My Mental Health does not define me
Who can say life is easy? It’s not. It’s full of so many challenges and every time we learn the game, the rules change. Mental health issues run in the family but I never realised that I was a loaded gun that could fire at any time.
Around the age of twenty-four I was devastated over a relationship breakdown and had also distanced myself from a damaging family relationship, isolating me from other loved ones. I worked long hours as a Senior Account Manager in a Branding and Design Agency and always over achieved although never feeling true self-worth. I coped through drink and drugs on the weekends, desperate to escape the sad and lonely girl I had become.
Over time I grew to dislike myself and never felt good enough. My energy was thrown into the gym with punishing exercise regimes, restricting my diet to the point my stomach crunched with pain. Food became both an enemy and a friend and I lived behind a pane of glass where food and weight dictated my thoughts, feelings and choices. I started to binge to purge my pain and the cycle was never ending. It wasn’t about food, it was about control but I began to realise it is impossible to control an illness that sucks you in, plays you, taunts you and wants to destroy you. It took me years of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), to resolve my underlying issues and learn about a balanced diet, avoiding the harmful media messages indicating weight loss will somehow improve the person you are. Throughout my façade I still tried to be the pillar of support to others, maybe because it’s easier to save others than to save yourself.
My friends finally intervened after I told them ‘I’d lost it’ and sobbed in fear that I was going mad. That day I had to face my feelings and I had no words because my sobs said it all. I was immediately signed off work with depression and treated with anti-depressants but after experiencing strange feelings and suicidal lows, I knew something was wrong. I had a severe reaction to the anti-depressants and after dropping to the floor with fits and seizures I was hospitalised with serotonin syndrome, a life threatening poisoning of the nervous system. I battled the most extraordinary yet frightening side effects for six weeks before the crisis team, who visited me every day, suspected a mood disorder. I would fling from mania to depression feeling overtly creative, spending obsessively, not sleeping and having a preoccupation with God only to lie on the sofa begging for help, feeling worthless and sobbing that my heart hurt so much I couldn’t live anymore.
In the summer of June 2008, at the age of 26, I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar. On the day my psychiatrist admitted me into hospital I was sobbing on her at the same time as trying to energetically read poetry completely confused by my own behaviour. I was in and out the hospital four times that year and a tough case to treat. I was told rapid cycling bipolar is like a waltzer and once it picks up speed it is very difficult to slow down. In the happy manic moments I felt free and full of ideas but they often escalated into irritability, confusion and overwhelming feelings where I would say or do something impulsively, only to feel shameful hours later. The depression left me engulfed with grief and I often self harmed to cope. In the depths of suicidal moments, nurses would sit with me and reassure me that I would get through it.
Over the next few years I received proper eating disorder treatment using CBT which helped me understand how my thoughts impacted my feelings enabling me to consider other options and ultimately change my actions. I worked to rebuild my life but due to ongoing mood fluctuations and treatment I couldn’t work. In 2013 I fell back into a deep depression and was admitted into hospital feeling suicidal, receiving nine counts of ECT (electro convulsive therapy). I had lost hope once more.
Eighteen months on and I still have a team of professional support and take daily medication but this is not effective alone. I have absorbed the last six years of my life and learnt about my illness so I get better and better at coping with it. I recognise low mood and feelings of worthlessness as depression and heightened excitement and excessive talking as mania. As a result I can respond to minimise exacerbation. I have a wonderful network of friends and family who listen, are patient and accept me as I am. I understand the importance of sleep and eat a balanced diet, no longer thinking of calories, nor allowing my body shape to dictate who I am. I have reconnected with the things I enjoy and realised how much I love to write!
I started volunteering for MIND (the mental health charity) and MHFA (Mental Health First Aid England) four years ago after deciding I wanted to use my experience to help. I was a quivering wreck at the thought of telling others my story. The feedback was amazing and still is, particularly the increase in learning about coping with mental health in the workplace. I now guest speak at Universities, educating mental health students on the patient’s perspective. The book I wrote about my life is published on Amazon and I have poetry collections in upcoming publications. Most recently I was featured as a Role Model in ‘Woman’s Own’ and after slowly chipping away, I finally feel as though my voice is being heard to help change attitudes towards mental health.
Looking back I had the opportunity to speak up about how I felt but I was in denial and afraid. My friends and family admit that all the pieces of a breakdown were there e.g. weight loss, over emotional, angry, isolated, low mood but they didn’t put them together. I believe increasing learning and understanding will help us not only support those with mental health issues without judgement but help prevent people like myself from spiralling into crisis.
I don’t want to be sensationalised as ‘different’. We could all write lengthy stories about our own struggles in life. It is the understanding and importance of living in an open minded society where diagnosis or not we accept each other in whatever capacity that may be. Because we all have the ability to fight our battles and achieve whatever we desire. I didn’t believe that for a long time but I do now.