Five Thoughts on My Mental Health
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week so I thought it would be an appropriate time to blog about something that is close to my heart. I suppose it ties in with the theme of the week which is relationships. I don’t know where I would be without the relationships I have with friends and family and in particular my husband.
1.How it all began
I have had mental health issues since I was 14 years old. My first panic attacks were hyperventilations, but they soon became extreme nausea, clamminess, shakes and weakness. I am actually a very calm person, although I do worry unecessarily about things and I am pretty sensitive. My major fear in life is being sick, so I’m an emetophobic. The last time I can remember being sick I was about 9 and it wasn’t a particularly traumatic experience although I guess no-one actually likes being sick.
My panic attacks started in a maths class that I was struggling a little in. I had two episodes where I hyperventilated and was sent to the school nurse. My mum who is a trained nurse who had spent some time in psychiatric nursing mentioned that they could have been panic attacks, but I didn’t focus on that and just got on with my life. Around the same time I had an experience on the bus where I felt really sick and had to get off. Unfortunately this developed a pattern where every time I got to the same spot on the bus journey I would start to panic. It got to the point where I began to get wary about travelling in general. I had a fear of being in a car, on a bus or train and feeling unwell and being unable to get off. The problem with panic is that if you avoid the things that make you panic, it tends to grow and grow and this is what happened over the years.
My parents were incredible as it must have been frustrating at times. My dad would find alternative routes to places that avoided going on the motorway and there were a few occasions where I had plucked up the courage to go to a local city by train, but then had to phone him to come and pick me up because I couldn’t bear to get on the train to come home! My husband has also been very supportive and it’s really interesting that in his job he now deals with mental health issues on a daily basis. I like to think that I gave him his basic training!
2. When it came to a head
Things reached a crisis point in 1995 when I was 24 years old. I had just returned from a year abroad in Valencia as part of my Hispanic Studies degree. Towards the end of my year abroad my anxiety had heightened to the point that I felt unable to leave the flat. Within a couple of days of returning home I told my mum that I didn’t see the point in going on living. She made me an appointment for the doctor the following day. I saw the doctor and he was amazing. I think he saved my life. He told me that I was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder most likely caused by a chemical imbalance and he put me on a new drug called Seroxat. it was an antidepressant which had been particularly helpful for people with GAD.
Within 6-8 weeks I felt like a new person. apart from alleviating my anxiety it made me realise that how I had been feeling inside wasn’t normal. I assumed that everyone felt a bit low, a bit paranoid and overly focused on the minutiae of life (I had once fixated on a butterfly trapped in a sliding window, I couldn’t release it and eventually it died. I was devastated). Over time I began to be able to do things I hadn’t been able to do in a long time, go on the motorway in cars, long train journeys and the biggest thing was that I started to forget about panicking. I met my now husband at university and although it was sometimes in the back of my mind, things dramatically improved.
After thinking I was on the road to recovery I had two major setbacks both of which coincided with me coming off the antidepressants. The first was in 2001. I was living in Liverpool by this time with my husband to be. A very well meaning doctor forced me to come off the medication. I understood why he was doing it because at the time it was still quite taboo to be on anti-depressants for any prolonged period of time. Well, that was a nightmare for a start he gave me the wrong instructions for reducing my dose so I was coming off them too fast and feeling awful. Within a couple of weeks of stopping them completely the old feelings started to come back, and then on a trip to Tesco (of all places!) I had the mother of all panic attacks. It was by far the worse one I had ever had. I ended up outside Tesco with the lovely lady from the cigarette kiosk and the security guard calming me down! I was straight back to a different doctor in the practice who put me straight back on them. I also signed up for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
The other time was when I began trying for my eldest daughter. Obviously I was told I would need to come off the tablets again. I eased myself off them gently this time, having taken advice from Dr Google! Right from day 1 of my pregnancy I felt terrible. By 16 weeks after constant nausea (not great for anyone let alone an emotophobe!) and feeling horrendously down to the point of feeling like I wanted to disappear I went back to the doctor who put me on Prozac (although not safe during pregnancy, had more anecdotal evidence of any effects during pregnancy). I was also given some appointments with a Community Psychiatric nurse again (I also saw one before I went on my year abroad to Valencia) as I was on the verge of agoraphobia and just didn’t feel myself.
I never felt 100% better during that pregnancy, although things did improve enough for me to almost enjoy the last few weeks before the eldest was born at 37 weeks. Midway through the pregnancy a midwife said that she had heard that you could get a type of postnatal depression which was antenatal. I googled it of course, but there was little known about it at the time. Twelve years later, many more people have an awareness of AND or Antenatal Depression, it can be very lonely feeling so down about pregnancy which is supposed to be a happy and blooming time. I just felt blooming awful!
4. What does panic feel like?
From the outside when someone has a panic attack it can be difficult for other people to understand. Often panic attacks happen in the most innocuous of places and for the most innocent of reasons. My panic attacks start with a feeling of apprehension. For example if I was going on a train (I still have a love-hate relationship with trains!) For a while before the journey I would worry about having a panic attack. People with mental health issues often have incredibly vivid imaginations, so I would find it quite easy to replay a previous panic attack in my mind and still feel all the fear and emotion involved in it. As the day for the trip comes closer, the fear gets worse. By the time I’m getting on the train, I’m feeling shaky and lightheaded.
Once the panic takes hold it’s really hard to shake off and I have found the only way to stop it is to get out of the situation. The fear is the worst thing I have ever felt. I always liken it to that feeling you get when someone is chasing you or you have a near miss in your car. It grows and grows and I feel hot, but clammy. I start to get the shakes, I can’t talk coherently and sometimes I start to cry. All through this I have really bad nausea which doesn’t seem to stop. I feel faint and just all over rubbish. I don’t want to be in public as I feel embarrassed and I have realised over the years that the fear of being sick in public is greater than the fear of being sick at all.
The panic tends to fade the minute I leave the situation which is the most immense relief. I often feel very hungry after a panic attack which seems odd to those around me. One minute I’m feeling intensely sick and then the next I’m ravenous. I guess it is all that adrenaline, it’s very draining having to panic, you use your whole body! Luckily panic attacks are few and far between now and I have developed a number of coping strategies to try and avoid them taking hold. I find Bach Rescue Remedy useful and for some reason Extra Strong Mints are always comforting (I guess the peppermint helps with the nausea).
I would love to say that the stigma of mental health doesn’t bother me, but it does. I’ve shared stuff with friends and family, but it’s not really the kind of thing that you drop into polite conversation. Like many people, I worry that others might see my mental health issues as a sign of weakness. That’s bizarre, because those of us who do suffer have to be so strong. We have to try and put our happy face on to the world. I’ve lost count of the times where I have felt full of terror and anxiety, but had to be brave in public. I’ve felt more pressure to do that since having children as I have always been paranoid about passing on my fears and anxieties to them. In another way having kids has been good because there is less time to think about yourself and a lot more of your time is taken up focusing on them and their wellbeing.
I do feel different to other people. In spite of how well I feel at the moment, I still have ups and downs and I still have periods where I feel incredibly anxious. I can manage a flight to Spain, but I can’t imagine being able to fly to somewhere exotic or far-flung unless you knock me out like Mr T (and yes, the husband has suggested that). I feel a bit sad sometimes that I have been held back from doing things because of my anxiety. Although I never thought I was going to be able to have children because of my anxiety and intense fear of being sick. And I did, I feel really proud of that. I also managed to spend two years living in Spain which were incredible and indirectly led me to meeting the love of my life! I would love to be able to make long trips abroad, but apart from the thought of the flight, it’s the thought of internal travel when we were there. Coaches and minibuses are not my friend and don’t even get me started on boats!
If you met me you would not know in a million years that I have mental health issues, I’m a calm person still a bit prone to overworrying, but I am happy and positive. I come into my own in a crisis, and in everyday life I have very few panics. I have been told that I will have to take the antidepressants for life as they seem to be the only thing that controls the panic attacks and generalised anxiety. I am ok with that, I see my mental health issues as being a long-term issue like many other illnesses that require medication.
I don’t believe in the ‘drugs’ alone, I think that to tackle it head on you need to combine therapies. I have tried a lot over the years, but the main things that have worked for me have been Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Relaxation Therapy. I once paid privately for CBT after I had my first setback. Luckily I was in the position to pay as the waiting list for NHS funded was 2 years (don’t even get me started on how underfunded mental health is!). The private therapist I saw was incredible and I credit her for really helping me, probably as much as the medication. The two main things I remember from seeing her that have stayed with me are ‘what is the worst thing that could happen’ and that ‘it’s very hard to panic if your body is relaxed.’ That’s one of the main reasons why I try and do relaxation exercises as often as I can. It’s amazing how tense your body can get and the natural reaction to panic is to feed it by tensing your body and increasing that flow of adrenaline.
I hope that this post has been interesting and please feel free to get in touch if any of these issues have affected you. I’m always up for a chat. Having mental health issues can be incredibly isolating and often you feel like you are the only one that feels that way. I hope that by sharing posts like this we can raise awareness of mental health issues so that people don’t end up suffering alone. I’ve only touched briefly my life with mental health issues and in the future I intend to write some in depth blog posts about agoraphobia, antenatal depression and a guide to good coping strategies.