Living Life Post-‘Breakdown’

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So earlier this year I had what many people would term a ‘mental breakdown’, which is a phrase I never thought, and never hoped, I would have attached to myself. My life long low-level anxiety and OCD took over my life to the point I couldn’t look after myself and I had to leave uni and come home to recover.

Thanks to counselling sessions, prozac, being looked after and generally having time to heal I am more or less back to ‘normal’ and I can function well. But carrying on life as if it never happened is not a choice I have and I can’t help but feel I had the stuffing knocked out of me and you can see where I’ve stitched myself back together. So I thought  I’d take a look at just what it means to live after a breakdown.

The biggest change is now knowing what is ‘wrong’ with my mind. I always noticed my compulsions and irrational worries, but I always just sort of… put up with them. I believed my worries were legitimate and my odd compulsions were just a habit, a tic, an annoying part of being me. Now I know what to call myself, and these labels are more freeing than oppressive. Knowing that these are illnesses I have and not just something that I am is empowering, now I can fight them when I see them, they can’t sneak up on me. I talk about it as a ‘blessing in disguise’, it was horrible but getting to the point where I had to seek help and learning what I had meant I could find out how to fight it.

What surprises me looking back is just how passively I accepted what was happening to me. I was having a bad time anyway and when my anxiety flared up and my OCD became the cruellest, most abusive dictator imaginable who delighten in seeing me torture and humiliate myself, I suppose my strength to fight it was waning. Or I just didn’t know how far it could go. I didn’t think it would leave me in physical and mental agony, I just thought it would eventually die down like it has done before. I will no longer remain so accepting of it. Now if my compulsions come back I fight them. Walking down the street while visiting friends in Hull I had the same nagging voice return, telling me to walk on certain patches of pavement or step there or go back to that and I shouted NO. Out loud, in a (luckily) empty street. There was no way I was letting that nagging voice inside me keep me from going where I needed to go. It helped, strangely enough, I surprised myself with my newfound assertiveness.

The other side of discovering this strength is realising just how weak I was at the time. I now live with the horrible knowledge that my mind is capable of turning against me so entirely that I can’t take care of myself. That is a terrifying thought. I have to be on guard for the rest of my life, and I must learn to accept that what happened before could happen again and I will have to adapt to that and learn how to cope. A stranger at the post office kindly offered me a lift home the other week, and told me she worked in mental health. I said what had happened to me and we discussed just how common these problems were and how they could happen to anybody. I certainly didn’t think I would ever have mental health issues as a part of my life, they were something other people suffered from. Now I know I am no less weak or susceptible than anyone else, which applies to everyone.

Generally I view myself at the time it happened as a stranger. That wasn’t me, it happened to somebody else. Sometimes it comes back, like 5000 volts of electric memory, the times I nearly passed out with exhaustion completing my routines, the times people stared at me or shouted things at me in the street, the time I was stopped by a policeman asking me what was wrong. When I remember, really remember, I feel terrified, vulnerable and lonely. I usually curl up into a ball and tell myself it’s all over now I and I will never be that humiliated or scared again. I have always prided myself on being a strong person, someone with insight and enough emotional intelligence to withstand things. Nothing is more humbling than fully remembering. I don’t really like talking about it that much, and I only do so when I feel it is necessary. I hate listing my tics or discussing them openly, I found it hard enough to write this. I understand terms like ‘mental scars’, what happened was, in every sense, traumatic and it’s a horrible thing to know happened to you.

I’m more aware of myself and the world than ever. Now mental health issues apply to me, they mean a lot to me. I was delighted to hear Jeremy Corbyn had appointed a Minister for Mental Health, and to hear people discussing what needs to be improved in treatment of mental health. I wince if I hear someone who is a bit tidy describe themselves as OCD. I ended up bonding with people around me who had similar issues, and I joined the mental health awareness society at uni. It’s a shame that it took something as dramatic as that to make me take notice of just what a big problem it is. It will remain as an issue close to my heart and I will try to be as helpful as I can to others suffering similar things. The prejudices I had about mental illness have gone and my language has changed. I’m happy to see this happening on a bigger scale, people now seem to seriously debate the issue and try and take down the stigma, and I often find myself against people belittling anxiety, OCD and other disorders, or not changing their language to reduce stigma and false stereotyping. I will always be on the side of political correctness.

So I have emotional and mental scarring, which, while invisible, often feels like I am living after a serious physical injury. Knowing what I have is both a blessing and a curse and will require me to take care of that part of my health for the rest of my life. However it is freeing, knowing I can get over this, I shouldn’t put up with this and I am certainly not alone.

For the love of God – improve funding for mental health

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“Write hard and clear about what hurts” – Ernest Hemingway.

It has taken me some time to pluck up the courage to write about this, but I feel as someone who aspires to being a writer and someone who is finally in a place good enough to talk about this, I have a responsibility to shout into the ether of the ‘net what happened to me. Or rather, in me.

All my life I have suffered, or put up with, anxiety and OCD. It’s always been low level, flaring up like acne in times of stress. However so far it has always been something I could live with.

This changed around spring this year. I was having a bit of a bad time. I was living in a cold, dark, miserable house at uni. My finances weren’t great and looking to get worse. My family were moving away from the lovely house we had lived in for two years without me there to psychologically separate from it. I was lonely most of the time. I come from a busy and noisy family and despite living with 8 people I spent sometimes whole days on my own in my room, my flatmates quite understandably spending time with their partners and revising. On top of that there was an illness in the family. This was all getting me down, things really got bad when I was hit with unusually bad insomnia.

I’m usually a great sleeper, as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m off.Then one night I just didn’t sleep. I freaked out so much about it I didn’t sleep the next night. This continued, I knew it was because I was anxious about not sleeping that I wasn’t sleeping, vicious circles and everything. I would dread going to bed and would often end up staring up into the dark, frozen with fear about not sleeping. Other people may have brushed it off, watched a dvd and tried again later, I just couldn’t for some reason.

This anxiety over not sleeping brought the OCD on. If you know me you’re probably thinking “you are the least likely candidate for OCD ever” and you’d be right. I’m messy, disorganised, I hate order and routine. But the thing is, like most mental health issues, 99% of what you hear about OCD is utter bullshit. Condensed into an easy to swallow, watered-down concept they can make freakshow documentaries about. Mine, much to my flatmates dismay, did not take the form of tidying. I would get the compulsion to do rituals and physical tics, pointless activities to temporarily settle my anxiety. I restricted myself unnecessarily as well, in what I watched, read and ate. The words I used, my nights out, and so on. For a while it was merely a pain in the arse to deal with. Even then I didn’t think it was pointless and I should stop, I just saw it as my own personal burden I had to ever so catholicly deal with. People asked me why I was walking funny, or performing arbitrary routines and I would brush it off and change the subject.

After Easter break it very quickly spiralled out of control. I wasn’t eating enough and I lost a lot of weight. Routines and stupid rituals could take up hours of my day and physically exhaust me. My knees were in agony due to an ongoing tic of sitting up and down in chairs for literally hours. I had blisters on my hands. I was dehydrated. The worst one, the one that made me realise I truly needed help, was walking. My trip to uni featured lots of different pavement slabs and patchy tarmacing and my OCD compelled me to walk on certain things in certain ways, sometimes going back to them several times. A journey that took 15 minutes normally got longer and more frustrating. One day it took an hour and 45 minutes. I came home and collapsed in a chair, sobbing. The journey was hell, I was in tears most of the time, paralysed with panic and trying desperately trying to steady my breathing and wishing someone would break away from their life and rescue me. I knew then I absolutely had to tell someone, which naturally terrified me. I thought people would think I was a nutcase, I thought I was a nutcase. No one wants to be labelled. It was walking home that finally rescued me. My friend Jennie blessedly found me a few days later trying to complete the same journey and failing. She smilingly asked me how I was and I broke down in tears. She took me home and I told her what was happening. She, and everyone else (with one exception whom I will not name) was of course overwhelmingly kind. People are like that, most of the time. I bought my flatmates prossecco to say thank you. The next week or so they took me to doctor’s appointments and meetings at uni to get extensions on my coursework which had become an insurmountable task to do. They made me cups of tea and talked to me, and walked me to and from uni. They were angels. They didn’t judge me or laugh, they stayed up stupidly late while I did my batshit routines and even cooked for me. Eventually I went home and slowly but surely got better. These days it is still present but not overwhelming. The kindness of others was not something that gave out on me.

The problems came with trying to get solid medical help. A psychiatrist in A&E gave me my options but could offer me no real help there and then. I couldn’t get a doctors appointment in time and had to wait til I got home. A doctor called the emergency mental health team, who didn’t see me as an emergency as I wasn’t suicidal or harming myself or others. Eventually I got put on a six week waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy. Another doctor prescribed me prozac, which has worked.

Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic but told me I would have to wait. Admitting you have a mental health issue takes time and a crapload of courage. Once you’ve told someone, you want and expect help straight away. Then you’re told you’re going to have to wait even longer.You are torturing yourself and humiliating yourself and you get a waiting list. Everyone said the same thing, mental health is the worst and most underfunded part of the NHS.

I love the NHS, I think it’s the thing we should be the most proud of as Brits. Mental health is stigmatised, misunderstood (“I have to tidy! I’m so OCD!”) and not physically apparent. You have to be suicidal to get immediate help. The way we see mental health has come on leaps and bounds, half a century ago I may have just been lobotomised, locked up and forgotten about like a minor royal (ouch). I’m grateful to have been born when I was born. Things still need to improve however.

What startled and upset me when I told people what was happening with me was how many people shared similar experiences. Nearly everyone I know had dealt with depression, anxiety or some other disorder at some point. This isn’t something other people have to deal with. I always thought that. Now I realise it is incredibly common and present in people from all walks of life. Any other type of illness this omnipresent would take up a sizeable chunk of the NHS, yet it seems near impossible to get help quickly and effectively. Things aren’t looking good with the outcome of the latest election either. My stepdad, who is ill, joked “I’ll be dead and you’ll be a looney!”.

The whole of the NHS is suffering but, like mental health sufferers themselves, this part of the NHS is shuffling along, neglected, silent and misunderstood by many for far too long. This isn’t the problem of exceptional individuals you don’t know, I guarantee you know someone who has suffered from mental health issues. Maybe you’ve had them yourself. I’m still getting better and I’m finally understanding what I have and what it will mean for the rest of my life. Many others are still living in the dark and we need to help them, right now.

I don’t know who exactly this post is addressed to. You, George Osbourne, The media, the general public, the Government, the Health service. I just hope someone hears.