A personal story of hope and mental health insights, from nurse Laura
We are all living in extraordinary times. We are all finding the changes to our way of life, which have been unprecedented since the Second World War, extremely difficult and challenging. Everyone is going to struggle with the new ways of living that need to take place to reduce the burden on our dear NHS and protect the most vulnerable in our society.
However, it is at times like this when we all have to come together in an act of shared public consciousness in order to open our hearts and minds to those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
I would like to share my own story of living with Depression and Anxiety for over 22 years. I think it’s important for me to share this as I am a health care professional and I know that we find it difficult to appear vulnerable in our jobs within the health service. I also know that there are many people suffering in silence and when I have been at my lowest point I have always sought great solace from knowing that I am not alone.
My journey into Depression and Anxiety started when I was studying a degree in Manchester when I was 19 years old. At the time I had no idea what I had was a ‘Mental Illness’ but all I knew was, I couldn’t stop worrying and also thinking about ending my own life. Luckily, even though I had chosen to isolate myself from the people I was sharing my halls of residence with, I recognised that constantly ruminating about throwing myself off the very high balcony at my halls was not ‘normal’ and possibly a bit ‘mad’. I therefore was able to tell my Mum this and she recognised instantly that I needed help and came straight away to take me back home.
Once I was home, it didn’t get any easier. I would love to say that I had instant access to amazing therapy and antidepressants that helped me to regain control over my mind quickly. It didn’t work like that, as it most often doesn’t for those that step away from their usual level of mental functioning.
I was pretty broken. The therapy I had although useful did not get to the crux of the issue (this was to come much later- over a decade in fact). The antidepressants gave me all sorts of weird and unpleasant side effects. Venlafaxine – awful muscle twitches (vaguely reminiscent of Rik Mayal in ‘Drop Dead Fred’ and most unpleasant). Dothiepin gave me a really sore mouth and gums and generally made me feel much worse. Fluoxetine was my third attempt and luckily started to help me after the initial worsening in both depression and anxiety. Fortunately, I had become a seasoned experimenter of antidepressants by this stage and I was just about able to get by, with some kind and reassuring words from my family and GP. I will always remember just how vulnerable I felt and how much I hung on to every single word of comfort from those around me, especially trusted health care professionals.
Some friends were amazing, even if they had never experienced it, they were comforting. Other friends ran away as if it was a contagion, muttering something about ‘just pulling yourself together’ or any other unhelpful missives often still uttered by those who just have no idea about talking to people with empathy, even if you don’t understand what is going on yourself.
After I recovered from this initial bout of depression I was able to start working as a health care assistant at our local community hospital. A place that I still hold dear as a fragment from the past. An old style cottage hospital with Florence Nightingale styled wards. A place that would not be ideal in the midst of any viral pandemic. Working with the elderly kept me sane and focussed on matters that were far removed from the inner workings of a newly working mind, coming out of a very dark place.
In terms of therapy I feel I’ve tried most of what is to offer. Unfortunately CBT was not helpful for me. Psychodynamic Counselling was most possibly transformational and helped me to see through the traumas in my childhood that led to some damaging thought patterns. Most recently, I have been focussing on self-led Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy which I feel compliments my previous work and helps me to just observe my thoughts with less harmful judgement thus allowing them to pass from my ‘monkey mind’.
I have a coterie of interests that keep me mentally fit. I have developed my own routines that I have to stick to keep myself mentally in check. These include:
Trying not to watch too much news (bit challenging at the moment but I do try)
Keeping in touch with all my lovely friends and family members regularly through WhatsApp
Running, cycling, walking my dog
Being outside in my garden as much as possible when it’s sunny to get that valuable vitamin D boost
Listening to ambient techno
Using Epsom Salt in my bath to increase magnesium absorption in my skin, also using essential oils to maximise my relaxation time
Reading a lot of books
Watching a lot of comedy
Writing poetry (often quite badly but it’s a useful source of mental processing when necessary)
Being really honest with people I live and work with when I need a bit of support (it may involve asking my husband not to overload me with news when I come home from a stressful day at work OR speaking to my lovely work colleagues if I’m feeling over burdened with work pressures).
attention to the ‘Celtic Wheel of the Year’ which recognises the seasonal changes that mirror the life cycle of birth, death and rebirth of nature. This is also echoed within a woman’s monthly menstrual pattern. Weaving this ancient wisdom back into our contemporary lives is an important practice so that I can be more mindful of the world around me and within.
Fundamentally, if you live with a long term mental health condition it is absolutely imperative that you are kind to yourself and help others to better understand what they may do to help themselves if they feel their lives becoming unstuck. The unravelling of a mind is absolutely terrifying and the mental anguish can seem to be never ending. However, I have had quite a few mental health ‘breakdowns’ within these past 22 years. Each time the fall is a little less hard, and the landing softer because I know what to do. I learn something new about myself each time it happens and gain some new form of inner wisdom that I didn’t know I possessed previously. I do understand just how lonely mental illness can be. How completely unfragmented your life can become, quickly. How it won’t piece back together without ‘self -work’ when you may barely have the motivation to leave your bed. How you need to start loving yourself and putting your needs first. Even if you have never done this before and it feels frightening. You have to do this. Even if you feel thoughts of self-harm because you despise how you feel and can’t bear it any longer. There is hope. You need to reach out to those who love you and to the medical professionals who care, who will try to help you to gradually piece your life back together again.
I became a nurse because of my mental health experience. I know what it feels like to feel lonely, vulnerable and hopeless. However, we live in an age where at the touch of a button you can connect with others who feel like you, so you know you’re not alone. But stay away from those toxic websites that aren’t going to help if you’re feeling suicidal or like harming yourself in any way (you know the ones). Do use this website and the many other websites and mental health apps that are available to help you to navigate your way out of the mental quagmire. I promise you that you’ll come out of this different but with an improved perspective not only on your own life but also understanding other people who are also vulnerable.
You are not alone. Even when you feel bleak, you need to stay strong, keep trying new things to change how you feel. Even if you find it incredibly hard, just keep putting one foot in front of another. Remember you are not alone and that with the right support network and commitment from yourself to constantly strive to find ways to improve how you feel, you will. It will take time but to quote the mighty prophet Gandalf ‘ I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay…..smalls acts of kindness and love’. So never stop believing that this too will pass and greater things are to come.