2nd April 2018

My Mental Health Roller Coaster

It’s been almost 12 months since my cycling accident now and I feel fortunate to say that the physical after effects are minimal.  Thanks to an incredible surgeon and amazing physio I have returned to at least 95% of my previous physical prowess!

I am sad that I won’t be making a return to the squash court or football pitch but to be honest I was well past my best anyway.  I’m now working on getting in shape to cycle the Tour de Yorkshire (TdY) in May, a year on from the accident that stopped me riding the 2017 edition.

When I started this blog in May 2017 I was aiming to document my recovery over 12 months in the lead up to riding the TdY.  But in all honesty my physical recovery, after a few weeks, has been quite boring in that it has been quick and easy, barely worthy of blogging about.

Something I was not ready for though, was the mental health roller coaster I have been on these past 12 months.  Until this moment I have been doing my best to hide my mental ill health from the world bar a few close friends and family.  I guess I was terrified of what people would think, what they would say and how they might act around me.  Despite mental health getting more press and publicity recently thanks to things like the Princes’ Heads Together campaign and the recent Sports Relief there is still far too much stigma around it.

Diagnosis & Questions

Following a couple of challenging months back at work after my accident I called our employee assistance line and did a 10-15 minute questionnaire. Whilst I was slightly awkward talking openly about how I was feeling it was good to say the words and get an independent assessment of what was going on.

They quickly diagnosed me with stress, anxiety and depression. Within a few days I went to see my GP who confirmed this diagnosis and was massively supportive.  I started a course of clinical psychology and medication within a week.

I knew it was a correct diagnosis given what I was thinking and feeling but it both scared and frustrated me. It took a while for me to accept what was going on and there were so many questions and thoughts spinning through my head…

  • How could I be depressed… I have so much to be thankful and grateful for!
  • How could I be anxious… I have been a confident person my whole life!
  • Life is good… why is this happening to me?!
  • Just pull yourself together… I kept telling myself.
  • I didn’t want to be someone who just took time off work because things were getting too much for me… but it was more than that, much more than that.
  • My biggest fear of all was that no one would believe me!
  • I felt pathetic! And I was scared others would think I was pathetic!

Getting to the root of the problem

Despite discussing the cause of my issues with a psychologist for hours and several others I have never quite got to the root of it all.  I think there have been several contributing factors – the build up of work stress over time, the trauma of a serious accident, maybe some PTSD, a challenging return to work after 6 weeks at home, the feeling of job insecurity throughout, financial stress and far too much overthinking.

That’s quite a long list but individually not that significant, most of these things I have managed quite effectively in the past.  But unfortunately, all of these combined within a few weeks of one another; the accident was perhaps a trigger and the key underlying health issue of insomnia over six months which was gradually getting worse led me to spiral completely out of control.

Complete Debilitation

Despite having recent experience of mental ill health through my dad, I still had no idea how debilitating it is, both mentally and physically.  My body and mind completely shut down.  I didn’t feel capable of doing anything remotely “normal”.  Talking to people, even close family and friends, became a massive challenge and all I wanted to do was lock myself away from the world.

I struggled on at work after moving in to a new job internally but after a couple of weeks of rapid decline I thought it was becoming clear to a few people that something was wrong.  I was talking to a few very supportive friends in and out of work and they all agreed that I needed to take some time out and get some medical advice.  It took me several days to come around to this but eventually I discussed it with HR and my line manager and agreed to take a few days off work to see a GP and try to clear my head.

GP & Medication

I was worried the GP wouldn’t understand or believe me but he was very understanding and supportive and we quickly agreed that my lack of sleep was top priority so I started taking sleeping pills.  We also discussed therapy, psychology and anti-depressant medication, all of which I was sceptical about.

I appreciate everyone who suffers has a different recovery process but I feel very fortunate that the following clinical process managed to pull me out of the hole I felt I had dug for myself:

  • Firstly, I tried to tackle the insomnia with sleeping pills but these barely made a difference
  • I then moved on to beta blockers and anti-depressants (mirtazapine)
  • I was referred to a clinical psychologist to talk things through
  • Using mindfulness (Headspace) and clinical behavioural therapy (CBT) I was able to regain control of my thoughts and clear my head
  • Despite feeling like a zombie on medication after a few weeks I was able to sleep through the night again which made the biggest difference

Turning things around

On returning to work after almost 3 weeks off (half holiday/half sick) I was feeling slightly more “normal”, maybe 30% of my normal self, but I knew I had to change jobs again.  Fortunately, a very supportive friend managed to create a new work opportunity, helping me to start moving forwards positively again.

It has by no means been plain sailing from there but after 6 hours of therapy and 6 weeks of drugs I was finally starting to feel somewhat “normal” again.

Four months on from the peak of my mental ill health I am very happy to say that I am back on track with the support of some amazing people, I’m not going to embarrass them here but they know who they are.

SHAME, Guilt & Embarrassment

In a recent podcast I listened to (more on this below), Stephen Fry (SF) talks a lot about stigma and its three twin siblings: shame, guilt and embarrassment. For me shame was massive!

I am a logical person and there was no truly logical reason for feeling the way I did and that frustrated me and made me feel very ashamed. This meant it took me a long time to tell anyone and open up about things.

SF gives a great analogy about genital warts – they are embarrassing and you wouldn’t show your friends. At the moment mental health for most people is almost in this league of embarrassment and feeling ashamed which is such a sad thing.

Humans are naturally ashamed of things that are out of our control, such as our bodies and our health. Instead of being ashamed of the negative things in the world that we could control if we wanted, such as war, pollution, deforestation etc.

 

It can strangely enrich your life

This is really hard to explain but Stephen Fry puts it perfectly in his podcast…

“The very attention you have paid your mind [whilst going through mental ill health] and your happiness makes your life that much richer than people that don’t need to think about it”.

Fearne Cotton then chips in to say you have effectively learnt what the extremes of life are and can therefore appreciate the relative “normality” that most people take for granted.

I personally think this is so true and particularly true for myself.  I have been 70-90% back to my old self since the turn of the year but since I have learnt to enjoy life more, not take it so seriously and appreciate the truly important things like family and friends.

Why blog about this now?

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of mental health despite not having direct contact with it outside of my dad.  A few things over the past few weeks have giving me the push I have needed to start sharing my story…

  • Run4YourMind – I have made a great friend and support network in Oly Newton, who has been a bit of an inspiration for this blog. Oly has suffered with OCD, anxiety and depression for years but late last year he shared his story via a blog and social media and began running to clear his head. I hooked up with Oly when I was really down and he was one of my biggest supports in returning towards my old self. Please check out Oly’s story and share – https://www.facebook.com/run4yourmind/

  • Stephen Fry & Fearne Cotton – Becky and I listened to Fearne’s Happy Place podcast with Stephen Fry who himself suffers with bipolar disorder and is the President of the leading mental health charity Mind. I’m a big fan of Stephen anyway and not just because he is associated with my football team NCFC!

The podcast itself is one of the most educated conversations I have ever heard on mental health and well worth a listen. For those interested – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/happy-place/id1353058891?mt=2

  • SB&G Inclusion & Diversity – Wellbeing Workstream – I was so pleased when the company I work for started pushing I&D late last year including the setting up of several workstream groups focused on making the workplace better for minority groups such as women (<20% of SB&G), parents/carers and LGBT+. Included in these groups was one on wellbeing with a strong focus on mental health. I joined the wellbeing and parenting groups and this has actually been some of the most rewarding “work” I have done at SB&G. I have made some great friends and a support network through this and I’m hoping to become mental health first aid trained and support wider support groups going forwards.

  • Talking & opening up has helped me no end – Opening up and sharing stories and pain with others massively helps to release negative thoughts. The encouragement I have had from friends has brought me to the point that I feel comfortable and confident sharing my story, which is something I never thought I would be able to do!

It’s good to talk!

Please feel free to talk to me or others if you are suffering, I definitely found talking to supportive people and opening up the best way to get through the tough times.

Don’t suffer in silence.

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