This is the first time I’ve written openly about my mental health struggles, despite always talking openly about it when I’m delivering mental health awareness training and Mental Health First Aid courses.
Talking openly during these sessions is, for me, key to helping de-stigmatise the topic, it’s leading by example or practising what I preach if you prefer. Feedback also tells me that me being open and referencing my personal and professional experience (in HR roles supporting employees and managers where mental ill health has been at the core of an issue) helps to bring the subject alive.
I’ve been diagnosed with depression 3 times in my life. The first when I was 19 and moved away to study. Like many young people I didn’t then have the life skills I needed to manage that transition successfully. The other two episodes were in my mid and late 30s. I had a demanding job in the NHS, a young family, had been living for over fifteen years with endometriosis (a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes), I was a wife, mum, sister, daughter, friend.
Even though the episodes of depression in my 30’s were at least 15 years on from the first, I still hadn’t learnt the coping mechanisms I needed to keep me well. I worked too hard, often to please other people, said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ and didn’t listen to my body (or mind for that matter, at least not any part of it that was looking out for me and trying to keep me safe). I got through those episodes of depression with medication, talking therapies, a few weeks off work and love and support from those close to me. I changed jobs and started to take back some control in my life. After much begging and pleading with the medical profession I had a hysterectomy at 40. I was prescribed HRT immediately after the operation and I started to feel physically well for the first time in 20 years. For me, it was the best thing to happen for my physical health.
I ticked along nicely for about 9 years, had the odd period of feeling down as everyone does in life and then anxiety hit me. I thought it was because I’d stopped taking HRT. I’d run out of tablets and unsure how they were actually helping me decided to go without. I managed a year but the menopausal symptoms mounted up to the point I knew I needed some help. I could tick off virtually every symptom on every menopause checklist there is.
The main symptoms include the inability to sleep (and certainly not without a ceiling fan whirring all night, every night), lack of confidence to the extent that at times I am unable to make decisions, regularly getting into overwhelm. I lack concentration and focus for hours, sometimes days on end. I find myself regularly reflecting on my old working life at the BBC and NHS where I held senior HR roles, managing teams, developing policies, writing and implementing strategies and wonder how I managed it. There are times now when I have no idea what word to use next in a simple sentence or spend an inordinate amount of time composing a short email (you don’t even want to know how long this took me to write, tying myself up in knots how much to disclose!).
The symptom that causes me the greatest distress though is anxiety. It has literally just come along and slapped me in the face. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My anxiety belies the events that are happening in my life, I am not facing life or death decisions every hour and yet the anxiety feels as strong as if I might be! I’m a rational person, I’m normally a logical thinker but when the anxiety hits it’s as if it’s an out of body experience and I’m looking down at myself saying “You’re a sensible, 51 year old woman, who’s doing OK in life, why are you reacting like this?”.
I recently likened the experience to a washing machine on full spin, it starts slowly but if I don’t catch it quickly enough I’m on a full spin cycle with my thoughts and emotions buffeted around, full of panic and unable to stop until the cycle completes itself.
I recently returned to my GP to discuss the range of menopausal symptoms and her first suggestion was to prescribe anti-depressants. I told her I wasn’t depressed. I’ve been depressed before, three times, and this is completely different. I had to push back very hard not to be fobbed off with anti-depressants and eventually she agreed to re-prescribe HRT adding that I should return if I needed the anti-depressants!
As well as taking HRT I’ve developed my own coping strategies with the help of my coaches over the last year @Sarah Harvey Chartered FCIPD FInstLM and @Catherine Yiannopoulos to manage my wellbeing which include:
- Restricting my alcohol intake, now drinking small amounts occasionally – alcohol is a depressant and certainly doesn’t help my feelings of anxiety.
- I eat regularly (I used to skip meals if I was too busy) and avoid processed foods – good nutrition is so important to keep our bodies working effectively
- Getting enough rest which means saying no at times, planning work and travel sensibly.
- Getting enough sleep by going to bed at a sensible time. I tend to get up early (to fit in a bit of meditation). I often start work early and it can catch up on me. Very occasionally I’ll give myself a long weekend lie in when I can.
- I try to leave work at work – the temptation when you’re self employed is to always be working. I’ve always worked long hours but I’m learning it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
- I pay attention to my body and try to notice what triggers any adverse reactions physically (caffeine, alcohol, sugar)
- I spend time with my family and grandchildren (yes, I know I’m way too young) – being surrounded by the people you love and who love you is great for nurturing yourself.
- I’m trying to be more active with the help of my partner (I’ve never been one for exercise, even as a child), I’ve just had a go a stand up paddle boarding and loved it and I’ve started a weekly yoga class!
- I keep my mind active by learning new things. I’m studying for a Diploma in Transformational Coaching with Catalyst14 and recently took part in Bailey and French Positive Psychology Summer School.
- I make sure I have things to look forward to. I’m very blessed that I have very sociable friends, a loving partner and close family so there’s always something going on.
- I look after myself and have started having regular facials with Jane Bulbeck which are just the most relaxing thing ever!
- My go to strategy – breathing exercises to help me through the most anxious times. It works for me.
- I talk to my partner @Martin Grady, he’s always the voice of reason, has been known to help me with my breathing exercises and subsequently he probably knows more about menopause than me now!
I’ll continue to build on my list of self-help strategies and reflect on my triggers for the physical and emotional symptoms so that I can be in control of the washing machine and don’t let it get to full spin too often.