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