Towards the end of the summer last year, I began to realise I was having problems with my mental health. I’d had 10 days off work and spent them very wisely, with a trip to see relatives in Ireland and lots of time with my husband and daughter. I felt relaxed and happy, and yet I was dreading coming back to work, more so than I’d ever felt before. On my first day back I felt like a complete outsider within my very friendly team, and it took me a few hours to actually speak to anyone properly. It was very unlike me, but I put it down to work being particularly stressful at the time, perhaps a bit of post-holiday blues, and just carried on.
As the months wore on I was having bouts of sadness and feeling low, cancelling plans to see friends, and days where I struggled to even speak to people. Usually these things would shift or pass, but they were happening more often, and lasting longer. Christmas came and went, and then at the end of January this year, the situation came to a head.
Quite simply, I didn’t care anymore. I wrote in a blog post at the time that I felt like I was running and running on a treadmill and hadn’t ever considered just turning the speed down; I was completely mentally exhausted from just trying to keep up with every day. I was also very sleep deprived and getting up multiple times at night after having failed at trying to ‘sleep train’ my daughter, which really wasn’t helping. I’d completely lost the ability to deal with anything remotely stressful, like my brain had just shut down. If someone asked me a complicated question I’d struggle to answer and just stare at them. I was very sad and low, crying a lot (hiding in toilets became a regular activity), getting frustrated and angry a lot, forgetting things and having to constantly apologise to people for getting things wrong at work. In short, I was a mess.
I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how bad it was, or what to do about it. I clearly wasn’t coping well, because a few friends both in and out of work noticed I was struggling and helped me realise I needed to speak to someone and ask for help. I feel incredibly grateful because I think without the nudges I had from these lovely people, I’m not sure I would have been able to do it. To say you can’t cope with life is a very awkward conversation to have with anyone, and it was hard.
I was craving simplicity; trying to figure out if I could afford to quit my job and start again somewhere. If I could go away for a few months by myself so I didn’t have to think about anyone else. At the time Trump had just been elected and the news was rife with stories about him – stories that I would normally want to read, discuss, argue politics about – and I actively avoided it all because I couldn’t deal with it.
A big part of how I ended up this way, is that as well as being terrible at saying no to things, and thinking I had to take responsibility for other people as well as myself all the time, I have a particular issue with judging myself by higher standards than anyone else. I don’t know why, but somehow I always tell myself to just keep going where I never would expect the same of others. Had I been sat opposite anyone saying the things I was then, I would have taken them along to the doctor myself, but I needed to be told rather than give myself the same break. Thanks goodness for other people’s honesty!
Some people’s experiences of asking for professional support for mental health issues aren’t great, but the day I went the locum doctor I saw was incredibly understanding. She explained how our brains use adrenaline to kick start the ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations, and then afterwards your hormones return to a base level. Mine had not been returning to base level, meaning I was trying to operate in a crisis mode continuously, which is just not sustainable. It was a perfect illustration for how I’d been feeling, and I was incredibly relieved that someone got it, and also that it wasn’t all in my head! I was prescribed anti-depressants and signed off work to try and get some space and rest.
Before I went to see my GP the idea of not working for any length of time scared me, I worried about how it would impact everyone else, and what on earth I was supposed to do with myself while I was off, but with hindsight it was absolutely the best decision. I was spinning too many plates, and trying to operate in the same way as I always had before having a child, giving everything in my life the same importance as I did before.
Between trying to give full time effort to work as a part time member of staff, care for my daughter myself or arrange her care around my husband’s shifts, ensure the dog was walked and looked after every day, help care for my husband’s elderly grandmother, and keep up with housework, seeing family and friends and all the other trappings of life, it was too much. When I write it down it doesn’t seem like a very long list, but I was trying to put in more time and energy than I had to all of these things and inevitably failing. Something had to give, and the most obvious candidate was work.
I’m happy to report that, three months on, I’m feeling completely different. There was a time when I felt like I’d lost sight of who I was, and couldn’t be sure I’d ever get back to feeling better again, but I have. Right now I’m relaxed, happy, and with a far more positive outlook. It’s not a quick turnaround, and I know I’m not done yet, but I’m back to work and starting to get some normality back. I’m starting to get myself back, which right now feels really good.
Shameful as it is to admit it, I didn’t want to face what was happening initially. I felt I had to keep going, I couldn’t rest, that I was stronger than anxiety and depression, and it wouldn’t happen to me. Frankly that’s all bullshit, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. I’m glad it did, because I had to crack somehow in order to learn how to make some changes. Not the easiest of learning curves, but certainly one I’ve made progress on.
I’ve also learned a lot. I work for the NHS in a mental health trust and I thought I knew about depression and anxiety, but I didn’t really. I was surprised to find that my main issue has been anxiety, taking responsibility for and worrying about so many different things that it led me down a path to depression, and apparently the two often go hand in hand.
I’ve come to realise that I can say no, that looking after myself isn’t selfish, and sometimes I need to come first, otherwise I won’t be able to put anyone else first later on. I can tell you that I’m a better wife, mum, daughter, sister, friend, colleague (etc) and a better person overall for looking after myself. And I’m happier, which in the end is all I really want.