Wednesday, 23 June 2021

THE FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN & MENTAL HEALTH | MY THREE DAYS IN COLDSTREAM

I’ve honestly been wracking my brains to think of a way to wangle my trip to Coldstream into a blog post and finally thought of this! So, the inspiration for this post about how the ‘unknown’ can impact our mental health, has come from the fact I’ll be travelling on a train for the first time since the UK lockdown…

I’ve seen so many people talk about their anxiety at the thought of lockdown regulations and social distancing guidelines being reduced and loosened to the point where many people now have the opportunity to do something, they haven’t for over a year. Seeing these people talk about their fear of these big changes, inspired me to consider my own thoughts on the rules being slackened and I kind of felt ‘bad’ when I realised, I didn’t have much hesitation or anxiety on this.

That ‘bad’ notion stemmed from that feeling most people get when they hear of someone struggling with something, they might not even give a second glance. Or worse still, to hear of someone actually fearful of something you/I actually really enjoy. For me, this way of thinking came from my time in psychiatric hospitals when I had the sharp realisation that there were a lot of things in my life that I’d maybe taken for granted and I learnt this because so many other inpatients didn’t have these things.

Something important to say at this point is that you’re allowed to struggle even when you begin to consider yourself ‘lucky’ in some respects compared to others… I mean, the most notable realisation I had in hospital was when I heard so many inpatients talk about their parents and difficult – or even completely non-existent – relationships with them. It left me wondering if I’d really taken my Mum’s unwavering and unconditional support for granted; and this led to the thought process I want to discourage: ‘do I have the right to struggle when I have something someone else doesn’t?’

My absence of anxiety around lockdown easing, is probably down to two things:

1.       I’m typically not a very anxious person.

2.       My mental health is so stable that a lot of moments and instances which would usually be challenging for me, are no longer on my radar.

That last one is something I’ve obviously not always had…

I think that my first biggest fear of the unknown was very predictably; the abuse. 

I had – in passing – known my abuser for two years prior to the abuse actually happening and so it came as a bit of a shock because before it, it have never even crossed my mind that he was someone capable of doing something like that. But I think that was the start which really perfectly sums up the point I wanted to make around the abuse: it was inconsistent. It wasn’t as though I was hurt every day, I saw him. It wasn’t even as though I saw him every day we were in the same building! And when I did see him, and he did hurt me, it wasn’t as though he did it in the same way.

Of course, I’m not ‘complaining’ or saying I’d rather it had been consistent – obviously I’d rather it hadn’t happened at all! I’m just explaining that this inconsistency meant I had nothing to really rely on or to use to build expectations. I couldn’t think ‘well it’s Wednesday and I usually don’t see him on a Wednesday, so I know I’m safe for this day.’ With consistency, comes comfort and reassurance; and this was absent every single day we were in the same building.

My second biggest fear of the unknown was when I began experiencing auditory hallucinations in the form of voices in 2009. I remember leaving my weekend job one day and the store was closed and the nearest man was way ahead of me so it couldn’t have possibly been him whispering in my ear that I was useless, that I deserved to die, and that I should kill myself.

I was so confused and scared when I looked around and it was all so real that I was convinced that in looking around, I’d spot a man nearer to me who I hadn’t noticed before now. Of course, there was no one there and I left the store, repeatedly telling myself that it’d just been my very tired imagination.

I was so wrong.

I spent the following ten days in a state of utter confusion and panic as I desperately attempted to carry on with my life whilst ignoring this enormous intrusion into my mind. My panic mainly stemmed from my stigmatised views of mental illness with the belief that telling someone I was hallucinating would result in me being hauled from my home and taken to my local psychiatric hospital to be locked away forever.

I felt that way until I was arriving at A&E in an ambulance after my first suicide attempt, and then I began feeling stupid for not realising that this – me trying to take my own life – had almost been inevitable. So why was I surprised when the Nurse was warning me that if I left the hospital, they would call the Police? And why did even having that warning, leave me surprised when two Police officers stopped me just as I reached the shops?

Back at the hospital, as the Police began explaining the 1983 Mental Health Act (MHA) and its section 136 they had detained me under, I think all those surprises had left me in shock. Like, I was just so overwhelmed by all these new experiences that I began to wonder if there was room in my head for more! But apparently, it didn’t matter whether there was space or not because ‘protocol’ was that I now had to be assessed by psychiatric professionals (two Psychiatrists and a Social Worker to be precise) and the Doctors had to admit me to the medical hospital for a life-saving antidote to the medication I had taken.

Being hospitalised and attached to a drip which would apparently take almost a full day to be administered was scary. It was then made worse when the Police officer who’d been sitting talking to me for the last few hours was permitted to leave as I was properly sectioned under the MHA and the hospital staff were now given permission to restrain me.

Once my treatment was over, I was taken to a psychiatric hospital and initially, I was so poorly psychologically that it really didn’t ‘hit’ me where I was until a few days later. I remember venturing out of my room for the first time and going into the communal sitting room to find some inpatients sat watching TV, two playing a board game, and one standing at a wall and talking to it. And I remember thinking ‘this is going to be my life now.’ And it was that concern and panic which fuelled me to finally tell the staff I was hallucinating.

That first mental health crisis and everything about it – the hallucinations, the suicide attempt, the antidote, the sectioning, the psychiatric hospital – was so alien and unknown to me that I think in a way I was almost grateful for the hallucinations because listening to them seemed to remove me from reality a little bit. And being removed left me feeling a little bit safer from all the scary things I witnessed in hospital.

After about two years of being in and out of psychiatric and medical hospitals, I went to live with my Dad down South and in doing so, I found that being in a new place left me feeling as though I could have a whole new life. Then, a lot happened and suddenly I was back where I had started. Except, that experience of having a fresh start fuelled me to continue searching for locations to have a fresh start… it meant I travelled to a number of different cities and towns in the UK and when I found that the hallucinations and memories of the abuse had followed me there, I would self-harm and end up once again tired of my life.

Going to so many different places, some people have asked why I wasn’t scared. Why visiting somewhere new and not having a clue where to go wasn’t terrifying and intimidating enough to stop me from continuing to do it. I think the answer is firstly that I was so focused and determined to improve things in any way possible, that was my one goal and therefore my one concentration. Then secondly, the hallucinations grew so loud and so real that I was left feeling pretty removed from reality anyway, so it was difficult to be intimidated by something so real and genuine. And finally, those hallucinations were so scary and so upsetting that they really put things in perspective in terms of being afraid of something.

Of course, that lack of fear led to some very dangerous instances and that, combined with the hallucinations, resulted in a suicide attempt which found me on life support in Intensive Care. Within days, I was being driven to a psychiatric hospital over 100 miles away from home which specialised in Personality Disorders. Being so far away from home wasn’t too hard initially because I was so poorly with my mental health and my focus – once again – was around committing suicide. I thought that being far away and surrounded by complete strangers would play in my ‘favour.’ I predicted that not knowing me so well would leave the staff really easily fooled if I were to pretend to be well in order to gain leave to enable me the opportunity to run off and end my life. 

It’s funny, you’d have thought that being admitted would have been the scariest moment in being hospitalised; but actually, it was when I started Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). I think that it was the fact I had been poorly for so long that I had almost ‘gotten used’ to be that way. I was used to living my life practically constantly in either hospitals or appointments and reliant on professionals and medication. So, I guess the thought of going through a therapy which – I felt at the time – was primarily focused on telling me that all the coping skills I’d come to adopt as almost habit, were wrong and bad. It almost felt as though I was being branded a bit of a failure and that the ways I’d felt forced to develop to manage the memories of the abuse and the hallucinations, were frowned upon and completely invalidated.

Undergoing DBT, I learnt a skill around mindfulness which was about allowing yourself to be ‘present’ and ‘in the moment’ and to me, it sounded like the worst idea in the world! I mean, surely if I allowed myself to really be in the reality of the situation, I’d be even more distressed, unsafe, and possibly suicidal? So needless to say, I refused to engage in the mindfulness exercises and instead, I concentrated on the distress tolerance skills in using distracting and self-soothing activities as a means to placate my mental health and to keep it in a healthier and more positive place.

Being deemed by professionals to be ‘in recovery’ (finally!) was a whole new fearful instance in my mental health journey! In fact, I think that the hardest, most challenging aspect of recovery was the complete misconceptions – and sometimes downright lie – professionals create in your mindset to influence you to believe that once in recovery you will never again be sad, anxious, suicidal, angry… As though life is suddenly simple and easy. As though going through DBT would make all my difficulties suddenly disappear. Like I’d be miraculously ‘cured.’

Those misconceptions around recovery being linear, meant that when the thoughts and feelings around self-harm and suicide, abuse memories, and hallucinations seemed to resurface, I felt like an absolute failure and became terrified that it meant I would never get better. I mean, if going through DBT and being in a psychiatric hospital for over two years didn’t completely help; what chance did I have?!

When I was in the psychiatric hospital for two and a half years, I started blogging and created I’m NOT Disordered with the intention of raising awareness and educating my friends and family on my experiences of mental illness. Even though my blog was aimed at my closest people, it was a very daunting process creating the first post and sharing the link to it on my social media. I think because it had only been less than one year since I’d posted on Facebook that I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and was being admitted to a psychiatric hospital; and whilst I received such a lovely, supportive response from literally everyone; I was still reluctant to share even more information on my illness.

I think that just starting out in the blogging world – and not even intending for it to become a bit of a career eight years later – I had very little confidence and was yet to develop a real passion to fuel my honesty and openness. In growing that passion over the past eight years, I’ve found it to encourage a sense of courage and bravery in promoting me to publish some of the very personal content I’ve created over the years.

A learning curve from producing this content was around the fact that if I were to post content on something controversial, then I really needed to be passionate about it to a point where I was accepting of receiving any spiteful, or even aggressive, messages from total strangers. Before learning this lesson, I only received two nasty comments, so I feel like this rule is really validated and works well. Honestly though? I do think it’s sad that this is the case because I totally believe that you should feel able to express your thoughts and opinions on something without fear of reprisal and the chance of upsetting, hurtful comments from strangers who are no more than bullies. But sometimes, I think you have to just get to the point where you accept that something – no matter how ‘wrong’ you think it may be – is just the truth of the matter and that if you don’t cooperate with it, then you’ll be the one who’s at a disadvantage.

When my best friend Lauren, first gave birth to Greylan, I remember asking her if she felt as though she’d immediately picked up instincts in becoming a Mum and she said she thought she had. Even though I had asked her, I didn’t consider whether I’d have any instincts when I met him. I mean, I already have three godchildren, but the youngest is three so it’s been a few years since I’ve held a baby and as Lauren plonked Greylan in my arms, I wondered if that would show. But I don’t think it did. And I wondered if my thoughts and instincts around Greylan are maybe related to my friendship with Lauren, how long we’ve known each other (over fourteen years!), and how close we are. 


Going to stay with Lauren, her partner Darren, and Greylan for three days was a little bit intimidating purely in wondering what it would be like to kind of ‘live’ with a baby because I’d not stayed overnight with my godchildren. But I think that my excitement to see Lauren and spend time with Greylan kind of overshadowed any nerves or hesitant thoughts. And even from the moment I first got to Coldstream with them, I felt like helping with Greylan (I made his ‘food’ twice, half changed his nappy, helped bath him, and had numerous cuddles) just felt so lovely and normal. And it was so rewarding when I was able to soothe Greylan and stop him from crying. It just made me feel really content (Lauren said I looked ‘emotionally content’ a few times!) and so happy.

I think that for so long I felt absolutely useless at literally everything in life – there were so many occasions where I felt like a complete failure because I couldn’t even commit suicide or self-harm to the degree the hallucinations were commanding and expecting of me. It also didn’t help that I was unable to work whilst my mental health was poorly because it meant that I didn’t even have that, to instil a sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. So, for a few years, my blogging was my one achievement and the one thing I felt I was good at. And then I came to Coldstream and found that I could also be helpful with Greylan. And that feeling… it’s priceless!

 

Lauren’s YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSoeI3UtTY55jS39WCAH_wQ

Train – Cross Country: https://www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk/

The Hirsel Arts and Crafts Centre: https://thehirselcraftscentrecom.wordpress.com/

Abbey Ceramics: https://www.facebook.com/Abbey-Ceramics-207550679266639/

Dog toys – Wilko: https://www.wilko.com/en-uk/pets/dog/dog-toys/c/1072?page=2&pageSize=24