THE REAL DANGER OF IGNORING YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
The following blog discusses issues including neglect, sexual abuse, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and contains strong language. Some content may cause upset or distress to readers. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed during reading, please stop and take time away from the screen. There are also a variety of pages offering support online if you need assistance.
Disengaged from life around me
I always find myself gazing out of a window and trying to look as far as I can, wondering what it would be like to be at that furthest point my eyes could reach.
Life can be a lot like that for me, generally – detached, disengaged, and numb.
The only indication that I am not a mere shell is when I can feel prickly heat before the onset of warm tears run over my cold cheeks. Then I know I’m alive, albeit all boxed up. I can see life happening outside my window; I just don’t feel able to reach it, touch it, taste it, or be engaged with it in any way.
Where it all started
As far back as I can remember, I have always been a very anxious child, painfully shy and frightened of making a mistake. It didn’t help that right through primary school, and a little beyond (to my shame), my anxiety declared its existence by forming itself into a pee tsunami every night without fail. The wrath of my parents, the guilt and embarrassment as my siblings laughed at me just made my life more unbearable. All were adding to the daily drips of shame I was regularly, frequently and unwittingly collecting each time I wet my bed. Each drip of shame I felt about being me, felt like a stab to my heart, and so like every child trying to survive, I did something drastic. I attempted to erase it from my mind. It was the only way my fragile child psyche could protect me, other than seeking refuge in an old built-in cupboard above my top bunk bed.
I don’t believe childhood is easy for any child. Mine felt like an absolute beast. I felt rejected by peers and by my depressed and often angry-frustrated parents. Looking back, neglect was massively evident too. Anyone showing me an ounce of kindness felt huge, and I felt so grateful whether that kindness came from my teachers, some of whom I adored, or from the plumber who befriended my mother as his “sister” so that he could have easy access to her daughters.
I swung from positive attention from teachers who encouraged me to read (I whizzed through library books just to see them proud of me) to a different kind of attention from my “uncle” who bought me the most expensive rucksack in the world. I really wanted one, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me one, and he just gave me something that helped me to feel like I fit in more. The cost of that rucksack was my innocence. Yes, he took my womanhood before I had it, felt it, and could even understand it. I wore that bag with pride as my psyche continued to numb my true feelings whatever they were – perhaps sadness, maybe rage - and erase as much memory of it all as possible.
Coping with my shame
Despite all the numbing, my body fought hard against my psyche by increasing those shameful accidents every night. Back then, I felt betrayed by my body, today I understand it was just trying to hold onto its voice, keep me aware. My body has never given up on me, trying to keep me aware and its loyalty and efforts didn’t go unacknowledged - I routinely abused it, spat my anger and rage and frustration and hate towards it and continue to do so despite knowing better.
Interestingly today (in the ripe old era of my late 30s), my memory isn’t my strongest point and hasn’t been for a few years. I can forget something instantly, and it’s really annoying and quite frankly frightening, (especially when neurological diseases like Dementia spring to mind). Yet I don’t always mind it either (I know my default coping mechanism is to numb myself subconsciously) perhaps to soothe myself, so that I can crack on with the daily grind of life. Life doesn’t stop for any of us. I might have stopped living, but life continued, as did the drip-drip effects of my life, which also continued on and on … and on.
The vicious cycle of numbing myself
Feeling numb felt normal, which is why I remember 2014 to be so, so hard. In 2014 I was struggling to numb myself; something I usually did automatically. The effects of that threw me because those damn tears which I felt made me weak and pathetic just kept leaking out everywhere and with no warning! I cried in really inappropriate places and randomly. I tried so hard to crack on – like a desperate person who hadn’t eaten for days, suddenly finding themselves faced with a buffet.
Nothing I did worked. The voices in my head could no longer be silenced. They were getting louder, meaner, more ruthless, cruel and twisted. Every word I heard from within my head felt like someone was torturing my guts. I couldn’t engage with anything or focus. I felt irritable and frustrated mostly with myself (though perhaps took it out on others). I struggled because none of my usual ways to cope and manage were working. I needed to refocus my thoughts, but I couldn’t. Instead, I distracted them by giving them sugar. Cakes, sweets, chocolate, crisps and any other junk or processed food I could lay my hands on, I hoovered up the lot. Enter the ‘Binge Eating Dragon’ or as it’s lovingly called in the diagnostic community - BED.
As every evening became unbearable, I binged harder just so that I could wake every morning and crack on the best I could. My weight ballooned, the shame continued to pile on. My bucket of dripping shame was pretty much flowing all over, so I continued to mop up my feelings, pain, and shame with each delicious mouthful of garbage that was more chemical than natural. It allowed me to crack on for a few more years – not exactly an excellent resilience/survival instinct I had there, right?
My breaking point
I kept cracking on until I could crack on no more. That day happened in April 2016. You see, one of the voices in my head was all about ending me, ending my pain, ending my suffering. My fantasies of being in a coma had developed very quickly into just dying. I just wanted to die, not exist, and the only thing that kept me alive was the voice in my head reasoning with me; what would happen to my son if I died? Would he be loved and cared for? What if he ends up in a care home, one that was abusive and cruel? I am not suggesting care homes are abusive and cruel. Still, my overactive imagination took me to the care homes you see in horror movies, rather than the care home Tracy Beaker resided in (Google ‘Tracy Beaker’ if you don’t know who she is). And so that voice was able to quieten the one begging for an end.
However, on that day in April 2016, the reasoning voice was becoming so faint I could barely hear it anymore. The voice that wanted to end me grew stronger, louder and more persistent. I don’t know how or what part of my fragmented mind got me into my car and locked myself in; I am just thankful it did. I felt the familiarity of being closed in and safe, just like I did all those years ago in my old built-in cupboard above my bunk bed.
I recall crying, sobbing, as I noticed in a disengaged way that a man with a satchel was running up the garage and then on to the roof the other side. I continued crying as moments later two police cars with their lights and sirens on full blast came into my close looking for that man. I could have told them I saw the man go over the roof, but I didn’t – I couldn’t – I was watching the world from behind a window, literally my car window. The outside world seemed unreachable. An officer came over to me and tapped on my window. I couldn’t hear him or understand him; I wasn’t sure which. I recall shaking my head, and then the officer left me or was called for. I felt another wave of something come up inside, and with it came another wave of tears.
How getting help saved me
In all honesty, I don’t remember how I ended up speaking to my line manager, but I did. I thought I failed to notify anyone and in all honesty, I don’t recall what I said to her, but it was enough to freak her out so much that she left work to come and check on me at home. I was having a breakdown, and she knew it. Maybe I did too, but wasn’t having any of it. She managed to get me an emergency appointment with the doctor, but I refused to go in a taxi as I didn’t want to feel I was a burden on the charity I worked for! To save my employer £5, (yep that would have been the taxi fare) I only agreed to go with her if we went on the bus. So there we were on the 262 in East London, me having a breakdown with my boss sitting right beside me. For reference, the 262 is a shit bus to have a breakdown on I can tell you, but it got us to the doctors. My boss stayed in the waiting area as I went in to meet the doctor; she later admitted that she was worried I would run off without seeing the doc. She was right; I would have.
How I’m doing now
Today it’s September 2020 and a lot has happened to make the world all topsy-turvy and whilst my window is still somewhat up, it is at least open, and I can reach out and feel the cold raindrops on my steaming skin, or the heat of the intense sun or even the gentle blows of passing breezes. Why? Because I still take the 50mg of sertraline (anti-depressant) I was prescribed daily back then. I tried to wean myself off them but found myself relapsing quite quickly, so have now accepted that 50mg of the stuff is what I need every day.
The side effects and the stigma around being on meds were horrible in equal measures. But I found that once I had stabilised, I felt a lot calmer. No more riding the rollercoaster of anxiety or even the zombie-like depression I was experiencing before. I found myself being able to live in the moment and so able to experience and, dare I say it, enjoy my life. I was smiling more and most importantly, really being there for my son – being there for him mentally as well as physically being there in the same room. The best thing that happened to me was speaking to my boss that day in 2016. If I hadn’t, I fear that at best I would have tried to crack on again. At worst, I would be dead right now.
What I’ve learnt
What I’ve learned is that cracking on until you crack up, is not what it’s cracked up to be. Honestly, it’s just a waste of time. A journey towards zombie-hood or death. It took a lot of time and effort and intervention for me to realise that life is worth living. There are so many beautiful experiences to be had, decisions to be made, people to meet, friends and family to see. To watch your friends and family grow and develop, and ultimately to see yourself grow. You can only really do that when you pay attention to yourself. Through my work, I met the amazing woman who introduced me to the world of Hoxby. In all honesty, it hadn’t even occurred to me that an organisation like Hoxby exists and I’m still new to Hoxby. Nevertheless, its ethos and values, especially around #WorkstyleMovement, really resonate with me. I found myself joining a community of people who were welcoming, super helpful and offered me the opportunity to grow more into what I would like to be. Within a couple of weeks of joining Hoxby, I am on a panel with others sharing my lived experience, I have joined a workshop #IAmRemarkable which was a super emotive experience, and, well, I am sharing this blog. I feel connected to Hoxby values and feel excited to be part of this amazing global community of remarkable people. I’m confident that joining Hoxby is part of my mental wellbeing journey, and I welcome that. You know I have loads to say about Hoxby, but with limited words can’t do it justice – so you can find out more about Hoxby here.
The moral of my story is don’t just ‘crack on ’ when life becomes increasingly burdensome. Accept that ‘ cracking on ’ is a terrible idea and that it’s better to seek help. Go and talk to someone that can understand and support you.
The importance of reaching out
In a way, I wish I had cracked up sooner! It would have forced me to get help.
Please remember if you need assistance you can find it by visiting support pages here because if you need to talk there is always someone out there ready to listen.
Runa Uddin provides consultation, training and material to employers around the mental health field. She’s part of the Hoxby community. Her story was originally published in 2019.