Mental illness is NOT a lifelong condition, mental awareness should be. middleageramblings.co.ukClick To TweetI started writing this during Mental Health Awareness week because we so often hear the word breakdown without fully understanding what it means. Whilst everyone’s experience is unique, I hope that by sharing my story I can offer an insight plus highlight the positivity that can result. Mental illness is NOT a lifelong condition although mental awareness absolutely should be! Thanks to all my family, friends and everyone that’s offered support along the way, you know who you are!
Four years ago I was 6 months into a new job, still wet behind the ears with a lot to learn but sufficiently up to speed to see significant challenges ahead.
My personal life was on the change too, my age being a factor (trying to avoid the M word that relates to females!) and my two boys were 17 and 21 so pretty much independent whilst my parents, who live in the annexe adjacent to us, were beginning to face the various challenges of old age.
John and I decided to take our first holiday in years as a couple and enjoyed the most relaxing and fun week in rural France. Now I love my holidays and they are definitely necessary to recharge your batteries, broaden horizons and provide time for contemplation but let’s face it they can be stressful too! The build up beforehand where you’re tying up loose ends at work and making sure people are up to speed so you can switch off safe in the knowledge that you’ve done your utmost to avoid problems while you’re off. On top of that you need to pack and organise your travel documents, currency etc. Then when you get back you’re faced with another busy time getting up to speed with everything at work and catching up on the laundry at home!
The weekend following our return from France I’d arranged to fly to Dublin with my parents for a weekend with my Aunt and Uncle to celebrate their Golden Wedding. This involved catching up with cousins that I hadn’t seen in 20 or so years and meeting all their children plus lots of other relatives. Needless to say, this was a party with a capital P and involved burning the candle not just at both ends but along the whole length! We were due to fly home on the Sunday evening and I began to feel out of sorts that afternoon but put it down to the late night / early morning. However, when we arrived at the airport I remember sitting at the gate slumped over my Dad rambling about what a fantastic time we’d had, how I was going to change my life completely and general chaotic thoughts churning through my head.
On the plane I remember feeling deliriously happy. I hadn’t flown for a few years and was a bit nervous on the outbound flight but coming home I recall a voice in my head saying it really doesn’t matter if this plane crashes as I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.
Monday morning I got up for work as usual, halfway to work I realised that I shouldn’t be driving as I felt too tired. I pulled over (into the crematorium of all places), called my colleague to explain I wouldn’t be in and can remember him saying ‘Sarah you are making no sense’. I obviously fell asleep in the crem as I was blocking the entrance and woke up being tooted by a car behind! How I drove home I don’t know as this wall of tiredness had hit. When I got home and went to bed though I simply couldn’t relax sufficiently to sleep and over the next 48 hours I seriously started to unravel.
When I did sleep it was very disturbed and when awake I was incredibly anxious and spaced out. On Wednesday morning I woke with chest pain and John put me in the car to go to A&E. Up until 6 months earlier I worked for the NHS as an information manager so there was I lying on the passenger seat in excruciating pain which I now realise was a panic attack. In my mind I was either having a heart attack or a stroke so I’m telling John which hospital offers the best heart care, what drug gives the best outcome following a stroke and please do jump the red light to get to hospital quickly (or words to that effect!)
When we got to the hospital I needed a wheelchair as I simply couldn’t walk due to the pain. As soon as John explained my symptoms we were whooshed through the doors and wired up to an ECG machine. I could see the poor doctor’s confusion when I start rambling about how he looks very like my Irish cousin and was his name Neil at all (name changed to save my actual cousin’s potential embarrassment!) at the same time as he’s reading an ECG result that’s completely normal!
Now anybody that’s experienced anxiety or similar will appreciate that when you’re in the midst of such an episode all you need is calmness and reassurance. Understandably the clinicians priority in A&E is to ensure you are physically well but unfortunately the chaotic nature of A&E and the experience of undergoing tests that inevitably lead to doubts about your health simply add to the mental frenzy!
I was admitted to the observation ward where I apparently entertained all the other, mostly elderly patients by answering any question posed to anyone. You know – the sort of question they ask to assess your mental ability, what year did the second world war end? Who is the current prime minister? Please count from 10 backwards – I loved it! That is until it came for more tests where paranoia kicked in. They took me for an abdominal x ray where I thought I was in the execution chamber on death row as I had all the tubes in my arm and everyone disappeared behind the glass. I had a chest x ray where they told me to hold the handles on either side of the machine so this led me to imagine I was going to be electrocuted.
I was pumped full of drugs so slept a lot but when woken became scared and wouldn’t comply with the nurses so they sent military nurses who were on secondment to the hospital to deal with me which again escalated the situation. That was until Helen came along. Helen was kind and calm and had suffered with anxiety herself and suddenly I found someone I could relate to. It was only afterwards that John gently reminded me of her self-harm scars. Due to my work at the NHS I knew the names of a lot of people at the hospital and in my rambled state was asking after these people and generally freaking the staff out. Helen came along with a hospital newsletter and gently tested my knowledge and realised that there was a genuine work connection and I hadn’t just been stalking everyone!
Gradually the chaos calmed along with the realisation that this was a mental illness rather than a physical one so what are we going to do now? Unbeknown to me I was offered a bed on a psychiatric ward but John turned it down and said he’d take me home so long as he had support. A decision for which I will be eternally grateful as I’m sure this was a significant factor in my speedy recovery. Psychiatric wards aren’t the scary places they used to be and if you need treatment then a stay is obviously the right solution but I think my likelihood of relapse would have been more significant had I have been admitted.
So home we went and boy what a handful I was! I’ve always avoided medication where possible and this primeval instinct kicked in which meant I couldn’t trust anyone or any tablets I was told to take. My family tried explaining they were to help me but I was convinced they were poison. The fear of death was immense and the more pressure put upon me the more I resisted. The more gently I was dealt with the calmer I became. My son’s girlfriend understood as she had also experienced anxiety issues and was incredibly patient with me.
John had great support from the crisis team and although it was dreadful behaviour, it makes me chuckle when I think back – John would tell me it was time to take another table, I’d refuse, John would try and coax me into taking it and ultimately start getting cross when I wouldn’t because the doctor had said if she won’t take the tablets then you MUST phone us and we’ll have to admit her. He would be on the phone making arrangements then I’d quickly take the tablet as the fear of admission was obviously stronger than the fear of what it would do! I’d announce proudly ‘I’ve taken it, look’ and stick my tongue out as though I was on a bush tucker trial. The hospital would be stood down and all was well for a few hours more until the game recommenced for the next one.
Thankfully after 3 or 4 days the medication took effect, things started to settle and recovery began. I’d been deeply affected by the experience and the psychiatrists were very cautious particularly around relapse and the longer term prognosis but determination was back and I’d been set a challenge!
I’ve always been an animal lover and my dogs, horses and chickens played a massive part in my recovery. If I was too anxious the dogs wouldn’t come near but if I stayed calm they’d sit with me and it coached me to reach a good mindset. I had to get out of bed in the morning to feed them all and they needed exercise so we’d walk up the lane. The whole experience had left me very weak physically too so we’d walk a few steps to start with then the following day would go a bit further so I could see my strength returning each day which was massively motivating.
John is self-employed and my illness hit at a busy time of year for him so he’d got lots to catch up on so I’d do my bit in the kitchen. I’ll never forget the psychiatrists surprise when I told her I’d cooked the previous night. She explained the planning and concentration that these tasks require (I didn’t let slip that my cooking has never required either of those skills!)
After a couple of weeks, I started to talk about a return to work. There was a sharp intake of breath from the doctors but I knew that I had to get back and the quicker the better. Whilst I didn’t acknowledge this, I knew deep down that my confidence had taken a knock and the longer I stayed off the worse that may get.
Luckily I was able to do a phased return. It wasn’t easy, partly due to the medication but my return was therapy in itself as it put me back in a social environment and gave me something else to focus on. I was right in that my confidence had taken a huge knock but I discovered too that I was emotionally delicate. My memory has never been the best but that was a lot worse too. I work in IT where things are constantly changing and whilst the scope of work expands, the time available doesn’t. I have always been someone who prides themselves on getting things completed and being in control but I realised now that this perfectionism was part of what led to the breakdown and my mindset needed to change.
A few months after my return to work I saw an advert in our local newspaper for a leadership programme aimed specifically at women. I was fortunate to be offered a place and this proved to be another turning point for me. At this point I was still on a very low dose of medication but really keen to get off them. A lovely psychiatrist told me that I had sufficient insight into my mental health to know when the right time to stop would be. The leadership programme brought 8 women together and covered subjects such as personal values, authenticity and it gave me my first opportunity to share my experience. It was met with such warmth and support that it was incredibly uplifting and I knew now was the time to come off the medication.
Withdrawing from medication is way harder than I imagined and put me on another slight rollercoaster as my sleep became slightly disturbed again but I woke in the mornings without such a fog in my head. These symptoms subsided fairly quickly but what I didn’t fully appreciate was how emotionally delicate I still was. The psychiatrists did warn that it would take me a long time to recover and used the analogy of a broken leg to explain that you wouldn’t run a marathon immediately after such an incident and I had to wake up to the fact that I wasn’t back to the old Sarah.
My home life is pretty stable but as I mentioned earlier, work less so. My boss was supportive in that he listened to me and I realised that sharing problems with him took the pressure off even if nothing else changed. Gradually I got accustomed to the new Sarah, she was more sensitive, kinder, much more relaxed as she had a much better grip on life’s priorities! I was reading lots of self-help books and taking steps to improve my wellbeing. I got interested in mindfulness and realised that giving yourself space and time makes such a difference. It gives you the ability to choose how you react and to make decisions with your values in mind as when you’re under pressure these are so often overlooked.
My mental health gradually strengthened, and I started to consider the long-term and form plans (more of that another time!) but then almost exactly a year after becoming unwell a friend I’d not been in touch with for a while committed suicide. There were lots of parallels with our situations, I felt her death was so unnecessary and there but for the support of my family and friends could have been I. The news knocked me for six and came on a Friday night before a bank holiday weekend so I booked an emergency doctors appointment on the Saturday morning. The doctor put me back on tranquilizers for a week as a precaution. I’d done so well up to this point and I felt this was such a backward step but I had to think about my family and do all I could to avoid a relapse. It was a sharp reminder that life comes with its ups and downs.
Thankfully I avoided relapse and now four years on I can look back on the positive elements of this time and what it taught me.
Easy to say now I’m through it but for anyone else in the midst, hang on in there because one certainty in life is that things will change so will inevitably improve, you just have to weather the storm and let time take care of the rest. Remain open to opportunities whilst ensuring that you’re saying yes with your eyes wide open to the consequences of your decision (note to self, do not always use my default answer of yes!) Think about activities that make you feel good and ensure time for these are prioritised.
Remain aware of your state of mind and accept that everyone has good and bad days but if you’re able to spot that your bad days are outnumbering your good then you’re in a great position to increase your self-care and take steps to get back on the right path. I love the line within a Robbie Williams song ‘I didn’t lose my mind, it wasn’t mine to give away’ and that definitely sums up my pre-psychosis situation.
Don’t be afraid to hold yourself accountable and offer yourself a little encouragement or maybe a reward upon achievement. Even a small activity that you may be inclined to put off such as making your bed or taking a shower (cos you’ll do it later…..) can make you feel so good once done. William McRaven has a great book entitled ‘Make Your Bed’ which expands on the positivity that arises from such achievements.
The little things really DO matter and allowing yourself small acts of what feels good will bring joy back into your life. And here’s to lots more of that!