Warning: This is a very personal post, and focuses on mental health.
I’ve had mental health issues for as long as I can remember - although if I were to try and put an exact figure on it, 13 - 14 years. For me this has been generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder and depression.
Whilst naturally there would be highs and lows, the 3 were always there, always. I won’t try to explain what that feels like, because I don’t think there are adequate words to describe it unless you’ve experienced it. How do you even begin to explain to a “normal” person that in the morning depression can make you feel so weak and fatigued that you can barely move? That you’ve not showered for 3 days because you don’t have the energy? That you’ve avoided experiences your entire life because anxiety dictates what shall, and shall not be? That you can’t even enjoy a film in the cinema sometimes as your mind can’t settle for the 1.5 hours required? I don’t think you can, unless you’ve lived it, you don’t understand.
I’ve always been relatively good at hiding my problems; I’ve heard from several people over the years “oh, you’d have never known!”, and whilst I should be glad, I guess, it becomes exhausting wearing a mask all the time. On the outside I can come across as a confident, eloquent and grounded person. On the inside, it’s a warzone.
I consider myself to have had two full blown breakdowns in my life; the first was a couple of years ago, it followed an onslaught of family trauma (those close to me know how serious this was, it’s not suitable for a blog post). I took a month off work, and I did almost nothing but hide under the sheets and contemplate the “S” word. I bounced back though, somehow. I went to my Doctor, I went on to anti-depressants and got booked in for therapy; this was CBT, as is standard issue from the NHS at first.
I took my medication and I attended my sessions with my therapist. Eventually I was discharged. But I was no better. I knew I was no better. The medication had made me numb to life; I didn’t feel sadness, anger, happiness or love, just numb. I’d similarly experienced this with anti-depressants in the past; not to mention the cripplingly realistic nightmares, cold sweats and dizziness. As for the CBT, all I’d done was checked the correct boxes and jumped through the correct hoops (similar to secondary education examinations), which meant I was “better”. No, I’d just become a master of wielding that “mask of normality”. Inside I was still suffering. I was genuinely trying to apply the teachings of CBT once discharged, but it just wasn’t a style of therapy that worked for me. I hear it works wonders for many, and that’s amazing - if it’s working, keep at it.
Soon I was tired of the effects of medication, and I stopped taking them. From here I just sort of carried on, still anxious and depressed. As far as I was concerned the two defined me. The months would roll by; every day was a case of making it through the onslaught of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And then collapsing mentally and physically at the end of the work day. Rinse and repeat. I’d have my moments of joy interspersed (of course), but my mind and thoughts were there, just waiting to pounce the second I had a free moment. That constant voice in your head drives you insane, you want to physically rip it out and strangle it.
This brings us up to December 2016; last month. During the Christmas holidays I had the second of these breakdowns. It was due to a culmination of many things, but overall after another 3 years of these monsters following me around constantly I just. couldn’t. cope. I left our flat in a fit of anger. And in the car park of a pub in a puddle of tears I decided I had to try and improve my problems, myself, once and for all. No ifs and no buts, if it wasn’t now, I was going to head in to my 30s like this. Then my 40s. My 50s etc. My other half later told me he was close to ringing the Police to come and find me, as I’d made a comment along the lines of “if I come back at all” when I left.
That year I’d ended up in hospital due to a suspected stroke after calling NHS 111 regarding chest pains, my left side going numb, my speech getting slurred etc; it wasn’t, it was just a panic attack (I am blessed in that I’d never experienced this full set of physiological symptoms before). There was one thing I realised; I didn’t want to die, and I wanted to embrace life - I really truly did. I wanted to enjoy it and experience it as others did. At that time I made massive strides to improve my physical health (I had high blood pressure, which can genuinely cause a stroke - and I never wanted to feel like that again if I could avoid it). And improve my physical health I did; I cut my blood pressure from high to normal (that’s still the case now, no wagons have been fallen off). What I didn’t go full force in fixing was my mental health; the thing that actually got me there.
I set about putting together a “Mental Health Manifesto” 100% tailored to me, incorporating multiple things that absolutely had to be consistently applied together. Nothing should be skipped for being smaller or “sillier”. I wrote down the steps I had to follow, and the signs of a relapse (so that my other half could notice the signs, potentially before me).
The next day, it began. I’m just over 10 days in to this new regime; it’s a very short space of time, and it can’t be used to gauge long term success (I know the effect of “positive bouncebacks” all too well), but for the first time in 14 years I feel the way I did before the dark cloud set in. I’ve felt feelings that have been absent for as long as I can remember. And when you’re doing a strip tease to Bare Naked Ladies’ One week you know something is different this time (I don’t even care if that lands on the TMI scale in all honesty). Today I’ve laughed and smiled so much my face muscles hurt. I feel human; today I turned to my other half in the car and said “is this how you feel all the time? It’s really nice”.
I need to make absolutely clear that negative thoughts are still trying to best me, but the strategies I have in place are thus far working, and they’re working incredibly well.
I thought I’d share the steps, because out there, somewhere, someone may be considering ending it all. I urge you, please hang on. I am not a Doctor, and this should only be treated as something that is currently working incredibly well for me. I’ve cut these down to include less detail than the real document (there were some very personal details in there):
- No substances (alcohol, drugs, caffeine)
- All are proven to negatively impact mental health in some way. No matter how much I’ve lied to myself in the past that they help; I’ve wandered in to the realms of substance abuse multiple times. Given that alcoholism engulfed multiple members of my family, this was something that absolutely had to be stopped.
- Once I know, 100%, that I’d be having a drink “just because” and not to “be able to socialise” for example, I may have a drink or two. I will know when the time is right.
- Practice meditation everyday
- I’ve used the Headspace app for a long while, but this time I promised to do it everyday; no ifs, no buts (my commitment in the past was terrible, despite feeling amazing after meditating)
- There’s a whole ton of scientific research that shows the benefits of meditation (anxiety, depression, recall, memory, logic, creativity etc). The changes in “grey matter” can quite literally be seen on brain scans. If you haven’t given it a go, it’s definitely worth trying.
- Make sure daily routine items are completed
- I vowed to get out of bed, get myself sorted / clean / dressed etc everyday. This might seem ridiculous, but it’s huge to someone that’s depressed.
- Implement diffusion / coping techniques, and new behaviours
- Use the “Bank it” technique: Bank any negative thoughts I’d like to consider for an actual period of rumination. After that period, I’m done with them.
- Begin to “Just say it”: It won’t always be appropriate to just say it, empathy must absolutely still be practiced, but rather than trying to avidly avoid criticism, confrontation etc, if I truly believe something, I want to say it. I don’t want to be a Yes Man. This should of course be done with tact and grace; it’s not about “being a dick”, but about escaping the programming I was given for my entire child / teenage years (that I must just agree with the status quo, not tell people I’m unhappy, suffer in silence etc). I’ve already been trying this out in small and less scary instances, and it feels incredible.
- Have a strategy for truly negative experiences, i.e. someone shouts “Hey, ugly bitch” in the street for example. This was, again, quite personal, so I won’t put the specifics.
- “Be ridiculous”: This includes silly things like smiling more, laughing more, humming, singing and just generally being ridiculous; things like smiling release dopamine (as long as it’s real), there is a reason for it.
- Implement and follow ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy)
- This has, by far, been the most profound thing for me. Whilst CBT didn’t work for me, I’ve gelled with ACT instantly. They have very different ideas of what being anxious means; ACT isn’t about treating your thoughts as wrong or shameful, it’s about accepting them and getting the fuck on with life anyway.
- I had originally purchased a book to follow. But I was finding this hard to consume, then I found Tom Lavin’s videos, and I genuinely believe in 6 months time I may be able to say they’ve changed my life.
- By the 4th video of the Anxiety series (there’s another for depression) I was sat in a puddle of (happy) tears because I felt like for the first time I had the power to get better.
- I was hearing someone describe me, word for word. Every one of my behaviours, my fears, my coping strategies, my escape strategies etc. This man had distilled me in a set of videos. I realised in this moment that I was just a walking result of habits. I wasn’t special; I was just a predictable result. Could I even be considered a real person with a personality?
- Exercise regularly
- We all know exercise releases wonderful happy chemicals. This includes the gym, mountain biking and dog walking for me.
- Eat well
- Just as important for mental health as well as physical, thankfully we eat a very healthy / nutritious diet anyway
- Reinforce achievements with Habitica
- Habitica allows you to track Habits, Dailies and Todos. It was perfect for my needs.
- Checking things off provides a sense of achievement, not to be overlooked.
- It’s also a game!
- Keep in touch with people / see people more
- I feel good when I see my friends. Long and short of this one is do it more.
- A point that was really important but is too private to talk about
- This was essentially “intimacy”, which can very easily go to shit when you’re mentally ill
I can’t emphasise enough that this is a list I’ve crafted for me, and it’s working for me. If you think you need to see a Doctor, do it. If you love CBT, stick with it. If you think you need medication, see if it works for you, etc.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more serious about something in my entire life. For as long as I can remember suicidal thoughts were always my wakeup thoughts; before I was fully “with it”, those were the first thoughts my mind would spring on me, in a semi-conscious state. This morning that wasn’t the case. I think I just…woke up. Oh, and the usual knot in my stomach wasn’t there.
I know that the liberation and honeymoon period will end at some point, and that life will throw me something so much harder to deal with. But I feel equipped. I feel ready. I wrote in my Getting Fit blog that I wanted to enter my 30s in peak condition, I never thought I’d be able to consider that peak mental condition as well as physical. That gives me 3 years.
Relapsing (soft or hard) is always a possibility. As mentioned above I have documented the warning signs, the people who need to be keeping me accountable know what to look for. I also know that getting better in and of itself could cause a relapse, i.e. “I’ve wasted my 20s, when if I’d just done the right things I could have done so much more” etc. I am ready for if / when those waves of thoughts come. There’s also the chance that as I become more confident (which is already happening) people may resent that, I won’t be able to be walked over as easily.
Lastly, this isn’t necessarily about being “fixed”, anxiety will likely always be a part of me (but not define me); but as ACT states, that’s okay, we can absolutely acknowledge being more prone to anxiety, the life changer is being able to just deal with that and move on.
I’m very lucky; I get to move forward from here with a Fiance I adore, my awesome right hand man (Rupert the GSD), my friends and a fantastic career that I’ve consistently moved forward in. My mask has always done me well; but fuck the mask. Thanks to anyone that’s ever helped me through the years, or if you’re reading this Christy, helping me last week.
Fuck it, lets post this. And see where we go from here.