Tuesday, 18 April 2017

My Mental Health Journey

Hi guys,

I know it's been a while since I uploaded a blog post, and even longer since I was uploading them more frequently. I thought of so many things I wanted to post, life updates, such as my move back into academia as a Postgraduate student and a series of posts about studying for a Masters and postgrad university life, a post about a sport which has become my passion and favourite hobby, a post about moving to Scotland, and more.

But what is probably my biggest struggle, my worst demon, the thing in my life I'm constantly half fighting and half working with to make things better - my mental health. I've never talked about it on here, but I've wanted to for a long time. It's not like I have a million readers, so I don't know what has been holding me back for so long. But I'm finally going to do it.

As a child, I was always anxious. I worried, I was nervous, shy, and very sensitive. There are reasons for that, that I don't feel comfortable publishing online, but I have been vulnerable to mental illness for as long as I can remember. I was a deeply unhappy child. I never had a lot of friends, I was the kid who had one best friend, and the rest of the class shunned us, because we were the losers.

This feeling never seemed to go away. I wasn't a carefree child, in fact it was the opposite. We tried everything - changing classes, moving schools, it seemed to be the same story everywhere. I was unhappy, and I didn't fit in. Classmates were polite to me, but never seemed to want to be my friend. All I wanted was a lot of friends, but I was so scared and shy that I'd overanalyse every word I said, thinking I said something wrong or stupid.

As a teenager, I started to notice that I was tired all of the time, more than normal. I came home from school at 4 PM, fell asleep immediately, woke up at around 6 PM for dinner, and by 8 PM I'd be asleep for the night. Homework would barely get done, I'd make up excuses for the teachers and I had a good enough memory to get by in class tests without much revision. I had numerous doctors appointments, and they had me tested for a bunch of different things - anaemia, diabetes, and mononucleosis were among them. My blood tests always came back fine, there was never a problem. I don't know if anybody else will identify with this, because it seems self-destructive, but when we called the doctor's for the results, I was hoping for an illness. I wanted something, anything to explain why I was feeling this way, so I could start treatment. When my blood tests came through clear, time after time, I felt more and more defeated.

At sixteen, I did get assessed by a psychiatric team, but again, no long-term solution was offered. They're hesitant to diagnose teenagers with mental illnesses, and even more hesitant to prescribe medication. I was told I was sensitive, a perfectionist, and negative/pessimistic, but there still wasn't a solution. I needed answers. I knew puberty was supposed to be hard, which is what everyone kept telling me, but I knew it wasn't supposed to be this hard. I was lost, I was struggling, I felt so alone. Again, it started affecting my friendships - people don't like being around unhappy people, and I was unhappy. One of my lowest points was in my final year of high school, when people voted for people in categories, such as class clown or cutest couple. I got voted as most pessimistic, which showed me that my classmates saw everything I hated about myself. I don't like to see myself as a pessimist - I like to hope that things will go well - but I was anxious and unhappy, and that was the vibe I gave off to my classmates. When all I needed was support, I could tell people didn't want to be around me - I still don't really blame them though, at high school, when everyone is under 18 years old and is growing up and going through things themselves, nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows how to handle mental illness, especially not me.

At university, I was happier, but I went through phases - I'd have a breakdown every few months or so, go see student services, sometimes they'd tell me it was normal to feel stress as a student, though once they did advise me to seek help and told me to contact a young people's counselling service - I filled in the initial inquiry form, but by the time they got back to me, I was feeling better and never replied.

In my third and final year of university, things hit an all time low. It was partly the stress of being in my final year and partly being in an emotionally abusive relationship at the time that triggered it, and this time I knew it was anxiety. I experienced my first full blown panic attacks, and my chest would feel tight most of the time. I never went to see a GP while I was at university, though. It was only afterwards, at the end of September when I left/was encouraged to leave my first job (a story for another time, as this job pretty much forced me out due to my poor mental health) that I went to see a GP. They said they agreed that I had anxiety, wrote 'Generalised Anxiety Disorder' on my medical records, and prescribed me medication - Sertraline.

The waiting list for counselling was too long, and I really needed help, so I did an online CBT programme as well as seeing a private counsellor - I was very lucky to have my mum's financial support for that. That did help, short term. Especially the medication. It took me a while to get back on track - for weeks and weeks, just getting up and leaving the house was an achievement. If I managed to get showered and dressed, and run maybe one errand, such as going to the post office or my estate agent's, or signing on to JobSeekers and attending a meeting, it was a successful day. With the medication and counselling I bounced back quickly, and did ICS, a three month volunteering programme in Zimbabwe. That programme set off my anxiety again big time, due to the fact that I wasn't allowed out of the house alone - but the house was small, I was terrified of my host mother, and there wasn't even a garden or a quiet place I could have some privacy. It led to three months of feeling very trapped and isolated, but I'm glad I stuck it out and made it through. The summer after I got back, I was just delighted with the freedom being home gave me, that I didn't have in Zimbabwe. I had a summer job I loved and was good at, spent a lot of time with friends, and had the best summer ever.

Then, September 2016, I started my MLitt in St Andrews and moved from the South of England to Scotland. I was happy to be back in academia, my course was challenging, but I was coping. I slowly started to go off my medication. I started archery, which I could write a whole other post on, it's the best sport ever, and I love it. I made a lovely group of friends, the team from the archery club. I started dating a really sweet guy. I had a dip in confidence over the Christmas break because of one bad grade, but I picked up.

A few months ago, at the end of February, my wonderful Grandad passed away. It was really unexpected, he was only 77 and had no prior health problems, in fact he was the carer for my Granny who has Alzheimer's. I hadn't seen him in a while, too. I had all four grandparents previously, and I had never experienced grief before. And I experienced it intensely. I fell into this dark pit of grief after the funeral, that I'm still not fully out of. I didn't feel like myself. The person I was before the news felt like a stranger to me. I cried multiple times a day, I had zero energy, and coursework just wasn't happening. I'm now slowly starting to accept his passing. Slowly.

But I could tell that there was more going on than just grief. Everything was a struggle again - in fact, it still is. I went to sleep last night with lots of plans for the day, but this morning I couldn't get out of bed until 2 PM. This wasn't laziness, it was more like feeling incapable of moving. I just lay there, scrolling through social media, watching videos on YouTube and Netflix that I barely remember now, like a blur. It was like being stuck. Since the funeral, I've also had constant facial tension, headaches, and sometimes migraines.

Last Friday, I went to see a clinical psychologist for the first time for an initial assessment. It went very well, and I'm going to see her every week starting next week for therapy. She said she's taking my case and everything I said very seriously, but the good thing is she thinks that she can help. She gave me the diagnosis of 'moderate to severe recurrent depression, with anxiety' which was a surprise to me - I always thought anxiety was my main one - but now I think about it it does make a lot of sense. In some ways, I think I've had this my whole life.

I'm still in the process of coming to terms with my depression - I feel like there is a lot less awareness about depression. There has been a lot more awareness about anxiety recently, which is great, but depression is a tough one. I'm hoping to do a few more posts on this at some point in the future.

So, here I am. After feeling incapable of moving until 2 PM, I managed to force myself to shower, put some clothes on, and go into town. I went to Costa, had some food and a hot chocolate with my boyfriend, and I did some reading for my course before grabbing food from Tesco and heading back home. Tomorrow, I have an appointment to see a GP to talk about going back on Sertraline again. I'm not better, I'm not recovered, I can't type up an inspiring post about how I recovered from depression and anxiety.

But I'm still here. I'm trying. I'm doing my best. My journey is still in progress. And hopefully I can keep you all updated.




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