In this blog series I will be exploring my experience of having a mental health condition. I will be talking about how my illness began, how it felt to go through a breakdown, the steps I took to get myself well enough to lead a 'normal' life and the techniques I used to manage it on a daily basis.
The Talking, the Being Brave, the Getting Better
I introduced my Coping with Anxiety blog series with a piece about my anxiety disorder as a whole, my breakdown and how it felt to go through all of that. Today it felt fitting to move on to the very thing that saved me; talking. Today is Time To Change's Time To Talk day, and it's time to start a conversation about mental health and end the stigma surrounding it. It could be as simple as how are you today? or it could be reaching out to someone you know is struggling. Often it can be hard to understand what someone with a mental health condition is going through, but most of the time that's okay. Most of the time just knowing that someone is there with a friendly ear can be enough... and maybe a cuppa and a biscuit too.
In my previous post I spoke about how I turned my nose up at psychotherapy, thinking that after trying CBT and counselling twice that I'd tried it all and I was unfixable. For me, CBT and counselling didn't go deep enough to help my anxiety, although they can work absolute wonders for some people. My husband eventually talked me into seeking psychotherapy with somebody privately, and I'm so glad I did; it changed my life for the better.
I honestly believe everybody should have therapy. Even if you don't suffer with a mental health condition, it gives you so much insight into how you tick and helps you get the best from yourself. I remember from the moment I locked myself in a tiny meeting room at work to have the initial consultation with my therapist over the phone, I felt understood. He made agreeable noises over the phone as I described my most terrifying and horrible symptoms (depersonalisation, derealisation, terror, feeling like I was going to go mad or die) and he gave very simple explanations for why I was feeling each one. He quickly worked out the kind of person I am; I am someone who approaches things cognitively and needs to know the cause, the effect and the right way to fix it. So, he explained calmly the neurological processes that were physically happening in my brain to cause my symptoms. There was something about the scientific approach that made me feel, for the first time, that I wasn't a lost cause. A lot of people think therapy is this airy-fairy approach of telling someone how you feel, but actually there's a lot of neuroscience behind it.
I quickly learned that my behavioural patterns were literally hard wired into my brain. The brain has neural pathways, like electrical circuits, that tell us how to act and behave in any situation. These pathways are forged early, and if it's the wrong type of behaviour or a behaviour that doesn't benefit you, you can't stop it by simply deciding not to. So when somebody tells you to stop worrying or to just cheer up, the reason you can't suddenly 'think positively' is because you have to work hard using lots of different techniques to physically change the neural pathways in your mind.
I learned all of this within a few sessions, and instantly I knew I was fixable; I knew I would get better. Just from 'talking about it'. I was SO skeptical about this and I didn't believe anything would help me get better, yet from just a few sessions of talking I already understood my psychological processes and they didn't scare me quite as much anymore. I can't express how powerful that was, just to speak to someone who listened to my most deeply terrifying thoughts with such a calm, unassuming approach. To my therapist it was normal, and there was a reason behind everything - a reason he had an answer for.
The other great thing about therapy is being able to talk without judgement. Sometimes we hold back because we are fearful about being judged for our thoughts or actions, and as we all know - bottling things up makes them fester and we feel a lot worse. Talking to someone like a therapist, who doesn't know anybody in your life and whose responsibility is to keep everything you say confidential, is extremely liberating. I remember I used to get very jealous of 'normal' people who could live their lives without battling anxiety like I do every day, but I never told anybody this because I didn't want them to think I was a nasty and bitter person. I was able to talk this through with my therapist and arrive at a place of peace with it all without the fear of being judged.
I am extremely fortunate that my parents pay for my therapy, still to this day. It's a travesty that deep psychotherapy isn't offered on the NHS, and I know how lucky I am to be able to access such good quality private treatment. The crazy thing is that so much of our physical health is linked to our mental health, and if we were able to access good quality mental health care on the NHS I'm pretty sure our reliance on it for physical ailments would improve. I know that when I'm going through an anxious time I get lots of infections like tonsillitis and chest infections, so I'm always in and out of the walk-in-centre and on antibiotics.
Talking definitely can make us feel physically better. Have you ever had a conversation that has made your shoulders feel lighter afterward? Anxiety can wreak havoc on our bodies in every which way. The nervous system takes a battering; I had to take lots of Vitamin B complexes after my breakdown because my adrenal system was run ragged by cortisol (the stress hormone). I am still extremely jumpy today, if there's a loud noise or someone frightens me I jump through the roof and it takes my heart a long time to calm down. Anxiety can give us all kinds of digestive symptoms, make us tired and sluggish, suppress immune function, affect the heart and breathing and basically every physical function you can think of. I know that once I started therapy and started to talk more, I felt the load physically lighten from my body.
Talking isn't just about seeking out a professional therapists. Conversations can happen anywhere, and with anyone. I initially was very secretive about my anxiety disorder, and I didn't tell anybody at the job I ultimately had to leave due to my breakdown. Because I didn't tell them, they weren't able to support me in the same was as if I had told them I had a long term condition. I have since been honest with my workplaces, and usually I am sent to Occupational Health for an assessment before I start a new job. This means that if I do suffer symptoms or a flare up and it causes me to have time off work, I am covered in terms of support and work are obliged to make reasonable adjustments for my condition. These conversations can be awkward; not everybody understands (or wants to understand) mental health, but over the years I've realised that this really doesn't matter. I've learned not to care if I make someone else feel awkward, because I am not responsible over how they feel - they are. But, it's meant that my workplaces are aware and they can put in place support strategies to prevent my anxiety getting too bad, or to help me if I get overwhelmed.
I tend to mention my anxiety in the same way as I would tell someone I was getting over a cold or had a sore neck. It's terrifying to be so open and vulnerable at first, but I bet that once you start to be more open you'll discover it to be more common than you think! This Ted talk on the power of vulnerability excellently describes why it's beneficial to open up once in a while; people who open themselves up to vulnerability and connect with others ultimately live happier lives. I work in what is frequently referred to as one of the most stressful professions you can do, and upon starting these conversations with colleagues I've found that at least 1 in 4 people say "me too". 1 in 4 is also the official statistic on how many people struggle with their mental health, which I've definitely found to be true in reality!
It's important to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced stigma against my mental health condition as a result of opening up. Quite a lot, in fact. I've had "you don't look sick" said either directly to me or behind my back, and as mentioned in my previous post I actually lost a lot of friends during my breakdown who thought I needed to get a grip and "stop worrying". I can't deny that it's hurtful when this happens, and it may feel counterintuitive to possibly inflict more hurt on yourself if you're already feeling fragile. But, hand on heart, I can honestly say that the positive interactions I have had MASSIVELY outweigh the negative ones. I meet people every week who either say "me too" or who don't understand, but empathise. My favourite example of this was the reaction of one of my best friends. When I was mid-breakdown and severely agoraphobic, she had bought me a gallery cinema ticket (one of the expensive ones!) to go and see a film we had been waiting for for months. She rang me and she said "Look, I don't understand what you're going through. I wish I did, but I don't. But, I'm here for you and I want to help in any way I can... I've bought you this ticket because I'd love to spend some time with you. I don't want you to worry about the money, it's up to you if you come or not - if you feel too anxious and you can't come, that's absolutely fine - I'll just miss you because you're my friend and I love you." Words can't even describe how I felt at that moment - it was a complete turning point for me. I didn't need people to 'get it', because how could they? I don't know how it feels to have a migraine or go through chemotherapy because I luckily haven't experienced either, but I'm sure if I was supporting a loved one going through it I would just want to be there for them any way I can. I didn't need my friends and family to get it - I just needed them to accept that it's part of me, and that sometimes there may be things I can't do because of it.
I would never have had that moment of clarity if I didn't talk about it!
Today it's time to talk. Have a conversation with somebody. A simple "how are you?" said with more intention than passing in a corridor can mean the world to somebody. If you're struggling with your mental health, reach out and tell someone. Every single person in the world experiences anxious or sad thoughts, so even someone who has never experienced an actual mental health disorder can benefit from a chat about things that are troubling them. I'd love to hear your experiences of talking, and a big thank you for reading about mine!