Talking about mental health is not an easy thing. It is incredibly personal and there is so much stigma around admitting your vulnerability. It took me a long while to find my voice when talking about the struggles I have faced with my mental health, but now I truly believe that honesty is the best policy, and if I can help just one person get the help they need by sharing my experience in a truthful way, then that is something I will try. Sounds cheesy but when a huge symptom of your illness is feeling alone, the difference between feeling complete isolation and some small feelings of being understood, can make all the difference.
With my mental health issues, it feels difficult to know where to start. I know when things got really bad, but I feel like they started, in some small way, long before then.
Personally, I feel like I had some depressive tendencies since I started hitting puberty. When I went to secondary school, I wasn’t friends with the right people and they ended up essentially ghosting me out of the group. Which, in hindsight, was the best thing for me because I met the group of friends that are still my people to this day. Yet, at the time, I remember beating myself up about it and feeling that I wasn’t good enough. In some way, I feel like I am still working through a lot of those feelings today.
My teenage years were up and down – aren’t they for all of us!? and I don’t think I experienced any specific mental health issues during this time. Towards my late teens I started the process of trying to get into higher education and, as I wanted to go to drama school, rejection was rife. I remember that between the ages of 18 and 21, there were definitely more days that I cried than not. Although, I had the feeling that something wasn’t right, I didn’t know how to comprehend or articulate how I was feeling. Part of me thought I was just suffering for my art!
This takes us up to 2013, when I was finally accepted into my dream drama school, LAMDA. The year-long course is home to some of my most happy memories, I made friends with so many incredible people and I felt like I belonged, and that I had worth, for the first time in a long while.
Unfortunately, in the year that followed was a series of events that pushed me into, what I believe was a complete mental breakdown. This led me to push away a lot of the friends that I made, which is something I am still trying to salvage. If any of those in question are reading this – I am truly sorry.
The events that led to my mental breakdown are still difficult for me to talk about. I think that from an outside point of view, they may seem trivial at times but, at the time, they completely overwhelmed me.
Whilst studying at LAMDA I had broken up with a long-term partner, and although it was the right thing for both of us, it was by no means an easy time and left me questioning my priorities in life and my ability to be loved.
Then, after an incredible year doing what I loved everyday, I was dumped back into the real world where I struggled for work, was financially unstable and, honestly, feeling a little lost.
However, the thing that pushed me over the edge and sent me into the worst depressive episode that I have ever experienced – something I am still feeling the effects of today – was being psychologically abused for months and eventually gaslighted out of a job, which landed me in a situation where I was broke, stuck in a London rental agreement and in such a dark hole that I was unable to get out of bed. This is the time I will speak most about.
I was at the job in questions between September and Christmas of 2014, and throughout those few months the negative experiences caused me to experience stress levels, so severe that it triggered ongoing anxiety and depression. I stopped eating, suffered with insomnia and had my first panic attack in my local Tesco.
It’s important to remember that mental illness often rears its ugly head behind closed doors. Often the smiles that people put on in public are a mask they use to get through the day. Throughout this blog are a selection of images from the past 10 years, which show the image that I put out to ensure that I didn’t worry those around me. What was going on inside was an entirely different story. This is what mental illness looks like.
I left the job just before Christmas of 2014, with the honest belief that if I didn’t get out, that I would end up hurting myself or others. I was truly on the brink. I went home to my parents to see life through into the new year, clouded in a mist of depression, barely getting through the days. Safe to say, it wasn’t a very merry Christmas that year.
In January 2015, I headed back to London and spend the next 6 months, predominantly in bed. Not sleeping, eating sporadically and isolating myself from life. This pattern went on for the next 6 months, and although I did manage to eventually get out of bed to start taking some adhoc temp jobs, I have never really recovered.
Due to these experiences, I had become a master of self-sabotage. A self-destructive force, that was relentless in its ability to keep me in the downward spiral that I had become accustomed to.
I was just about surviving the first half of 2015 when I got word of an audition for a theatre tour in Germany for the coming year. I mustered up the courage to head out to the audition, despite still not really eating or sleeping, with the thought that, if nothing else, I’d spend the day doing what I loved and maybe that would pick me up a bit. To my surprise, I got the job and after talking it through with my parents, decided that escaping for a year might be exactly what I needed.
It was terrifying, heading to the airport for my year abroad, not knowing anyone and really not feeling like myself either. I faced the fear and for the next 11 months, threw myself into the theatre and, to a certain extent, forgot about the things that were overwhelming me back home. I also met my #wonderfulsupportiveboyfriend whilst I was abroad, so that alone was worth facing the fear!
If I may be a little bit soppy for a moment, this man has been instrumental in helping me tackle my mental health issues. Over the past 5 years, he has given me the space and support to face my issues head on, and to get the help I needed to start rebuilding my life. He loved me at my very worst, and is helping me to become my best.
I love you Mickey 🙂
Since returning from my year in Germany, in late 2016, I have taken steps to get my life back on track. I made the difficult decision to leave my acting career, as I felt like it wasn’t a lifestyle that was conducive to me getting well again – never say never for me dipping my toe in that life again, but for now, it’s not what I need.
I visited my GP in early 2017 and broke down in tears whilst trying to explain the way I was feeling and she was truly incredible. She listened to what I had to say and put to bed all my fears that I was just broken, and that nothing could be done. She made me feel like some sort of normality was achievable and I began the next stage of my recovery.
I have now been on Sertraline medication for about 3 and a half years, it’s not a fix all, I still have days when I struggle but after a few weeks of taking it, I felt the difference. The best way to describe it was that it was as if someone had been playing white noise in my head since 2014 and then one day, I was walking down the street and it was like someone had simply turned it off. It was a miracle. I could think and breathe easy for the first time in as long as I could remember. I also undertook NHS therapy through their ‘SilverCloud’ platform, which was really useful.
Despite being on the medication and going through the therapy programme, there were still things that I had to work through by myself. Having had my life and my mind ruled by overwhelming anxiety for so long, I started the long journey towards trying to regain control and not simply transfer that control to other issues.
During my therapy I found that although my anxiety seemed to be easing, I was going through weeks where I was relying on other things – one week I couldn’t drink enough coffee, one week I couldn’t get enough chocolate, one week I drank much more alcohol than I would usually and one week I even craved cigarettes – which was really odd as I have never been a smoker! My therapist told me this was normal and I just had to find out who I was now that my life wasn’t ruled by anxiety. No big deal!
Since finishing therapy and overcoming my fear surrounding the workplace, I had started to regain control over my life. I started a new career in the charity sector, I started my degree, I now have my own business and have travelled extensively over the past few years. However, the more I came to understand myself and my illness, the more I started to see the ways that I had transferred my anxiety into other areas of my life.
The beginning of 2020 saw me realise some home truths. I had withdrawn from life as a way of coping, but this was becoming unhealthy in itself. With the thought of leaving the flat by myself becoming anxiety-inducing – I could feel myself slipping into agoraphobic tendencies. I started to tackle this by forcing myself to go for a walk everyday, when the COVID19 pandemic hit the UK – so not really ideal! However, this led to some deep conversations between me and my boyfriend, and I didn’t let this stop me. If I could overcome my fear of the outside during a time like this, then I would be fine in the future!
Another truth that I had to acknowledge was that I had a real problem with my eating. I had gone from not eating enough during 2014/2015 to overeating/emotional eating with self-destructive binges for the years following. This had led to an excessive weight gain. By trying to gain control of my mind, I had lost control of my body. Nightmare.
This is something that I am still trying to address, and tentatively… I want to say that I am starting to overcome my eating issues and my relationship with food has seemingly become much more positive and healthy in the last few months.
The thing that nobody tells you about experiencing mental health, is the physical effects that it can have on your body. Besides the weight gain, I suffer from stress-induced eczema regularly, my anxiety has given me IBS which I now have to control, depressive episodes leave my whole body aching, during the initial stressful period in 2014 I suffered from a stress-induced condition where all the follicles in my face inflamed – not cool, the lack of sleep can exacerbate other conditions such as allergies and at times, anxiety can get so bad that it makes you physically sick. It’s no picnic. Stress and mental health issues play havoc on your whole body as well as your mind – that is why it such a long journey to overcome them and learn ways to deal with life whilst living with mental illness.
The thing is that this is not something that is curable. I am always going to have good days and bad days, some things will always be a struggle, but I am finding ways to cope. I am finding ways to shape my every day life in a way that keeps me in control and that is a huge step forward. I have an incredible support network around me and I talk openly about my issues now, which really helps. I am building bridges with those that I pushed away during more difficult times. I am building a life that suits me and my increasing capabilities. I am being kinder to myself.
I have learnt that it’s ok to feel a little broken. It’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok to not have all the answers. No one is without flaws, and if you can accept them for yourself and take charge of striving to make yourself the best possible version that you can be, then you can eventually find the light -even when it feels like the darkness will continue forever.
If you are struggling, then visit our ‘Where to get help’ page for more information on the services available to you.
Written by Rebecca Hansell for Small World, Big Cause Blog.
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