This week is Mental Health Awareness Week - all across social media you will find very brave people sharing their stories of survival using the hashtag #mentalhealthawarenessweek #timetotalk
I’m going to apologise now - I think this will probably be a pretty long blog! That is, if I actually get the courage up to actually press publish at the end of it.
A few years ago I would have probably not been that sympathetic to the person who had, on first impression what seemed to be a lovely “together” life, who was struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. In fact, even when I was sat across the desk (for probably the 3rd time in as many months) from my nurse practioner, tears and snot running down my exhausted face, saying that I was okay now, I would be alright, I could get it together myself. Even when she said to me, it isn’t normal to feel this way, I think you have a bit of depression. Even then - I wouldn’t accept it. I was trying the British stiff upper lip. Each time this reoccurred I would give myself a bit of a talking to. “Come on Kirsty, You have a lovely family, lovely friends, the child you never thought you would have, a lovely home, what more could you need”. I was safe, I was secure - what on earth did I have to be depressed about!?
I’m not quite sure what came first, the anxiety or the depression. In fact I read an article on the BBC at the weekend about post natal depression and so much of it rang true with me, so maybe that is where it all began with me five years ago, although I hid it from my GP and Health Visitor I think I probably should have sought help at that stage - but I assumed that all new and exhausted mums felt exactly the same!
In order to understand the past few years of my life you need to know the following facts about me (it may seem like a random bunch of facts - but it’s all relevant):
- My Father died of a Heart Attack aged 36 when I was 5 months old.
- I am a 36 year old PCOS sufferer, who has struggled with my weight and fertility all my life - before falling pregnant I had various courses of treatment and a produce called ovarian drilling.
- After a horrendous year when we lost my dear Nan and then 4 months later my Mother-in-Law we decided to give up on our fertility journey and enjoy life for a bit. That’s when I fell pregnant naturally.
- We waited for the 12 week scan before we dared to share our news. Two days later I started bleeding heavily - this happened to me on and off throughout the pregnancy - it was absolutely terrifying, we became regulars at the hospital for scans and monitoring. Oh and my husband also had a motorbike accident a few days after my 12 week scan - he was so very lucky - he escaped with a ruined knee, it cost him 9 months off work and his love of running, but he is still here and that is the most important thing!
- Our little bundle (Robert) arrived in the world (at high speed) 3 weeks before he was due (so technically he was at term). It was a very traumatic birth for both of us - I required a general anaesthetic and surgery and then got pre-eclampsia, and he lost more than 10% of his birth weight dropping down to 4lb 8oz. We had a week long stint in hospital before we were able to come home.
- I spent the first 5 months of Robert’s life strugglung with breastfeeding. I didn’t have enough milk, in order to boost my supply I tried supplements, funerugreek, lactation cookies and also pumping between feeds. I was constantly either attached to him or a pump. I was exhausted and I felt like a failure.
Well that pretty much brings you up to where I was at the beginning of motherhood. I know now reading this back to myself that this is where it all began. I had a huge desire to be the best mum that I could be at any cost, but I also knew that I needed to protect this tiny little human we had created. I became irrationally fearful of everything - the usual is he breathing at night, through to what if I die, how will Dave be me and look after our son as I would. Even as I type these words now it seems ridiculous, but that was generally how I spent all my days, worrying about things that were out of my control.
Then a couple of years ago I found a lump in the soft tissue of my stomach - I had an ultrasound and was told by the radiographer that all looked okay - it was probably just a fatty lump. A couple of hours later I had a phone call from a junior doctor at our GP telling me that they had been contacted about my ultrasound as a code red for an urgent follow up. What followed was a very awkward conversation - me wondering if that meant it was cancer and her telling me that yes it ment it was not benign tumour, she wouldn’t say cancer, she just kept saying it was not benign. So now there I was - on google - soft tissue cancers - 50% survival rates. All of my fears were coming true! It was two weeks before I saw the consultant at the hospital, he seemed very relaxed and jovial but soon picked up that I was petrified. He explained that it was a very simple operation, a quick in and out and then removal of the lump - he couldn’t believe what the Dr had told me and did his very best to assure me that it would be tested to be sure, but he was very confident from it’s appearance that it was just a fatty lump and i should try not to worry.
It was another two weeks before my operation - we spent that month in a daze - neither of us sleeping well, both of us worrying in silence about what the future would be for our little family.
Fast forward another two weeks - there I am sat in the GP Surgery with the lovely nurse practitioner (who eventually got me to accept that I was suffering from a Mental Illness). I had been having chest pains on and off for a few days and was at the Drs because I was worried about them. After a fair bit of chat (covering most of what I have already told you about) the nurse told me that she thought I was probably suffering from Anxiety. My reply to her? I’m alright - it can’t be anxiety it’s actual physical pain, a stabbing pain, almost right in my heart. The nurse was amazing, she didn’t rush me, she didn’t make me feel uncomfortable and soon the tears were flowing. She even put a call in to the hospital (as my results were not yet back) - I got the all clear, it WAS a benign tumour. I should have been jumping for joy, seizing the day and making the most of the 2nd chance at life that I had been given. Instead this was the catalyst for my Anxiety and Panic as the realisation that I cannot control everything and that you never know when your time is up, was even more plain to me now.
I spent the next couple of years in a vicious cycle. I would try and carry on life as normal - lots of toddler groups, my little part time job and starting up Paper and Smiles. Life on the outside was great, I was happy, smiley and if you bumped into me in the street you would have had no idea of what was happening to me. I was ( I thought) my usual happy self with my family and friends too.
Each day I would wake up and feel okay, then I would remember that last night or yesterday I was suffering and soon the pain would be back. As the day went on my pain got worse and worse - always in the left side of my chest and by the end of the day sometimes I was in agony. It felt like I was being stabbed in the chest with a knife. My GP team were great. I’m not one for going to the doctors and each time left it until I was on the edge of hysteria. I had blood test, ECG’s and despite all the reassurance that I was okay I was still convinced that I had a problem with my heart. Each time I visited I apologised for wasting their time and resources, I felt a terrible guilt, as there was nothing wrong with me and after one of these sessions I would feel okay for a few days. It never took long for the pain to return though. Sometimes this pain would manifest itself into a full blown panic attack (although each time this happened I thought it was a heart attack), usually these would happen in the middle of the night - mostly after I had been laying awake and worrying, a link that I never made at the time! I convinced myself that I was going to die young, like my father did.
This cycle carried on for months - each Drs visit I would turn down the offers of help - I could do this on my own. I definitely did not need antidepressants. I just needed to give myself a good talking too, get a grip of myself and then everything would be okay. The one thing that I did accept were some betablockers that I could take when I felt a panic attack coming on.
I finally reached breaking point. It was a Wednesday and I was at home alone with Robert who was just about 4 years old at the time. I had a tightening around my chest, pins and needles in my arms, shortness of breath. I had sensed it coming but all the coping skills that I had picked up and 2 lots of betablockers didn’t help. I was shaking, I felt nauseous and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t phone 999 (I guess deep down I knew that this was just another panic attack), I called my husband at work, the first time I had ever reached out for his help, and then my GP Surgery and one of the lovely nurses there called me back. It was at that point that I asked for help, I couldn’t fix myself. I just didn’t know how and I was gradully getting worse and worse. The nurse made me an appointment and also got me referred to the Wiltshire IAPT. The whole time I was on the phone I was trying to hide from Robert, I did not want him to pick up that there might be something wrong but it all just got too much. He sensed that something was up, and he heard me talking to the nurse, it’s amazing how intuitive a 4 year old can be. He kept hugging and kissing me and wandered off into my workroom and came back with a roll of colourful rainbow heart washi tape. He pulled a big length off and stuck it across my chest, “there you go mummy, that’ll fix your broken heart”. That was me gone - my heart literally broke at that moment. Up until that point I had managed to keep it all together, Robert had never once known that I was in pain or that I was worried about anything, I wanted to protect him from it and it was at that point I realised enough was enough. I had lost the battle, I was a mess, anxiety and panic had taken over every aspect of my life and there was no way that I could win this alone. I couldn’t stop the tears, I hugged my caring, sweet little man tight until his dad got home and then I slept.
I had another appointment with the lovely nurse at my GP surgery, who told me the options available, a referral to a councillor, a course with the Wiltshire IAPT Service, antidepressants or a combination of all four. I plumped for the first 3 - there was no way I wanted to take antidepressants.
I had some over the phone sessions with a councillor from the Wiltshire IAPT who was fantastic and also set me up on the Silvercloud app, which was (and still is) a really useful app to have access to. I also attended a course ran by the Wiltshire IAPT on Panic, Anxety and Worry course. It was during this course that I realised that I was suffering from mainly from health anxiety. I was convinced that I had something wrong with my heart and that I was going to die! The course helped me so much - I learnt coping techniques, I learnt to understand why I was suffering with anxiety and ways that I could manage how I was feeling. The hardest part was walking through that door on the first evening. Then I remembered what the course was for and that everyone attending would be feeling the same! There were lots of us sat in our cars in the car park waiting for some other brave soul to make the first move though!
Despite all this support the panic attacks and chest pains continued, although not everyday and I also knew what was happening to me to. Another thing that happened to me was that I was so very tired, as well as so very disorganised - I lost interest in cooking, keeping organised and even running Paper and Smiles. Washing mounted up, piles of paperwork started creeping in on any available surface and I avoided cleaning the house at all costs. Not doing all those things actually makes you feel worse and soon life becomes overwhelming.
Eventually after a review with the nurse, and lots more tears - I accepted that I had depression as well as anxiety and that I now needed a bit of extra help, despite all the help and support I had received it had still not gone! That’s the thing with mental illness, no amount of reasoning and rationale will cure it!
Throughout this time I had very close friends and family that were going through terrible things, health problems, job losses, heartbreak, cancer, and loss. I felt a terrible guilt and shame for how I was, it is not until I reflect on it now that I can tell myself that this isn’t something I choose to go through, this isn’t something that I caused or something that I had any control of. At that point only my Mum, My Husband Dave, and a couple of very close friends knew what was going on with me and I kept up the brave face and seemingly
I have been on a type of antidepressant suitable for anxiety now for about 6 months, it took a while to get the dose correct but when we did guess what happened....no more chest pains. It’s not a miracle cure. In fact I have had days where I have done what I needed to do (like feed my son, get home to school) and then go home and get back into bed until the school pick up. I lost my creative mo-jo completely. Apart from a little folder of “depression doodles” the dark things which came out each time I tried to doodle a fun illustration. The one below sums up how I felt on my darkest days. It makes me sad to look at this now, I wasn’t alone, but I felt like I was.
I still find it so hard to believe that anxiety can cause so much physical pain.
About 3 weeks ago I realised that I have not been myself for the past 5 years or so - finally I am feeling more like my old self, I’ve got my mojo back and I feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.
I know that my journey is probably far from over - but I am now in the best place that I can be to take care of myself. Of course I still have up and down days - who doesn’t? I choose to make my mental health a priority over my physical health (although they go hand in hand I couldn’t manage both at the same time), this means that I have gained a bit of weight over the past few months, but now that I am feeling a bit more like my old self I am also ready to tackle that extra timber and break the comfort eating habit that I have fallen into!
One of the biggest changes I have tried to make is being more active, I’ve never really enjoyed jogging (despite the appeal of it being free). I remembered how much I loved to swim, but also that I was very rusty so I booked myself a lesson with my sons swimming teacher - I bloody loved it and within a couple of days I had talked myself into taking part in the British Heart Foundation Bournemouth Pier to Pier swim in July! So that’s what I am doing - I have recently shared a bit of this story with my Facebook friends as part my fundraising I was completely overwhelmed with the messages of love, empathy and support that I received. As well as the stories of other people that have been through or are going through something similar.
It was the reaction to that post was the catalyst for writing blog. I’m a pretty private person so this not being anonymous, is a bit of a thing, I definitely feel like I am over sharing here - but hey - sharing is caring.
If you are reading this and feeling that some of this resonated with you then please I beg of you, don’t hide behind that smile. Seek help. It’s okay not to be okay, there is nothing to be ashamed of! I have some other posts planned with tips and links for support and advice regarding Mental Health - I promise they will not be this long!
PS - If you have made it this far I SALUTE YOU! That was a VERY long post!
Lots of Love
PPS - If you fancy supporting my on my Pier to Pier Swim the link is here: