As I sat at my desk in the salt mine mid-week an email with the communications to be cascaded to staff the following week dropped into my mail box. In the body of the text I spotted one topic to be highlighted and discussed- Mental Health Awareness. (This week 8-14 May is Mental Health Awareness Week)
Immediately it crossed my mind to wonder how many of my peers may overlook or pay lip service to this highly emotive topic.
It got me thinking. How could I play my part in raising awareness? Part of the salt mine’s key focus for this year is on Wellbeing so this topic slots in nicely alongside that. The article suggested hosting sessions akin to coffee mornings to allow people to talk and share their stories.
I wondered. I pondered. As usual, I over thought every angle of this before reaching a decision. I lay awake for more than an hour at 3am thrashing out in my head what I may or may not do. Could I do something to raise awareness? It was a risky strategy for me as I don’t open up easily to people about myself.
I felt strongly though that I had to at least attempt to do something. Staying silently locked in my own security bubble felt all wrong. If I spoke out about my own personal brush with stress and anxiety then perhaps my peers would see things differently. Could I go through with it?
Last Friday, I bit the bullet and spoke to a small group of my peers at our weekly team session. I kept it short and succinct, largely to prevent me from becoming over emotional in front of them and feeling like a complete idiot.
I pitched it as a “show and tell” thing and took my three book babies as props.
The short story caught my peers unawares. I hope it opened their eyes a little. I hope in some small way it heightened their perception of what someone who on the face of things is “fine” is really going through deep inside.
And the story I told?
Well, I guess here I can hide in the anonymity of words. Those of you who are still reading this blog won’t see the tears that fill my eyes. My peers heard the abridged version. Here’s the full story or as much of it as I’m prepared to tell.
Four years ago today, I sat down in the early evening sun on my front doorstep (exactly where I am writing the first draft of this blog) and began to write a story. I’ve always loved to write. That story grew longer and longer as the words flowed before it finally became Book Baby 1 aka Stronger Within.
But what made me decide to sit down and write? Why did I do it?
Almost a year before that, changes at work pulled the rug out from under my feet in spectacular style. It damn near destroyed me. Now, I want to make one thing crystal clear here – I am not blaming my manager at the time nor my employer in any shape or form here. They have a business to run and had a business decision to make. I totally get that. No one, especially not me, could have foreseen the fallout from that.
The secondment I had been on for almost two years came to a fairly abrupt end; the team I had been a part of for eight years no longer needed me to be a part of it. Put simply, I stepped back down to my previous grade and changed role. I was moved to another team within the same building. To many folk that would have been water off a duck’s back. I wish it had with me.
Initially, the news was like a knife wound to my very soul. Leaving the team that I had worked so closely with for so long felt like someone stealing my children from me.
I got the news on a Friday afternoon that I would be moving to a new team in a few short weeks. At that time I wasn’t told which team. I was just told I couldn’t remain with the team I was in. Devastated doesn’t begin to cover it. I cried all weekend, torturing myself by questioning what had I done so wrong.
On the Monday I drew on my remaining inner strength (there really wasn’t a lot that morning) and what was left of my pride and self-esteem, painted on my best Disney smile and went to work. This was to be a routine I repeated day in day out for months, years perhaps.
To the world about me I was coping beautifully with the changes that had happened. I was praised for the professionalism I had shown. To the new team that I joined I was initially the quiet stranger in the camp until they got to know me a little. To most people from my old team I became a stranger, at least that’s how I felt as most of them went out of their way to avoid me, unsure of what to say to me or how to react around me. (There were a few surprising exceptions and to those people I will forever by eternally grateful) I felt exiled. I felt worthless.
Life went on.
Out with work there were a few challenges over the summer and autumn months in my personal life that I’m not prepared to divulge here (sorry). In at least one of these challenges, I was seen as the strong calming presence. If only my relatives had known the emotional turmoil going on inside me.
Winter was approaching and my physical health began to suffer as well as my mental wellbeing. My stress and anxiety levels were through the roof. I’d lost my sense of self-worth, my pride was battered and bruised, my self-belief was in tatters. I felt totally useless to everyone, including myself.
I was drifting through life one miserable day after another with the Disney smile painted on for the world to see. Not even my closest family knew how I was truly feeling. I kept all the hurt, the pain, the stress and anxiety locked inside.
Eventually I dragged myself to the doctor. By now six months or more had passed. During that time I noticed more and more strands of hair on my hairbrush each morning. I could feel the difference in the thickness of my long hair as I plaited it for bed each night. I’ve never been blessed with thick hair so this hair loss was sending my emotions spiralling out of control. I felt permanently exhausted and drained. After a series of blood tests the doctor diagnosed severe anaemia, most likely triggered by stress. My iron levels were through the floor, lower even than they had been after the birth of my son and they had been dangerously low then. The doctor said that the anaemia was the cause of the hair loss. I was prescribed a lengthy course iron tablets to restore my blood to normal. But what about the rest of me?
Pride got in my way yet again and I never mentioned ongoing stress/anxiety concerns or even increasing feelings of depression to my GP. As ever, I kept it all bottled up.
A few short months later I was back at the doctor. This time I was formally diagnosed as suffering from IBS, again episodes primarily being triggered by stress.
I was falling apart. By now more than half the total volume of my hair was gone. Fortunately, there were no obvious bald patches and for that I am eternally thankful.
Something had to change.
That something was me.
I had to take control of “me” and get myself back on track.
As is my usual want, I turned initially to books and articles online for guidance. Voraciously I read up about what vitamins and minerals I could take to try to address the hair loss fears and to prevent the recurrence of anaemia. (I loathe taking iron supplements and they really don’t mix well with IBS symptoms so I wanted to avoid these at all costs.) I spoke to the staff in my local health food store for guidance on which strengths and combinations to try. I was warned it would not be a quick fix. Soon I had a shelf full of bottles of supplements. I looked at my diet, eliminating the worst trigger foods entirely from it. Bye bye ice cream forever.
I began to take more exercise and introduced a daily walk into my lunch hours.
Looking at my sense of self-worth and self-belief was harder, much harder. I wanted to do something just for me, to do something that up until then I’d only dreamed about achieving. Eventually, after a lot of soul searching, I realised I wanted to write. I wanted to write a book.
And here we reach 8 May 2013, the day I finally sat down to write.
By the end of 2013 I had a growing pile of A4 notebooks brimming over with the Silver Lake story. All of Stronger Within was written. Most of Impossible Depths, Book Baby 2, was also written.
There was one final crippling fear to be overcome. I am terrified of letting people read what I write. (Right now, my stomach is churning at the thought of anyone reading this and passing judgement) This stems again from long established feelings of never being good enough and fears of looking stupid and opening myself up to ridicule. These fears reach way back deep into childhood and their story is one for another day.
I gave myself a stern talking to and on 29 Dec 2013 I wrote my first ever blog post as the first step towards addressing this fear.
I set myself a personal challenge for 2014 to write one blog post per week for the entire year. I did it! In fact, I’ve added one blog post every week since Jan 2014 to this blog page. Has the fear been conquered? Not entirely.
Could my Silver Lake story become a real book? Would anyone want to read it? Those questions hung in the air.
Again, I turned to books and the internet for assistance and discovered that anyone who is prepared to put in the effort can publish a book, an ebook, via Kindle Direct Publishing.
I began to type….
And really this is where the tale kind of stops. Finally, I was doing something just for me. I’d reached a place in my head and my heart where I was more comfortable. For the first time in too many years I was also comfortable with who I was.
The Disney smile by and large was replaced by a real smile.
I felt like “me” again.
Now, here in May 2017, I finally feel secure enough to share this journey. There have been a few pitfalls along the way. Life naturally brings periods of stress and anxiety but I’ve coped with them. I’ve never gone all the way back to that dark hole that opened up mid-2012. I’ll not lie, it’s been close a couple of times.
Writing is what keeps me going. Writing keeps me sane. Writing helps me maintain my wellbeing and mental health balance. To me it’s akin to the stress relief that other folk find by going for a run or going to the gym or practising yoga or going fishing. It’s an essential part of my daily routine. It’s oxygen. It’s part of what makes me “me”.
I still take the vitamin and mineral supplements regularly. The hair has never grown back but I’ve got my head round that more or less. I get excited when I spot a new grey hair as it means another hair has grown in. Sad but true. On the whole, the IBS is under control but requires medicating regularly. I’m exercising more than I think I ever have. I’ve even been known to go for a run, a major miracle in itself. I may not be as slim as I’d like to be (who is?) but I’m comfortable in my own skin.
Work in the salt mine over the intervening years has taken many twists and turns but finally at the end of 2015, I bit the bullet and applied for a promoted post. That in itself took a lot of soul searching and inner resolve but it was worth it. I was successful and got the job.
And the biggest achievement of this five year journey? My three book babies. Who’d have ever thought it possible? My name sits proudly on the cover of not one but three books so far.
Apologies if this has been rambling. It’s been written straight from the heart. It’s been written and typed through a veil of tears if I’m being honest with you. It’s been written with pride at having made it back to being “me”.
Surviving or Thriving? That’s the anchor line to this year’s Mental Health Awareness campaign. I’ve survived and yes, right now, I’m thriving.
As we journey through this week spare a thought for that friend or relative or colleague who suddenly seems a bit “off” or a bit too happy or a bit too withdrawn. Spare an extra few minutes to catch up with them. Check if they are “surviving or thriving”. You never know, their smile may be a Disney smile masking the truth behind it.
Thanks for listening.
For more information on #MHAW17 see the link below :-