Working with Mental Illness

I can’t really remember when I first recognised that I felt anxious, but I was always known as a sensitive child, and a bit of a crybaby. I now know that mental illness usually manifests in childhood or adolescence but at the time I just thought that this was just “who I was”

My parents told me how I would watch the news as a child and that there was this one story of a child who was having a heart transplant. I followed the story for weeks, crying every time the news was on and worrying for the child’s safety. He died in the end, I cried and cried… (Knowing this about myself, I don’t let my daughter watch the news).

I also had a little friend when I was 4 years old, and one day he and his family had to move away to a different town, which meant we’d no longer go to school together. I told everyone that we were going to be married and when it happened, I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again.

I was 4 years old and I cried about it on and off for a couple of years. I’d like to say that it was something I grew out of, but my friends and family can testify that to this day, I still cry a lot, and worry over things that most people wouldn’t even think of, or care about. Also, I never did forgive him for leaving.

When I was in primary and secondary school, I faced a lot of bullying. Because I was a sensitive child, I think I stood out as someone who would be an easy target.

It was very difficult to deal with and really shaped who I am today. A lot of my issues circle around what people think of me.

In my late teens and early adulthood, I began to feel a tightening of my chest, like someone was sitting on me and a horrible feeling of dread. I assumed it was a physical thing and so went to the GP. I had chest x-rays, several EKGs, blood tests and was even given an inhaler before the diagnosis of “general anxiety” came my way in my early twenties.

I also learned that what I was feeling was the symptoms of an anxiety attack — albeit mild enough to allow me to get on with my day to day activities. I didn’t take it as seriously as I do now and I just tried to get on with my life, without making real changes to help myself or actively seek treatment.

I went into the world of work knowing that ”I sometimes get anxiety attacks” and that ”I’m a bit sensitive”. I didn’t really have any understanding of my mental illness or how people could help me to deal with it and so I bumbled through a couple of jobs once I arrived in the UK around 2011.

One job was in a call centre (or my version of hell) and another in an IT company, also having to work on the phone with clients.

I don’t look back on those early professional endeavours as successes, or conducive to my mental health. I even experienced some discrimination due to my mental illness — being fired from the first job for calling in unwell due to anxiety, and the second one calling out my mental health in my reference to my next employer. I now know that was a bit “naughty” of them and I should have stood up to it at the time.

I’d say my biggest failure when it comes to my mental health would be that I was very slow to accept that it was and still is, a huge part of my life and something that I need to actively manage. Another one would be that I sometimes can expect people to just know how I’m doing or what I need. I can sometimes expect people to just know how what they say or do can affect me when in reality they are not mind readers and more often than not, don’t know or wouldn’t consider it.

One rather unpleasant side effect of having a mental illness (at least in my case) is the tendency to shun the positive and obsess over the negative. I’m certainly guilty of not believing any positive feedback I’ve received at a time when I was suffering mentally because how could anyone ever think well of me when I thought so little of myself. I’ve spent way too long thinking, and over thinking about that one “sort of negative” thing someone said to me that one time.

I didn’t say no to things that I should have, out of fear of letting someone down or upsetting them. I could be easily taken advantage of or walked over, and I would take on too much in order to keep those around me happy, often becoming stressed out and unwell, having to let them down anyway.

Because I have an anxiety disorder, fear plays a huge part in my daily life. Mostly I can move through them and get on with things anyway but there are some running themes that I can’t shake and at times when the fears overwhelm me, it’s crippling. In no particular order…

I’m afraid that:

  • I’m a burden to those around me
  • I could be treated differently because of it
  • Maybe I really am crazy?
  • One day it might win
  • What if I pass this onto my daughter?
  • People think I’m weak
  • People think I can’t do my job
  • People think I am a bad mother
  • What if I have such a hard time one day that social services get involved with my parenting?
  • What if I’m actually right and everyone does hate me?
  • I’m going to push everyone away
  • Is this ALL that I am?

I try to just accept these fears, defuse them from myself and live my life anyway, because they are not going anywhere but I’ve still got stuff to do.

Things have improved a lot since my early experiences with anxiety. Before I started sharing my story with the wider world, it was only really my close friends and family who knew that I had an issue in the first place. I’ve had more of a tough time this past year, and probably since my daughter was born really but I know what to do now.

I know which parts of me are really me and which parts are rooted in having an anxiety disorder. I can usually keep those two things separate.

I’ve got supportive family and friends and a supportive workplace and so it’s easier to keep on top of things and catch it before things reach crisis point. It wasn’t easy to get to this point and I have made so many mistakes along the way.

It’s not always under control but I’ve got a fighting chance now, and the tools to help me stay well and enjoy a full life.

Since opening up about it, I’ve found that other people have come to me to share their stories and confide in me and that has been so lovely. It’s amazing to know that just by talking about it, I can be helping other people.

I have learned some additional coping strategies that I’d like to share.

  • Say no to things if you don’t want to — or can’t — do them
  • Try to accept it
  • Do something mindful (breathing, running, colouring)
  • Get a therapy animal
  • Shower and get dressed every day
  • Tell yourself “what anyone thinks of me is none of my business” (quote by Eleanor Roosevelt)
  • Channel it into something creative, make use of it because it’s not going away on its own, but you may as well get something from it
  • Write down how you feel and bin it
  • Go for a walk, get some exercise
  • Scream into a pillow (try it)
  • Do something you like, just for you — often. Don’t feel guilty about that.
  • Be afraid and do it anyway — it’s never as bad as it seems
  • “Defusion”, Notice your thoughts, musical thoughts.

The bright side is that attitudes are changing, and society is much more accepting of mental health issues. Along with that, at least for me, there are some benefits to having anxiety, or at least I think so. It’s a part of me and I might as well see the good in it, as well as work to keep it in check.

  • I care deeply about everyone in my life, and they know about it because I constantly worry about them and how they are doing.
  • I am really, really attentive to my surroundings and other people’s moods
  • I can empathise with those who are struggling, and I can spot those like myself who are anxious.
  • I am able to articulate how I feel really well because I’ve had so much time to think about it
  • I’m pretty creative after having found so many different outlets to channel how I feel
  • I think (but you can judge) that I have a good sense of humour and I’m pretty funny. I know how to make fun of myself because I was bullied for such a long time. My material is endless.
  • I don’t think I would have started writing about it if I didn’t experience it first hand and I’m really proud of my writing.

I never would have become one of the few mental health first aiders in the UK if I didn’t have my own experiences with it. I feel like I help a lot of people both in and out of work and I’m really thankful that I can do that.

Software Engineer, expert worrier and mum

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