When I deliver training – be it Mental Health awareness, or Mental Health First Aid courses, I bring my own experiences into the classroom. I don’t have to. The course content is fairly comprehensive – but it is the aspect most frequently mentioned in positive feedback. I think it is important for two reasons – firstly to put a human face, a context on what we are talking about, make it real, for those trainees who have no previous exposure to mental ill health – but also to help create a safe space for people if they do have relevant comments they wish to share.
Over the past month, I have reflected on my recovery. Where I was once, where I am now. What got me here. I am not “recovered”. I don’t know if I will ever think of myself as that. It feels more like an alcoholic’s recovery – a process – being “in recovery”.
At one point, I was just about holding on to my job. I was lucky to be in a public sector role which was not as strict on sickness absence as some places (though it later became more so). 22 days off in a year – not long term, lots of short term absences. I was also late a lot. And I mean a lot. I suffered severe depression and anxiety issues – I couldn’t get to sleep at night, and/or couldn’t wake up in the morning. I found it hard to concentrate, to hold my tongue and not snap at managers or colleagues about the injustices or petty behaviours I encountered. I cried in the toilet nearly every day. I self harmed, and made myself sick fairly frequently. I was tired beyond belief, and suffering with aches and pains. I was prone to picking up every bug that was going, so suppressed was my immune system. My long term relationship had fallen apart, I was in tens of thousands of pounds of debt, renting, hating my job. I drank too much – self medicating? Maybe – distraction, pleasure seeking. I occasionally veered into hypomania, losing my inhibitions and common sense for periods of more spending, drinking, risk taking behaviours.
That’s not my lowest point. There had been other previous bouts, some suicidal – but this is the one from which I track my recovery.
Where am I now?
Before I left my job – my sick leave was down to 6 or 7 days in a year. Which had been mostly flu related. Now – I am self employed, working sporadically in terms of payment, but putting in plenty of hours behind the scenes. I am doing something I really believe in. My fingers are firmly crossed that it works out – but so far so good. And I am happy that my mental state is thus far allowing me to make a go of it. It is a virtuous circle. I am doing work that uplifts me – it feels worthwhile, important. People thank me and say it makes a difference to them. This in turn boosts my wellbeing. Hopefully I can hold on to that effect.
My old job did not have such a positive effect. Not so much the work – I loved some of the work, and my colleagues. But the culture and constant restructurings, the lack of resources and respect. It ate away at me. I had good terms and conditions and felt partly trapped by them (because of my debt) and partly like I was selling out my principles for material gain. The stress levels were awful sometimes – and the conflict around me as others struggled with their own stresses was uncomfortable for me to deal with.
My mental health is not 100% marvellous. I am having a good patch. Last year was less good. In between taking redundancy and starting to really work at getting my training business going – I had surgery and an injury, and spiralled into quite severe health anxiety, with panic attacks, paranoia, obsession and depression. I was prescribed new anti depressants I was too scared to take, saw a counsellor for guided self help up until just before Christmas. I gradually improved. I still have my moments, but I am doing well for now. (I won’t talk about physical health. I am a wreck in that department but what do I expect, I turned 40 a year and a half ago – all downhill now right? And I still drink too much.)
What has helped me to get here?
When I was in my job that I hated, I tried to find things to make me hate it less. I got involved in other things to keep me interested. I volunteered. I took part. I joined the Disabled Staff Network and ended up running it for 10 years. I attended health and wellbeing events, took up opportunities for training courses. That’s when I first encountered Mental Health First Aid – and then became a trainer. I ran mental health awareness events, time to talk sessions. I found a passion.
As it happened, I also got promoted. Different work, different responsibilities, in fact much more work and responsibility. But the stress didn’t get more – it changed. And became more bearable for me. Perhaps because I felt more in control. I had more agency to shape how things were done. So felt less powerless and disgruntled. Not completely because I was still under ninety other layers of management, but it helped.
Eventually I also reconnected with my profession for a while – pursued my Chartership – got interested again, did some reading, training, followed stuff on twitter. More things to think about, be interested in – to distract myself from the mess in my head. Something to feel proud of.
I moved house. I had to – because my ex and I had to sell the house we had bought together. But I had a choice about where I went. I decided to make a massive leap and move to Hebden Bridge. Beautiful countryside. A community I hoped I could be a part of rather than the anonymity and clash of ideologies I had experienced in Leeds.
In work, as part of my work with Disability – I came to understand what a reasonable adjustment is. And that Occupational Health can be your friend. Over time my management and I agreed adjustments which helped me.
- Work from home 1 day a week regularly where possible
- Extended flexitime where needed
- Work from home on emergency basis if couldn’t get in early enough, or if my state of mind was not good enough to deal with commute or face to face
Working from home regularly gave me a day’s decompression, a bit of space, somewhere I could concentrate. To begin with this was unusual, but by the time I left, nearly everyone did this anyway – seeing the benefits of being away from the distractions of the office. [Reductions in office space meant that this was also being seen as a necessity, with desk ratios of 8:10 or less, you had to arrange for someone to be out of the office].
We had flexitime, but some areas were funny about you using it. Also we were meant to be in by 10am. Ok normally, but when I am ill, I had what I call “bad nights”. Late night panic / anxiety / crying fits – not being able to sleep, lying awake in despair. The later it got the more I would worry about the morning and not being able to get up, being late for work. Because of bus and train connections – I either had to be up at 7 to get there for half 9, or I would be after 10, often closer to 11.
Agreeing that if it happened, it happened, and I should get in if I could – and that so long as I worked my hours it wouldn’t count against me, meant that when those worries started, I could break the spiral. I might feel dreadful, but I didn’t have to worry about the morning. Over time, this actually defused many of those bad nights, and meant I didn’t need to use the flexibility anyway.
If I had felt I could not get in before 11, I would often think there was no point, and have to take leave, or a sick day. Ditto when I had “bad mornings” – when sleep was like treacle and I couldn’t wake, or when I opened my eyes to feel like the world had collapsed, in abject misery – often I would actually be ok by late morning, but it was too late, I had to phone in sick. “Emergency” working from home days meant that I could contribute more, either full or half days. In the former case I could be online and working by 8 or 9 even if in my pyjamas for the first hour. In the latter, I would work when I felt fit, and continue either for my full hours, or less if I felt I needed it. I would then log as flexitime and make up on a better day.
Overall, I probably worked more when able to work from home than I ever had when expected to be in the office regardless every day.
Removing the fear of being disciplined, or losing my job – (for the most part) – meant my anxieties had less to feed on.
I tried various medications. citilopram, fluoxitine (didn’t work for me, made me vomit) – venlafaxine (ever increasing dose, made me sleep for hours and hours and hours). They weren’t compatible with full time working.
I sought counselling from the NHS. I did a group stress course, CBT, guided self help. I learnt from these things. Waiting times meant I was seldom getting the therapy when I really wanted it, (i.e. when I had been referred). I didn’t get the kind of therapy I thought I wanted, or needed – but I can’t say that what I did get wasn’t helpful in the long run. Once I opened my mind to it and gave it a try, it’s given me useful additions to my toolkit I suppose.
I got married – which was lovely in itself, but also gave me a focus and structure, and led to the development of new interests and hobbies as I DIY’ed a lot of the decor etc. I connected with friends and family for at least that brief period (though that held stresses of its own.)
I learnt a few really useful principles from Mental Health First Aid – which I really credit with helping me stabilise things.
- Understanding stress. Looking at my life and evaluating the balance between stress, and what I am or am not doing to offset it. Thinking about whether I can amend or influence any of the stressors.
- Self care, and self help. The importance of the first, and the fact that the second can work sometimes. I had always pooh-poohed self help books, and all that stuff in the “Mind/body/spirit” sections. But I found that reading about depression, anxiety and other things helped me understand it more, and feel I had more power over it. Different ideas and techniques – I’m willing to read, to try. I caveat that I wouldn’t usually spend (any/too much) money on something unless I was convinced about it helping me – but if it’s free, or cheap in a charity shop or sale – it’s not a lot to lose.
- 5 Ways to Wellbeing / 10 Keys for happier living – another thing that is good to check in with when I am feeling rubbish. I think – how does my life measure up against these things. Are there areas where I could try something else which might start to help? Again – worth a try.
Small steps. I am still working on it. I am “lucky” in that when I am bad, it interferes more with my nights, my home life, than it does work. I have periods of functioning very well externally. I throw myself into work to distract from my pain.
At the moment I am trying to shape my life to be something which promotes good mental and physical wellbeing. I am starting to understand myself, what I need. Retrospectively, I might had advised myself to pack in my job earlier, go bankrupt – make the change. The benefits feel worth it, and I find I need a lot less money than I thought I did. But I can’t know it would have all worked out. I can’t regret all of my experiences at my previous employer. They may have taken a lot out of me, but they did give me skills, knowledge, memories and friends that I wouldn’t be without.
My motto is to keep trying. Keep learning. The more I understand about myself, why I am how I am, what provokes negative responses – the more I can play my system. Monitor my mood, adjust, seek help early when it gets out of hand.
I know not everyone finds this approach to be useful or effective for them. That not everyone has supportive employers or works in a role that can be adjusted helpfully. That it’s not always possible to do things even if you want to. We need services to be more available and accessible and effective so that people can be supported in whichever way they need. And can try a range of different medical or therapeutic interventions to see which is most helpful to them.
But I do think it’s important to know that even when medicine or therapy isn’t working or available – sometimes other things can help. Even if only a little. Lessening a depression from a 9/10 to a 7/10 is still worth doing, and can make life more bearable.