See me, I’m not keeping quiet

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by a Newsnet reporter

World Mental Health Day is Monday 10th October and Scottish Mental Health Week runs from 10th – 16th October.

One of the themes of the week’s campaign is to get people talking about mental health issues to try to break down the stigma and discrimination that can surround mental ill-health.  By talking about mental health issues, it sends a powerful message that the silence around mental health must end.

Newsnet Scotland is pleased to support the campaign.  One of our regular readers and comment posters has had mental health issues and has told their story to us.  It is reproduced as they told it.

Mental illness didn’t creep up on me as far as I was concerned, I could pinpoint my symptoms to one particular day.  I was out having coffee with some friends and I suddenly felt very uncomfortable and felt the need to leave the situation.  I nipped off to the toilets slightly confused as to why I was feeling like this but not too worried as the feeling had gone away by the time I washed my hands.

When I headed back to the table though, the feelings came back.  I felt hot and the blood was pumping hard in my ears.  I wanted to finish my drink but my hands were shaking too much.   I didn’t want anyone to look at me.  I managed to pick up my bag and I made my excuses and left.  My head was pounding but once I got out into the fresh air, I felt a bit better.  I still felt a bit shaky walking home but got there without any problems.  I wondered if it could be the lighting as it was the old strip lighting and sometimes it gave me migraine.

I forgot about the incident and was looking forward to seeing these friends at the same venue a couple of weeks later.  I was going to be going on holiday soon after that and one of my friends was giving me a loan of a travel guide for the area.  I arrived and soon realised that the same feelings were back and I only stayed a short time before I needed to leave as the feelings were so overwhelming.  I was quite shaken by it this time but put it down to stress and looked forward to my holiday.

I went away on holiday and was fine.  It was a city break so I was busy with lots of activities and I didn’t give a second thought to what had happened before I went away. I came back and life returned to normal.

However when I was next to meet up with my friends, the same feelings returned except this time I had the feelings just thinking about going to meet them.  I decided that I would avoid meeting them in this situation so I didn’t go.  I said to myself that it was a one off but before I knew it I was avoiding even speaking to them.  I didn’t want to lie to them about why I hadn’t been meeting up with them but I couldn’t understand what was happening to me and I was frightened of it.  How could I explain it to them when I couldn’t explain it to myself?

Soon, other bits of my life started to unravel as these feelings of panic and general anxiety started to take over.  I was avoiding other people and situations and my life started to close in on me until I only felt safe when I was at home.  After 6 months, I was barely functioning on my own outside the house.  Friends had stopped calling too as I was either turning down invitations or not answering calls.  All this of course was making me feel more and more isolated.

The point came when I had to tell my GP the truth about how I was feeling.  It was one of those days when I did everything possible to make it as easy as possible.  I got an early appointment so I wouldn’t think about it all day and wind myself up.  However when I got to the surgery, there had been an emergency and the doctor was running about an hour behind time.  I got in and burst into tears and felt unable to speak for some minutes!

After calming me down, I explained to the GP as best I could.  I had no faith that they could help and I didn’t want to be patted on the head and sent on my way with pills.  I was to be proved wrong however.  My GP was very understanding and talked through several types of treatment that were available.

After a few false starts, I ended up trying cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  There was a bit of a wait for it and I would sit in my house looking out at people walking along the street and wishing I was like them, that I also could be walking along the street.

One of the things that I hate is when I hear politicians or members of the public question whether mental health issues are real illnesses.  No one would ever choose this type of life, scared, isolated, feeling physically ill too.  I longed to get better.  I especially hate this when folk are talking about benefits.  If you ask an ill person if they could swap the extra benefit for good health, I can’t think of anyone who would not take this offer up of good health.  It certainly makes illness more frightening and isolating when you hear remarks about being a scrounger.

CBT challenges your thinking so you can think about things in a balanced way rather than having an extreme view.  In my case, it also gradually exposed me to situations to which I had become frightened.  It set me goals.  All this was very scary.  When you have spent months trying to avoid your feelings and even the thought of how you are feeling sends you into a panic attack, it is very hard to confront this.

One thing I was still doing was going to the supermarket even though I needed someone to be with me at all times and I had to hold the trolley.  One of the goals I wanted to reach was to be able to go to the supermarket on my own.  I gradually rebuilt my confidence in small steps, starting simply by walking beside the trolley for part of the time.  By breaking things down into small steps, it helped to make things seem possible.

As the therapy continued, I realised that my mental health issues had not actually started on that single day but that I had been depressed before that without realising.

One of the things that I found the most difficult to understand was that there did not need to be any particular event or issue to start off this type of anxiety in the first place.  Something triggered it for me that day when I met my friends for coffee and it could trigger like that for anyone.  It is also something that lots of people ask me – why did it start?  It sometimes makes people uncomfortable to realise it could start for anyone in what seems like such a random manner.

The other realisation that I had was that you are not “cured” of this.  It can be a single happening a one off or it could happen on and off throughout life.  The great thing though is that CBT has given me the tools to manage it.

I’m now in a position where I am on no drugs and have done a retraining course and am now working.  It’s very hard to get work as you need to explain the long absence period, there’s no hiding what happened.

Although I am generally well and getting on with my life the same way as other people, it is more tiring than pre-anxiety times.  I have to think more about what I am doing and make sure I keep myself thinking in a balanced way so I don’t slip into old habits.

Sometimes, I still have days when it is an achievement to get up and get dressed and go about my day.  We all have days like that but most people don’t need to then think about how they are feeling so they don’t send themselves on the wrong thought path that can set them back again.

People’s reactions vary so much to what has happened.  There are the people who want to cross the road when they see me.  Then there are those who want to look all politically correct and have me as their “mentally ill friend”.

I came across a hospital consultant who instead of treating me for a minor procedure that is normally done under local anaesthetic and requires a 2 hour visit to hospital, wanted me to go into hospital for an overnight stay and have a general anaesthetic.  This, she told me was because it was easier for her to deal with me if I was unconscious as there was no chance I would have an anxiety attack. She didn’t ask me how I felt.  Needless-to-say, I asked to be referred to another consultant.

Many other people are fine though.  Often they are curious and once they hear what my symptoms are then they realise that they have felt these symptoms themselves at some time but it has maybe not developed into something more severe for them.  Often, they have actually said it is reassuring that these feelings are felt by others.

Of course there have been people with whom I’m no longer friends.  Mostly though, my friends are back firmly in my life.  They didn’t know how to react and left me to make the first move.  As a piece of advice though please, if someone is backing off in your life, remember that it might be for reasons such as mine.  It can be hard to keep in touch but an email, text or note saying that you were just saying hello and that you would catch up with them when they were able, would mean a lot.  That way, if they are simply busy then there is no implication of anything more but if they are feeling down or ill, they know there is someone out there who cares.

I am very pleased that I am keeping going even when I find things are tough.  My life is good.  I am one of those people who can walk along the street.  I look at other people in a different way though.  If I am walking along the street with mental health problems then so are many others – and with other problems and illnesses too.  We may be unable to tell what someone’s life is like from seeing them in the street.  We will no doubt make assumptions about them.

When we do get the chance to talk to people or hear about their lives though, then please take the time to listen and talk.  By doing so, our own lives will be enriched in so many ways.

 

For more information on mental health issues http://www.seemescotland.org.uk