A few days ago it was World Mental Health Day. I thought I needed to write a response to the day as it is a personal day for me.
The purpose of World Mental Health Day was a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. It is an initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health to raise public awareness of mental health issues worldwide. In particular it encourages everyone to look at mental health in a more positive light, in an effort to reduce stigma and make a way for more people to seek the help and support they deserve.
World Mental Health Day Australia Website
Growing up, my anxiety and depression went hand-in-hand with how I was treated by other kids and adults. If you are unaware, I was born with a rare craniofacial syndrome, at a time where anyone with a severe difference was hidden away. My parents rebeled against this and pushed me out into the world. It wasn't easy for them, and it certainly wasn't easy to me.
I have vivid memories of situations where my pulse was racing, fear was coursing through my veins, and I fled instead of fighting. I developed acute social anxiety which haunted me for most of my adult life. In high school my obsession with perfection led to more anxiety and I began to avoid exams and assessments I didn't think I was ready to take, or weren't completed at my high personal standard. None of this particularly worked for me, and without help, these behaviours followed me into my teaching career.
Teaching is not easy at the best of times, and you are expected to be self-confident, out there, be able to talk to anyone. I struggled to begin with because of sabotaging thoughts, and at times during my 25 year career in the classroom, would need mental health days to try and get my anxiety under control.
The beginning of my depression I can't pin a date to. I know as a teenager I was pretty mixed up, but aren't most teenagers? My face was changing and my facial syndrome was becoming more severe. I desperately wanted a boyfriend but no boy would be seen with me in that way. Plenty of boys were friends but for me I needed more to know my self-worth. In my mind, no boy loved me so I was worthless.
The first black hole I remember was seven years into my first marriage. The marriage had been volatile since the days of dating. Anyone who knows domestic violence, would have seen the signs and predicted what was going to happen. Me, Miss Naïve, and wanting desperately to be loved, saw some things I didn't like, but my desperation was way more important than how he treated me. Remember I had no self-worth.
By 7 years I had itchy feet and wanted to leave. I remember voicing this at my cousin's going away party. It took 3 more torturous years to be able to, and when I did it was with my bare teeth. I was caught up in that domestic violence cycle and trapped like a fly in a spider's web. I tried to leave on multiple occasions but was brought back, and then the treats to end my life if I dared leave again began. My mind spiralled down into the deepest darkest blackest hole I've ever been in. I could not see any sunlight or any way of getting out alive. So my mind decided that suicide was going to be my only choice, and I started thinking about the options and planning what I would do and when.
At the same time we were going for marriage counselling, and I would curl myself up in a fetal position on the couch and listen to my husband say that everything was my fault and he wasn't going to change. An idea came into my head and I asked the counsellor if she thought it would be an okay idea if I went home for the weekend for a break. Now my husband would never have allowed this and I expected him to disagree, but he said that was okay. He would let me go.
Upon appearing on my parents' doorstep the tears began to drip down my cheeks and I told them what was happening. I had put on such a façade that they had no idea. My dad gave me the biggest hug and told me that I wasn't to go back.
It wasn't easy not going back. My ex- tried everything he could to win me back, but with my father's help, I stood strong. With parental and friend support, and medication, eventually the depression eased and I saw the sun, but I was a very messed up lady psychologically. I had completely lost who I was on top of the depression.
I think the next major bout of depression was after my third child was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. I plummeted upon hearing the diagnosis and scared about what this all meant. I think it took about a year to finally accept life as it now was. I would have smaller relapses after the first year, so my doctor put me on medication to help stop the rollercoaster ride I was on.
My last major bout of anxiety and depression led to me leaving my 25 year career - teaching. The kids were having surgeries and again I was trying to be the perfect supermum, ignoring caring about me, and giving, giving, giving. A challenging class was the final straw as they say. I fell down that black hole again and my doctor told me that he would not be signing my back to work papers, which he didn't. I ended up leaving with TPD. Because this wasn't my choice, I lost my identity and grieved the job I loved. I felt like a failure.
As part of my treatment plan, my doctor sent me to see a psychologist. I had wanted to see a psychologist on a number of occasions but only crazy people see them, don't they?! I thought it would be embarrassing to say I was, so I would pick up the card on the reception desk, then put it back down again. Well, now I had no choice.
Going to see the psychologist was the best thing I have ever done in my life for myself. She went right back to my childhood and we unpacked my life. There were so many lightbulb moments and tears. I began to understand myself, and forgive myself for choices I had made. Buried secrets came to the surface as well. At each session, weights were taken off my shoulders, and I felt lighter. It was an amazing experience.
I then decided I would tell people I left teaching because of anxiety and depression, to help spread awareness, and to encourage people to go and get help.
When you are in a hole, it is very hard to get outside of your mind to ask for help. I can totally understand why people do commit suicide, as I've been so close. When your mind is wrapped in 'this is all too hard' you don't care about who might be left behind or who you might hurt - you just want the pain and agony in your head to stop. But if you are feeling this way, I must encourage you to reach out your hand to someone. I have found sitting in the sun, or watching the waves at the beach, or just having someone talk to me about a positive event that I am going to be involved in, all help switch the switch in my mind from negative back towards positive. It brings hope for the future.
1) Take time for you
This is so important and I learnt this the hard way. You don't get a gold star or a special seat in heaven if you are supermum. Supermums burn out and fall in heaps, and then are of little benefit to anyone. Your desire should be, a well balanced mum who takes out from the family to do some fun things for herself. Take that art class, meditate, go shopping on your own, visit those friends … You need to be you, just as much as you are a mother, or wife, or worker etc.
2) Exercise and eat well
Go for that daily walk. I remember when I was seeing my psychologist I was accountable to her for walking, and even though I didn't feel it helped my psychological state, the research says it does release happy chemicals. Eat well as much as you can. I put on a lot of weight as I was self-soothing with food. Easy to do, but I good idea not to. While you out and about let the sun shine on your skin as Vitamin D also helps you to feel happy.
3) Take the medication and see the psychologist
A wise friend who was a nurse told me, 'If you broke your arm, you would go and get it fixed. You have a problem with the chemical imbalance in your brain, go and get it fixed.' That made total sense to me. This is where the stigma of mental illness comes from. People think because it is your brain that it isn't as important as a bone fracture or your heart - that is absolute rubbish. And people who seek help are not crazy - in fact they are smart.
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If anything in this article has triggered you please ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit your local GP to get some help. xx
To see more about Jenny, visit her website at www.jennywoolsey.com.