MENTAL HEALTH // Jen's Story

24.5.16

As I said in my previous post, I think there's something very powerful about hearing a person's own story when it comes to challenging stigma and breaking down some of the barriers that surround mental health. It brings home the fact that, at the end of the day, we're all just ordinary people with a struggle or two. 

I thought it would be cool to start an interview series here on the blog to bring some of those stories out into the open and perhaps give a little insight into the world of mental health. I plan to interview service users (past and present), professionals and carers/family members because I believe they all have a unique perspective to offer on things.

To kick things off, my lovely friend Jen agreed to be one of my first volunteers! Jen and I first connected online - through some mutual friends - yearrrs ago now, and I've been lucky to get to know her offline since then and now count her among my best friends. I think she's a bit of a mental health warrior, but I'll let her tell you her story for herself..



Hello, lovey! Thanks for agreeing to answer some of my questions today. I feel like we’ve already walked together through some parts of our mental health journeys, but I’m looking forward to hearing a little more from your own experience and perspective. 
 
To kick things off, my first question is simply this: 

Who are you? For those who might not know you, tell us a bit about yourself..

I’m Jen. I’m a Scottish redhead (without the temper!). I like crafting, colouring, drawing, writing and running – slowly. I also like talking about rights for people with mental health problems, and LGBT people. I blog at Jen In Socks, and Tweet at @jeninsocks.


Can you tell us something of your own experience of mental health/ill-health?

I first started to struggle in my mid-teens, when I started to feel really low, and began to engage in some pretty unhealthy coping mechanisms. I eventually sought help at 17, and was given antidepressants. I wasn’t so keen on taking them – I worried that they’d make me feel even more numb than I already felt – so I asked if there were any talking therapies available. My GP referred me to CAMHS, where I saw a psychologist... twice. I felt like I was being patronised. At 17, I was working full time, and felt that I was more ‘adult’ than she was giving me credit for. I also think that I felt a certain amount of shame about needing to see her in the first place – despite having asked for it.

At 18, I moved away to university, where I spiralled into a deep dark place, which culminated in me using very unhealthy coping mechanisms to get me through the long nights. I registered with the campus GP, and was given more antidepressants, which I took for a couple of days, and then stopped. I also saw a university counsellor, who pretty swiftly said she couldn’t cope with ‘my levels of difficulty’. I had a course of CBT around this time, which I have to say was not particularly helpful either. I was convinced that I was beyond help, and spiralled even further. Gradually though, over a course of years, with the help of my girlfriend of the time, things started to get a little better.

Then I moved to Spain. And although things weren’t always great, I had a lot of ‘brighter’ times.

I thought the worst was over when I moved back to the UK. And it seemed like it was for the first few years.

But then things started to go downhill. My job became increasingly untenable and I stopped sleeping. I once again felt myself spiralling. After a lot of nastiness, I lost my job. 

I tried a whole host of medications, but I seem to be very sensitive to side effects, so many just didn’t ‘fit’. And things just got worse. I was increasingly suicidal, and ended up being taken into hospital to keep me safe. Since then, I have been in twice more. I am not a fan of hospital (that may be an understatement). But it does what it says on the tin, mostly.


Where are you at in your journey now?

I have been out of hospital for three months. We’ve found some medication that at least doesn’t give me horrible side effects, and I see a psychologist and a CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) alternate weeks. I’ve recently been referred to a service which helps people with mental health problems get back into work, and have started volunteering in a very rewarding position. But I still struggle every day.


What things have aided you in your recovery and/or helped you to cope day-to-day?


Things that help - mental health doodle by Jen In Socks

Also, people. My parents have been excellent, as have some of my friends. Additionally, I use twitter a lot, and have ‘met’ some truly good new friends who really understand.


What impact has mental ill-health had on your life as a whole? What has it cost you?

I didn’t get the university results that I should have, impacting on my work and further study. But more recently, I have ‘lost’ four years of my life to mental illness. In that time, I have lost my job, some of my friends, and a seven-year relationship. 


Would you say you’ve gained anything positive from your experiences?

I have gained understanding and empathy for all people, but especially those with mental health problems. I feel strongly about speaking out about our own struggles, because I know how much this can help other people, and I use my blog to do this.


Is there anything you’d like to say to someone who might be struggling today?

Take things minute by minute if you need to. Reach out for help if you need to. The darkness can’t last forever.


Thanks so much, Jen, for taking the time to share – I really appreciate it. I think your closing message is so important. I have a great deal of respect for your resilience and strength and you know I'm rooting for you throughout the rest of your journey! 


Be sure to check out Jen's blog for some more insightful musings and snippets of her story: http://www.jeninsocks.wordpress.com

xo

MENTAL HEALTH // My Story

20.5.16

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week - a week intended to ignite conversation and break down some of the barriers around mental health. One of the best ways to put shame and stigma in their place is through sharing our experiences and telling a little of our own stories.

It's a bit of a scary thing for me - though it shouldn't be - but I thought that as this week of awareness draws to an end, I might share a bit of my own mental health story..

 
Whenever I talk about the topic of mental health I want it to be thought of not as something "strange" or "other" but as something we all have, in much the same way that we all have physical health. Keeping things simple, I like the model that looks at it as a continuum we're all on - one long line between mental health and mental ill-health - and recognises that our position on this changes throughout the course of our lives. Just like with physical health, we will all have times where we are more or less mentally well. For lots of people, even their less-well phases might keep them towards the mentally healthy side of the line; while some might find themselves tipping over to the side of ill-health on a few difficult occasions in their lives; and others still will face more enduring struggles that place them at the continuum's ill-health end for substantial periods of their lives. 

For me personally, I know that my position on that continuum has certainly changed throughout time. 


I'm not sure when exactly I first stumbled over the edge onto the less-healthy side, but I know that I was struggling significantly by the time I reached my mid-teens. Convinced that I was being pathetic, I believed that what I was thinking and feeling was just the stuff of normal, hormonal teens and that I was simply too useless to cope. I bottled it up tight and kept it to myself - not wanting to "bother" anyone - and got by on a string of unhealthy coping mechanisms for a good while. It wasn't until I was 16 - after an incident that landed me in hospital - that things were finally brought into the light. I received a diagnosis of "clinical depression" and came into contact with mental health services for the first time. 

It's been a rocky journey since that point and my own continuum has grown to look like something of a roller-coaster ride. I've had brighter periods (thank goodness!) and I've had darker ones; and my encounters with mental health services have been a mixed bag of positive and negative ones.   

That first encounter put me under the care of CAMHS - Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services - who I met with fortnightly for more than a year. I turned down medication at this point, believing (controversially) that psychiatric drugs were dangerous for still-developing teenage brains, and I remember these sessions mostly as uncomfortable hours spent looking at the psychiatrist in silence, waiting for something to be said or done. It was a strange set-up and I never quite understood what was going on, until I was eventually discharged on the basis that, "Your church is helping you more than I am." (Funny, that.) 

Fortunately, the period that followed was a gentle reprieve in my life where, despite still struggling mentally, things were far less intense and overwhelming than they had been for the previous few years. I came to faith for the first time during this period, left school on a bit of a whim just a few months into sixth year and spent the rest of the academic year with the Salvation Army, as a youth and children's work volunteer. 

I did well for a while there - even managing to put a stop to my unhealthy coping strategies - and things were pretty good, but towards the end of this time I started to feel like something wasn't quite right, as if I was beginning to fray around the edges again. Recognising this for what it was, I took myself off to the GP only to be told that I was just too old for the young people's team (having just turned 18) and that there was no point putting in a referral to the adult service because they were unlikely to see me before I left for university.

So it was that I set off for the biggest challenge of my life up to that point - moving four hours away from home to start university and my first job - with my feet already set on trembling ground.

University was a really difficult season of life for me. I actually held it together pretty well through those early anxiety-ridden days of change and upheaval, but the further I got into the experience, the more I seemed to struggle. 

I loved my course and my classmates; loved the independence and the escape from my home-town; loved my job and the young people I got to work with; and yet my mood seemed to miss that memo and got progressively lower as time went on. I lost all energy and motivation; my concentration vanished, which meant my coursework suffered; my old coping mechanisms came back (old habits die hard and all that), with some new ones thrown in; I was teary and overemotional for no logical reason; and everything became a bit heavy and hopeless and dark. 

By second year I knew I was struggling and took myself off to the GP who commenced me on antidepressant medication for the first time; but it wasn't until that summer, before third year began, that I realised just how bad things had become. In the stark contrast of Tanzania, in a school full of children I'd grown to love, my mood remained unrelentingly dark: I struggled to get out of bed and engage; I was taking such poor care of myself they had to take me to hospital to get checked out; I started having what I now know to be panic attacks; and I was shockingly suicidal - disappointed that the man who stole my camera didn't stab me with the knife he threatened me with.

I came back exhausted and ashamed and the rest of the summer grew increasingly worse. I'm not sure when exactly I came into contact with mental health services again, but at some point around this period I was assessed for psychological services' input, deemed to be too "in crisis" and assigned a CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) instead.

The poor guy hardly had a chance to learn my name before things escalated and I landed myself in A&E in a bit of a sorry state. He came to my flat to check on me after discharge, recognised that things were pretty grim and arranged for me to be admitted to the local psychiatric hospital that afternoon. 

It was my first encounter with such an environment (little did I know it would be the first of many) and I found it frightening and strange, though it was the set-up that made it so rather than any of the people. If anything, the people brought home to me just how true it is that mental illness doesn't discriminate - it really can effect anyone.

I spent about 3 weeks on the ward and ended up taking the first uni semester off to allow myself some time to get back on my feet again. And get back on my feet I did. Things were still pretty heavy and hard going, but somewhere down the line I found I'd gone from drowning to at least treading water again. I spread out the rest of my course to lighten the load; I met with a dietitian to look at nutrition and its impact on the brain; I did a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) with a psychologist (which I actually found quite unhelpful, but never mind); I saw my psychiatrist regularly until we found a medication that seemed to work for me; and somehow, with a bit of stubbornness and grit, I made it through the next 18 months and out the other side until - a year after my classmates - I finally made it to graduation!


That was a real peak moment on my emotional roller-coaster ride. I was feeling a real sense of both achievement and relief, but had also reached a place where I felt a good bit more stable in my mental health.

I moved back home to my parents' house that summer and was referred onto the local mental health team who, in time, helped to phase out my medication and eventually discharged me completely!

Things went pretty well over the next couple of years. There were some blips along the way, but my mood was fairly stable throughout and though anxiety was a pretty constant companion, it remained manageable - enough so that I managed to attend job interviews (some with nasty presentations!), work in a customer-facing role, learn to drive and pass my test, and travel to Iceland all on my own. 

It was towards the latter half of 2013 that I suddenly found myself struggling again. I was working in youth and children's ministry at the time and was growing increasingly aware of a sense of everything becoming harder and harder to do. I took myself off to see a counsellor at first in the hope that I'd be able to talk it out my system, but it wasn't to be on this occasion. I didn't want to get out of bed anymore; I would catch myself weeping helplessly for no clear reason as I went about my day; and I became completely paralysed by panic - crushed under the weight of a thousand monsters with hands that gripped my throat and heart and lungs.

By January there came a Sunday morning where I arrived in church and wept from the moment I sat down; stood sniffling and snotty to deliver my piece from the front; then hid in a back room and completely fell apart.

Enough was enough at that point and I headed back to the GP, who wrote me a prescription, a referral back to mental health services, and a sick-line for work. She told me I had a previous diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (that no one had ever told me about) and I finally had a name for this beast that was somehow different to depression yet dwelt so very close.

Logically, things should have improved from then, with a bit of a break and some medication that had previously worked, but instead things seemed to grow increasingly worse and it began a bit of a downwards spiral that I still find myself fighting to get off.

I never did go back to that job (though there were other contributing factors besides my mental health) and it reached a point where I was terrified of being seen around town and struggling to leave the house. I eventually moved to Aberdeen and got a little cafe job, hoping that the new start might help to shake things off, but despite loving the freedom and anonymity of the city, things have remained just as tough.

The last few years have felt pretty unrelenting. I've lost track of the number of medications they've tried me on. I've been admitted to psychiatric hospitals in two different cities, more times than I'd care to admit. I've done group therapy, individual therapy and seen an ever-changing sea of psychiatrists. There have been referrals and assessments by various departments. My diagnosis has changed on multiple occasions - sometimes without my knowledge - the most recent just a few weeks ago, to something which feels alien to me and I'm still struggling a little to accept.

My mental health story is still very much being written and this particular chapter is pretty tough.

But that's the thing about mental ill-health: it often is. It can be harsh and unpredictable; wild and distressing; dark and unremitting. It can feel like an endless battle for which you're cruelly ill-equipped.

The thing that keeps me standing is that I know I'm not in the fight alone. I've made friends throughout my journey who are fighting this thing as well. And I'm blessed with an incredibly supportive family who fight alongside me too. Mental health difficulties can take their toll not only on the person struggling but on those who love them, yet relationships - the subject of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week - can have a powerful role to play in everyone's mental health. I'm still trying to master the art of talking about things - it doesn't come naturally to me (writing this post was challenging!) - and I can be horribly closed off to those around me; but my family have persevered through all of it and it's because of them that there's any perseverance left in me.

My story is still being written and who knows how it will end.

I don't know your story, but I do know that it's still being written too. I hope that in your darker chapters you'll find some people to reach out to; that you'll realise there's no shame in sharing - we're all human and we have our struggles too; and that you'll find that one little thing that fuels that perseverance in you!

xo