At the beginning of 2017, I put a post on my personal Facebook page. This post was about my nervous breakdown in 2013 and basically how we shouldn’t stigmatise or feel embarrassed about discussing mental illness. There was a chain of events and reasons that led me to make this post – none of which are important anymore. As I don’t generally post a lot of personal stuff on social media; I was completely staggered by the responses and support I was met with, following my admission. As clearly mental health is an issue that is far reaching and will probably touch all of us in some way or another during our lifetime; it was important to me that – as a women’s lifestyle blog – this site should cover the topic; along with the other more “fluffy” stuff.
To start; my observation is that we live in a world of self-help pollution. Simply checking my Facebook every day uncovers a new “life coach” espousing their own particular brand of wellness. The market is fast becoming saturated and the pressure to be happy/together/successful/fulfilled has never been more apparent. Now don’t get me wrong; I love a good Guru as much as the next hot mess – one look at my Kindle library will tell you that – but for some people; they’re simply not ready to take that trip. For many out there, there’s a more important journey they need to take first – the journey to recognition. Recognition that there’s something very, very wrong in their life. Recognition that they’re not feeling right. Recognition that they’re not coping. This is that story.
So, leading on from that point, just what make me so qualified to write this? Well you asked, so here goes. I. AM. A. FUCK. UP. Yep, you read that right – I’m a fuck up. So, sue me. The truth is we all are in some way or another but sometimes our poor behaviours and choices get the better of us. When this happens, the biggest favour you can do yourself is admit it – because that my friend; puts you in the unique position to actually do something about it……
How it all started for me.
In 2013 things started to unravel for me in a fairly dramatic way. Truth is, they’d actually been pretty shitty for quite some time but as one of life’s “copers” (let’s change that to martyr shall we), I had become very good at shoving a lid on my unhappiness ……correction…..FEAR. To summarise; since 2008, I had been on a rollercoaster of life changing events – a serious back injury followed by a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, death of a stepdaughter followed shortly thereafter by a marriage separation and inevitable divorce. I had moved my life 300 miles from Cheshire to Scotland, pretty much on a whim. I had no support network and no friends. As well as the emotional impact of the marriage separation; the financial element was shattering. So, to numb the pain, I dove into work. I was a Regional Manager in the Motor Industry and my job took me all over Northern Ireland and Scotland. I worked with some amazing people and I worked extremely hard, often arriving back from the ferry port on a Friday night at 11pm and working through the weekend on reports. I was permanently tired and was not sleeping properly….but at this point was coping….just. Slowly, insidiously, a voice started creeping into the picture. A voice telling me that I wasn’t good enough. That I was actually terrible at my job. That I was a fraud. That I’d be found out.
Obviously, feeling this way was the perfect time to move into a new role – a more demanding role – but I did it anyway – “feel the fear and face it anyway” and all of the crap we tell ourselves to justify our crazy decisions. I realised pretty much immediately I had made a HUGE mistake. Having had a really great relationship with my previous boss, from the outset, I just knew I’d made a serious error of judgment in deciding to work for my new one. We were completely different people and just not a “good fit”.
By this time, I was in pretty bad shape both emotionally and physically. I was SO paralysed with fear and a terrible sense of foreboding, that I just wasn’t sleeping. At all. I was convinced that another life-changing drama was just around the corner and I was powerless to do anything about it. Every work meeting I attended was preceded by a pep talk to try and calm the sense of dread and inadequacy I felt. This was crazy considering I was highly qualified for the role with over twenty years’ experience within the industry; but nonetheless I felt like a total imposter. To add injury to insult, my damaged back was permanently in spasm from all the driving and the nerve compression was giving me a numb right leg. Just to get through the day I was shovelling pain killers down my neck at an alarming rate. Despite all of this my “game face” was nailed tightly one but I was dying inside. I felt like a rat on a wheel, just peddling mindlessly along whilst everything unravelled around me. But I had no idea of how to stop the ride and get off.
And then my second step-daughter died. Suddenly and without warning. I’d had to deal with the news a few months earlier that my ex-husband had been in hospital for several weeks and had nearly died, without anyone telling me (they had their reasons I guess). Having only seen Rebecca five weeks prior to her death, it was surreal and six years on it still shocks me. After the funeral, I returned straight to work, still racked with the same fear, still feeling inadequate and still working for a person I had nothing in common with and who wasn’t interested in supporting me. Nonetheless, I kept lying to myself that it would all be okay…..somehow. However, on top of all of this; I was now grieving.
Having not had a romantic relationship since my divorce and now feeling very much alone, I decided to cheer myself up by dating (seriously, WTF was I thinking). To my total and utter surprise, I met someone who I really liked and things moved quickly. Although ideally, I wanted to take things slow, I kept telling myself “ Laney, you’ve had your share of shit, what could possibly go wrong?” and to be fair, for a while, it was lovely. It took the edge off the pain I was feeling and gave me something else to focus on other than grief and work. However, coupled with that rosy tinted glow we all cast on a new relationship; was a sense of feeling overwhelmed and mixed up about just how quickly things were moving. This just added to my inner turmoil ultimately. A few months down the line and in January 2013, I came to the unfortunate realisation that this person was not right for me and I ejected him fairly brutally from my life. “Expose the wound” I thought “hurts like hell for a while but the fresh air helps it heal.” (I’m just full of these gems, right?) Although this was absolutely the right decision to make; by this time I was too emotionally battered and bruised to deal with the fallout…..and this brings us to when shit really started to go sideways….
I decided to talk to my work about how I was feeling and get some CBT sessions. Whilst they (work) outwardly made all the appropriate gestures of support; you could tell that inwardly, they just wished I’d miraculously get “better” and fall back into line….. and boy, I tried. I really tried. But, by now, I was too far gone. I was quite literally, “wired to the moon” through lack of sleep, fear and popping prescription pills like smarties. I estimated that I hadn’t had more than three hours sleep a night for over eighteen months. I felt like I was outside of my life looking in; banging on the window for someone…ANYONE… to notice I was in trouble. Something had to give. And it did. In the middle of a team meeting to be precise. Having spent the whole morning staring and nodding at the obligatory PowerPoint presentation slides, bit by bit a wave of total panic began to overpower me until I quietly excused myself, went into the ladies, lock myself in a cubicle, lay on the floor and sobbed for about twenty minutes.
What happened next?
Around thirty minutes I managed to compose myself and returned to the team meeting. I must have looked like crap when I sat back down but no-one acknowledged the fact or bothered to ask how I was. I should have been upset, but actually, it didn’t matter to me anymore. For the first time in ages; I had clarity. I needed to stop trying to do the right thing and to look after myself. No-one else was going to. So, I signed myself off – initially for a month. However, it soon became clear that if I was going to get better; returning to that job was not an option for me. And then some game changers: an interview with an Occupational Health Therapist (who clearly didn’t think I was a fraud), a formal and proper diagnosis of my back injury and most importantly, a conversation with my CBT counsellor at The Priory who suggested I attend “Group” therapy, as it was covered by my work insurance policy anyway.
For three months I attended Group CBT sessions and I have to say it was the best thing I ever did. Group therapy allows you to explore the individual elements of cognitive behaviour therapy more in-depth and replace unhelpful coping strategies and learned behaviours with ones that serve you better. It makes you dig deep and at times is exhausting. Mental Health is an inside job and you have to want to do the work. It also makes you drop any preconceptions you had about the type of person that suffers with mental illness and why someone chooses a particular coping strategy or unhelpful behaviour over another.
Now, I was immensely fortunate to get the help that I did and not everyone will be so lucky, I understand that. However, mental health is gaining more and more awareness and less and less of a stigma. More and more help and resources are becoming available. In sharing my story; I can’t tell you how many people came forward to tell me they’d struggled too at some point – people I have known for ages yet had NO IDEA about their experience with this issue. Here’s the truth. Life has never been tougher: we’re all working longer hours than ever and the advent of the internet and social media means we are literally ambushed with stimuli twenty- four seven. Given humans weren’t designed to cope with the bombardment of the twenty first century lifestyle; we need to learn (and practice) coping strategies that work for us.
Everyone’s experience of a mental health issue is different and personal to them. My Boss made the idiotic remark that I wasn’t having a nervous breakdown because “my mother had one and it was nothing like you say.” We must never fall into the trap of labelling how something should look. For me, my issues were anxiety related – most likely exacerbated by a succession of major life events within a relatively short time frame. I had become so expectant of the next “trauma” that I was in a constant state of alert (fight or flight mode, basically) resulting in massively heightened anxiety and unhelpful thinking patterns (catastrophising) and ultimately lack of sleep. Conversely, one of my closest friends is clinically depressed – a trait that runs in the family. She can have months of happiness when bang! out of nowhere, a black cloud descends and literally, immobilises her. She’ll hide under the duvet for days and ignore ‘phone calls and messages, until the blackness lifts. Although I used to get terribly concerned about the radio silence, I now realise it’s her process and we have a system for handling it.
Clearly, this is a huge topic and consequently, there are a couple of follow up articles I’m already writing as an add-on to this post. I’d also welcome any stories that you might like to share – if so, please get in touch or add your comments in the thread below. In closing though, if you or anyone you know is struggling or has struggled with your mood; I hope you’ll take the following from this article.