TW: Depression, anxiety, social anxiety, depression, self harm & overdose. I adhere to best practice when writing about mental health so there are no explicit details in the following post.
I’ve been blogging about mental health for over a year now. During that time I’ve shared snippets of my own experiences but I’ve never shared them in full. I didn’t post anything for days 9 and 10 of Blogtober because I was busy writing this. I had intended to share it yesterday, on World Mental Health Day but it didn’t feel right so I held off. WMHD is a fantastic initiative and it was great to see so much conversation around mental health but I think it’s important to remember that mental health is for everyone, every day and not just on Hashtag Holidays. Anyway, here’s my story in full for the first time…
My mental health journey began at five years old. My very first teacher wrote on my school report ‘anxious at times.’ It seemed to set the tone for the next fifteen years.
I don’t remember a lot of my childhood before the age of ten but there are some stand out moments. Some of the best memories are of my first day of school, my first nephew being born and getting a bike from Santa one Christmas. Other memories aren’t so great. I watched as a new neighbour moved in, a girl I wanted to be friends with but I was absolutely terrified to speak to her, we did eventually become friends (hi Ailish!) but that feeling of terror became a familiar one. I often left the classroom to avoid situations that I was afraid of such as reading aloud and after a particularly bad day, my teacher pulled me aside to ask if I was sick because I was spending so much time in the bathroom. I was sick but not in the way she was thinking and I didn’t know how to explain that. When I was eight an aunty of mine passed away after months of battling cancer. We spent a lot of time at her house while my mam helped care for her. I knew she was ill but I didn’t understand the severity of it and I was shocked when she died. My family was doing their best to protect me from it but you can’t protect anyone from the reality of death. Her passing had a massive impact on me but I didn’t realise quite how much until about eight years later. As a child I constantly worried about ‘something bad’ happening to my parents when I wasn’t there which made being in school or at a friend’s house difficult. I struggled with that a lot more at night time so I’d often get upset and be unable to sleep which had a knock on effect the following day.
I moved house and school when I was nine. At my new school I made friends pretty quickly but I still struggled with the overall situation. By all accounts I was a bright child and I loved learning (I still do, I’m a nerd!) but the classroom environment was a big issue for me. I began to have panic attacks at twelve years old. Everyone, myself included, seemed a bit baffled by that – nobody really knew anything about them or how to handle them. I had no idea what was happening to me and my parents were concerned that there was something physically wrong with me so I had lots of tests done to be sure that I was physically well. I did have asthma but the majority of these attacks weren’t asthma related. In school, when I would have a panic attack my teacher would move me to a table at the back of the classroom where I would sit and sharpen a box of pencils. As a more educated adult I can assume that they thought that giving something else to focus on might help me but it didn’t. It made me feel more separated from the rest of the class, it further marked me out as different. However, at the time, I didn’t know what I needed and even I had known, I wouldn’t have had the language to explain it.
My first year of secondary school continued in much the same way. I would have a panic attack and be put on the side, sent to the sick bay or excused from class to get some fresh air. By age fourteen and in Second Year, I was really mentally unwell. I was having multiple panic attacks every single day and they were so draining. I wasn’t sleeping well and I’d spend most nights crying because I was dreading the next day so much. I felt like I was losing my mind.
At that point I was invited to join the Rainbows Programme in my school along with attending a thirty minute session with the school counselor once a week. Both the woman running the Rainbows group and that school counselor have had a massive impact on my life. I’m so grateful to have had them. I think of them quite often and wish I had a way to contact them ten years on. Rainbows and the counselling service were great resources. However, I don’t believe either can cope with being the only support available for hundreds of students (more on this in a later post!). In my opinion, as a result of that, warning signs were missed and it’s quite possible that it’s still the case.
The following year I was approaching my fifteenth birthday and I was incredibly mentally ill. One morning, over breakfast, my mam asked if I was feeling depressed. I didn’t fully grasp what that meant, I’d never heard it spoken about in any detail at home or in school but it seemed like saying yes was the right thing to do. My mam was great, she arranged an appointment with my GP right away. I can’t remember the appointment itself but I know that I left with a prescription for Xanax. I took the medication but it didn’t suit me. I was walking around like a zombie, I wasn’t present any more. I was going through my days knowing things were happening and that people were interacting with me but it was as if I was behind a pane of glass where I couldn’t reach anyone. Thankfully, my mam noticed and asked for my medication to be changed. It took switching medications a couple of times for me to find the one that suited me best in terms of side effects but I still didn’t feel as though it was helping.
Life continued in a similar fashion until 2008. By then I’d been self harming in various ways for months. Every night I was crying my heart out on the bathroom floor. Every school morning I was vomiting from the intensity of the anxiety I was experiencing. I went to school but I was rarely in class because of the panic attacks and when I was there I couldn’t keep up with the work because I’d missed so much. I rarely lasted a full day in school. My parents would get a call from the school most days asking if I could go home. At this point they asked if I was missing so much school because I was being bullied but I wasn’t at that time. The next logical conclusion for them was that I was just acting out, being a troublemaker. They were frustrated that I was missing so much school and they tried everything to get me to stay there. They couldn’t see what was going on and I couldn’t tell them. They tried to frighten me in to staying in school by telling me they’d make me change schools, that they’d send me to a boarding school or even send me to live with relatives in England. They were at the end of their tether. The relationship between my parents and I began to suffer. I began to feel angry all the time. I was angry that I was surrounded by all of these adults but none of them could see that I was in serious need of help. I was experiencing angry outbursts over seemingly insignificant things. My mam would ask me to empty the dishwasher and I’d start a full blown shouting match. I couldn’t regulate my responses. I was constantly ready to blow up over anything. I think my family saw that behaviour partly as teenage mood swings and partly as me trying to make life more difficult. I turned that anger inwards and the self harm became worse. ‘Why can’t I just be normal? Look at what I’m doing to my parents. My family hate me. Why do I feel this way? Why can’t anyone else see it? Am I crazy?’. It took me a long time to realise it but I held on to that anger for years. Anger at everyone around me and anger at myself.
I didn’t know how to tell them what was going on with me, I thought it was in my head, that I was abnormal. Neither my teachers or family had the knowledge to realise what was happening. It wasn’t their fault and it wasn’t mine.
Approaching the summer of that third year of secondary school, I attempted to take an overdose in school but I was interrupted. A goodbye text I had sent to a friend was shown to a member of staff, my parents were called to the school, I was found and brought to them. They had been told everything. The school principal told me that I would be leaving with immediate effect so that I could get help. I wasn’t sure what came next.
I want to break the narrative here for just a moment to be really clear about something – I am so glad that I was interrupted that day, that my friends told a member of staff what was happening. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be free of the immense pain and turmoil I was feeling every minute of every day and, in the state I was in, death seemed like the only way to achieve that but it wasn’t the only way. I will always be sorry that my teenage friends had to deal with that. I have apologised and thanked them since but I wish it had never gotten to that point. Those friendships were changed by the events of that day and what followed. I’m no longer in contact with most of those people and I’ll doubt they’ll ever see this but I hope they know that they saved a life that day. Anyway, back to it…
My school let me return after a few weeks under a new set of rules. My parents and I met with the principal who had drawn up a ‘contract’ for me to sign before returning to class. I can’t remember every rule from it but the ones that have stuck in my mind are that I wasn’t to be alone, including going to and from school, going to the bathroom and during lunch. I wasn’t allowed to speak to any student about the events leading up to my ‘break’ from school or anything that took place while I was away. If I was feeling down or struggling again (I was never not struggling, those couple of weeks off school didn’t magically make me better) I wasn’t to discuss it with any student including friends. I signed it like I was supposed to and I stuck to it.
I can 100% understand the need to safeguard other students but that ‘contract’ really affected our relationships. My friends wanted an explanation and I couldn’t give it to them. I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t, they could tell but I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t risk getting kicked out of school and upsetting my family even more. I became isolated in school, rumours began. I’d had quite a large group of friends up to that point but now I found myself with just one who wasn’t in the same year as me. She really kept me going through those times but not having a friendly face around for most of the day was difficult.
Over the next eighteen months I made a couple of new friends and I became close to one of the girls I’d been friends with previously but understandably she felt caught in the middle. I was still having issues with those former friends. I would find thinly veiled comments about me online, they would whisper, point and laugh while sitting behind me in classes or while walking the corridors at lunch. One of them wrote me a very scathing letter telling me she never wanted anything to do with me again and had someone else deliver it to me which led to a screaming match in the middle of a hallway during lunch – not ideal!
Things weren’t great outside of school either, my dad had a heart attack, a relative had died which brought up some of the feelings I hadn’t dealt with years before and my mam was diagnosed with cancer. I was seeing CAMHS and on medication but the meds didn’t seem to agree with me and seeing different doctors at the CAMHS sessions meant I couldn’t build a rapport with anyone. My sessions weren’t frequent enough or long enough for me to feel any benefit from them so even if I did get to see the same doctor for a couple of sessions it didn’t make a difference.
Eventually, it all became too much and after a heart to heart with my mam, I made the decision to leave school in December 2009, six months before I was due to sit my final exams. I left because I knew that if I continued on I would end up at crisis point again. It was the right decision but it didn’t lessen the heartache of seeing my friends prepare for their exams and college. I began to feel alone again because I was missing all the ‘in jokes’ and conversations happening at school.
The following six years were tumultuous. I started jobs and courses because I felt like I should but I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t cope and I ended up leaving all of them. The panic disorder didn’t have so much of a grip on me but the social anxiety was worse. I couldn’t get a bus or taxi on my own, I couldn’t interact with retail staff, I couldn’t make a phone call, some days I couldn’t leave the house at all. I switched from CAMHS to adult mental health services where I would often be waiting an hour passed my appointment time just to see a another doctor that I’d never met before. They would run through their checklist –
- In the past month have you had any thoughts of killing yourself?
- In the past month have you engaged in any self harming behaviour?
- Have you been sleeping well?
- Have you been eating well?
- Are you currently a risk to yourself or anyone around you?
- Have you been taking your medication?
Then I would be given my next appointment date and sent on my way. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault that they couldn’t give me or their other patients more time. They were overstretched and struggling to meet the demand of so many cases.
Labels don’t work for everyone but, for me, the one benefit of attending HSE mental health services was getting formal diagnoses of Depression, Panic Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Having that information allowed me to find a community of others who were experiencing the same thing I was, which meant I felt less alone. I realised just how many people went through what I did. I found peer support. Most importantly, I was able to educate myself which is exactly what I did. That’s when ‘recovery’ (more on this in a later post!) became a possibility.
In 2015 I decided to return to education as an adult and over the next eighteen months I gained three qualifications and secured a place on a bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t entirely well during that time. I never managed to do a formal presentation and I missed a lot of Tuesday classes because I found that day particularly difficult to cope with but I did manage to finish all three courses and I left with great results.
The results weren’t the best part of the course though, the people were. I’d always joked that I hated people to cover up the fact that I found it difficult to interact with more than one person at a time but those people changed that for me. They embraced my quirks, they supported me and they made me laugh every day (they even made me laugh about those Tuesdays!). Most days I looked forward to going to school because I knew they would be there. They probably don’t know the impact they had but I don’t think I’d have gotten through that year and a half without them.
I began my degree and I was really enjoying it but I had to leave it after a few months because of a problem with my hip. It derailed me somewhat and I began to struggle again. I felt like I was letting people down. I applied for and got a job hoping it would ease some of the guilt I was feeling but I couldn’t cope and I quickly left. I realised that if I was to be well again I had to go back to basics and figure out what would get me well and help me stay that way.
The past year and a half has been good. Sure, there are still some bad weeks but they’re never as bad as they once were and if I was to get to that crisis point again I know I have an action plan to get help. The problem with my hip hasn’t been resolved yet but physiotherapy has made it more manageable. I’ve been able to return to education part time where I’m studying Mental Health in the Community. I have this blog that enables me to interact with so many passionate and inspiring mental health bloggers and advocates every single day. I have a wonderful partner, friends and family who do their absolute best to understand and support me when I’m not doing so well. There might still be times when I struggle, in fact I’m sure there will be, but now I can see how good life can be, I know that I am capable of so much, I have hope and that changes everything.
There will be some posts coming up looking at youth mental health in Ireland, initiatives currently taking place and some questions about what happens next.
This was very long for one blog post so if you’ve managed to stick it out to this point, thank you.
If you need help or advice you can find a list of charities and organisations here.