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Getting comfortable with being vulnerable

“We judge ourselves by our own intentions.

We judge others by their behaviour”

Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst

Did you know in Psychology, there is something called ‘The Mirror Effect’? Essentially, it’s about walking in someone else’s shoes, or seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Therapists regularly mirror body language and facial expressions in sessions with patients to put them at ease and encourage them to open up.

I’ve just experienced the power of mirroring on a leadership programme. On day one of the programme, 30 strangers stood awkwardly in a room and had to create a beat using musical instruments. None of us were musicians! This in itself, allowed us to laugh together at the awkwardness we were all silently facing. We did a few different sessions throughout the day and ate dinner together that night sharing little bits of the information we were happy for strangers to know.

On day two however, everything changed.

Photo by Tamara Gak on Unsplash

We were split into 3 teams of ten while our various speakers told us we were going to get to know each other. Now, we had already told each other our names, job titles and a sticky fact about us – mine was one I use every time this question comes up. Anyone from the corporate world will recognise the question instantly and usually have one or two facts about themselves up their sleeve just in case. This is usually to bring a little of our personalities into the space and helps us share something that makes us sound more interesting, knowledgeable, lucky, privileged etc.

The one I always use is a safe bet. When I was about 8years old I learned to say the alphabet backwards. I can do it in around 6 seconds. It comes in really handy… none of the time. It doesn’t give away anything about my personality, my childhood or my personal life. It’s pretty low risk choice and normally when I share, I’m asked to prove it almost instantly.

However, THIS ‘getting to know each other’ session was something completely different…

Our trainer started to talk about her childhood, her family. The relationship she had with her parents, good and bad. She talked about the tragedy and pain she went through when she was younger and the mistakes she made in her teens and early twenties. She talked about the lessons she learnt, how she met her husband and about details about her relationship with her three daughters. She talked about becoming a mother, the things she regretted and the things that changed her forever. She talked through her own tears when things she brought up still held pain for her and laughed at the things that brought her joy. By the end of her 15min intro we were all dumbfounded. I felt like I knew this woman better than some of my own family.

And then it was our turn…

There was something magical that happened in those few hours. I cried through the tears of others sharing their stories – so much so in fact that I didn’t really cry through my own – not sure there were many tears left as I went 6th out of the 10.

However, the vulnerability of the people in that room allowed me to open up more than I ever could have planned. I said things out loud that I had never said before in my life. I’ve always thought I was an open book but there were parts of me that even I held back from me, my friends, my family. My secrets. My lessons. My mistakes. These nine strangers and I now knew some of the most intimate things about each other. Things we’d kept to ourselves our whole lives.

It was the most powerful group therapy session I’d ever had – Not that I’ve ever had group therapy before. Sharing my own story was cathartic and liberating. It was freeing and pulling off that mask to show who you really are enabled me to build soild relationships and friendships throughout the week. I no longer had to play a role. A role I thought others wanted to see. A role that was exhausting to stick to. No, now I was able to be my true self. The real me. Warts and all.

Hearing the stories of these people, people I had only met 24hours before, created bonds that will now be very tough to break. We were together a total of five days in that hotel in the middle of beautiful countryside outside of London and I have never experienced connections like that happen so quickly. I’ve never felt anything so powerful in my entire life.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

The training we were on was part of a wider scholarship programme for The Marketing Acdemy. This part of the training was from a programme called The Living Leader and was created to help us all become brilliant leaders. The strategy behind it was pretty straight forward… Revealing ourselves and allowing people around us to learn about us, what makes us tick, what can trigger us and keep us awake at night, enables our teams to work better with us. It also gives them the opportunity to open up and share their stories ensuing that we enable them to play to their key strengths, find good working patterns and truly understand the people we rely on professionally.

This got me thinking about why I believe some people find it easier to support others on their mental health journey. If people are willing to show their own vulnerability, this in turn can make others feel comfortable and therefore open up. They don’t need our life stories, but by being open about our own journey with mental illness can enable them to freely talk about their own. Without judgement.

If you want to have a good understanding of the people around you, tell them about you. Tell them everything that has created the you that you are. Hopefully in turn, they will mirror you and share their story too.

And for those of you who are concerned someone you know is hiding something painful and suffering in silence, this could hopefully be the breakthrough you need and allow them the opportunity to ask for help.

Thanks to feeling comfortable to be vulnerable, I now have 29 incredible friends, 30 odd if you include the incredible speakers we met on this course. All of which showed their own vulnerability as part of their own storytelling. It was incredibly refreshing to witness, and experience and I honestly believe the last five days have changed me forever.

If we get the opportunity to understand the people around us, we’ll understand more about the intentions behind their behaviour and this in turn will enable us to see the world through their eyes.

Featured

The power of confidence

Mental illness can do so much damage to our self-confidence.

As is our confidence, so is our capacity.

William Hazlitt

While suffering with perinatal depression, I struggled with really bad imposter syndrome. It affected almost every aspect of my life. I never felt I was good at anything. I didn’t think I was a good mum. The thought of taking both children out on my own terrified me. I panicked that the kids would misbehave and I’d be judged by anyone who saw me. This also affected my working life too. I didn’t think I was that good at work because I was a mum, I had to leave on time and had to leave the late nights to the rest of my team. This then stopped me from pushing myself hard at all. I felt like I could only just cope with what I had.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Now, what I had wasn’t always easy. I had a full-time job managing a team of five in a pretty big media agency, two very young children, one in nursery, one in reception. It didn’t help that I was commuting for two hours a day, four days a week in order to do that job. I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. Looking back I did so much with my children. I was by their side as often as I could be. I could count on one hand the number of times I actually asked for a baby sitter. I didn’t want to give that time up. However, the guilt I put on my own shoulders happened for being sad that I still didn’t deserve a night out.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love my job. I love the agency, the people, the work itself, and my team. I feel lucky that we all collectively worked really hard, and we enjoyed it together.

However, when lockdown hit, not seeing the people I worked with every day was tough. I spent more time with these people than I did my own family and felt strange to see them only on screen – something we hadn’t really done before.

I found it hard to not have that direct feedback I would have received at our desks. Calling someone or waiting to be called felt like an interruption. I didn’t realise how much I had relied on face-time with my team especially with my imposter syndrome playing hardball.

Lockdown however meant no commute. I gained back four hours, four days a week. I had 16 hours back giving me more time to manage my house and more time to enjoy with my children. This in turn meant that the guilt started to ease and ultimately resulted in me now finding more time for me.

With the loss of the commute however, I started to put on weight. I was walking from my bedroom to downstairs and that was the only exercise I got. However, with conversations now on screen, I had to constantly look at my own face. I didn’t like what I was seeing.

Four months into lockdown, I decided I needed a change.

My partner had converted our basement into a make-shift gym, so I started exercising. I tried yoga, weight training and eventually found my passion again for dance. Every day I would spend my lunch hour working up a sweat, dancing to my favourite music and 8 months later, I was 3 stone lighter and ready to take on the world. My imposter syndrome started to slip away.

My physical health improved my mental state. (read more in my post entitled How Getting Physical helped my head to heal). This in turn enabled me to rediscover the person I was before I became a mum and identity I had lost almost completely since the birth of my son.

Spending more time with my children in the week, enabled me to go away for the occasional evening or weekend. Concerts, dinners and musicals – all guilt free.

My newfound confidence allowed me to start pushing for more at work. More areas that filled my passion points – wellbeing, mental health and D&I. I wanted to stay in my agency but work on things that truly gave me job satisfaction around my already very fond love of marketing.

I asked for more and invited myself to meetings, groups, and teams that I had no part of previously. I wanted to create a positive change and I was reading more around subjects that would help me get there.

Just before Christmas, I was contacted by a young entrepreneur who had founded a charity initiative to create a large mental health event in the UK. He was looking for support and I jumped at the chance. Not only was his idea something I already felt passionate about, but I knew my years of experience could really help him. Something I truly think I wouldn’t have believed in myself enough for previously.

Supporting the Be;Live initiative then pushed me to launch my own dreams. I started writing for Insanely Normal just after Christmas and went live with the blog on 3rd Feb – the UK’s Time to Talk Day. I wanted to create hope for others struggling with their own mental health and create a space for those who had managed and recovered and were willing to share their experiences.

So now I wake up at 6am, dress my children for school & nursery. Take one or both to their various drops offs and head home to start work. On the days I work from home, I also run out in the middle of the day to pick up my son from school. I take him to appointments or his friends’ houses before rushing back to jump on my next call. I work harder in the day than I ever did before and I do this to ensure I get a couple of good quality hours with my children in the evenings. Cooking for them, reading to them and putting them to bed almost every night.

I then spend most evenings working on my passion projects whether its content for the event or copywriting my posts. In fact, I am busier now than I’ve ever been. But I am happier. I am full of ideas. I want to learn more. I have so much more to do, and I am not going to stop until I feel satisfied. I am, for the first time in years, truly confident and back to my old self.

Very recently I was offered an incredible opportunity at work. A prestigious scholarship via The Marketing Academy. Something I had been supporting my colleagues to obtain over the years and for the first time, I was one of the chosen few. If this had been offered to me two years ago, I would have been terrified. Made an excuse as to why I couldn’t commit to it and moved on swiftly.

However I was excited. Thrilled. Ready. Hopefull.

For the first time in a long time, I honestly believe I’ve not been happier and believe I think I can make it. I want to be challenged, I want to expand my horizons and meet new people. I want to learn from them and use that knowledge to continue the changes I want to implement. I want to back myself, I want to move out of my comfort zone. I am ready to be pushed.

If I don’t get in, I’ll be disappointed but not disheartened. I entered myself into an award for the work I’ve done around mental health and just heard I was shortlisted. I am already over the moon. However, I also believe nothing will stop me on my mission to better myself. I am definitely ready to make an impact and I am very aware this newfound confidence is behind it.

This is my time.

Featured

My initial thoughts on mental health

“Mental health problems don’t define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain and you feel the rain, but, importantly, YOU ARE NOT THE RAIN.”

Matt Haig, Writer

Everyone has mental health. Just as they do physical health. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Physical health professionals, GPs, physicians etc, are there to tell us if we’re unwell and what we can do to look after ourselves better. Sometimes with advice, sometimes with medication and sometimes with physiotherapy.

With mental health, we have exactly the same available. Sometimes we are told to exercise, take a break, get some sleep, eat a more balanced diet. Sometimes we are given medication such as anti-depressants, and other times we’re given therapy, counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy etc.

So why do we not talk about it in the same way?

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Because we can’t see mental health. Some of us are terrified by it. Many of us don’t like the things we can’t see, so mental health has been portrayed to us by the media for decades as quite fucking scary actually. You know what I mean. All psychopaths are serial killers etc. Certainly not actually…

During my mental health first aid training I was told Psychopaths can be high functioning business people who ultimately have high levels of focus. They don’t enjoy and/or develop human relationships and therefore can be ruthless, which, in turn makes them very successful – made perfect sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong, the media is getting better. More and more conditions are represented now by characters on TV. Soap operas are a prime example. Bipolar sufferer, Stacy Slater in Eastenders for instance. It does seem to have helped a lot of people. However, soap operas need to dramtise for their audiences so you tend to see the most extreme versions of the condition. There are however programmes which represent the conditions perfectly. Apple TV’s Ted Lasso is genius. This article by Buzzfeed tells you what I mean by this. And of course, Ricky Gervais’ Afterlife is a perfect portrayal on how bereavement can affect someone. His open dialogue on feeling suicidal is both touching, heart breaking and funny all at the same time. A rare combination for topics around mental health. We certainly need more of this on TV.

After studying mental health first aid, and overcoming my own mental health struggles – more of this in the blog posts to come – I found my passion. Finding ways to openly talk about mental health and bringing it to the conversation has certainly helped me and others I know. Even the activity of writing down your story can be therapeutic in itself.

So…Insanely Normal is here to help me get some of my stories out of my head as well as giving others a chance to share theirs. A blog where we can all talk about our mental health in a frank, open and safe environment. The same way we do physical health. And a place where people can come and read about experiences similar to their own and understand that they are not on their own.

This is a place where everyone and anyone can share stories of their own experiences dealing with, over coming, recovering or managing mental health. And you are welcome to get involved.

Because you know what? Mental health is insanely normal. 


My decline into poor mental health and journey to recovery

This guest post was written and shared by Becky, 41, Yorkshire

 ‘It’s ok not to be ok’ …. a phrase that we have seen increasingly splashed about over social media in recent years, particularly more so once the Covid pandemic really started to hit hard.

Deep down I knew this to be absolutely true and had the greatest empathy and respect for those people who could say this because of their own experience.  

But the part of me that really hadn’t been well for a very long time never let me acknowledge that it was applicable to me. 

I have always had very high expectations of myself, this combined with an innate sense of insecurity, an absolute fear of confrontation and the need to push myself out of my comfort zone meant taking responsibility and absolute control in all areas of my life turned me into a ticking timebomb when it came to my mental health.

Looking back, I suppose I was always going to ‘go off’ at some point.

I left home at 19 because I wanted to, not because I had to. My parents were brilliant and had provided me and my siblings with a very loving and secure family environment in which to navigate through the ups and downs of early childhood and the hormone raging teen years. Nothing bad happened during those years, it was all very normal. Apart from a poor choice of boyfriend at 15… but hey who’s not had one of those?!?!

I was just chomping at the bit to start my own adult life, independently from the family home.  

Whilst I was in my 20s these personality traits helped me to successfully transition out of the family home, to secure a good job, set up home for myself (with new friends) and form new (and long lasting) friendships.

I met my husband when I was 24. He lived in London, so I soon moved there, created a home with him, made new friends and continued to develop my career.  

We married when I was 31 and our first child soon followed. I approached ‘nesting’ in my usual overachieving way, and we moved house 5 days after the baby was born – because I wanted to start the next phase in my adult life and apparently that needed a house not a flat.

In 2013 (when our first born was 2), we moved to Yorkshire. Whilst I didn’t grow up there, my family came from there, I spent many childhood summers there and my parents had moved back 5 years prior. I wanted to create for our children the idyllic, country family life I’d experienced growing up. I wanted my children to have their grandparents as a real part of their lives just as mine had been. This would not happen if we stayed in London.

The views in Yorkshire

I think this may be the turning point for my mental health, but quite frankly I’ve only just realised whilst writing it down.  

Nine months into our move, my husband was made redundant. I had continued to work for the same London based company but remotely. So, whilst this redundancy was not ideal, we could manage for a while whilst he found another position.

Unfortunately, the only position he was able to secure was back in London – but the money was good so financially we could cope with supporting two households. I wasn’t fazed by the idea of running the family home, looking after 1 child and working a full-time job 5 days a week on my own.

It was physically tiring; lonely at times as I didn’t know anyone other than my parents and I didn’t have the opportunity to make new friends through work. But I didn’t see this as a big problem. It takes time to build a new life 200 miles away from your old one. I could do this, and I did it for four years.

At 36 our second child came along. I had been desperate for another child and had spent the previous three years hoping that it would happen soon. But it didn’t happen as easily as I was expecting it to. I became obsessive about it, but I hid it very well…. I’m good at that. I didn’t want to put any pressure on my husband, so I hid how desperate I was, how heart-breaking it was every month when my period came. I didn’t talk to my husband at all about how much this affected me. That’s another story, but suffice to say, it didn’t help in the long run.

But finally, it happened, my second baby was born, and all was right with the world… apart from my husband being made redundant again which resulted in him losing his business. This time it took 9 months to find a new position.

Those were hard months for him, and his own mental health suffered greatly. So, I felt that I had to be the one who was always ‘up’, always positive whilst being very aware of the dire financial hole we were sinking further into each and every day.

But finally, he secured another position, again in London. So back to running the house and a full-time job, with two small children 5 days a week on my own. Again, I told myself that it didn’t faze me, I’d done it before, and I could do it again…. I am more than capable.

We talked many times about moving back down to London, mainly so my husband could actually see his family for more than 40 hours a week. But we loved Yorkshire, we’d started to establish a network and really didn’t want to move, plus we couldn’t afford to at this point.

My parents were a great help, whenever I needed them, they were there, every time, without fail… but these core personality traits of mine would not allow me to admit I needed their help at all. So, I only let them do a little, when in reality, I could have done with a lot more.

We went on like for this for a further four years and then Covid happened.

Our local during COVID

On the one hand we have been very lucky through this whole clusterfuck – no-one close to us died, we both kept our jobs, my husband was finally at home and we had a house with a private garden so time outside the home was possible.

BUT….. there also came downsides with keeping our jobs and the husband being at home. My husband was responsible for migrating 2000+ users over to remote working at the drop of a hat, so suffice to say he was pretty busy in those early months. He worked 14-hour days and we barely saw him during the day. His stress levels were through the roof.

I was luckier in a way, whilst I was running several huge projects at work, I had the most amazing boss and team who stepped up and helped me to navigate splitting my time between work and childcare and home-schooling. But I still felt guilty about not being there all the time – even though I knew several colleagues were also going through the same thing.

At times I even felt resentful, towards my husband for having a more ‘important’ job so it wasn’t even a discussion as to who should pick up most of the home-schooling. But again, that’s a whole other can of blog worms! 😊

Home-schooling is enough to give anyone a breakdown; but trying to balance the usual childcare tasks (dealing with endless snack requests, providing meals like some short order cook in a roadside diner, dealing with the children’s own stress and anxiety, refereeing squabbles, finding new and exciting things to do with bloody recycling and don’t get me started on how Joe Wicks made me feel like Mr Blobby!) all with a full time job!. I was wearing so many hats I didn’t know if I was coming or going most of the time. And I felt that I was failing in all areas…Hello again high expectations!

But again, those core personality traits kicked in and I only allowed myself to cry twice, in the bathroom and quietly so my children and husband didn’t hear me. 

Why am I telling you all the above?

All of these things happened over a 7-year time period, not that long in the grand scheme of things. It certainly seemed like it was one thing after another at times. During each one I never let myself acknowledge that I was barely coping / I needed help / I couldn’t stop without the world falling apart. I kept so much from my husband as I was worried about impacting his mental health; I wanted to protect him.

I never allowed myself to even consider that I should stop and ask for someone to help me or that I needed to take better care of my own mental well-being. 

There was always an excuse not to analyse too closely how I really felt….my view was that I couldn’t ‘fall apart’ as people depended on me. 

To admit that I wasn’t ‘ok’ felt like admitting that I’d failed. So, I carried on ignoring how I felt for so long that it became ‘the norm.’

I was scared that if I opened up about how I felt, I would breakdown and not be able to put myself back together again. My fear of crying and never being able to stop was very real.

2021 started and whilst things were far from over with the pandemic, things like home-schooling and lockdowns had become normalised and so were less of a shock when they happened.

It was only when the signs of anxiety started to manifest in (quite frankly terrifying) physical ways, that I knew I had to reach out for help. At one point I actually thought I was having a heart attack, then I convinced myself that I had a heart condition…I never actually allowed myself to think that all of these physical signs could be triggered by my mental state. So, I stuck my head in the sand for a further 6 months.

7 months, 2 weeks and 2 days ago I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t ok, that I needed help, and something had to give. 

I called the Dr and was assessed for anxiety and depression; given a prescription for medication, referred for therapy and signed off work for 4 weeks (initially).  

Even with the ‘validation’ of a diagnosis and treatment from medical professionals I still felt like a failure. I felt tremendously guilty about taking time out from work and the impact it would have on my team and the extra work it would mean for my husband at home – he already did more than his fair share. He really is a very good husband 😊. I was also very adamant that I didn’t want my children to have any knowledge of what was going on with me.

Back then I could never imagine feeling any different or feeling better. In all honesty I couldn’t remember what feeling ‘well’ felt like. 

In the end I took 9 weeks off work and for the first 5 I slept, a lot! After that I was able to start thinking more clearly about everything, and I was able to talk openly with friends, family, and colleagues about my mental health for the first time ever.

A few months post diagnosis I have started to feel better. I still have bad days and sometimes weeks but I’m starting to have more good than bad.

I am now able to identify behavioural traits that aren’t healthy and I’m working hard to change them. I am also better able to identify and verbalise what I need to support my mental health recovery journey.

It is a journey. Medication and time off work alone will not fix this; it just gave me the breathing space and support I needed to gather strength for the work that needs to be done to recover.

Waiting for therapy to start took longer than we as a nation deserve (again another post for another time) and the initial online therapy offered didn’t really work for me. But it did help to me figure out what type of therapy I do need, and I am finally ready to commit to it.

Interestingly; 7 weeks post diagnosis I wrote a much shorter version of this blog on Facebook and the response I had from friends blew me away. I had so many comments on the post and via private message, where people told me their own stories. I worked out that the people that got in touch made up nearly 50% of my FB friends. Nearly half of these friends had suffered from poor mental health at one point or another – and that’s just the ones who got in touch. That’s HUGE!

Just last week I was speaking with a friend about that FB post, and she said she was shocked when she read it, she just didn’t expect me to have experienced something like that. It’s amazing the mask you present to the outside world – even those close to you – and I worked hard to make sure that mask didn’t slip…. Ever.

This was a mistake and one I intend to not make again.

So, for anyone reading this who feels as I did, please know that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ is not just ‘one of those trite Facebook posts’ people ‘like’ and then scroll past. 

It really is ok to admit to not being ok, it is ok to ask for help.

The world will not end if you do. 

You are not weak. 

You are not a failure. 

You are not alone.

It actually takes tremendous strength to admit you’re not ‘ok’, firstly to yourself and then to others – be they family, friends, work colleagues and medical professionals. 

Your mental health is so important. Poor mental health is real and acknowledging it might just save your life.


This post was written and shared by Becky, 41, Yorkshire

Learning to Thrive as an Anxious Individual

This guest post was written and shared by Ben, 44, Kent

I don’t know if I was born anxious. But, looking back, anxiety was part of my life from a young age.

I remember a very specific incident when I was five years old: My mother had taken me shopping in our nearest city and bought me a cardboard Halloween mask.

On our return home, I realised that I had not one mask, but two. This was a thin, cardboard mask, and we’d inadvertently taken two that were stuck together.

I didn’t sleep that night, and I was terrified for days afterwards. I sank into a spiral of what I now know as “catastrophising.” My thoughts took me all the way from deep shame to being locked away in a cell for stealing.

I seem to remember insisting that the “stolen” mask be kept in the cupboard under the stairs, and I only really calmed down once I’d convinced my mum to return it on her next trip to the city. I don’t know if she really did.

I’m now 44 years old, and a dad with two children of my own. A formal anxiety diagnosis didn’t follow until 30 years after the mask incident.

The diagnosis made a lot of things make sense. The signs were always there, from the spiralling worries and the racing thoughts, to the fact that I’ve always startled easily – something bullies, young and old, seem able to instinctively detect and have fun with.

I’ve since become fascinated by the nature or nurture debate around mental health – especially as one of my sons is clearly following in my anxious footsteps. It’s not something I ever wanted to pass on. In fact, I think it would have been fairer to give him the early baldness! But it turns out I didn’t have much choice.

Scientific opinions vary on the numbers. Before writing this article, one source told me that anxiety is 26% genetic, but I’ve previously read that in can be up to 50% “nature over nurture.”

And, however hard you try, you can’t help but pass some of it on through the generations as a result of your actions. Regardless of how much I try to hide it, my son has grown up around a worrier, and has a father who leaps at the slightest jump scare. I grew around a man like that too.

But I’m not writing this to wallow in self-pity. On the contrary, I’ve worked very hard to embrace my anxiety. It’s a part of me, as are the spells of depression I endure. Given that I’m already middle aged, it seems probable my mental health will remain something I manage, rather than something I “cure.”

And I’m OK with that.

So now I’m going to tell you a little more about my mental health journey. Some people are reluctant to share this “personal stuff,” but I feel it’s incredibly important. Not least because I seem to have gifted some anxious genes to my oldest son. The least I can do is help him grow up in a world that knows how to look after him.


The Diagnosis

You may be wondering why it took so long for me to be diagnosed with anxiety.

Well, I did what most men with mental health issues do in a world with a twisted view of masculinity: I did everything I could to outrun myself. Alcohol, drugs, toxic friendships, travel, gambling, debt – all the things we label as “work hard, play hard.”

That’s not to say that mental health didn’t rear its head. I presented at the doctor a few times over the years: with depression, with suicidal thoughts, with worry about smoking too much weed, and once for beta blockers to get me through a nasty breakup.

Ironically, given that I’d now describe anxiety as my principal mental health concern, it never really came up as a thing.

Until it did.

Strangely, it was once I’d stepped back a little from the hectic lifestyle that the anxiety really emerged. I’d moved abroad and was living a much calmer life. I’d not claiming I’d altogether stopped partying – but compared to my city lifestyle I’d practically retired!

I think perhaps I became more conscious of my patterns – of how once every couple of weeks, irrational spiralling thoughts would rob me of sleep and upset my body clock for days. I’d had panic attacks before, but I gradually became more able to recognise them as such. It steadily got more out of hand.

And then came something that may fall into the “Too Much Information” category: I stopped peeing properly.

I should elaborate.

For a week or so, I began to feel like I constantly needed to run to the loo. I’d either need to go three times in ten minutes, or I’d spend hours feeling desperate but be unable to do what I needed to do. My abdomen constantly ached, and I was struggling to go further than five minutes from home without having to turn back.

I can still feel the visceral fear, just the same as I can recall the fear of the mask theft incident. My mind zoomed at 1000 miles per hour around all manner of fears: dialysis machines, every imaginable cancer, dying before achieving the things I wanted to.

After about ten days of this, I did something constantly worked to avoid: I went to a doctor.

To cut a long story short, there was nothing physically wrong with me. My anxiety wasn’t being caused by some mysterious bladder-related illness. In fact, it was the other way around: Every physical symptom was being caused by anxiety. In the years that have followed, anxiety has caused me an impressively varied selection of physical symptoms.

Within days of receiving my diagnosis, and helped by some medication, all the symptoms stopped. But here’s a thing: that peeing thing still happens whenever I travel far from home.

The nearest service station is just 10 minutes from our house, and I have to stop to use their facilities on almost every journey. And that’s despite asking myself if “I’m sure I don’t need to go?” more times before leaving the house than I ask my children!

The thing is, it doesn’t bother me now. If it did, I wouldn’t be sharing it here. I mean, let’s face it, it’s kind of embarrassing. But embracing every part of myself is how I’ve learned to thrive with anxiety, rather than letting it define me.

And also, as I’m now far better informed, I know what’s going on physiologically. My amygdala, the “flight or fight” part of my brain, is getting over-excited because I’m doing something anxiety-provoking. It’s emptying my bladder in preparation to fight a bear, when all I’m actually doing is going into town.

Some people have a shoulder or a knee that gives them grief and makes certain things difficult. I’m simplifying the science here, but anxious people just have an amygdala doing the same thing. It’s a pity there’s much more stigma and shame attached, but the world is getting slowly better on that score. And I like to think articles like this help.

Let’s zoom forward to the present day. How’s my life now, other that the fact that I take an unfathomably long time to get ready to leave the house?

Well I’m not cured. I’m nowhere near. But I can confidently say that I’m more authentically happy than I’ve ever been in my entire adult life.

Anxiety still has a constant presence. Thanks to a global pandemic and my advancing years, health anxiety is my jam right now. And I’m still frequently kept awake by racing thoughts around routine things. Now they’re things like mortgages and pension provision, rather than late homework and pilfered Halloween masks.

Despite all that, I have far more good days than bad. Here are the things I do to ensure that’s the case.


Living a Clean and Healthy Life

It’s a frustratingly clichéd, but there’s solid reasoning and science behind the fact that almost every self-help book includes material about exercise and healthy living.

I’m better when I exercise. I’m better when I eat well. I’m better when I read books instead of social media feeds. I’m better when I avoid drugs and alcohol.

I’ve steered well clear of drugs for years now, but alcohol was a faithful anxiety crutch for most of my adult life. Or so I thought.

18 months ago, I stopped drinking completely. I don’t intend to turn this piece into an evangelical plea to give it a go yourself, but it has been transformational for my mental health. You can read here about the benefits I’ve felt from quitting drinking.

I’m no puritan, and I’m not a fitness freak. I love chocolate, cake and Diet Coke. But I do know that looking after myself is key to keeping anxiety largely at bay.


Living Authentically

Since I stopped drinking, I’ve re-embraced the hobbies and interests that gave me joy when I was young. I’ve also finally learned to love the fact that I’m an introvert, not the extrovert I spent years trying to be.

My free time is filled with books, with music, with good food, and with people who share my interests and beliefs.

My world is much smaller, and subjectively less exciting. My life is much more routine driven and – by some measures – boring.

But it’s a life I wish I’d realised I could have sooner. I’m passionately, unashamedly and argumentatively ME.

With anxiety you have quite enough to worry about without having to worry about who you are.

And that brings me to my next point.


Keeping The Right Company

Here’s one of my favourite quotes at the moment. Its original source is unknown. I’d love to claim I found it in a high-brow book, but I saw it on a meme:

“I used to walk into a room full of people and wonder if they liked me… now I look around and wonder if I like them.”

Over the years I’ve become much more discerning about the company I keep and – if I’m being honest – much less tolerant.

I don’t have time for people who think the solution to mental health issues is to “man up.” And I no longer think relationships that require me to pretend I’m somebody else are worth spending time on.

I’m blessed with some wonderful people in my life – especially a wife who works hard to understand my mental health, indulges my irrational worries, and never complains about inspecting a suspicious spot or bump for the thousandth time!

I’m always willing to give my time to others, and am particularly passionate about helping people with their mental health. I’ve completed counselling training, and often spend spare moments replying to threads on online support groups.

But I also believe that “do as you wish to be done by” should work both ways. For an anxious and “sensitive” person, I can also be pretty damn assertive if not treated right. Another thing for the “wish I’d learned all this sooner” category.


Constantly Learning

I have a stack of books by my bed, and plenty of them are of the kind you’d find in the “Mind, Body and Spirit” section.

If a self-help book teaches you just one or two “knowledge bombs” to help you to deal with situations better, then it’s worth reading. I WANT to evolve. I WANT to understand more about the world, and about other people.

I’ve lost count of the number of times the right book or the right article has broken me out of a depressed spiral. Humans are a work in progress, and I’m far from done.


Therapy

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my counsellor.

I’m not in regular therapy at the moment, but I had a long run of sessions a few years ago that helped me “put to bed” all kinds of issues from my early life. Without that therapy, I wouldn’t be the same person today.

I don’t wish to sound melodramatic, but I might not be here at all.

Having a strong relationship with the right counsellor can be a game-changer. About six weeks ago I had a couple of challenging things to work though. A couple of ad-hoc sessions were enough to allow me to tackle them as a balanced adult. Without those sessions, I would have tackled them as an impulsive child!

Counselling works.


Doing the Right Work

I’m a full-time freelancer, and work from home. While I’m sure that I could cope with a full-time, office-based job – and did for years – the freelance lifestyle fits the mind I’ve been given much better.

There’s an irony here, because freelancing comes with a huge amount of responsibility and financial uncertainty. That doesn’t seem like a natural fit for somebody with anxiety! But, for me, the trade-off is freedom from rules, routines, and from having to work with people and company values that don’t sit well with me.

What I’m saying here is that you have to spend a huge amount of your life working. Getting your career situation right is perhaps second only to getting your relationships right.

So there you have it, a couple of thousand words on how an anxious, mid-40s male with anxiety navigates the world.

Anxiety is always there for me. It’s a rare day (perhaps a rare hour!) when I don’t have to think about it at all. But I’m pretty happy and zen about being me.

There’s a lot I like about how my mind works: I feel deep joy, and enjoy good times without cynicism or snark. I can tune into my children’s emotions effortlessly.

I spent plenty of my life conditioned to believe that being “sensitive” was a weakness. As I become older and more comfortable in my own skin, it begins to feel more like a superpower.


This post was written and shared by Ben, 44, Kent

How getting physical helped my head to heal

Oh here we go. She’s going to bang on about eating healthy and exercise… blah blah blah…

I can assure you, I am certainly not. I know more than anyone, exercise is something you want to talk about when you’re doing it and when you’re not, you do not give a shit. You certainly do not want to hear others banging on about it.

I’m naturally lazy. I love doing nothing. I rarely get the chance these days and in fact, until I had children I had no idea how much I enjoyed doing bugger all. These days, the chance to sit down and play crappy games on my phone while paying attention to no one is something that happens very rarely and I miss it. Yup, sad I know.

However, during lockdown in 2020, I discovered the incredible effects of exercise. Without physical exercise I honestly don’t believe this blog would exist. I don’t think I would have been well enough to openly talk about my experiences, let alone be well enough to support others on their journey. In fact, I didn’t even realise my head was broken until I started to work harder on looking after my body.

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

When the global pandemic happened in March 2020, most of our routines were thrown upside down. Now, I do not want to overtly complain. I am very aware of how lucky I was. I wasn’t a key worker for the NHS, nor did I work any of the frontlines, I didn’t live on my own. I didn’t have loved ones in hospital dying of COVID.

However, not unlike many of us, my mental health still took a beating. To hear more about this particular story, see my post on ‘Allowing professionalism to go out of the window‘ or Coming face-face with Covid.

A big change for me physically was my commute or lack of it. Living in central Kent and working in central London four days a week meant a daily two-hour commute. I didn’t get the chance for much exercise around this as I was usually exhausted from being out of my house for over 12 hours a day and weekends were running around after the mini ones. I also had no interest in exercise. I had tried the odd fitness class over the years but nothing had stuck. If I needed to lose weight, I dieted – which I am also really bad at! Proper foodie at heart.

I also don’t drive so I walk almost everywhere. I know! I know! Its actually my biggest regret in life. I wish I had learnt when I was young and had less fear of the road. I actually started lessons just before the pandemic and have probably used the excuse of stopping these as the reason I haven’t started them back up. Anyway I digress… I wasn’t exactly healthy physically but I was not noticeably overweight either.

It wasn’t until I had to stare at my own face on daily Zoom calls that I became very conscious of how I looked. There have been many stories about the pandemic allowing us to be our true selves but I haven’t read that many stories of how Zoom fatigue has affected our body confidence. I barely saw my own face when I worked in the office. A nip to loo and a glance in the mirror every now and then was nothing compared to starting at yourself throughout the entire day. Turning your camera off was rude towards your colleagues so there I was, trying to focus on my colleagues faces and trying not to focus on my own flaws and mentality.

At the time I decided to do something about it. I had no idea of the correlation between physical fitness and mental fitness. The reason I started it was purely superficial.

Ben, my partner, is very much into physical fitness so through gritted teeth, I asked him to help. He was more surprised than I was and that’s saying something!

This first exercise session which involved multiple star jumps, jogging on the spot and lifting weights almost killed me. My face has the complexion that needs blusher. It never goes rosy. My face after this session (only two rounds of it as I didn’t quite make the third) was purple. F-ing purple! I could feel my face heating the air around me. It was bloody awful.

However, I can proudly say I persevered and within 6 months, I had lost over two stone. My partner didn’t do another session with me after that first one – until reently however as he’s now teaching me boxing – however up until now, it was all on me. The image below shoes my face after that first training session and the second shows my face after a training session six months later. I think its safe to say I got better at it!

Oh hello jawline! Haven’t see you in a while!

I was determined to feel good. I was also doing the school run now, and nursery run (in the opposite direction) and all while trying to ensure I got to my train in time, once the office reopened. I had no issue with doing this at speed let alone in time.

I swap weight training on some days for pure cardio and dance my way through lunch breaks or make myself more flexible with the likes of yoga etc. I now mix it up and try all sorts but I have never felt better. Both in body and mind.

Me dancing in our makeshift basement gym

I cannot stress enough that losing all of that weight (so far 3 stone in total ) was easy at first. But once the first two months were over, I started to find it enjoyable. The pain after leg day can do one but I love sweating through a session now and noticing the difference it has on my wellbeing.

I had taken photos to show the physical effects of the exercise on my body and watching it gradually change shape made me only more determined. I drink more water and ate better because of it – My skin and hair got healthier – My face however now looks older but the choice is figure or face and this time, I picked figure What the photos don’t show however, is the effect all of this had on my brain.

However, this isn’t about what happened physically. This is about how losing three stone affected my mentality. The way I feel about myself. My resilience. My confidence. I am in the best mental shape I’ve been in years. In fact, it wasn’t until I became fit physically, that I was able to truly recover from what I now believe, was a six-year battle with antenatal and post-natal depression.

Five years of losing my temper at anything and everything. Five years of pretending everything is ok. Almost losing a bond with my son. I will talk about my experience of post-natal depression in a separate post but getting to grips with my body enabled me to get to grips with my mind. Sounds like bollocks but I can’t explain it in any other way.


The biggest change is confidence in my own achievements. I relalised as part of the depression, I also had the worst imposter syndrome I’ve ever had. I had people telling me that I was doing a great job, how I was a great mum, but I never really believed it. I worked really hard and had great results and adored my children despite being a ‘shouty mum’ – which I’m trying to stop. I had regularly received positive feedback from not only my boss, but the agency board members and CEO regularly. I never believed it though. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t fight to progress. I was passive for five years.

Since recovering, I am I very aware of how good I am. A little advice to anyone reading this, if you can in the sector you work in, get a mentor. I wish I had it done it sooner. I did it because I was finally confident enough to talk to a mentor. Openly and honestly. I hadn’t been proud of myself enough in those five years to talk about my career.

I decided to join a women’s network, Bloom. This bunch of incredible women, many having their own issues and some having similar to mine, made me realise I wasn’t alone. Through this network, I starting mentoring a young woman too. I realised how much knowledge and experience I had – and tried hard to do what I wished someone could have done for me.

I was also able to help to others too. I was now a trained mental health first aider and crisis support line worker, making me completely empathic towards others who suffer from mental illness, knowing the darkness I’d been in. In doing so, I’ve changed the direction of my future career choices by getting heavily involved at work and personally with mental health. Insanely Normal Blog included.

I also teamed up with my friend Howard and joined his group in a work steps challenge to support CALM.

Chafing the Dream – all the way!

Our team won and although the only female, I was hitting over 20,000 steps a day. In Feb my daily average was 2501 a day – shame. And I was proud of my efforts.

And I am now confident enough to believe I can get to where I want in my career. I will work hard for it too.

Lockdown gave me the chance to get a good work/life balance. Training my body gave me the chance to improve my life and gave me the confidence I needed to improve my work remit, professional network, support others through mentoring or first aid and move into an area that makes me happily work in my personal time but only after the kids go to bed.

Most importantly I’ve realised I am a good mother. My children do adore me and me them. My son is bright despite his need to make everyone laugh – which often gets him into trouble. My daughter who was facing surgery only months ago, became physically strong enough to mend the hole in her heart and no longer needs surgery – shocking everyone – including Dr Slavic, her paediatric cardiologist!

By mending my body, I mended my mind. I also mended the relationships with those closest to me. And do you know what? I would highly recommend it.


Once at rock bottom, the only way is up. Pt2 Climbing back up

This guest post was written and shared by Hannah, 38, London.

If you haven’t yet read pt 1 – you can read that here.


The ticking bomb had finally gone off. In that moment I had decided I didn’t want to be here anymore. The world would be better off without me and I honestly believed so would everyone I knew.

Thankfully, the tube station was closed. You’d think this would be a wakeup call. The realisation of what could have been would kick in any minute now.  Nope! Instead I attempted to jump in front a bus. This was a busy road. Full of transport and people.
It was only due to the bravery of a complete stranger, that I’m still here.

I still wonder who he is as I owe him a huge thank you.

He also answered my phone which was continually going off with my sisters trying to find me and he was able to tell them where we were and what was happening. My sisters turned up and was trying to calm me down. I was having none of it. I attempted to run into the road again but my sister although shorter than me, ran at me hard and pushed me back against the wall. She then helped me in the only way she knew how. She called the police.

As the police arrived, I was furious that no one would let me “just end things”. I lost all control and lashed out. The police, along with my sisters, took me back to the eldest sisters flat. My sisters took it in turns to watch me and stop me running out of the door. I was told it was around 4am when they decided they couldn’t do it alone anymore and called the NHS to get me committed.  

I don’t remember a great deal of that night. But I do remember the paramedics giving me the choice of come of your own free will or you will be forced. Something I obviously felt at the time was completely unfair because in my head, how I was feeling was totally normal and it was my choice.

Mental illness is ruthless, it will have you believe the darkest of thoughts are true and I genuinely thought me dying would be the answer to everyone’s problems.

Photo by Hannah Xu on Unsplash

We waited in the hospital and no words were spoken between the three of us. Again my memories are vague but I do remember my sister had given me some clothes to wear as I was still in my dress and heels from the night out. I ended up wearing her boyfriends huge tracksuit bottoms, one of her t shirts and these massive fluffy slipper socks (no shoes) that were hanging off so badly I looked like I had grinch feet! I also distinctly remember trying to escape and tackle the hospital security guard who had been instructed not to let me leave. I mean, if ever there was a picture of mental illness, this is it right? One of the few things we can laugh about even now regarding this horrible time. I mean, its better to laugh then cry right?

Because I refused to admit I was ill and I had no medical history of mental illness or suicide, despite my childhood, they had to let me leave. So that night after speaking to a psychiatrist, I was free to go home. My sisters heartbroken and furious.

The following day my sisters gave me an ultimatum. “Don’t make us go through last night again. Get the help you need or you’ll need to stay away”… or words to that effect.
I was still in complete denial that I was the problem but sober me was feeling embarrassed and I owed them, so I agreed.

They took me to St Thomas’s hospital where I stayed overnight and was assessed. A nurse watched me all night, I was not happy! The following day I was taken to a secure mental health hospital and put on a psychosis ward.

I have two vivid memories of that night. Shouting at my sister, begging her not to leave me. And a fellow patient telling me how he knew we’d be reunited. Apparently we were separated in the womb’?. I was terrified and I couldn’t understand why I was there. I just kept thinking “I’m not like them”.

After having any personal item that I could use harm to myself taken away, including the toggles in my hoody, I settled into my new temporary home, angry at the world.
My sisters used to visit and after they’d leave I would tell the staff “they only come because it makes them look bad if they don’t”. I was convinced that they hated me.

However, with the help of the staff and psychiatrists I was there for just over 3 weeks. The other patients had become friends almost and I found them less scary and more quirky. But most importantly I had finally admitted I was ill.

After I came out the aftercare was amazing. I had CBT for 12 weeks. Something I wasn’t keen on at first, I just have this image of me acting like a stroppy teen with my one word replies to this incredibly patient man. But a few weeks in I looked forward to it. He was now my comfort. The coping mechanisms I learned were just mind blowing. Very much a “penny drop” moment. 

I would also see someone from the local mental health team weekly who helped with my finance and I learnt how to gain a grant for further education. As well as setting myself weekly goals.

A year or so later I started a course in hairdressing. Something I was already interested in but felt it was too late to start. And that was the moment I started to bloom again.

8 years later and I now have a successful mobile hair and beauty business and look forward to opening up my own shop in the near future.

I have an incredible group of clients who I would call friends. I absolutely love being creative with hair but without them, the joy just wouldn’t be there.

I also started exercising in 2014. I went from a size 20 to a size 12 in less than 3years. I’m now a 14 thanks to a back injury and Covid but I’m perfectly fine with that. You’ll see why below…

It took me a really long time to come to terms with having a mental illness. Even after all the help, it took a few years for me to like myself and believe I have something to offer.

Photo by Saffu on Unsplash

I’ve been professionally diagnosed with depression, anxiety and paranoia. Something I have to deal with almost daily. The smallest of triggers can sometimes consume me but I now know how to handle my symptoms and the self care I need to do to keep on top of it.

Due to the back injury, lockdown and a house move everything was a bit too much. I couldn’t train with my back and the gym is my happy place. Living alone in lockdown was also tough. Especially when I went from being totally independent to barely being able to walk.

I just didn’t feel right in my head, I had constant ringing in my ears, I could hear loud bangs that weren’t there and I was hearing voices, like the room was full of people. I was too scared to leave the house unless I was meeting someone or had an appointment, constant heart palpitations and feeling sick and my OCD was through the roof. The paranoia was back and there was a period of about a week where I woke up sad that I was still here. I felt numb. I didn’t want to kill myself, I simply just didn’t want to be here.

The coping mechanisms I’d been using the last 10 years were no longer effective. I was a different person, my situation had changed and also the symptoms were different to last time. But also I couldn’t quite believe it was back and I felt like I’d failed.

Thankfully I’m now very aware of my mental health and I know when I’m not ok. As soon as I had an “ok” day I asked for help through self-assessment. I called the doctor. That in itself felt so empowering. I could admit I was ill like it was normal. Because it is normal!

Within days (due to my history) I was on the phone to a therapist having CBT again. Just 6 weeks this time but it was exactly what I needed. Everything was put into perspective and I realised “I’m ok and I’ve got this!”. I still have down days, I’m human, but I now know it’s ok. It’s also ok to just talk to people about it openly the same way you would if you broke your leg.

I’m very open about my mental health and the feeling I got when I came to terms with the fact it’s just part of my make-up, it feels like freedom. Having control over it 99% of the time, is tough but I know myself now and luckily I know how to make me…me.


This story was written and shared by Hannah, 38, London

Once at rock bottom, the only way is up. P1 – Falling down

This guest post was written and shared by Hannah, 38, London

Admitting you have a mental health illness is both the scariest and most satisfying feeling all at once.

Since as early as my teen years I’ve suffered with my mental health. Although I knew I wasn’t happy, I failed to realise anything was wrong. I was “fine”. It was everyone else that was the problem. Or so I had myself believing.

I was insecure, paranoid, sad, happy one minute and furious the next.

These lovely traits continued for over 10 years.

As a teen I was difficult. A few different things happened which I’ve come to realise probably had a large effect on my mental state, but all in all I was really lucky. I had a good family and never really went without. I just didn’t have the mental set up to deal with things that had a big impact.

I was the youngest of three girls and the constant chore of trying to live up to my big sisters was a pressure in itself. No one but I had put this pressure on me, yet I still felt it.
In my late teens I began to self-harm. Cutting my own arms and legs until they bled. I told myself I deserved it.

When my parents noticed, they took me to seek help. The doctor booked me in to see a counsellor. I vaguely remember only seeing them once or twice. I have no idea what we talked about. To be honest I very much doubt I knew what to say or why I was doing it. And of course in counselling there is no diagnosis, advice or long-term treatment plan, or at least not in my case. I’m not sure, maybe I was just seen as a hormonal teen? It was just a chat as far as I remember.

Mental health wasn’t really spoken about, so life just went on and it was like it had never happened.

A few years later I’d moved out of home, was living with friends and enjoying the life in my early 20s. However, this lifestyle didn’t suit me. My self-respect was at zero and I allowed male partners to mistreat me. I started to spend money I didn’t have, I ended up getting myself in a lot of debt and took money that didn’t belong to me to keep my head above water. Something that the ‘healthy’ me would never have done. While I owned up to it all, I knew I had hit rock bottom.

What goes up, must come down…

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I was honest with those around and overnight I’d lost my job, my friends and In 2009 my sister drove from London to Bristol to get collect me. I went to stay with my family as I felt safe with them. They had my back and I think they knew something was wrong. I was frightened about what was going to happen. I felt like a total embarrassment to my family and the shame was overwhelming.

To my surprise, they were all incredibly supportive. Including my now brother-in-law who I barely knew at the time. I was surprise, because I was totally disgusted in myself.

I lived with my sister and her partner for a year. Although I knew I had outstayed my welcome, the selfish side of me took charge and I was too hostile for my family to tell me straight. Eventually I moved in with new housemates a few miles away, which, in my head, meant life was going well. I’d got myself a bar job, made new friends, had a social life and got my independence back.

In reality, I was grateful to anyone who would give me a job. My friends only saw the side I wanted them to see. I was back to spending money I didn’t have, and all of this was to block out the sheer shame and anger I felt about myself.

I was taking cocaine. Allot. It became normal on a Tuesday night. There were definitely people in my life that were toxic to me, and I welcomed them. Mostly men, not very nice ones at that. I also blamed them for most things. Yet relied on them to make me feel better.

Ulltimately I needed to realise that how I was behaving wasn’t ok. Only my family really saw the worst bits. The anger. The paranoia. The self-hatred. But instead of talking about it, I’d snap and scare them off.

They tread on eggshells around me for years. Giving the “its just how she is” excuse. It wasn’t who I was. It was the worst version of me that had completely taken over and by now no one really knew the real me anymore. My behaviour was so up and down. One day I was fine. The next I was an inappropriate mess.

And that’s when the worst happened…

Rock bottom…

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

In 2011, I went out for my birthday with my sisters and a couple of friends in Wimbledon. I was so exited about it. After a few hours I’d had too much to drink. I made an inappropriate comment to someone in the toilets and my sisters were mortified, and rightly so.

Instead of doing what I would do now (although not likely for me to do that at all now thankfully) I’d hold my hands up, apologise and own it. But that version of me played the victim. Instead I whaled out at how much my family hates me, how much I embarrass them and in within minutes I had put myself in a cab and was on my way to the nearest tube station. I got out the cab at Colliers Wood and sent a text to my sisters and my parents. I don’t remember exactly what it said but I know it was a goodbye text.

Read part two to find out how I came back up


This story was written and shared by Hannah, 38, London

The mental and physical effects of coming face to face with COVID

I had been looking forward to life going back to some sort of normality. I was apprehensive about leaving the house prior to having both my jabs – mainly because I’m asthmatic and COVID is a respiratory virus. I also have a daughter with a heart condition and I had no idea how catching something like COVID would affect her. I’ve now sat on a train for two hours and made it into the office, more than once, been to the pub with family and friends and I have even hugged people and I’ve really enjoyed it.

On Friday 9th of July, my partner and the father of my children, Ben, had his second jab and we were starting to look at booking a family holiday before my daughter’s first operation later this year. We were waiting until our appointment with her surgeon who was going to decide on whether she was able to have non-invasive surgery or whether she had to have open heart. It’s something that I had been mentally preparing myself for for the last 6 months. On Thursday 22nd we were going to find out the result.

However, on the 14th of July, a week before, my partner started to feel unwell. He had a cold and aches and pains. He decided to sleep in the spare room, so he didn’t pass it on to me.

It was now Friday morning and I was getting my son ready for school. I was organising his spare clothes as it was his last Friday in reception and they were having a paddling pool party to celebrate his first year.

When I came downstairs, Ben was sitting in the kitchen with that look on his face. (You know the one where someone is about to give you bad news).  In front of him were two positive lateral flow tests.

I went into crisis mode. I told him to call 119 (the COVID helpline) and get that out of the way. I disinfected the kitchen and got the kids breakfast ready, while I waiting to find out what we had to do next.

He told me they advised him to go to the nearest test centre and to do a PCR test so they could determine the accuracy. We ALL had to self-isolate until the result came in and if positive, isolate for a further 10 days.  

I phoned my daughter’s nursery and phoned my son’s school. I then told my children. My 3yr old wasn’t that fazed – she didn’t really understand and couldn’t care less that she could now spend the day at home with mummy. My son on the other hand was devastated. He wasn’t allowed to see his friends, say goodbye to the best teacher he’s ever had and now wasn’t able to go back to school until September. I had to comfort him while he cried as I explained that this horrible bug was mean while filling him with promises about making up for what he’s about to lose.

I warned my team at work that my kids were now both home, but I would be working and I got through the day pretty unscathed.

Over the weekend we had the news we were dreading. The test was positive although by now, Ben was in the spare room 23 hours a day. Coughing continuously, not sleeping and going from freezing cold to boiling hot every half hour. I think we already knew.

I was cleaning the house as though we were living with the plague. Disinfecting everything as I went. Constantly washing my hands and begging the kids to do the same. I was sorting out our food shop delivery for Monday ensuring we had enough supplies to get through the week including anything that Dettol made to ensure I could keep this bug from spreading.

Key supplies during COVID

I then realised I would have to call the Hospital and rearrange my daughter’s appointment. We had waited over 7 months – Although in my head I was screaming, out loud I told myself, it was only a little bit longer to wait.

I had a doctor’s appointment to remove an implant in my arm. Something I had been struggling to get booked in for weeks but now this will be cancelled too. I kept telling myself it was no big deal.

However, I started to overthink everything. I started to think about work next week – I’d have both children at home. My partner couldn’t care for them as he was currently suffering in the hottest room in the house. He started having nose bleeds and my concern for his health was growing by the minute.

And my team – my team went from a 6 to 4 after the first lockdown hit. We’d just got through a very tough fortnight, handling two pitches, one of which was a huge global opportunity and took its toll on the large number of people who had to work on it. And now, one of the team was on annual leave so I was conscious of the fact that I had to be present this coming week and it was playing on my mind.

Questions were flying around my head…

  • Can I do my job well with two small children in the house? (I remember what this was like before so the thought of doing it again ensured my anxiety levels crept up)
  • Can I love and support my two young children and be there for them while juggling work calls and answering emails?
  • Can I work well when I need to keep covering myself in all possible PPE while running up and down stairs, to ensure I could look after Ben?
  • Have I got COVID? Have the kids got COVID? Should we all do another lat flow test? (we were doing them daily despite them coming back negative)

I was paranoid that the house wasn’t clean enough and was convinced it was inevitable that if someone in the house had COVID we were all guaranteed to get it. I wasn’t sleeping. My arms were covered in this awful itchy rash. I took a photo of my arm and sent it to my sisters asking them if they knew what it was.

Apparently its stress eczema!! – who knew that was a thing?

As a trained mental health first aider, I am used to supporting people who need me. I am actually pretty good at spotting a cry for help. Sending the photo of my arm was mine. And although I wasn’t aware it was, thankfully my sister answered.

She phoned me and straight away and I burst into tears. I was not well mentally and we both knew it. She gave me a stern talking to. She asked me if I could control the fact that Ben has COVID. I said “no”. She asked me if I could control the fact that my babies were now at home and I was the only one to look after them. I said “no”. She told me to phone work and tell them I couldn’t come in. I started to try and explain the situation my team were currently facing. She was having none of it. She said something had to give and that was the only thing in my control. She was right.

I sent my line manger a photo of my arm (not realising I didn’t really need to do that to explain how bad I was affected) and told him I had to spend a couple of days looking after my family and nothing else. He was amazing. He told me to concentrate on myself and that work could wait. 

The rest of my family chimed in with “Two days isn’t enough!” However, I had a week of annual leave coming up so I wanted to see if I could get through some work before I took it.

I popped on my OOO and the weight that was holding me down over the weekend had instantly lightened. Yes, I was still cleaning everything like mad, my arms were still sore as anti bac gel on sore skin burns like fire. But for two whole days in between running upstairs with paracetamol and food & water, I made paper aeroplanes, glitter pictures, put on a magic show, and had water fights.

The kids making the most of isolation

Ben started to feel better and two days later, took his first negative lateral flow test. While the rest of us took our PCR test – great family group activity by the way! (NOT!)

My resilience paid off. By Wednesday, I eased myself back into work. I left my OOO on but started to reply to emails. I had video chats with my team and took some work back off them to ease the pressure.

I was still having to tell my children off during those calls, but I wasn’t embarrassed anymore. This was life right now and it is was it is. I felt good. I was back. My children started to play with each other. Like properly play – less fighting and less shouting. We were all recovering.

I did more work on Thursday and by Friday, my OOO was off. I was ready again to take on the world.

And the PCR results…?

Yup. You’ve gussed it. Positive! We had a further ten days of isolation ahead of us. I was rough for two days, my kids…? Barely even noticed a symptom?!

So, my message to you all is this: It is absolutely possible to look after someone with COVID. In my case, it was almost impossible to protect the rest of the household from getting it. However, the worry, panic, stress and anxiety of what it might be like was way worse than COVID itself. ***

*In my experience.

**I was double vaccinated at the time.

By prioritising what mattered most, and relying on the people around me, who, luckily for me, had my back, we survived COVID.

Together.

 *It was anything but easy. However with the right support, it was certainly possible!


Allowing professionalism to go out of the window – Life as a working parent during lockdown

Today was a bad day. I screamed at my children so much my voice went horse. And It wasn’t their fault.

Before COVID I was two different people. At work, I was a strong, confident working woman who took pride in her job, worked hard to ensure the job was done right and was someone respected by her colleagues for knowing her s**t.

Me really enjoying the lockdown office – AKA my kitchen

At home, I was mummy. The person left who early in the morning and got home in time for funny bedtime stories and the rest of the time was the one who nurtured and cuddled and made two small people feel full when they were hungry, happy when they were upset and better when they were unwell.

Even though I worked from home one day a week, those roles very rarely co-existed. Prior to lockdown I used to get up at 6:00am and wake my babies so I could spend time with them as I got ready for work. I frantically then got the big one dressed, said goodbye to the little one and we left the house at 7:15am. I dropped him at nursery at 7:30 before going to get my train. I then had an hour to calm down from the morning rush and get my work persona in place before arriving at the office around 9:10am where, not unlike the rest of my colleagues, I worked in a relatively busy office but a place I could think. A place I could write. And a place I could run a pitch with clarity.

It was also a place where I was Emma, the marketing & new business expert-the professional. I then left the office at 5:30pm and caught my train home. Giving me another hour of peace. A time to think. A time to wind down and a time to close down my work persona before getting home at 7:30pm – just in time to read my children a bedtime story and tuck them in.

Then COVID happened.

My partner worked in the theatre industry, so it wasn’t long before he ended up on furlough. He became the primary carer of our children and at this point I felt very lucky. I was now waking at 7:30am. Having breakfast with my children and getting to see them as much as I wanted throughout the day. I was able to lock myself in other rooms and concentrate knowing they were cared for and safe and although I missed my hour of downtime in-between work and parenting, I considered the time I was able to spend with them precious and I was pretty care free.

However, with the pandemic not improving, my partner lost his job and had to look for work elsewhere. He then left the house at 7am and came home around 6pm after spending the day building houses –a new career path he didn’t plan but was grateful for none-the-less.

I now have to work. I now have to be a mother. And when the schools closed, I also became a teacher –and a terrible one at that! I now work in my kitchen. We have an open plan room (playroom) full of the kids toys off to one side where my children have spent most of their time since March 2020. Next to me is our home laptop logged permanently into Google Classroom which twice a day, I hear the dulcet tones of 4&5yr olds shouting random noises at their teacher while they try to comprehend the English Language.

My daughter who was in the throes of potty training is running around behind me, shouting she needs the toilet while my son is asking me to find the right Phonics card so he can join in with the lesson.

All the while, I’m writing award papers, talking about pitch processes or in some cases on conference calls with the mute button close by just in case.

On top of this, when my son takes a break, the background noise turns to screaming and shouting. My children are close in age but not close enough to play the same way. They also have very different personalities, so the frustration is real. They are each other’s only peers right now and although they love each other, it’s safe to say they are not quite getting on.

However, I’m not here to complain about how hard it is to concentrate on my job while my children are causing chaos in the background –although it is extremely hard!! This is just something I’m putting up with and doing what I can to ensure all plates keep spinning.

What I would like to share is that fact that a side of me, a side I kept separate and private from work was now very exposed and on show. We’ve all seen each other’s bedrooms/home offices/living rooms during this time, and we’ve all got used to it. What is hard though is showing that side of you – the side of a nurturing parent, the side of stressed parent, and a side that you don’t want to expose in a professional situation. It can be embarrassing. Leave you feeling vulnerable and leave you asking yourself (a lot) am I still able to do my job well – do my colleagues agree?!

I can work through the evenings when I need to concentrate. I can wait until my children are tucked up in their beds before I put my mind back at work. However, not all of my job allows for this.

During a pitch, I needed to be readily available and able to deal with the tasks that were given at the time that suited the rest of the pitch team and the looming deadlines. This is where I almost fell apart. I couldn’t concentrate and I felt useless. My stress levels reached heights I don’t think they ever reached before. I was trying to hold down calls and manage a team with my children going off their rockers in the background.

My head was full, and I wasn’t coping.

I felt embarrassed that I had to let people down and most of all, I felt I was bad at my job. This lasted way longer than it should have. As a mental Health First Aider, I had spoken to other people dealing with similar Issues and my advice was always the same. “You can’t be everything to everyone, all of the time”.

Eventually I took my own advice. I changed my working hours and ensured the part of my role I could do, I worked on even harder, and for the parts I couldn’t, I eventually asked for help.

I have now learnt to embrace that I am no longer two people. I am one person with several important things going on at the same time. I am human and every side of me right now is required for all reasons.

There is no time to be embarrassed as my work/life division is now very blurry and that’s ok. I do still feel it –when I’m talking to clients/partners or people I do not know as well but that’s ok too.

I am getting better at learning that I can’t work right now the same way I did before, and my children’s happiness and wellbeing is the reason I can now ask for help from my team without feeling as though I’m letting them down.

The guilt is subsiding and until this thing is over, I’m just getting on with it. It won’t be forever. I do now know that although I have two small humans in the background screaming through conference calls, I can still be counted as a professional and feel as though I will come out of this not a better person, but one whole person instead of two.

The bad days will still happen, but I know I can with deal with them better. Or just get through them the best way I can and remember that tomorrow Is a new day.

There is notime to be embarrassed as my work/life division is now very blurry and that’s ok. I do still feel it –when I’m talking to clients/partners or people I do not know as well but that’s ok too. I am getting better at learning that I can’t work right now the same way I did before, and my children’s happiness and wellbeing is the reason I can now ask for help from my team without feeling as though I’m letting them down. The guilt is subsiding and until this thing is over, I’m just getting on with it. It won’t be forever. I do now know that although I have two small humans in the background screaming through conference calls, I can still be counted as a professional and feel as though I will come out of this not a better person, but one whole person instead of two.The bad days will still happen,but I know I can with deal with them better. Or just get through themthe best way I can and know that tomorrow Is a new day.


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