Originally published September 19th, 2017
TW: anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts
Well, here it is- my first post on this new blog! Blank pages can be a little bit daunting, but I’m excited to start this new chapter as a dedicated mental health writer. It’s a cause I feel passionate about, and I can’t wait to use my writing skills to tackle all things mental health.
I figured that my first post should probably be a bit of an introduction. You’re probably wondering who exactly I am, why I’ve decided to carve out a career as a freelance mental health writer, and what right or experience I have that enables me to write about these kinds of issues. Well, dear reader, let me answer those questions for you.
Firstly, who am I? (I’m Jean Valjean! Kidding, I’m just a musical theatre nerd who likes to make Les Mis references.) Well, let’s start with the basics. My name is Ellie- hello! I’m 22 years old, and I live in a little village in the North of England with my boyfriend and my cat. My favourite things in the world are cheese, RuPaul’s Drag Race, anything Jane Austen-related, and tea. I’ve got two degrees in History (well, I haven’t found out if I’ve passed my Masters yet, but I’m well on course to), and love reading and writing about the exploits of remarkable women. If you buy me Maltesers, I will love you forever. That’s basically all you need to know.
But where do anxiety and depression come into all of this? Well, they’re two conditions that have been present in my life for as long as I can remember (although it took me 19 years to figure that out). I was always a very nervous and anxious child, although I hid it quite well. I would frequently have huge panics about little things, especially in bed at night, and in hindsight I think this was the first clue that I wasn’t entirely okay. For example, I remember being about 9 or 10 and having a sudden anxious realisation about mortality, which left me in tears for hours as I obsessed over what it would be like when my parents were no longer around. Around this time I also had a massive freakout just before my baby sister was born, when I was on holiday, of all times. I cried literally non-stop for about two weeks because I had this paralysing fear that something was going to happen to either my sister or my stepmum, before or during the birth. This fear completely consumed my thoughts. It was unrelenting- all day, every day, my brain would be running at a thousand miles an hour, filling my thoughts with terrifying “what if”s. But, being a child, I had no idea that this was unusual or problematic. I thought that everyone must have those kinds of thoughts, and they just hid it better than I did. Sure, these episodes were distressing, but they were something that I’d just have to learn to live with.
And live with them I did for nearly two decades. Whenever a low mood or a panic attack popped up, I would let it consume me, but ultimately not do anything about it. I would just feel the sadness or fear or panic until it faded- sometimes after hours, sometimes days. Entire evenings of my teenage years would be wasted as I sat in my room unable to do anything, completely overwhelmed by obsessive worry or extreme low moods. I just put it down to teenage hormones, and didn’t think about it any further. But that all changed the summer before I started Year 13, when I was 17 years old.
It was late August, and I was getting ready to return to Sixth Form for my final year. I’d spent the day in the local shopping centre with my friends, buying stationary supplies and having a gossip, and felt pretty good. I was looking forward to getting back to my classes, seeing my friends every day, and- hopefully- getting the university offers that I wanted. But that evening, I experienced a sudden change in my mental state. It was as if somebody flipped a switch in my brain- one minute I was fine, the next I was utterly consumed by the darkest thoughts I’d ever experienced. For some reason, I was totally taken over by an intense fear of death. I couldn’t stop thinking about the emptiness, the unknown quantity that was permanent loss of consciousness. Every hour of every day, I would be in a completely distraught state, unable to shake off the fear of the end that I knew would come for me one day. Despite my best efforts, it was a fear that was seemingly impossible to fight off. I would wake up each morning thinking about it, and struggle to function more and more as the day went on. I thought that going back to college might provide the distraction I needed to shake the anxiety off, but in reality it left me unable to focus in class. I turned into a ghost of my former self: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I just felt empty.
After a week or so, people started to notice that something was up. My friends became more and more concerned that the usually jokey and light-hearted member of our group seemed to have been replaced by someone silent and sad. My teachers picked up on my quietness and lack of mental presence, and I was pulled aside by the head of Sixth Form for a chat about my wellbeing. I didn’t really want to tell them the full truth: it just felt silly to go around telling people “yeah, I’ve had an existential crisis and I’m now completely paralysed by a crippling fear of death”. So I just told them that I was feeling a bit low, and eventually told my dad the whole story. He was a bit taken aback, but gave me some fab advice that helped me to climb out of the awful mental pit I’d fallen into. I survived this first major episode of anxiety and depression, but I didn’t fully deal with the problem. I just patched myself up and hoped that the low moods and constant fear wouldn’t creep back.
For the next couple of years, things mental health wise were decidedly average. I’d have regular low periods combined with near constant anxiety, but it was mostly manageable. I mean, life would have been a lot more pleasant without anxious or upsetting thoughts plaguing me, but I got a bit better at dismissing them and getting on with life. Then, in February 2014, my family suffered its first major bereavement. My grandad passed away, and a combination of shock and grief sent my mental health plummeting right back down to critical levels. The loss coincided with quite a few other stressful events and situations. I had very few friends at university at the time; I was struggling with an unrequited crush that plagued me for far longer than it should have; and my physical health was also pretty poor. A combination of these factors led to my mental health slowly degenerating until it was the worst it’s ever been.
It’s hard to describe what hitting rock bottom feels like unless you’ve been there. For me, it was a constant feeling that I was worthless, that nothing good would ever come of my life, and that nobody would care if I was no longer here. I started experiencing intrusive suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t walk down the street without thinking about throwing myself in front of a car, and I couldn’t walk across a bridge without considering jumping off it (a problem when your town has at least four or five bridges, and you have to cross at least one to get to the centre). I was constantly paranoid that everyone hated me, and got sucked into long spirals of sadness about how awful I was feeling. I never actually hurt myself, but I thought about it. Because I didn’t actually do it, I didn’t think I was ‘bad enough’ to deserve help, and didn’t seek it for a long time. Eventually, I confided in my university tutor, and sent me straight to the internal counselling service. After speaking with a therapist and my GP, it was decided that I should try a combination of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and medication, and my road to recovery began.
That was two and a half years ago, and while the road hasn’t been easy, I’m definitely doing a lot better these days. I’ve been through three or four rounds of counselling now, and each has led to me challenging a different issue and becoming a little bit stronger. I’m still on medication, specifically Sertraline (sometimes sold as Zoloft or Lustral), and it’s worked pretty well for me. I did have some nausea at the start, but since then I’ve encountered no side effects at all. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones! Things aren’t always plain sailing, mind. In times of stress, I find it a lot more difficult to fight off any anxious or low thoughts I have. Likewise, my anxiety always makes an unwelcome return when I go through any big change in my life- moving house, for example, was a nightmare mental health wise. I’m actually going through a bit of an anxiety blip right now, thanks to the slight panic of finishing my Masters and not really knowing what to do with myself. But things aren’t completely terrible, and I can cope with the bad days a LOT better than in past years.
Speaking of the present, I guess I should finish off with a brief explanation as to why I started this blog and my mental health writing business. I was worried that people would see it as unethical or exploitative, but that’s genuinely not my intention. When I was first suffering from depression and anxiety, I felt completely alone. I had no idea really what was happening to me, and there wasn’t anyone around me who I felt like I could talk to. I thought that people would either worry too much about me, not understand what I was saying, or not really care. Back then, blogging wasn’t really a big thing, and neither was talking about mental health, really. What I needed was reassurance that I wasn’t alone, and that other people have felt anxious and depressed and managed to survive. Most of all, I needed help and advice regarding what I could do to try and alleviate the issues I was experiencing. That’s why I’ve started this business: to enable myself to help people in the same situation I was in four or five years ago. Although society is making leaps and bounds in how it treats mental health, it isn’t completely there yet. Stigma and misunderstanding still exists, and it will continue to if we don’t carry on talking about these illnesses. I want to add my two cents to the discourse. Even if only one person sees what I write and feels a little bit better afterwards, I’ll be satisfied.
Well, congrats if you made it to the end of this pretty long post! They won’t all be essays, I promise. I just thought I’d get this out of the way before we really get going! I hope this post has been enlightening or helpful to at least some of you- please drop me a comment if you have any feedback or anything to say about what I’ve written. See you all next week!