One year on...
It's been a year today since we launched The Respite Room. From Steven Hill for our design to Mel Reeve and Paula McGuire I feel I have had a really wonderful level of support in different ways from them despite us all dealing with our own pressures when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.
I wanted to write an honest blog today about my journey over the last year and where I am now.
A bit of background: I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was around 16, my panic attacks started in 1999 and I didn't find out what they were until around 2001 - that was 2 YEARS after my first one. I moved to Glasgow from Dunoon in around 2005. In 2006 I started working for a big corporate company and in 2007 I suffered a panic attack so extreme on the Glasgow Central to Queens Park train that I fell to the ground when I got off at my stop. I developed agoraphobia subsequently afterwards and was unable to leave my house for 2 weeks. My mum found out and didn't understand what was happening so I sought professional help and paid £120 for a hypnotherapist to come to my flat for an hour to get me out. When I returned to work, I was taken into a meeting with my manager, operation manager and HR and issued a formal warning for being off. They dismissed my reasons because my manager made out that there was nothing wrong with me. I was too scared to get out of the house to the doctor for a sick line so I had no proof. I was then advised that if I had one more absence I would be sacked. I wish I knew then what I know now. For the next 2-3 years, I paid over £200 a month in taxis to get there and back as I was too scared to get on public transport and I had to get to work. I got into so much debt that I started getting payday loans as I didn't have enough money to live on which in turn led to more debt. Luckily after 7 years with the company , I got voluntary redundancy and was able to leave and pay off all my debt. As time went on I felt safer and my anxiety lessened so I started travelling on the odd bus, that then led onto trains and eventually my first flight in 2016 after a long time.
November 2016 I had a wobble on the top deck of the 31 bus going into town. I then felt I couldn't get on another bus, this transferred onto trains and then I was travelling in a taxi and had to get the man to pull over because I was about to have a panic attack. I then started to walk into town and home for work which is around 9.6 miles per day. My anxiety was at peak so I was using coping mechanisms like elastic bands on my wrists and bags of ice to hold to pull me out of panic. I had to stop using the elastic bands as I was pinging them so much on my wrists that my skin was starting to break. To be honest, I was willing to do anything from stopping me having a panic attack even if it was going to hurt me. 17 months on and I have had to get on trains for various trips, but I make sure they have a toilet on them. If I have a place to escape to, my fear automatically reduces. I still have to pre-book cinema seats at the end of the row near an exit, I still have to check seating plans for gigs and events and make sure I am not sitting in the middle of a row. I did 2 rounds of CBT which did very little for me and I tried yoga which I hated. I have to stress, this will not be the same experience for everyone. Walking has been the one constant that has really helped me this time.
The last 5 weeks have been spent with a therapist. I was speaking to my friend Sean who I used to collaborate with on music projects in my spare time, he went back to studying as a therapist and I explained my situation (which he has known about for years). He told me about a place and I went for a consultation/assessment. You have the choice to pay £30 for a professional or £10 for a student. I had to opt for the professional due to the length of time this has been going on. I am paying £120 a month and it has taken its toll financially, but it's been the best professional help I have received in my life. I got to a point about 3 months ago where I just thought to myself "I am so fucking exhausted". It's hard to describe the tiredness, it's not the same as having lack of sleep, it is an inner fatigue that makes you just want to give up completely. That's when I knew it was finally time after all these years to work through this properly.
The last 5 weeks have been tough. We have been making a timeline of my life and going into the trauma I experienced when I was younger. It's the first time I have really delved this deep into everything since I was 16.
I can honestly say that I can't talk openly with my friends, family or my partner about this stuff. I can only do it on alcohol and that isn't healthy. The shame that accompanies it is something really hard to admit to. This is part of the reason why people don't talk about their mental health problems. Shame, guilt, embarrassment, pride. The list goes on.
I have also talked previously about the friendships I have lost in my life and the fallouts. Yeah, I can be an absolute dickhead, there is no denying that, but for 70% of those times of being that arsehole, the underlying anxiety is very much present. The paranoia, the self-doubt. When you have severe anxiety, you are constantly trying to make sure that everyone around you is happy with you. You are checking you haven't done anything wrong and you need that constant reassurance. It can be trying for people around you that don't know what you are experiencing. I have always been the type of person whereby if I have done something wrong, instead of dealing with it, I shut down, I push everyone away. That can be done via maliciousness, silence, excuses of not wanting to see them and so on. My thought process is that if I push them away then they don't have to continue to deal with my shit and I won't end up letting them down. The other aspect when you have anxiety and/or depression is that you always reflect on the bad things you have done in your life, or what you deem to be bad. All the good things, no matter how wonderful they are will never dilute those negative times. You feel like you have completely let everyone down including yourself and there is this constant inner hatred. If people praise you, you can't accept it. In fact, at times, you hate the praise, you can't digest it and you would rather just get on with the job in hand, your life etc. It's a neverending circle because you push away your support network and those that care most about you. You then feel isolated and that hatred for yourself augments.
These are all the things I am trying to work on at the moment. I am just terrified that I can't change the way my brain has been conditioned to a certain degree. The things is, if someone else was explaining this to me about how they were feeling, I would automatically help them, I would explain to them they are loved, they have people there for them, but when it comes to myself, I just can't do it yet. Hopefully, me writing "yet" at the end of that sentence is the glimmer of hope that things can change.
I know other people have this thought process because I have read their essays, I have heard interviews, I have listened to podcasts, I have seen videos. I just want to explain why it is so difficult to speak to people.
I love my family and friends. Because I find it so hard to talk about things to them, I write my blogs. When I see them in reality following them and they try to talk to me about them, I have eventually shut them down occasionally by making a joke about the situation or just changing the subject. My guilt overtakes me when it comes to talking to those closest to me about what is happening in my head. I know the shit they are going through, the hours they work, the families they have to raise, the constant balancing of life so why the fuck would they want to listen to me talking about this constant buzzing of fear in my head. This needs to change because I would never turn them away, I would drop everything for them. Why can't I apply this to myself?
Reflecting on all of this, I start to wonder if we are doing enough to educate not only as The Respite Room, but as a wider community about what the experiences we are having actually are. In order to start the change, I need to do so internally. I guess the positive is that I completely understand what people are going through and I can say that boldly. I am not a clinical body that will sit nodding and saying "why are you feeling this way? What do you think is causing this?" and so on.
So yes, one year on. We have our Saturday walking club which has been really lovely, we are starting a mental health mini orchestra in August, we have an art class on the horizon, we will have videos for self-care, cooking and more. The reason for the practical activities is that when you have mental health problems, you don't want to talk about them all the time. You want to experience your life, you want to be able to feel "normal" for once. You want to forget the fear of having a panic attack for 5 minutes, the crippling anxiety, the debilitating depression that makes it hard to get out of bed. You want to function as a human being. To breathe fresh air, experience nature, have fun, eat without worry, create for the love of it and more.
I want to say thank you to everyone that has supported us and each other. It's really important. I hope you stay with us on our journey and our individual journeys. Reconnect with your friends, drop the odd line, send a fucking emoji, I don't know. You don't even need to talk about your worries or mental health problems just yet, but start off slow and spend more time with those around you. Be nice to yourself, show yourself compassion and extend that to others around you. And remember, we always have someone here if you want to talk, hang out or even go for a walk some time.
Let's start this journey from the inside out