**Trigger warnings- Anxiety, Depression, Self-Harm**
The thing was, I had to take a breather from my blog. It’s always brought me so much joy, and to write about things when the going got tough was incredibly cathartic.
But all of a sudden, it changed. Because, well, I changed.
I’ve made no excuse for my brutal honesty about my mental health conditions in the past here on my little patch of the internet. When things have been terrible, I have written. It’s helped me make sense of the tangle of crap in my head, it’s been a reaching hand of solidarity to others who feel the same, and it’s fun. But this time, I couldn’t. I totally lost a grip of who I was, am, and what I am capable of. I just genuinely couldn’t find the words to talk about what was happening on here.
I had, what I can only really describe, as a nervous breakdown back in October. My anxiety was reaching peaks that it hadn’t in years. I felt sad and empty and guilty all of the time. The impostor syndrome I’d felt ever since leaving the performing arts industry and begun working at an office job was starting to take over my personality. I was really struggling to keep it together, but in truth I was escaping to the bathroom at work to have, at best a panic attack, and at worst, to self harm. I haven’t self harmed since I was in my late teens, and all of a sudden I found myself doing it again. It took me a little bit by surprise, but I couldn’t help how much I felt I needed it.
Anxiety and depression are often linked together under an umbrella but in truth they are totally different. Anxiety is such an active feeling. You cannot slow your brain down, it goes at a million miles an hour automatically spiralling down deep canyons of ‘worst case scenario’. Depression is a very passive feeling. You cannot inspire your brain to do anything, and you have to sit by and watch as your brain crashes down into an abyss of apathy and lethargy. If you are lucky enough to experience these two HORRIBLE illnesses together, the ever swinging pendulum between the two states of mind is both disorientating and exhausting.
I am not an expert on mental health, or self harm, or anything much really (except the Harry Potter series, I will destroy you on this topic you filthy squib). All I can talk about is my own experience. For me, self-harm was never because I enjoy pain. In fact, I’m an absolute wuss when it comes to pain. I once fainted because I stubbed my toe for goodness sake. For me, the cutting thing was/is about one of two things: 1) If I can make something hurt physically, then it will distract my brain from my anxious thoughts and depressive mood, and 2) I have done something wrong/am a bad person and I need to be punished.
Understandably, this behaviour really upset my boyfriend Ryan. And it wasn’t fair on him. He is wonderful but he’s not a mental health professional, and he encouraged me to go back to the doctor. When I got there, she took one look at me, shaking and tearful, and my scabbed wrists and hands and signed me off work. She is amazing. She is firmly no-nonsense, but in a wonderfully kind way. I would never have been able to admit that I needed time off, for fear of looking ‘weak’, ‘melodramatic’ and ‘unreliable’ but once she diagnosed it, I felt able to legitimately acknowledge that yes, I did need some time.
And that was it for a bit. I was at home, just sort of, existing in the house. It was pretty dark at times. Some days I didn’t really get out of bed. Some days I did. Some days I cried all day, some days I didn’t have the energy to. It all melds into one really, but I felt less like myself than ever. I found leaving the house really hard and I withdrew from my friends. I felt damaged, fragile, ashamed and I loathed myself. I felt like a burden to everyone who knew me and was convinced I was a bad friend/girlfriend/employee/daughter/sister/person. I remember saying to my boyfriend, “I can feel myself actually going mad. I feel like I need to take my brain out of my head and douse it in bleach to clean it.”
Ryan, like the wonderful man he is, was incredible. I wrote this on facebook, but there is no better way to describe him during this time. He was and continues to be patient, unconditionally kind, understanding, caring and loving. He has booked and been to doctors appointments with me, and spoken up when I couldn’t. He’s taken me to therapy sessions and waited for an hour to take me home again. He has literally picked me up off the floor and then rocked me until I’m calm. He’s liaised with my boss, cooked food for me, kept on top of housework, and run baths filled with the super spangly very posh bath oil we only keep for special occasions for me. He has hugged me, kissed me, cried with me, sung with me, walked with me and talked with me. He has encouraged me whilst I pursue the next exciting chapter of my career, and provided me with much needed laughter every single day. I honestly don’t know how I would have made it through this year without him. He is my hope, my anchor and my heart.
So yeah, it was pretty bleak. I took my doctor’s advice though and stayed off work, upped my medication and went back into therapy. The therapy was useful, though unsurprisingly uncomfortable. I learned a lot about what makes up my own image of who I am in my head, and let’s just say it’s not pretty. I have to accept a lot of things about myself, and try to shed a lot of learned behaviour and beliefs about who I am. It’s a work in progress.
Slowly, things started to even out and there were periods of light when I was used to just dark. I wouldn’t say they were periods of happiness, or joy really but certainly periods when I felt more like myself, and able to handle my brain. I stopped cutting myself, and then I stopped wanting to cut myself (that’s a very significant difference). The strangest thing was, I got the flu and a nasty chest infection during this time, and that was the time when I felt the anxiety and depression ebb for the longest periods of time. It was almost like my physical illness distracted me from my own thoughts and I felt a greater ‘permission’ to be ill in this way than what was going on mentally.
During these periods of relative ‘myselfness’ I decided the time was right to apply for a career change. I’m not going to go into the reasons why, I feel like there’s a piece I need to write a year after leaving the performing arts industry, and what changing careers in your thirties means and feels like. Save to say, I came to the very happy conclusion that I want to be a primary school teacher. So, whilst my brain was attempting to convince me to give up over and over again, I did my best to ignore it and went through the rigorous (and my god, is it rigorous!) process of applying to be a trainee teacher from September 2019. After a couple of knocks, I landed a couple of places in lovely schools in South London, and accepting the position felt like standing on top of a mountain, in blazing sunshine, singing a sound of utter joy from deep within me. I’d worked really, really hard and achieved a great result- an important ingredient in my attempts to build myself back together.
Eventually my doctor allowed me to go back to work on reduced hours. I have to say, my boss and the company I work for have been brilliant. They understood, they never made me feel guilty or under pressure, and since returning, they’ve been great at communicating with me as to what I need. Commuting on my own I find very very stressful. One of my panic attack triggers is crowds you see, so I asked for more flexible working hours. They agreed, and so far it seems to be working well. I get in at 9am after commuting with Ryan, work until 4 when Ryan comes to pick me up, then we commute home together, and I do a couple more hours work at home when I get in. I also asked for the ability to work from home every now and then if I wake up and the world is just too difficult to deal with. On those days I know I will be 100% more efficient just in my own space, cracking on with my to-do list rather than having to run the gauntlet of trains, crowds, making small talk, interacting with colleagues, pretending I’m okay etc. The support I’ve had from them has been so great, and gave me one less thing to worry about whilst I was ill. I hope it’s a sign that workplace attitudes towards mental health conditions and how to support those who have them are getting better.
And now? Well, I wouldn’t say everything is perfect and happy and back to normal. I still have moments of feeling utterly overwhelmed, out of my body, helpless, or despondent. I still cry a lot and I’ve had a few panic attacks here and there. But generally, things are better. I am getting better at asking for and doing what I need in order to take care of myself. I’m getting better at calling myself out when I’m beating myself up unnecessarily, or reacting to something in a destructive way. What’s more, because I’m doing those things, I’m actually experiencing the wonderful bits of life again- spending time with my loved ones, reading amazing books, eating delicious food. I’m just doing it in a way that takes my mental health conditions into account. If I make plans to go out, I am less shy about saying, “Yes, but I need to be home by 9.30,” or if I feel frustrated because I can’t focus my mind on a book I ‘should’ have read, I let myself put it down, and re-read a book I know I love.
And now I feel like I’m wriggling out of the other side, I’m starting to be able to discuss it and think about it. I wanted to write this post, not as a ‘self-care guide’ or a gung-ho guide to living with anxiety but really an honest, clear depiction of what happened, and how I managed to get through it. It’s not sunny, or pretty, and I’m far from ‘fixed’, but I think that’s important to record too. I feel a bit changed after this particular episode to be honest. I feel more vulnerable, but in a way that makes me want to protect and look after myself in the right way, and learn that I do deserve to be safe and protected rather than at the mercy of these horrible illnesses. Lots of my friends have asked what triggered my breakdown, but in truth, there was no singular reason. There was an amalgamation of unruly emotions in my heart and head, a chemical imbalance of hormones that caused me to react in a certain way, and perhaps, a lack of my brain being stimulated in the right way (i.e creatively). Towers don’t just fall down if one brick goes missing. It takes a long time of rubble crumbling down slowly and the tower swaying to and fro for a while. It gets to a point where so many bricks have fallen from the tower that it physically can’t support itself anymore, and has no choice but to tumble down.
But you know, it’s 2018 now. There’s lots of positive things to try to focus my attention on. This will be my fifth year of writing this blog, which is pretty awesome. It’s the seventh year that my Book Club will have been running and it’s the second year I’ve been head over heels in love. It’s the year where I’ve gone vegetarian, been way more clued up and concerned about my environmental footprint, and started doing #OneKindThing a day (check the hashtag on twitter.) It’s the year where I’ll begin a new career, and the year in which I’ll start planning a wedding. Oh yes, that magnificent boyfriend I talked about earlier? He asked me to marry him on New Years Day. Despite hitting my lowest point, he still sees a woman worth loving. And given that he’s the most incredible human I know, his gaze has gotta be worth something, right?!
So yes. I’ve changed and this year my life will change. But that’s not neccessarily a bad thing. Change is good. I still love glitter, and Harry Potter, and cider, and cold sunny days, and the smell of babies, and all that stuff that makes existing so beautiful, so I’m still ME. I just feel…older, to be honest. Older, for sure. Wiser? Well, I’m not sure about that.
Thank you for reading. You’re wonderful.