Well I have been asked to write a guest blog around my experience with mental illness. To be honest I don’t know where to start or what to even say. The last year for me has been like a never ending tornado, sucking up normality and replacing it with cyclones of chaos [this may sound overdramatic but trust me it’s how it feels]. Therefore putting my experiences into a logical order or words that make sense to read seems like a big challenge.
I guess if we were to go back a year ago my life from the outside would seem ideal. I had nearly completed my doctorate degree with Bristol University and I had a good career ahead of me. I had a loving family; I was engaged to get married and a nice home. Things in my life were pretty standard; I guess I didn’t see the tornado coming at all.
Things changed completely unexpectedly in May last year. I remember the moment clearly. I was at the usual team meeting at work and I asked if anyone wanted a cup of tea. One of my colleagues mentioned she was trying to only drink green tea in an attempt to lose some weight. And that was it. Nothing spectacular or dramatic. Just that one comment and something just changed inside my mind. That night I started worrying if I needed to go on a diet, I couldn’t sleep worrying about my body. I too decided I would only have green tea. Except things didn’t stop with just replacing my tea. The next day I couldn’t eat at all. This was the start of my decent into the hellish grips of anorexia nervosa.
Over the next few months the illness got worse. I would only allow myself to eat three things (Konjac noodles [which aren’t even food], branflakes and weight watchers soup). As well as having such a restricted diet, I forced myself to exercise excessively every day. Usually a two mile swim in the morning, followed by a 10k walk in the afternoon and two hours of dance in the evening. Anorexia had taken over my brain and my body completely. I convinced myself I had everything under control but I soon realised that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Eventually things got to the point where I needed to go into intensive treatment and I spent 3 months in a day care service gradually learning to eat again.
By January I had reached my target weight and was discharged back to outpatient care. What I thought back then was that I was over the hardest bit of my journey. I felt I had managed to climb back out of the hole I had been sucked into. Little did I know that my journey into the depths of mental illness had only just really started.
Once back home I struggled to maintain a healthy eating pattern. My sick mind couldn’t cope with the weight gain and how my body looked. I became severely depressed, something which before this point I had not experienced. The depression would come in waves and if I wasn’t feeling depressed I was crippled with chronic anxiety. Panic attacks which left me pacing the house for hours, trying to remember just how to breath.
It was at this time I started thinking irrational thoughts. I would convince myself that I needed to walk 24k a day in order to ensure all my family and friends are safe. I would get up at 4.30am to make sure I would have time to do such a long walk and if for any reason I couldn’t achieve this the anxiety would be unmanageable.
I started thinking I was responsible for bad things that were happening around me and in the world. Terrorist attacks were attributed in my mind to the fact that I hadn’t done enough walking. Every time I went to see my GP (which was weekly at this point) I would have to walk around the car park 17 times. On one occasion a friend (who had accompanied me to the GP) stopped me from doing this car park walk. My anxiety throughout the rest of the day was so high that when everyone else had gone to bed in my house I drove back to the GP surgery to complete the 17 laps.
Things deteriorated fast and I was fighting a war inside my head every single day. I felt every time I managed to climb out of the hole of mental illness and reach the top, the hole would change, become bigger, deeper and suck me back again with new challenges to face.
I started to hear voices. When you say this to people who have never been through such experience they panic. Hearing voices seems to be associated with the ultimate stigma surrounding mental illness. However it is actually a really common symptom. It is estimated that between 5% and 28% of the general population will hear voices that others don’t at some point in their life. For me it started with hearing people shout my name. I would look for them and become paranoid that people were following me. However I soon realised these voices didn’t actually exist in bodies. The voices became louder and the things they said became more emotionally difficult to hear. Constantly criticising me, being derogative, saying things I would never even imagine to say to myself. My worst fears being echoed all around me, throughout the whole day. Then I started hearing instructions, things which often didn’t make any sense and trying to ignore them resulted in waves and waves of pure anxiety.
Again when I thought things could not become worse, the hole again changed and morphed. I was diagnosed with a dissociation disorder, something I knew little about. I can lose hours of my day, forget where I am, what I am doing or where I am going. My mind being in such a state or turmoil it has started to just shut down and switch off. It is incredibly scary. Hours often spent struggling to work out what is real and what just isn’t.
And that is what mental illness is… incredibly scary. It is a cruel illness that one moment leaves you feeling you are out of the hole and doing well only for the next moment to find yourself falling right back down to the bottom again. I am acutely aware I am nowhere near out of the grips of the tornado yet. Only a few days ago I found myself in hospital after the voices had become too intense and I took too many antipsychotic tablets in a desperate bid to try and quiet my own mind.
Not only is it scary, it is incredibly isolating and lonely. Most days I am trying to fight the war inside my own mind and get through the day hour by hour. A war which no one else can see or hear. It isn’t living; it is fighting each day to survive whilst being surrounded by complete mayhem in your own mind. I feel very passionate about speaking as openly and honestly about mental illness and I hope by people writing and continuing to write about it will help reduce the attached stigma.
To the 1 in 4 that are stuck in the tornado with me, please just don’t stop fighting.