At the age of 19, in my first year of university, I became psychotic, was sectioned – legally termed a danger to myself and/or society – and hospitalised. This week is dedicated to raising our awareness of mental health and changing our perception of it. I hope this contributes…
It was the age of reality TV coming into being and I thought I was being filmed. I believed I was pregnant, even though I hadn’t done what was needed for this to happen (!). I thought I was preparing for my imminent wedding day, even though I didn’t have a boyfriend – I thought people were trying to keep it as a surprise from me; that’s why they ‘acted’ so confused when I asked them for details. Generally, I was on an energetic high, wasn’t sleeping and vividly remember doing runs along the motorways around 5am. Symptoms also included spending money with little regard for cost, increased creativity (often writing lyrics, making presents by tearing magazines apart, an obsession with taking photos etc) and thinking I looked great. Trying to get a word in in a conversation with me was difficult – I had a lot to say, couldn’t really listen, would interrupt constantly and a rational, structured conversation was rare. I had a lack of awareness, soaring confidence and an over familiarity meaning that every stranger I saw was someone to talk to and a potential new friend.
By the time I was sectioned, I was uncontrollable and my family and I were in utter chaos. I had run off from them whilst on a walk – I was so frustrated, upset and confused – and had bruises on my arm from my Mum trying to restrain me and understand why I was thinking what I was. The day the ambulance and police finally came, I was told my new friends were here and I hopped right into the ambulance. At the hospital, I was sedated with anti-psychotic medication and although I was fortunate to only be in there a week, my enormous high then left me with a crash of numbing depression to battle throughout my second year of uni, as well as multiple (smaller) high episodes.
This happened out of nowhere for me – I’d been enjoying a typical first year at uni off the back of a gap year spent travelling, when a new abundance of energy and productivity quickly transitioned to not knowing what day of the week it was and separating quite distinctly from reality. Certain pressures and lifestyle choices – I was smoking a lot of cannabis – meant I’d reached breaking point and had become psychotic.
Eventually, I gained control of my illness- termed Mania or Hypermania- and managed to finished university in the standard 3 years. I enjoyed 12 years of good mental health, including meeting my husband, living in Australia for 6 years and developing a successful career. Then in 2014, again out of nowhere, I felt notably low and very soon for 2 weeks of every month, was severely depressed. I could barely make it from my bed to the sofa during the day, which I’d then struggle to move from, and if I had the choice would stay on for the full 2 weeks without leaving the house. Sides of my body became painful from the lack of movement during the day and night.
In the morning, I’d often be awake for hours in bed, physically unable to move – I couldn’t get up to put the kettle on, couldn’t go the toilet, couldn’t even reach outside the duvet to listen to something on my phone. I just had to wait until my husband woke up, when I’d have to face the day. He’d need to make me a hot water bottle every morning for the chronic stomach pain that wouldn’t subside, and nausea and profuse sweating were guaranteed. I had zero self-confidence, found it difficult to articulate anything, couldn’t read, couldn’t make any decisions, couldn’t enjoy the taste of anything, had no energy and everyday tasks seemed scary and difficult; if I could get away with the dreaded ordeal of showering, I would. Phone calls from friends were avoided, let alone meet ups. Nothing dented depression’s omnipresence.
Unfortunately, as a response to this depression and the disrupted sleep it caused, as well as unending pressure at work, I was soon oscillating monthly between the mania previously described, a crash from this of acute anxiety, and finally depression – this shift could happen in the space of an afternoon. Bar the psychosis, my experience of mania was similar to that at 19 although this time, I wouldn’t sleep at all for the first 2 or 3 nights of becoming manic, with too many racing thoughts that would not be stilled, and my sociability spilled onto social media, where I’d be updating facebook every hour with my activities and commenting on everything without considering what I was writing at all. My friends always knew when I’d come out of my depression! I generated a zillion ideas for new business ventures and was extremely antagonistic towards my husband. During this, I resigned from my job to focus on regaining my health, which then deteriorated due to not having one (which is why I do the job I do now, supporting people to avoid this!).
After a year of this, clawing my way to appointments and navigating the NHS, I received my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, which I was delighted with as it meant I could finally find meaningful solutions. Although I then struggled with chronic anxiety for another 6 months (mainly due to employment), the highs and lows soon abated. I found the right job for me, got pregnant around the same time and with good therapy, gained control over my anxiety and wellbeing. I still battle my lows and anxiety, which came back after having my son, but it’s so much more manageable; we know each other well by now.
So there we are. The amount of times I’ve been told ‘no-one would know’ and that ‘I don’t look like someone who’s gone through this.’ There is no look to mental health. Very severe mental illnesses like (psychotic) Bipolar, Schizophrenia, Depression with suicidal thoughts etc are more common than you may think and wouldn’t necessarily ‘look’ like what you might’ve thought – it could be the person sat next to you.
This week is about changing perceptions but it’s also about putting mental health higher on the agenda. The current system (government, services, employers) are letting people down. The hospital I received support from in 2003 has now closed due to cuts and unless you are in/have just come out of hospital, I’ve found (with many others) NHS support and services to be severely lacking, taking such a long time and so many appointments to finally meet the right person – even then support can be limited. More money needs to go into services, to be spent in the right way, to ensure illnesses are treated as early as possible, potentially preventing a decline into more serious ones like mine.
There is clearly so much more that needs to change regarding mental health so this week, if we could just have a little more curiosity, conversation and compassion, that would be great.