Why being a Mental Health ‘Lifer’ needn’t be a life sentence…

Unfortunately for some of us ‘Lifers’ poor mental health is an everyday, 365 day a year kind of thing. And it’s a long and lonely journey because friends and family often don’t have the understanding or the stamina to support us day in day out. In truth, we full time crazies can be a drain on the people who love us. They struggle to cope with the fact we’re not coping.

I was moved by the number of people on my news feed bravely volunteering their personal experience of mental health issues on World Mental Health Day. Telling your truth shows solidarity with others and helps squash the stigma associated with poor mental health. I have respect and virtual hugs for everyone who shared their lived experience.

Sharing your experience helps others
feel less isolated.

Like any health issue, people expect there to be a specific reason. A logical cause. They want to understand the why, so they can help you get better. But sometimes there ISN’T a why. And that is a very difficult thing to get your head a round.

Logically, I can pinpoint specific incidences that have previously triggered a dip in my mental health. Breakdowns in relationships (family and romantic), stress related to my studies or work, forced changes to my safe and familiar routines, death of a pet…..all obvious reasons I can make sense of. But often there is no reason. No definable event or cause. In fact some of my deepest depressions have occurred when I should have been at my happiest. I can’t explain how guilty and broken that makes you feel knowing you have so much to be grateful for yet your brain won’t let you be happy. Instead your brain is ice and fire, frantic, chaotic, moods changing like the tides, intrusive thoughts shaking your foundation, paranoia playing hide and seek in your head.

Ice and fire

I first saw a psychiatrist when my older son L was one. He prescribed medication for depression and anxiety. I also began cognitive behavior therapy to learn how to manage my OCD.

Accepting that there is not always a logical trigger or cause was a turning point in how I manage my mental health. If you’re a ‘Lifer’ like me, then maybe my experience can help you too…

Now I know medication for mental health is a contentious issue. I’ve heard people say it made them feel like zombies. I’ve met people who’ve celebrated coming off meds as a huge achievement (hurrah, I don’t need you anymore)! I know people who prefer to cope without because they don’t want to become reliant on medication. I’ll be honest, as that’s the only way I know how to be; I wouldn’t be alive without my meds. Fact. I have tried coming off medication twice in the last 10 years. Both times were disastrous.

When you try to cope but darkness presses heavy around you.

The most recent time 7 years ago, I was trying to fall pregnant again. I convinced myself it would be better to be unmedicated through pregnancy even though the meds I was on are proven very low risk. I carefully reduced my dose over 3 months as instructed by my GP and we started trying in the June of 2014. Simultaneous to this, my mother in law married her long term partner and they invited us on their ‘family moon’ to Dorset. I’d been completely off meds for a week. We stayed in a gorgeous house, great company, many beautiful walks along the coast. L was approaching his 3rd birthday and was at that magical stage where every experience is marvelous and enthralling to him. He was so happy to have his grandparents, Auntie and Uncle all together; N and I even managed a date night. And yet my brain, my mind, was frantic. I felt irrationally irritable. I had paranoid thoughts scratching around in my head. Waves of anxiety made me feel nauseous, untethered.

The underbelly of the pier is a rusting, complex spiderweb filled with echos and bird chorus. It is ugly and beautiful. It is my happy place.

Within days of getting home I arranged to see my GP and psychiatrist, distraught at my inability to cope with the day to day. My tears came like a flood, I demanded to know what was happening to me. Their message was the same…’You need medication. Some people can’t live without it. You wouldn’t refuse meds if you were diabetic or had high blood pressure, so why refuse meds for a chemical imbalance in your brain?’ My psychiatrist was even more blunt, stating that I could not be a good wife or mother if I couldn’t keep myself stable and safe. So I returned to medicating albeit on a lower dose. Shortly after I discovered I was pregnant again. A few weeks after that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In retrospect I am so grateful to have gone back onto meds when I did as they undoubtedly helped me get through cancer treatment at the same time as growing a baby.

Now I’m not saying meds are the perfect solution, nor the only solution. Let’s imagine for a minute that you’re trying to perfect a recipe for mental healing. For the recipe to work you have to have some basic ingredients in place like a healthy diet, fresh air, exercise and adequate quality sleep. Without these core ingredients it doesn’t matter what else you add in, the recipe won’t work. The good news is, there isn’t a set order in which these ingredients need to be added. So you might start with some prescribed medication and that might help stabilize you so you can engage in some talking therapy. And if you’re lucky, you might then start to feel a bit better. Not ‘fixed’ but maybe calmer, more positive. So you then find the motivation to add some of those healthy core ingredients like sleep and a healthy diet. There are other ingredients you can throw in that might seem like a good idea at the time…until I gave up alcohol 13 months ago, vodka was liberally added to my recipe on a regular basis. I thought it helped me cope and maybe it did in social situations but it ultimately undermined my recipe, my ability to cope, to heal.

Water soothes me. Nature holds the answers.

For me, medication has been life changing, life saving. It helps stabilize my moods, it limits my suicidal thoughts. It has also enabled me to engage in talking therapies such an counselling and CBT, which have helped me understand myself better and change negative or destructive behaviors.

Over the years I’ve realized I need to be more proactive in managing my mental health through making the right lifestyle choices. I ensure exercise and fresh air are part of my routine. Sometimes I exercise energetically, obsessively. Sometimes I struggle to motivate myself to exercise or my knee injury limits me. But I still get outside for long walks with my camera, nature heals me in a way nothing else can.

Colour. Light. Space. Healing.

I eat healthy meals (whilst struggling with a secret binge eating disorder), I try and get adequate sleep (although night terrors still plague me). I pursue my special interests of writing and photography and most importantly (for me at least) I have been sober for 13 months, my longest time other than when I was pregnant and breastfeeding.

I’m still a mental health Lifer. I won’t ever be cured. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder around three years ago. Type 2, the manic depressive kind. But I can manage this condition like any other. I take my meds. I try to have a healthy lifestyle balancing my physical and mental wellbeing. I know to tell my trusted people if I’m struggling. They can’t always help, but they can be patient, they can be kind. Because blaming me, judging me, ridiculing me, that will only alienate me and forever break our trust.

Sometimes I regret how open I’ve been with my mental health journey. My birth family have used my mental health as a weapon to judge me with. They have tried to manipulate me, undermine me, worst of all to excuse their appalling behavior towards me they blame it on me, because I’m ‘mad’.

But I’m NOT broken. I’m NOT permanently incapacitated by my mental health. I’m an intelligent, strong, resilient human being determined to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. I want to help others like me, I want to help the Lifers and those who experience one off, circumstantial periods of poor mental health.

The starlings roost under the dark and rusty pier but dance joyfully across the sky each day reminding us that we are free.

I’ve often wondered why I struggle more than most. My psychiatrist and I have talked about this at length. I grew up thinking I had bad genes, observing the erratic behavior and mental struggles of my mother and grandmother. Discovering I was Autistic at 42 opened my eyes to the complexity of my Neurodiverse brain. Autistic individuals are wired in such a way that we often struggle with emotional regulation and heightened sensory processing. We are frequently hyper empathic and FEEL every emotion and sensation so deeply and acutely that it’s often overwhelming, sometimes painful. Childhood trauma and abusive parenting have undoubtedly left their mark on me too. And as much as I am a Believer, God has definitely tested me with the life experiences I’ve been dealt (I’ve been known to say ‘whoever is writing my script up there is an a-hole!’)

What I do know for sure, is that my mental health issues do NOT impair my ability to be a good person. I am a brilliant mum, a loving wife and a caring friend. My house is always clean and tidy. My finances are in good order (largely thanks so my amazing husband). My children are thriving. They are clean and well fed and safe. But more importantly, they are supported and encouraged. They are challenged and developed. They are celebrated as unique individuals. They are involved in decision making. They are encouraged to learn independence. They know we will never judge them or blame them. We talk and laugh constantly. I am very open about my personal challenges because I want them to know how to protect their own mental health.

My wildlings. So loved, so free.

I don’t know when my next ‘dip’ will come. I never do. But I know I have an amazing team in my corner and I’ll get through it.

And for those that have wronged me, judged me, rejected me, be grateful that I do have that amazing team keeping me on the straight and narrow. Because without them my crazy ass would come after you like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Edmund Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo…and we all know how those stories ended 😉

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