That feeling of drowning, heaviness, darkness – acute anxiety and depression felt like this. No light, no joy, everything scary, everything like wading under water. Except the fear, that was pin sharp, piercing through my consciousness daily, hourly, every moment, every second, constantly.
Externally I looked the same, acted the same, perhaps I was a little thinner, a little quieter but in the main, I seemed no different. I carried on going to work, running a home, looking after my family – there was no change. No one was aware of the internal battle raging on inside. I didn’t discuss it, didn’t share it for a really long time, not even with people who I love, trust and hold dear. That’s what mental health problems can do to you – make you fearful, paranoid and mistrusting. They make you feel like everyone is judging you, that you are not ‘normal’.
So you retreat into your shell, further and further, your world becoming smaller and smaller until you are a mere speck of your former self. In fact, your former self is lost in a haze of anxiety, negativity and adrenalin-fuelled fear.
This piece wasn’t intended as a blog by the way. This started as a free writing exercise in my journal but when the words stopped tumbling and I was done, I felt the need to share. Mental health issues can be so isolating and despairing that giving hope, solutions and something to work towards was an important step in my recovery and, I hope, in yours, if that’s why you are reading this.
So how did I fight my way back? Well firstly, I was prepared to fight. I wasn’t going to lie down and allow my life to be taken away from me. I felt anger and huge loss that my beautiful life had been stripped away from me. The joy, the laughter, the fun, the love. I had no room for it in my darkness and I was determined to get that back.
And so my journey began. I acknowledged the problem and went to see my GP. A big step in itself, as acknowledging it means that it’s there and it’s real. You can no longer hide from it and hope it goes away. It took me 6 months to summon up the courage but I knew this wasn’t going to go away of its own accord and I had to face up to the fact, I had a problem.
After much persuasion, I started a course of antidepressants. The first lot made me feel dreadful, the second suited me better (which goes to show a one-size-fits-all-approach does not work). I refused to take anything for a long time. I was suffering with anxiety so taking any sort of medication filled me with fear, made me feel out of control and it was an acceptance that I’d failed, I couldn’t do this on my own (queue the self-critical judgements that I was a crap person, wife, mother, friend, colleague, upstanding member of society!). My GP was brilliant, patient but firm.
The second piece in the recovery puzzle for me was MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy). I was put on the waiting list…. and waited, for a good few months. Those months felt never-ending, but it gave me a date to work towards and hope. I had no idea what to expect or how it was going to help me but, at this stage I didn’t care, I was up for trying anything, I just wanted out of this chaos in my head.
So treatment began in April 2014 if my memory serves me correctly. I was signed up for 6 sessions, I had 16. It was slow progress and at times I felt it wasn’t helping me at all. I’d come out of a session having cried the whole time, feeling pure despair that nothing was helping and I was going to be trapped in this cycle forever.
However slowly, slowly, my therapist taught me to turn around my thoughts from negative, to neutral, to eventually, positive, by retraining my brain over and over again to stay in the moment. Every time I wanted to go down that spiraling path of negativity he taught me to bring it back to the here and now, and to sit in acceptance of that now, whatever that may be. Indeed that ‘now’ is the only moment we can truly be in, and thus, deal with, everything else is either past or not happened yet.
We did safe place meditations together where I could go in my mind when I felt afraid and had nowhere safe to go. He taught me to look at what drained me and what nurtured me and to concentrate on nurturing myself back to wellness.
He showed me there was another way of being. That with time, patience and consistent practice, the exercises we were doing (that felt futile in the beginning), would slowly start to pay off. My mind would start to catch up to what I was telling it to do, telling it to be true. Tom was his name and I hope to thank him one day for helping me to get my life back.
So where am I in my life’s journey now? Well, I live my life in full colour now. It’s funny when something is taken from you, how much more you treasure it when you are lucky enough to get it back. So, I see clearly, I notice the beauty around me, I am aware of subtle changes in my consciousness and I recognise that negative, anxious thoughts that creep in (as they always will for me) will pass. What my ego is telling me is just my perception. In its own perverse way my ego is trying to protect me – from humiliation, shame, guilt, danger – so it tries to hold me in a state of fear, in a world of ‘don’ts’ and ‘can’ts’ because that world is safe and it can keep me protected that way.
But I now know that thoughts are not facts, they are just my interpretation and I choose to change my interpretation whenever I feel I’m being sucked into that world again. It hasn’t always been easy. I’m five years on from my treatment, from getting over my depression, but I will often have the little anxious voice inside that tries to blot out the light. I just have the tools now to deal with it, to know how to put it back in its box, to turn away from its seductive power I seem to be so drawn to.
So how can you learn to fall in love with life again if the light has dimmed?
- Focus on the small triumphs – this is a process and healing takes time.
- Be consistent – don’t give up even if you feel like you’re not getting results as quickly as you’d like, it takes practice to habit-change.
- Each day is a new – draw a line under whatever happened before and keep doing that as if you were a child starting out for the first time, each time. You can always start again.
- Embrace the smallest, beautiful thought, event, smile, gesture every day. Eventually these will grow and outweigh the negative ones.
- Remember the brain will strengthen in the areas you feed it the most, so focus on the tiniest changes in the right direction.
- Use every opportunity to unhook from ruminative or catastrophic thinking patterns. Bring yourself present with breathing practises. Turn the focus outward, from your mind to your body and your external environment. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you, feel your feet on the floor, place your hand on your heart and say ‘I’m ok’. Break the cycle and give yourself love.
- Be patient – one meditation session, one entry in a gratitude journal, one walk in the woods will not change things for you overnight. Keep nurturing, keep feeding your brain with the good stuff, the things you love and it will pay off in time.
- Be kind and gentle – don’t beat yourself up for who you are – this is not you. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for having a physical condition, so don’t beat yourself up for having a mental one.
- Carry on even if you feel nothing is happening or changing. There will be things going on inside that you are not aware of – new wiring happening, patterns reshaping. Your mind will catch up.
- Share – draw on your community and support networks, seek medical advice, join communities of like-minded people. If you don’t feel strong enough to talk about things in the first instance there is plenty of material online (see link below for example). Dip your toe in, get knowledgeable, be proactive, reach out, you don’t have to deal with this on your own.
It’s sounds so straightforward doesn’t it? I know it isn’t. But it is possible, there is a way back. You can not only get back to where you were but go so much further beyond to live your best life with clarity, love, openness and above all peace.
And this is my greatest wish for you.