Today is World Mental Health Day; a day to talk about mental health and what it means for each and every one of us, to talk about how to protect and enhance our individual and collective mental health and above all, a day for us to reach out to someone and have a conversation. It also hopefully provides an opportunity for those who may be struggling in silence to find the courage to reach out for help without fear or guilt or shame.
Unless we have been close to those who have suffered from mental health problems, it is very easy to take our mental health for granted, to think that mental illness is something that happens to other people. We may consider ourselves to be strong-willed, able to cope with things and that we’ve nothing to be particularly depressed, anxious or stressed about. Yes, life is hard but everyone gets a bit stressed or a bit down sometimes don’t they? Whilst many people would genuinely say that they don’t consider mental health issues to be a weakness, it’s a very different story when you are the person with that mental health problem; suddenly that sense of weakness feels very, very real.
I can tell you the exact moment in 2017 that I knew something was wrong; it was a one year ago today. I was pacing up and down in a retail park in Bristol reading an email from one of my mentors, which contained a link to a Radio 4 interview. The email read:
“A lady called Kate Richardson Walsh -a sportswomen who plays for England’s Hockey team was talking about the constant pressures and judgments that sports people have to endure and face daily. It was at 08:30 this morning as we start mental illness day. I found it very interesting and thought her 5 minute slot might be useful for you to listen to too”
I had been sent an email in reference to me with the words “mental illness” in it and it chilled me to the core. I didn’t know what to think but deep down I knew that he had picked up on something that I’d been fighting, trying to ignore for months; something wasn’t right with me. He’d recognised it and was reaching out in a way to which I might relate and respond. I listened to the Kate’s very honest interview, read her blog and walked around the car park a bit more before sending him an email back thanking him and ending with the phrase:
“I don’t actually recognise who I am at the moment; my chimp is hiding under a blanket with a banana, watching the hyenas circling. At least I know they are there. It’s up to me to do something about them now.”
I was on a training course that day and to be honest, I was present physically but mentally I was barely in the room. Over the previous weeks I’d been feeling a mounting level of anxiety; I was unable to sleep, unable to focus and constantly on edge. I felt exhausted and wired all at the same time but I couldn’t tell you why. I felt “stressed” but I had no idea what I was stressed about. Yes, I was still bitterly disappointed about RAAM and I was frustrated and in pain, but RAAM was a bike race. I’d had an incredible experience, I wasn’t seriously injured and I’d get over it and get back to training eventually. Besides, I was seeing friends I’d not seen for ages and starting my new business doing something I love – what was the matter with me?
As I drove home from the course, I saw a live pheasant standing in the middle of the M4 by the central reservation. It had an expression on its face that to me just said “how the f*ck did I end up here?” That was exactly how I felt…. And it was how I felt for months as the story unfolded; that pheasant became a metaphor for what was going on for me.
I honestly didn’t know who to turn to, not because I was short of people who cared but simply because I didn’t know what to say. We are taught in the Army “don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution” and I didn’t have a solution and I barely even knew what the problem was. Telling someone “I’m struggling” seemed both an admission of weakness and also made me feel like I was being helpless. I suppose in the back of my mind I was expecting whoever I told to say “oh dear, what do you want me to do?” and I wouldn’t have a clue. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew if I didn’t get it that my head might explode. Some of you reading this will be thinking “did you try VetLife or the Samaritans?” and the answer is no I didn’t. Why? Because I didn’t think it was serious enough. At the time I wasn’t having suicidal thoughts and those organisations are surely for people who feel really bad, right? I just kept thinking “I should be able to sort myself out”. Looking back with more rational eyes, I know this isn’t the case, but at the time that was how I felt and I know that I won’t be the only one. If you’re reading this and wondering who to turn to, that’s exactly what they are there for – if it matters to you, it matters to them.
Help for me came in the form of my physio team whom I had been seeing regularly both before and after RAAM. A few days after the pheasant I went to see one of them for treatment and as we discussed how I was doing physically and whether I was sleeping properly, she asked a very direct question “Can we talk about the elephant in the room… your head?”
A long conversation followed with me standing awkwardly, trying to hide behind a bookshelf. She’d thrown me a lifeline and I managed to say out loud “I know I need help. I can’t do this by myself but I don’t really know what to do”
I reached out for help and there were arms waiting to catch me. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I was put in touch with a sports psychologist and a sports medicine consultant, the latter to act as an “umbrella” for the various referrals for both neck/ upper body and hip/spinal issues as well as to look from a medical standpoint at the mental health issues and make sure that everything was joined up. I was referred to a clinical psychologist and later a psychiatrist. At no point did I feel patronised or judged by them – everyone simply wanted to help me get back on track. I did, however, feel stupid and weak and a bit ashamed. Those feelings are the reason that I can write this – I’m not afraid of anyone else’s judgement because it can’t be any worse than my own.
Over the next few months, things became darker. I struggled to sleep, would binge eat and then hate myself and would have something close to panic attacks before social situations, often getting in the car and crying to myself afterwards. I was seeking help and opening up to my medical team and at the same time keeping it together and trying to present a professional front to the outside world. I felt like a fraud – how could I possibly now be doing a job that involves helping others when I couldn’t sort my own sh*t out? Resilient, me? Yeah right.
When the first depressive episode hit, I was totally unprepared. I cried for almost 5 hours non-stop, mostly without knowing what I was actually crying about. Wave upon wave of emotion hit me – it was like I was drowning in it. It terrified my husband and it scared me, not least because physically it wrought havoc with my neck and my upper body. I know now that physical pain and emotional pain travel the same paths but it was like the worst day on RAAM all over again – I couldn’t lift my head and my upper body went completely into spasm. Eventually codeine helped me drift into a state of nothingness. The following day wasn’t much better; more tears and more emotion. I finished the weekend washed out and emotionally empty.
What followed were the darkest few months of my life. If you’ve never suffered from depression, you may equate it with sadness but for me it is just total emptiness. It feels like I’m teetering on the edge of an abyss, staring down into a void. I used to think that hell was like Dante’s Inferno – now I believe it is far worse, somewhere cold and dark where there is no hope, no meaning, just… nothing. Some days I’d wake up in the abysss, other days I would find myself suddenly circling it for no reason – one moment I would be feeling relatively okay and the next I would feel utterly, utterly lost. Life had no meaning, no purpose and no direction. All my life I’ve had all of those things and suddenly they were gone and I had no idea where or why. I just wanted to run far, far away to a place where no-one knew me or had any expectations and most crucially, somewhere that I could stop feeling like a burden and wasn’t letting anyone down. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t sort my head out. My brain, which I’d always considered an asset, had let me down. I’ve often wondered about the phrases “struggled with depression” or “battling depression” and thought that they were somewhat unhelpful but I now know why people use them… it feels like a constant battle with your own head, an uphill struggle but one without a purpose.
My reasons for writing this piece are simple; Firstly, I want to do my part in encouraging people to talk about mental health and mental illness because that’s the only way that we will end the stigma (real and perceived) and be able to deal with it effectively and compassionately as a society. Secondly, I want to help those who currently enjoy good mental health to understand a little bit more about mental illness – how it can feel, how it can present and maybe help you to have that awkward conversation with someone. Thirdly and most importantly, I want to help people who are struggling with their mental health to know that they are not alone in how they feel, both in terms of the illness itself and the fear, shame and sense of unworthiness that can go with it. During my sleepless nights, I read blogs by people with mental illness and they helped. They made me feel less of a freak, they helped me to understand my illness and sometimes they made me laugh. If this blog helps anyone to feel a little better, a little less alone then it’s served it’s purpose.
Some of you reading this will feel just like I did – that your brain has let you down, that you are weak, that somehow you’ve failed. You will look at others around you who are fighting bigger personal battles and think “they are holding it together so why can’t I?” You may be thinking that as a vet or a medic you should be tougher than this or that it means you can’t do your job. I would say to you “You are not alone, you are not weak, you are not broken. We all struggle with different things at different times and in different ways. We are all human. You will get through this… reach out, help is there”.
We all need to look out for each other, to make time to talk and to listen. We also need to look after our own mental health, to take time away from technology, to exercise, to sleep, to eat well, to walk and to do the things we love with the people we love. We need to do work that fulfils us. Our minds are wonderful and they are precious; we need to look after them and never take them for granted. We also have a duty of care to those who work with us and for us to look after their mental health – don’t wait for the signs that things are wrong and don’t turn a blind eye. Make Wellbeing part of the agenda; people who are happy, healthy and connected make businesses profitable and make “work” a great place to be. If we do all of these things ourselves, we also send a powerful message to younger generations that mental health is important – our actions speak louder than our words.
Depression for me has been and still is, a learning experience. I have had to let go of many of my own beliefs and face my darkest fears and the parts of me I don’t like. I’ve learnt that therapy is hard and that antidepressants are unpleasant. I’ve learnt that my experience gives me an empathy that I simply didn’t have before and not to judge people who don’t understand mental illness – I didn’t either but I’m glad that I now do. I know now that this wasn’t about RAAM either; RAAM was simply a catalyst for something that would realistically have happened at some point. I took my mental health for granted, I didn’t follow my own advice to rest, recover and recharge and examine my own mental flexibility. I pushed myself to higher and higher standards, from one goal to the other, believing that something one day would give me the meaning and purpose that I sought. I know now that meaning, purpose and sense of connection are something I create from a far deeper place. It’s a work in progress and I don’t get it right every day.
Most importantly, I’ve learnt that this is a journey. I’ve had to acknowledge that this isn’t a “disease” you just “fix”. I’m not going to magically wake up one day and know I’m cured. I’ve not circled that abyss for a few months now, but I can still see the hyenas waiting on the horizon. I admit that sometimes I’m scared that I will go back to that dark place, that I won’t be able to get out but I take comfort from the fact that I’ve escaped from it before and I have tools, strategies and support. I have learnt to be vulnerable, to trust the goodness of other people and that asking for and accepting help is a sign of strength not weakness. I know that I am not alone and I know also that I have the strength to help others to realise that they are not alone either.
To those that have shared this journey with me, thank you. To you all, whatever you are doing on Mental Health Day, reach out.
Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone’s hand is the beginning of a journey.
At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.