This is my mental health story. In one way or another, we’ve all got one to tell.
November 4th 2015 is a day I won’t ever forget. I walked into my GP surgery, a shell of myself, and nervously waited for my name to be called. Eventually I made my way down to the doctors office; I was newly registered at the surgery and hadn’t met him before. I didn’t really know what I was going to say. I didn’t have a sore throat or a twisted ankle or a persistent headache. I’d never thought much about my mental health before. I was struggling to comprehend in my own head how I felt, so putting it into words felt like an impossible task. In the end, I didn’t even need to try. “I’m just so tired” I sobbed, before dissolving into a flood of tears.
Let’s rewind a few weeks. That September I had started at university having left my job and moved flats (also in London). Freshers and that first half a term were nothing like I’d hoped they’d be. I felt isolated, out of place and incredibly lonely. I had all these grand ideas about how I’d be going clubbing dressed like a slutty mouse – actually not my thing, but it’s what you do when you’re a fresher, right?! – joining quirky societies, playing for the Netball 7th team (yeah, that was actually a thing) and hanging out in my fairy light-clad halls room drinking warm box wine with my new girlfriends.
In reality, I was sat in my alien-seeming little box room alone, sobbing uncontrollably without any real comprehension as to why. Nothing had happened. I wasn’t hurt, nobody had died, I hadn’t received bad news. I just felt sad, so very devastatingly low that everything ached and I just wanted to wrap myself in a cocoon and hide.
The day before I rang the GP, I took a train to Reading to meet my mum half way for lunch and Christmas shopping. Ordinarily I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend a day but instead of relishing her company or the early festivities, I felt like a deflated balloon. On the train home I curled up in the seat and stared out the window for an hour, seemingly totally devoid of any feeling. My mum text me that evening to share her concern and the next day I woke up and rang the doctors.
I’m not sure whether the receptionist heard something in my voice or I just got particularly lucky, but I was seen less than 24 hours later. The NHS isn’t renowned for it’s mental health care, but at this point in my journey, and right up until I tried (and failed) to access therapy a little later on, I received outstanding care. Never once did I feel like I wasn’t taken seriously and I’ll always be grateful for that.
During that first appointment little was said. Honestly, I didn’t offer much but lots of salty tears and gulped half-sentences. Dr Smith helped me to fill out the depression questionnaire (worlds worst pub quiz) and I was sent for bloods too just in case. It’s a funny one isn’t it, how we just can’t help but look for a physical cause first?
Initially I was adamant that I didn’t want anti-depressants. I feared becoming reliant on them, I feared they’d mean I was certifiable crazy. Basically, I was just really scared. I went home with an appointment scheduled for a few days time to discuss the test results.
I’m not sure what changed within me, but when I found myself back at Dr Smith’s desk draining his supply of tissues, I was ready to say yes.
As expected, my bloods came back clear. The quiz and Dr Smith’s own observations diagnosed me with severe clinical depression and anxiety. Later I was also diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder based on patterns dating back four years.
He drew a simple diagram to try and explain to me how 60mg of Fluoxetine would impact my mind. If my feelings were currently a rollercoaster with aggressively low dips, the drugs would cap them both at the top and the bottom. I may not feel high, but I shouldn’t feel so low anymore either. I’ve tried to recreate it below.
Dr Smith did warn me that it was likely to get worse before it got better and that the first few weeks would be rough. I was terrified. I kept reminding myself that had I booked an appointment for tonsillitis, I’d be doing so seeking a prescription for penicillin. Clutching that slip and making my way to the pharmacy should not be perceived any differently.
The next few months
I’m not acutely aware of what the next couple of months looked like. I was living in a bit of a daze and still struggling to function at a normal capacity. Whilst the Prozac did mean I wasn’t sobbing all the team (very helpful), it did bring a very unwanted guest to the party: insomnia. I spent most nights laid awake staring into space or, on a good day, drawing until 4am.
I don’t even remember that Christmas or New Year. Without thinking really hard about it, I couldn’t tell you where I spent either or what gifts I received.
My anxiety heightened acutely, so much so that I was often afraid to leave my room. I bought a fridge and a kettle so I could limit how often I had to head to the communal kitchen, even.
University became a huge sticking point in my head. I’d tell myself I was going to turn up, I had a friend who did her best to text me and save me a seat in seminars, I’d get dressed and ready. Then I’d just sit, completely paralysed. I’m not even sure what I was afraid of. By mid-January I was contemplating dropping out of my dream university. I had contacted the wellbeing department; they’d received a letter from my doctor who so helpfully allowed me to access extra exam support. Unfortunately, aside from a single meeting putting extra time and the use of a computer (the blue light helped to keep me awake) into place, the ‘wellbeing’ support stopped there and in 3 years I never heard from them again.
Anxiety wasn’t something I often even recognised at this point in my life because it was just always there. One moment I haven’t shaken since was when I was on a train into Waterloo; it was crowded and I didn’t move out the way quickly enough when someone wanted to get off. They shouted at me. The Beth now can see that that person was obviously a raging arsehole and deserved to miss their stop. The Beth then crumbled into hot, embarrassing tears and struggled to keep breathing, let alone composed.
Depression is often called the black dog. It’s too friendly sounding, I like dogs. It wasn’t something I could separate from myself so easily. I wasn’t surrounded by a black cloud so much as I’d swallowed it and its insidious vapours swirled around my blood stream and filled my lungs with poison every time I took a breath.
Sometimes every part of me physically hurt, other times I would stare at a wall for an hour feeling and thinking absolutely nothing.
I cancelled plans I’d made months before including theatre tickets I’d been really excited about booking. It felt like that girl had died or at least run far away and I couldn’t possibly have taken the seat, an imposter, in her place.
Trying to access therapy
Having been on antidepressants for 3 months with regular check ins with my fabulous GP, he felt that I’d really benefit from CBT and talking therapy. Unfortunately, I was a student living in London on my loan and – although I was hardly spending it all on vodka and nights out like I should’ve been – there was absolutely no way I could afford the sessions.
He referred me to the local NHS services. A consultation appointment was scheduled at Tommy’s hospital in Lambeth where I briefly met with a therapist to discuss what CBT would involve. It was hard even making that first meeting, but I left feeling optimistic. She was confident I’d really benefit.
I was gutted when I received a call a few days later to inform me that, in order to access 1-1 therapy on the NHS I’d either have to attend 6 weeks of group therapy or complete a 12 week online course first. I genuinely couldn’t think of anything worse than group therapy.
In hindsight, maybe I should’ve opted for it because the course – Beating the Blues (yes, really! I mean, fuck me what insensitive sod came up with that one) – was truly hideous. An early 2000’s style computer programme essentially asked me to type my feelings into a box. I quickly learned that the responses were automated. A lot of it didn’t even make sense:
“Describe the problem you are trying to overcome.”
“And where are you when this problem occurs?”
“What are you trying to do when you experience this feeling?”
It made me feel genuinely angry every time I tried to give it a go and I quickly gave up.
I was eventually offered a 6 week course of therapy at 9am every Thursday morning. This clashed with one of my university seminars – I was really trying to get my attendance back up – and so I asked to amend it. My slot got cancelled.
I am not by any means bashing the NHS. I am so grateful for the support and care my GP showed me. Simply, this experience – when I needed more than just pills dispensing – highlighted to me how lacking mental health provisions currently are.
Things people said that made me want to punch them
“Have you tried doing regular exercise?”
“Here’s an article on hormone imbalance – depression is just chemical!”
“Inactivity breeds inactivity!”
“Oh yeah, I get nervous sometimes too”
Don’t get me wrong, I know people are trying to help. I often struggle with a lot of the narrative surrounding mental health and especially anxiety online because I think people often confusion feeling anxious – an emotion we all experience – with having a clinical anxiety disorder. It’s debilitating and worlds apart from getting a bit flustered or panicky before a big date/presentation/because something bad happened.
The lowest lows
At my lowest, I wasn’t sleeping, I was barely eating and all I wanted to do was lie in bed all day. I felt as though I was carrying 50 kilos draped over my shoulders, my eyes stung constantly and, as everyone mistakenly believes when they’re caught in the throws of it, nobody understood.
I wouldn’t ever have described myself as suicidal but I did once stand on a train platform as it was pulling in and – fleetingly – think how much more peaceful things could be.
I’d often wish myself some kind of physical injury or illness. I’d fantasise about getting run over and being hospitalised for months where I’d have a reason to be in bed, to be looked after, that nobody would judge me for. That everyone would understand. That wouldn’t feel like my fault.
Seeing the light
I continued on the Fluoxetine for about 6 months or so, changing the dosage now and again at my doctors request. At one point it made me feel completely flat; the swooping lows had gone but so had any sense of joy.
Thankfully, by the time April came around life felt a lot more manageable. I had exams fast approaching and, without about two weeks to go, I achieved a lot.
Around mid-May I was feeling a lot more human. My doctor had discussed weaning me off of the antidepressants very gradually, but to be honest I began to forget to take them. I took this as a good sign; if I remembered later in the day I’d acknowledge it but wouldn’t catch up the dose. I figured my body – or maybe my mind – was telling me what it did and didn’t need.
As soon as exams finished I whisked myself off to America to spend a month with my older brother in the Georgia sunshine. It’s not so much that I was ‘fixed’, but I felt considerably more mentally ‘well’ again and began recognising anxiety and depression as tendencies I may live with occasionally, rather than conditions that ruled my life.
Three years have passed since that period and thankfully, I have not had one so low again.
I have bad days. Sometimes I wake up and feel like some kind of doom has descended around me but I’m much better at acknowledging it, at telling those close to me who may be able to help and at doing the things I need to do to shake it off.
If that guy yelled at me on the train today? You bet I would stand on his shiny toed brogues.
Anxiety is not me. I am not an anxious person. Rather, it’s something that every now and again attempts to pop in like an unwanted guest. Today Beth is much better at telling it when it’s outstayed it’s welcome.
We all have minds therefore we all have mental health, just as we do physical health. I’m much better at treating my mental health as an equal these days.
Things I do that keep me sane on a bad day
- Get outdoors: I know I probably sound like a raging hypocrite because I probably wished rabies on anyone who said this to me when I was feeling low but now that I’m able to recognise when I’m feeling extra shitty, I head out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be long, or far. I’m lucky to live by a beautiful common in London and a walk through the trees – particularly when I reach the point on the path where I can see nothing but woodland – helps me to sort my head out.
- What’s the worst possible thing that can happen?: Anxiety is usually already asking this for you and telling you it’s going to happen. It’s not. Beat anxiety to the post and ask yourself; you’ll likely soon realise how unlikely it is to manifest that way.
- Tell someone close to you: Even if it’s just “I’m feeling low today and I need a hug/cup of tea”
- Consider what matters in that moment: So I’ve woken up feeling like a black fog is hanging around my head. Is today really the day to try and do my tax return?
- Use a Light Box: I bought a light box very soon after I was diagnosed with depression and still have it 3 and a half years later. They are great, especially on dark mornings. They make perfect make up lights too. This is the one I would recommend; it’s medical grade, wireless and portable.
- Wake Up Light: I swear by one of these! Mental health aside, it’s a considerably nicer start to the day. This is a fancy pants one I’ve got my eye on and this is the basic version I have now.
Thank you for reading. This is the scariest post I have ever written, let alone hit publish on. Your time to consume those, often shaky, words mean the world. B x
Mental Health resources you might find helpful
- MIND Mental Health Charity: 0300 123 3393 or text 86463
- Rethink Mental Illness: 03005000927
- Young Minds (for those with concerns about the mental health of a child/young adult): 020 7336 8445
- Nightline: specifically for students with mental health concerns
- Lesbian & Gay Switchboard: 020 7837 7324