (slowly) that guilt solves nothing.
I know that ‘the black dog’ will always be with me, but at the moment he is licking my face and giving me cuddles – I’m happy with that.