So, I’ve said before that when I began hallucinating and made my second suicide attempt in 2009, a number of professionals commented that ‘at this rate’ I wasn’t going to make it to my nineteenth Birthday (which was just a few months away!). At the time, my first was “thank goodness for that!” So now, to be celebrating my birthday and turning thirty-one? Well, it’s a pretty big deal! And I wanted to publish a post that was just as special and just as important…
WHY I’M CAREFUL WITH THIS SORT OF THING:
In my life, I’ve learnt a lot of things the hard way, and one of these lessons in my mental health recovery has been making me more aware of any advice I give around the topic. I learnt this through one of the other inpatients in the specialist psychiatric hospital I was in for two and a half years, asking me what my turning point had been.
In fairness, this girl had become very easily influenced. I mean, when she was admitted to the ward specialising in Personality Disorders, she was the only girl to have absolutely no self-harm scars anywhere on her body. At the time, her method of self-harm was to abuse the medication she was on for a medical condition she had. But, being hospitalised meant that this method was completely taken away from her (and I try to identify with this because my own method was made more difficult too) and so she almost naturally, desperately searched for an alternative coping skill. And I guess that being surrounded by girls who self-harmed in a same, particular way meant that she very quickly and somewhat easily came across the means for doing that. So, by the time my discharge was being discussed, this girl needed plastic surgery on her massively damaging self-harm wounds.
One of the most upsetting instances that I can recall from being an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital (and there were many admissions over the years) involved this girl. We had argued over something and later, I was walking down the corridor from my bedroom and was passing her bedroom door when I heard a funny noise come from behind it. I moved to continue walking, then I had the sudden realisation that if I carried on and something was wrong, I’d be forever angry with myself. So, I backtracked and went up to the observation window in her bedroom door and saw her on the floor with an item she’d used to make a suicide attempt. Her room was locked, and I remember screaming for the staff and when it felt like they were taking forever, I remember trying to kick the door in and thudding my entire body against it as though I had the right amount of strength!
That evening, after being rescued and administered oxygen, the girl and I (and a few others) were in the communal sitting room talking about everything that was in store after my discharge, and she asked, “what do you think made you change?” I didn’t even think about it. I told her the two reasons that – at the time – I believed were the most influential on my recovery…
I told her that one of these was when I had gone AWOL from the psychiatric hospital whilst on permitted leave outside and made a suicide attempt that left me on life support. I told her that being transferred from the medical intensive care to the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) above the ward I had been on for over a year, had been a kick up the bum. That it’d helped me see that if I didn’t do something then that was going to become my life. I mean, there were so many horror stories of that PICU – which weren’t helped when a patient killed another one(!) – and I still felt so physically poorly from being on life support for so long that it left me convinced that there was literally no reason why this wouldn’t happen again. So, if I didn’t want it to, then I needed to do something about it!
A little while later and that girl was attempting to repeat my actions and staff were shouting at her that they knew she was doing it to be transferred but that there wasn’t anything she could do that’d make them take her to the PICU. Sort of fortunately, they knew she was manipulating the system. They recognised she was doing these things – not out of genuine distress, but out of desperation. The staff’s intelligence on the issue did nothing to really placate just how terrible I felt and how convinced I was that everything she did was my fault. That all of her actions were because of me and all that I had said.
That experience really taught me a lot though. It enabled me to see the importance of taking responsibility for your actions and how self-blame can be one of the unhealthiest feelings you can have. It also showed me something that’s more relevant to this post – what helps one person, might not help another. And promoting something that’s been beneficial to you, can leave others feeling hopeless if it doesn’t work for them.
So, with that in mind, please know that I write this post with the intention of shedding light on what’s helped me rather than as advice. I mean, I hope that this still helps people; maybe not so much to try something that’s helped me, but to know that you can go from such a low point (I’ll talk about mine later) and come back stronger than ever (as I feel now!).
To not imply of any sort of importance or priority, I thought I’d list the greatest things that have helped to save my life in chronological order…
For the majority of my childhood, I had Hamsters; until my Mum and I met a cat on holiday, and I convinced her we should get one! She heard of the litter Saffy was in and even though she was only one week old, we visited her and her siblings. For the following weeks, we saw her every week and as the litter got older, one of them (Saffy) began to stand out. One visit, I had spilt butter on my jeans and when I sat on the floor with the kittens, Saffy jumped on me and was licking my jeans. When her brothers and sisters would try to see what she was doing, she’d fight them off and just ended up sitting in my lap for the rest of the visit. And so, she was ours!
We’d had Saffy for about three or four years when the abuse began in 2006, there were so many reasons why I felt that I couldn’t report it or talk to someone – anyone – about it. And because of those reasons, I even stopped writing; I was so afraid that I’d write everything out and someone would see and find out. But writing had been an important outlet for me and so losing that, I felt desperate for some kind of release. It was like all these massive secrets were just piling up in my head like a stack of books and sooner or later something was going to come along that would knock them over.
And so, I told Saffy. Every day I would go home and if my Mum was still at work I’d snuggle my face into Saffy’s fur, cry, and tell her how much pain I was in and why I was in it. Those minutes – or sometimes hours – still mean so much to me because I honestly believe that either my head would have exploded, or I would’ve done something very unsafe if I had to keep everything inside for the entire six month the abuse went on for.
When I was admitted to the specialist psychiatric in 2012 it was over 100 miles away from home – from Saffy – and whilst there were so many challenges in that admission, one of the biggest was being away from her for so long. I remember one of my first trips back to my Mum’s and I was so nervous that Saffy would have forgotten me, but when I sat on the sofa, she came up and snuggled in on my lap. I cried with overwhelming happiness and reassurance. And whilst being in hospital for over two years meant that I wasn’t seeing Saffy every day for a long time, I have never stopped being grateful to her. Even after she was put to sleep a few years ago; I’ve always recognised just how important she had been for me and my mental health.
MY ABUSER’S BOSS
Throughout the six months of the abuse, I found myself in his boss’ office a handful of times, but I couldn’t quite find my voice and the courage it would take to tell him what his employer was doing. To tell him that the reason I was ending up in his office was because of what was being done to me. It was like… Like, I could speak but to say what needed to be said – to tell someone what was happening – required more effort. Like it needed a higher volume.
Like so many things in my life, that volume just seemed to be suddenly available to me. And when it finally came to me on April 20th, 2007, my abuser had tried to hurt me again. So, for the first time, I successfully fought back – fought him off – and suddenly, I was running down the corridor and he was shouting and chasing me down some stairs and into a corridor on the ground floor where I remember spinning round to face him and telling him to think of his wife and children. The words didn’t come out in the same volume though because my abusers boss lurched out of his office on the same corridor and my words fell into a whisper.
When his boss asked ‘why the hell’ I thought saying such a thing was acceptable or appropriate, my honest answer seemed to just splutter out of my mouth. So that before I knew it, my abuser was protesting the accusation and his boss was calling me a ‘manipulative liar’ and banning me from the building.
The irony is never lost on me. He thought that ordering me to leave and ranting off conditions under which I could return, was a punishment. That I was paying the consequences for ‘lying’ about his colleague’s actions. When really, my ‘punishment, was protecting me and saving me from his colleague! Because, in all honesty, I can’t imagine the abuse ever ending. I mean, I think that either he would have had to have been caught or I would have had to make a suicide attempt for it to have ended. And whilst this ending wasn’t ideal – it was downright messy and traumatising! – and being called a liar left me silenced for another two years, I’m so unbelievably grateful for it.
I think that my relationship with my Mum was really tested during the abuse and then for the first few years from my mental health deteriorating. I mean, with the abuse, I was very aware of a notion that I should have told my Mum the first time it happened. And the more times it happened, the harder it became to say anything to her. And the struggle with talking to her just became even more intense when my mental health went downhill, and I began hallucinating.
With the majority of the auditory hallucinations damage being their commands – and me obliging – to self-harm in ways which could have ended my life, it meant that for the most part; I only really wanted to die on a handful of occasions. Yet my behaviours made it look like I was nearly constantly suicidal, and I struggled to explain that I wasn’t. But my Mum knew. She knew when I didn’t want to die. And she knew when I did. And in both situations, she was the one person who always fought for me. She did absolutely everything to help and support me and to literally save my life. Even when I genuinely didn’t believe I deserved to survive, she did. Her belief and faith in me was unwavering and unconditional.
Having such a dedicated, loving, and kind Mum was something I used to take for granted when my mental health was poorly because sometimes, I would almost see her as the enemy for trying to save me when I didn’t want to be saved. And this was really illustrated when she once asked me (during that time) what I would do if I was about to self-harm, and she fell poorly… I told her I’d ring an ambulance for her and carry on with my plans. Now, anyone who knows me and knows my relationship with my Mum, will know how far away that response is from my own values and from the bond we have now. And sometimes it actually physically sickens me to think that I was once that person, but I try to rationalise that it really wasn’t ‘me’ at all. It was this numb, hateful Aimee who was in control and who had so much power over everything I said and did. And I took full responsibility for those actions, but it helps me to do that if I understand the influence for it.
So, with my mental health being at its worst for at least four years, throughout my recovery, I’ve regularly experienced the notion that I have a lot of time to make up for. That we deserve so many happier, healthier, safer years together which are so full of laughter and kindness that our faces hurt from smiling so much!
NIGHTS OUT WITH LAUREN
So, this might seem like a random one, but in 2011 and some of 2012, I had my most stable period since the first suicide attempt in 2009. And during that, I was able to see one my best friends; Lauren, a lot more often because I had no trips to hospital, few appointments, and less medication making me drowsy! And boy, did we have fun!
Between the abuse and the attempt in 2009, I spent a lot of the time drunk in a desperate bid to forget – or at least to block out – the memories of what had happened to me. It was very much a ‘flight’ response because I felt too weak and pretty incapable of doing the only other option; ‘fight.’
I wasn’t drinking alone, but I noticed very quickly that whilst my friends would all drink until they reached their limit, I was the only one who would carry on straight past that limit. And when the drunken days with that group of friends resulted in a fight that warranted Police involvement, my Mum stepped in, and I stopped drinking like that.
The thing was, no matter how drunk I got, I knew that I was doing it because of my abuser. And it made me even more angry – the thought that doing something (drinking alcohol) which could be fun, had turned into something entirely negative and dangerous… Because of him. And so, when Lauren and I started going out a lot, it was so refreshing and fun because finally, years later, it turned into a good, positive thing.
I definitely agree that you can go out with your friends, and you don’t have to drink if everyone else is just to have fun… But, being surrounded by so many lovely, energetic friends on nights out, was a huge attraction to our nights out. I mean, for the two years before this stable period, I had spent a number of months in psychiatric hospitals and had therefore been surrounded by so many distressed, struggling, people who were either harming themselves or others. Needless to say, the other inpatients weren’t exactly positive or healthy influences for me and my mental health. And there can be a lot of very unhealthy competition in psychiatric hospitals that can lead to relationships being about inspiring different methods of self-harm rather than being encouraging of safety and recovery. So, to spend time with actual friends who were just out there to have fun and not to cause dramas or upset things, meant a lot to me and my mental health at that point.
A FEMALE NORTHUMBRIA POLICE OFFICER
When I was little, I had two rabbits and when one of them gave birth, me and my family very naïvely and stupidly looked in on them quite often. Disturbing the nest so much and handling the babies (or kits – baby rabbits) meant that the mum killed/ate them and there was blood in the hutch. Considering my age, and knowledge of this event, professionals have used the incident as a trauma which explains away why my visual hallucinations were of rabbits. But that’s easy enough for them to pass off and understand because it wasn’t them seeing it! I, on the other hand, couldn’t rationalise them so easily and simply and began viewing seeing the rabbits as a sign that something bad was about to happen.
Fairly early on in these hallucinations, I found out that the most helpful response from professionals was not to shrug them off as relating to a trauma, but to accept that I could see them – no matter how empty and blank the space seemed to them – and to use that as a way to kind of… play into them? I mean, I’ll never forget when I was under the Police section (136) of the 1983 Mental Health Act and me and a female officer were sat in this room in A&E and she saw me staring at a space under a plastic chair. She asked what I could see and when I told her there was a muddy rabbit there, she didn’t even pause for thought. She lifted the chair and stamped her massive black boot all over the space until I said it had gone.
Before she came, I had been sat with a male Officer who I had refused to talk to because I thought that nothing good could possibly come from it. Like, I was already about to be assessed by two Psychiatrists and a Social Worker who could admit me to a psychiatric hospital (again!), nothing I said could change that. In fact, I was worried that if I did talk; it’d be about the voices and the vivid memories coming at me from the abuse and that – if anything – would just make my situation worse!
So, after the female Officer got rid of the rabbit, I began talking to her because I was really comforted by her actions and the fact that she had provided me with that feeling, even in this terrible moment that was likely to become worse, was much appreciated. It meant that when the assessment team came and sectioned me and found me a bed in a not too far away psychiatric hospital, I actually cooperated in going there. To the point where when it became apparent that we would have to wait a few hours for a secure ambulance to take me there, the Officer said she was willing to drive me there herself.
It was ironic that her response, which was something so simple and easy that could have been done by anyone, actually had such a large, positive impact. Aside from encouraging me to calmly cooperate, she also changed my view of the Police in general and taught me a beneficial response that was something future professionals could also do to help.
THE ROYAL VICTORIA INFIRIMARY INTENSIVE CARE STAFF
In the summer of 2012, two years after my second suicide attempt, I made another. In all honesty, it really angers and frustrates me that I can’t recall all the details… I mean, I know that a huge reason why I made the attempt was that all the hallucinations – the voices and the rabbits – had finally become too overwhelming and I was beginning to lose hope with the idea of ever becoming safe and lose sight of the chance of reaching recovery.
Another memory of that attempt was that after having blood tests, Doctors said the results showed that I needed to begin the potentially lifesaving medical treatment for what I had done. And by that point, I was so tired and poorly that I agreed to it, but once I had the energy to fight back; I refused to continue the treatment and promptly had a number of different people visit my bedside (I later found out everyone had been assessing my level of capacity).
The next thing I remember was being wheeled through the hospital corridors and into the resuscitation department back in A&E where a lady in scrubs came up to me and said, “they’re going to put a tube down your throat if you don’t agree to this treatment!” My last words before being restrained and held down to the bed whilst a general anaesthetic was administered? “I hope something goes wrong and I die anyway!”
So, the obvious reason I’m crediting the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) staff for my life is that they medically saved me when I was truly suicidal. The less obvious reason comes with my next memory… I regained consciousness when I was supposed to still be out. I remember feeling my chest rise and fall, feeling the tube that was down my throat nipping the corner of my lip, being unable to open my eyes because they were taped shut, and feeling a catheter being inserted. And despite all of that, I couldn’t move. I remember hearing someone say, “her pulse is getting high… she’s waking up!” and then the next thing I knew was waking up in Intensive Care after the antidote treatment had finished and my blood tests had finally come back normal. So having that horrible experience, helped me in that I became very reluctant to do anything that could put me back in that position.
WEST YORKSHIRE POLICE OFFICERS & BRADFORD ROYAL INFIRMARY STAFF
After the RVI, I was admitted to a specialist psychiatric hospital over 100 miles away from home, and whilst I was there – in 2013 – I managed to go AWOL after being granted leave from the ward to go into the hospital grounds by myself.
The hospital was next to a home for the elderly and there was this low-ish fence between their grounds and ours that I climbed over and then through their grounds and over another fence that was the back garden of a private property. I let myself out of the house’s side gate and got straight into a taxi to the local bus and train station where I caught a train to a nearby city.
Finishing my suicide attempt, I had pleased the hallucinations and suddenly my head was mine again. And it was silent and empty. I didn’t want to die – when I was me, that wasn’t what I wanted at all! So, when the Police found me in the city’s train stations toilets, I was honest and told them what I had done. They called an ambulance but were told that they were so busy it would actually be quicker for them to just drive me to the Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI) hospital on ‘blues and twos’ (the flashing blue light and piercing siren that part traffic). I remember being sat in this big Police car/van and telling a female Officer that I was going to be sick if they didn’t slow down! But no, I was ‘an emergency’ and they had to get me there ‘as fast as possible.’ So, I ended up vomiting!
The psychiatric hospital met us at BRI so that the Police could leave, and I began the antidote treatment until the cannula (a tube inserted into your vein to quickly administer medication etc) tissued and my entire arm swelled up as the liquid treatment just went into the tissue and not the vein. I had told the staff for ages that it was hurting but they left it until my arm was huge and so I refused to continue the treatment.
When I was restrained until a doctor finally managed to get a cannula into a vein in my foot, I used the toes on my other foot to pull it out, so an Anaesthetist was called and for the second time in my life, I was put on life support to receive lifesaving treatment.
At the time, I definitely saw the Police and hospital staff as the enemy and when they saved my life, I wasn’t immediately grateful because when someone is suicidal, it doesn’t go away just because someone has stopped them from doing it. And honestly? I do feel kind of terrible for not thanking them and being appreciative of the lengths they had gone to, to save my life.
DIALECTICAL BEHAVIOUR THERAPY
When I was sectioned down South one time, a Nurse spoke to my Mum and made a comment about Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and when my Mum asked what that was, it was explained that DBT was the recommended treatment for someone with the diagnosis which I had already had stuck on me for over two years – Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). And like with many things in life – and particularly in my mental health journey, my Mum was like a dog with a bone; she went all out asking the Community Mental Health Team why no one had mentioned this Therapy and doing all she could to find a therapist specialising in it. But it quickly became apparent that there were no Personality Disorder services in our locality and that was why no one thought to bring it up – because they knew it was something they couldn’t offer.
Then finally, I was in my local psychiatric hospital and a psychiatrist said he thought I should be going into a specialist ward with staff who were trained to help and support people with BPD. As it turned out, there were two hospitals deemed to be ‘nearby’ (the second closest was 127 miles away!) and I had my first assessment with one of them. Upon hearing my extensive history of managing to run away and go AWOL whilst an inpatient, they refused to accept my ‘flight risk.’ And so, it all hinged on that second hospital.
At my assessment for Cygnet, I remember the ward manager and her deputy coming to assess me and I asked what the ward was like, and their answer was that it was all very strict; locked/secure doors, medication, rigorous DBT, trauma therapy, activities, and bedtimes! And that reply led to my refusal to go there; and since I was back out in the community by then, no one could force me to go… Until the RVI admission when everything changed, and I was taken there just days after being on life support.
On the ward, inpatients didn’t start DBT straight away; you had to have a stable period in your safety to be able to attend the group and 1:1 sessions. Which is why that instance at BRI comes before this because I was still very unstable and poorly until about a year into my admission when I finally started to really cooperate and engage in Therapy and the therapeutic activities.
So, this is probably one of the biggest bits of this post that threatens what I talked about at the beginning – recommending something and it not being helpful for someone else. Please know that I’m fully aware DBT isn’t always the answer; to be fair, I definitely started out as completely doubtful of its effectiveness – especially when we started with Mindfulness... It was just that now I was well enough to try it and safe in the knowing that I wouldn’t feel hopeless if it didn’t help.
Fortunately, it did! DBT taught me some very safe, positive coping skills that can be adapted to most any situation/thought/feeling etc. Initially, I was kind of embarrassed with this – to me, it seemed to say that I had just jumped straight to self-harming and suicide without trying anything else first. But I came to recognise that the fact I hadn’t sat down and tried to ‘self-soothe’ or ‘distract’ or practice ‘mindfulness’ exercises, was just testament to how impulsive I was feeling and how desperate I was to escape the thoughts and feelings I was trying to numb, ignore, and squander, through my self-harm and suicide attempts. DBT taught me to take a moment to recognise and accept my experiences without the fear that doing so, would not only be unbearable, but that it would also last forever. I’ve learnt that actually, things become much more manageable and a whole lot more short-lasting if you just face them.
I’M NOT DISORDERED
Whether you’re a new reader or not, I think it’ll be pretty clear to you how much I enjoy blogging and how much I – and in particular my mental health – benefit from it. You know, it’s funny; I’m NOT Disordered has turned into everything I didn’t imagine it could be, but even if it had remained what I’d intended, I’d have been more than happy!
Starting to blog in 2013 after being a psychiatric inpatient for almost one year, I really only wanted to provide my friends and family with something that would tell them what I was going through over 100 miles away from home/them. I wanted to communicate with them in a way which I hoped would leave them more understanding and better placed at – not just supporting me but helping others too. I mean, no one in my life really talked about mental health and that left me wondering if people were struggling and just not speaking up. So, I considered whether I could change that by talking about my own mental health; and fortunately, I found that doing so, was actually therapeutic for me.
I guess that meant that right from the start of blogging, I had set out to help others; but I hadn’t – for one minute – thought that would amount to helping as many people as I now have the opportunity to help. With my blog aiming to explain things to my loved ones, I hadn’t pictured it’d have the reach of over one million people! And maybe that’s a good thing. Like, maybe if I’d always intended to get that number of readers, my content in the beginning would have been a lot different and I’m NOT Disordered might not have become all that it is now.
Another thing I hadn’t imagined when I started was that it would still be going over nine years later and that over those years, I’d have had so many amazing opportunities and experiences as a result of it. I think that in starting to blog, I hadn’t thought I’d be alive much longer let alone considering how long I’d be blogging for. And in the absence of that, I hadn’t thought that blogging would become a bit of a career… I mean, when I created, I’m NOT Disordered blogging and vlogging was just becoming a ‘thing’ where bloggers were being looked to as inspiration and brands and organisations were starting to notice them to be hugely influential.
Aside from the popularity of my blog benefiting my hopes of helping others, it has also afforded me some incredible opportunities with amazing organisations that – when I started blogging – I could have only dreamt of being able to work with. Collaborating with others has really excelled my enjoyment of blogging and contributed to it being beneficial and rewarding.
All of these amazing qualities of I’m NOT Disordered have been so powerful and life-changing that they’ve motivated me to actually feel gratitude for what I have been through because without those experiences, I wouldn’t be where and who I am today.
For the first three years of my mental health deteriorating (2009 – 2012) I was on and off psychiatric medication which started with an antipsychotic and varied to mild sedatives and antidepressants. But then, I was admitted to the specialist hospital and in there… well, they weren’t shy about writing prescriptions!
I’ve been on my current medication for over seven years now and whilst I’ve had some dosage alterations over the years, I’ve always benefited from them. And I recognise how lucky I am to be able to say this when a lot of people have found that either tablets definitely aren’t the answer, or they experience their side effects so dramatically that they can’t tolerate them.
I’m also very fortunate to have never been worried about what others might think of me being on psychiatric medication. I’ve not thought that people would think it made me weak because I believe that asking for help is a sign of strength. I also haven’t been concerned that people would think I really am ‘crazy’ to need as many tablets as I do and to be on the doses that I take.
I think that a huge part of my ability not to care about the judgments of others with this aspect of my mental health is that I’ve been able to draw a definite conclusion that I need this medication to stay me. To stay alive. I mean, the pharmacy made a mistake last year and stopped issuing my antipsychotic medication, but no one realised until the voices came back, and I was sat in the Plastic Surgery ward awaiting surgery to repair the superficial radial nerves I had severed. Once the medication was back in my system and at a higher dose than it had been, the hallucinations fizzled out and I was safe again.
Whilst I recognise the importance of what I take, I also acknowledge that other treatments are beneficial for me too. I think that having a dual diagnosis has meant that actually, for the transient psychosis e.g., the hallucinations, medication is the answer and nothing else helps with them. But for the Personality Disorder stuff, the abuse becomes a huge influence and that means that therapy is more useful. To me, it’s important that professionals – and service users – don’t just jump to medication as a ‘quick fix.’ And I think that because of the length of waiting lists to access mental health services, this is something that’s becoming more and more the preferred treatment path when someone first voices difficult thoughts and feelings. And having this belief and respect for how necessary psychiatric medication is, has meant that in taking it myself, I don’t think of it as a ‘bad’ thing.
When I was discharged from the specialist hospital after two and a half years, I was transferred to a rehabilitation service in the grounds of my local psychiatric hospital with the hope that it’d be a gentler process into living in the community. It would mean that rather than going from having staff and other inpatients around me 24/7 to living alone, I would have three months of a happy medium. The rehab service was set out as service users having individual bungalows, but with one bungalow ‘down the road’ for staff that would still be there 24/7.
With the plan being that I’d stay at the rehab service for three months, my Out of Area Case Manager began searching for a ‘forever home’ for me; but she also decided that I would still need support when I was back out in the community. So, an Area Manager from Richmond Fellowship came to see me and agreed that on discharge, they would offer me support sessions for a particular number of hours per week.
Fortunately, I’d made a ton of steps forward in my recovery and it meant that whilst my Recovery Worker from Richmond Fellowship has changed a few times over the years, I’ve never struggled with this in the way that I used to before the lengthy admission to the specialist ward. I mean, in the past, where I had such a change in the professionals supporting me, I found it really difficult and was stuck with the notion that I was being deserted and that no one wanted to help me. But in my six years with Richmond Fellowship, I have found that whenever there’s been a change in staffing, I’ve coped well in congratulating those who’ve left for new jobs, and I’ve welcomed the new Workers. It has still been challenging in some instances where I’ve built a bit of a bond with my Worker and I’ve wondered how on earth the next one could do any better; but ultimately, I now realise that this is just something that happens in life – not just mental health services. People get new jobs. People go on maternity leave… And struggling with that notion, will not change it happening.
Richmond Fellowship haven’t only supported my mental health though, they’ve also offered me some lovely opportunities to work with staff from their Head Office in London. I’ve been featured in their staff newsletter; SPARKS, I’ve co-chaired and then chaired events, and I’ve facilitated workshops on various themes at their events. But I think my most favourite experience has been being able to represent service users on the Working Together Committee, which is prominently made up of the most senior staff in the organisation. It has turned out to be an amazing opportunity to make suggestions and play a part in decision making that has the potential to impact so many people.
From the moment my discharge from the specialist psychiatric hospital began being talked about, I knew that my ultimate goal in moving into my own home would be to add a cat to it too! And in order to remind myself of my recovery goal, my Mum had the brilliant idea of buying a kitten collar and hanging it in my hospital room. She thought – and was right about it – that when I was struggling and things were going downhill, I could look at that pink and white spotted collar and feel motivated to seek help or support to regain my stability and safety.
So, whilst I was in the rehab service, I began searching for kittens online and finally found Dolly; a little fluffy maine coon. Looking at her photo, my first thought was ‘she’s the one!’ and when I emailed the owner of her Mum and was told Dolly wouldn’t be ready to leave until one week after I was moving into my own home, I knew she was meant to be mine.
During the time between me confirming I wanted her and her being ready to leave her Mum, the owner sent me photos and videos and agreed to start calling her Dolly, so she’d learn her name faster. And I was so excited that literally the day after she was officially old enough to leave her Mum, I was travelling to the slightly distant city to pick her up!
Between getting her and having to have her put to sleep in 2018, we made so many lovely memories together that varied from her perching on my shoulder every time I tried to apply my mascara(!), to her featuring in my filming with the BBC and ITV and being the centre of the article about my journey for Take A Break magazine!
The fact that she had been my goal for so long seemed to add to our bond and strengthen our relationship so that when she became aggressive and distressed with absolutely any visitor to our home, I did all that I could to get help for her. I trusted that this change in her temperament was purely down to the fact she’d been home alone when a miscommunication led to the Police breaking down my door. I had faith that these things weren’t her. She wasn’t that kind of cat, and she didn’t deserve to be treat as though she was one; so, I called the Vets and organised an assessment for her with their Cat Behaviour Therapist.
I felt validated with the Therapists visit to my home when she pointed out that Dolly seemed to be constantly anxious. That even when she was looking like she had her attention directed onto something particular, she was still ready and waiting for something else to happen. The Therapist explained that anxiety was only heightened when a visitor came in – even where that person was already known to Dolly – because it left her unable to trust anyone or to recognise her safety when she was in their company. So, I was given some advice and tips on how to manage her anxiety on a day-to-day basis and how to better facilitate having someone in our home in a way that wouldn’t trigger her distress.
When Dolly just randomly attacked me and drew blood with a scratch on my face, I called the Vets in tears saying that none of the advice was working. They told me that I could either try her on medication which could end up being long-term and therefore expensive or have her put to sleep because they told me she wouldn’t be rehomed if she was that aggressive. But I wasn’t ready to give up on her, because no one had given up on me in my mental health journey and I’d come so far because of that. So, I paid for Dolly’s prescriptions and after it had started to work, over the course of the following year, the medication was decreased slowly until finally, she was off it all and I had my friendly, curious little cat back!
Whilst Dolly was better, my own mental health continued to fluctuate, but I found comfort and reassurance in Dolly. She gave me reason to stay alive because I hated the thought of her being with anyone but me.
CUMBRIA, NORTHUMBERLAND, TYNE & WEAR NHS FOUNDATION TRUST
When I was first sectioned after my first suicide attempt, I was admitted to a Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW) hospital and the law at the time dictated that upon my discharge, I had to be under the care of the Trust’s Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). From then (2009) until the 2012 admission to the specialist hospital (which was a site of a private healthcare company) I spent a very challenging three years in and out of CNTW’s hospitals and with a number of different, sometimes unpleasant(!), professionals involved in my care (varying from Psychiatrists to Art Therapists) who each had their own take on my mental health.
I remember after I’d ran away one time before the specialist hospital and when the Police found me, they had me assessed under the 1983 Mental Health Act. During the assessment, a psychiatrist asked me a number of questions and later explained I had met all nine of the possible symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. So, back home, I asked my Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) whether this meant I finally had a diagnosis and was told “we don’t want to say that yet; it’s a death sentence – once you’ve got that label no one will touch you. There’s just no chance you’ll get better.” Her having this belief wasn’t the only sad thing from that though, the saddest thing was that she was right – once I had the diagnosis later that year, I was treated completely differently. Rather than the cautious hospital admissions, sedatives, and regular restraints, I was seen as an attention seeker who was just causing drama to waste everyone’s time. I wasn’t actually poorly. Ironic really, considering there’s a diagnosis and everything!
Fortunately, in 2012, I had a really lovely CPN, Psychologist, and Psychiatrist who were very fair and seemed to hold no stigma against people with a diagnosis of a Personality Disorder. And so the Psychiatrist had me create an Advanced Statement that detailed the fact that I usually want to be alive and so if I say I’m not, it’s because the hallucinations are in charge and I’m out of control; so I should be treat without my consent. The Psychologist created this document that laid out the different… versions of me and how I behaved depending on which version was the more prominent. And the CPN organised the funding for me to finally be admitted to the specialist hospital.
When I was being discharged back to my hometown, my one reluctance to go was the concern that I’d be supported by CNTW staff who still held a stigma or who still thought of me as attention-seeking and I worried that if that were to happen, it’d just send me right back to square one. It’d un-do all my hard work and the efforts of the specialist hospital staff. But fortunately, whilst I’d been away for those two and a half years, CNTW had a change of direction, and their new Chief Executive was encouraging staff to have a much kinder and more empathetic response – regardless of the person’s diagnosis. And I definitely felt this difference and improvement when I was referred back to the CMHT as I moved into my own home.
Since I’ve been out of hospital, the most helpful CNTW staff have been the Crisis Team – ironic because they were probably the most discriminatory and downright mean and rude ones in the past! But I’ve found them to be really supportive and they seem a lot more tuned into what I say my reasons for what I’ve done, rather than making assumptions and treating me according to how others with the same diagnosis have presented to them. They listen more, they care more, and they’re so much more respectful. I’ve found that with this change, rather than being reluctant to ring them in a crisis, I now recognise that it’s a good first step in getting help and support.
In 2017, after a long time without the visual hallucinations of rabbits, they came back and out of fear that if I told anyone I’d be admitted straight back to hospital for another two and a half years, I kept quiet. Until one day when I was in my nearest Pets at Home with my Mum and out of absolutely nowhere, I decided to ask one of the staff if I could hold one of their bunnies. Amongst the four or five that were there, I chose the fluffy little Lionhead with lop ears – Pixie – and when she stopped trying to fight off the grip of the staff hands as soon as she was put in mine, I cried!
I can’t even explain why… I mean, this is going to sound really strange; but it was kind of like getting into a really hot bath – this warm sensation just flooded through me as she snuggled under my chin and then it was like… (also going to sound really strange) like eating when you’ve been hungry for ages – you get that sort of relief and pleasure that you finally feel satisfied and as though what you’ve done was the right thing. I mean eating when you’re hungry is usually just natural, so when you do it, there’s this lovely knowing that it was right. That you’d needed to do that. That you were right in doing that. And after years of self-harm and four suicide attempts, experiencing the notion that I was doing something ‘right’ was so rewarding and comforting.
The other very amazing feeling when I held onto Pixie was the knowledge that everyone else could see her too. Knowing that she wasn’t an hallucination that could cause serious carnage to my life, and the reassurance that her lovely, soft fur was really real was another additional reason why my response to the staff was “I’ll have to borrow some money, but I can buy her tomorrow!” And I kept my promise and returned the following day to buy Pixie, her first hutch, and all the other bits and pieces I hadn’t even thought of!
In all honesty, I can’t remember introducing Dolly and Pixie, and that kind of makes me sad because it should have been an important moment, but I think I was robbed of it because the hallucinations had come back. But I do remember them following each other everywhere for the one year I had with both of them and so when Dolly was put to sleep, Pixie started following me instead! And honestly, if I hadn’t had Pixie when Dolly died, I would’ve… I don’t think I would have made it. Recognising her importance and significance in my life and to my mental health really contributed to us having a very special, unbreakable bond which wasn’t put to the test until her death in April last year (2021).
ALL OF THE LITTLE ONES
So, I have a whole host of children in my life now; one of my best friends; Ellie has four children (Jonas, Emmy, Kasper, and Magnus), another best friend; Lauren, has Greylan and the best friend I’ve known the longest; Sophie, has Freya. And literally all of those children mean so much to me.
When Jonas, the oldest, was born, I was just in the early midst of my mental health deterioration, and I don’t think it was really until Ellie had Emmy (next oldest) in 2015 that I was finally well enough to really be involved in their lives. And boy, did I feel like I had a lot of time to make up for! And so, I’d like to think that I have been a pretty regular figure in their lives since then; I mean, that at least they know who I am when they see me!
I think that I really love spending time with the children because my childhood was probably the happiest time of my life (until very recently!). My Mum always says that she’s not perfect but there would be only two things which I might want to do differently if I have children; and they would be to not let them become naïve to the fact that there are some terrible people in the world and to ensure they have some sort of knowledge or education around mental health.
In fairness, some people might wonder why you would want your children to know about the existence of awful people… Well, this – for me – comes from the fact that when the abuse started, one reason for me blaming myself for it was that I didn’t know people like him existed and so I thought that meant that I had done something wrong and was deserving of it. This was also heightened by the fact that my school’s sex education went as far as to describe putting a condom on a banana! Not knowing the name for what was happening and having no certainty that it wasn’t right, added to my reasons not to speak up and report it straight away. I thought that if I was to – if I chose to ignore all my other reasons and reported it, I’d be doing so purely based on the fact that it felt wrong.
Whilst choosing to educate their children on subjects like that is completely out of my control and up to my best friends, something that I can help with which I didn’t have growing up, is their understanding of mental health. So far, Jonas has been the only one to ask questions when seeing my self-harm scars – this might be to do with him being the oldest, and it might also be that his Autism often leads him to have a lack of understanding around social etiquette. Either way, Ellie and I decided to give him a bit of an honest, yet child-friendly(!), answer and I told him that “something happened to me when I was little so my head is poorly and sometimes when I’m sad I do things that I shouldn’t.” And for a moment, I felt a bit sad at the thought that I was kind of taking away his innocence, but ultimately; I felt honoured and comforted to know that because of my words and Ellie’s parenting, if one day, he was struggling with his mental health, he’d know it wasn’t something to be afraid of and that it’s ok to ask for help. Two things which I definitely experienced the opposite of.
Another one of the many things I love about these children is that spending time with them is so light and fun. Struggling with my mental health for as long as I have and self-harming and attempting suicide as many times as I did, have meant that for what feels like forever, I’ve felt like life has been a bit of a weight. A burden. I mean, enjoyable, fun days were hard to come by and everything just felt so deep and intense. Even blogging – it’s actually one reason why I like to create posts that are more light-hearted and less overwhelming. Time spent with the children is like that content – light-hearted and not so overwhelming. But it does make me wonder whether I appreciate that time more because I’ve gone through those horrible, challenging days. Like, has seeing the opposite made me more grateful for anything remotely different?
In 2017, I saw a voluntary job as an Advertising Assistant for the support group; Listening Ear and Positive Support (LEAPS) and having just decided that I was wanting to have a career in Communications, I applied straight away. I had my interview with LEAS Founder and their Chair and after being successful, I attended one of their weekly meetings for the first time.
It was a complete disaster! I think that because the Founder wasn’t there, I was the only girl, and everyone ended up arguing about politics! I left the room crying because I had been so excited for my first role in my new career path that I was left totally disappointed to find that actually, it wasn’t going to be as good as I had built it up to be. I remember ringing the Founder in tears and telling her that she hadn’t told me the group was about politics and that wasn’t something I was interested in. She explained that the Chair; Dave, was very passionate about the topic and would often end up controlling the discussion and content whenever it veered away from that. She promised to attend the following meeting and said that she’d speak up if things started going off track, so I agreed to give it another go.
To now still be there five years later? Well, I’m kind of lost for words as to how that’s happened!
I think that firstly, it’s been about getting to know everyone in LEAPS – members and Committee members – and find out their interests and strengths. I also recognised that Dave’s passion wasn’t about a topic that I shared, but it was also something that I didn’t want to squander. In the same way that I would want others to respect the areas I’m passionate about. And ironically, I think the closest relationship I built with someone from LEAPS was actually with Dave!
Two years after starting as Advertising Assistant, we had our Annual General Meeting (AGM) and since I’d recently started to lose passion for the group, I asked to nominate myself to be Deputy Chair. I mean, I’d secured funding for LEAPS from R W Mann and the National Lottery Community Fund and had set up social media accounts and a website for them… So, it almost felt as though there was nothing more or new that I could do. I was feeling like there was no real challenge there for me anymore and as someone who likes to keep busy and be proactive; that wasn’t a great notion for me.
After asking to be Dave’s Deputy, I was surprised when Dave said that he felt he’d had ‘a good run’ as Chair and that it was time for someone else to ‘take the reins!’ So, the group unanimously voted me in as Chair in April 2019, and I’ve held the position ever since. It’s been really nice to experience such a senior role and as someone who likes to be in control, it’s been really good for my mental health too! And now, everyone at LEAPS are kind of like another – slightly dysfunctional – family!
ALL OF THE BEST FRIENDS
When I was younger, I believed that it was better to have a ton of friends than just a few, but over the years – and through my friendships – I’ve really learnt the importance of being more bothered about the quality of my friendships than the quantity of them. And so, I’m absolutely honoured and blessed to say that I have four best friends. Four people who have shown me unconditional love and support and who I also love, support, appreciate, and respect so much!
I think that my favourite thing about my best friends is that each of them are so different!
I’ve known Sophie the longest (since 2006-ish) and have had a huge variety of memories with her that go from the most fun of pouring wine on our burgers to intense and meaningful with her visiting me in a psychiatric hospital. What I love most about Sophie is that even over sixteen years, she hasn’t changed. I mean, she’s grown, she’s gotten married and had a baby, but she hasn’t changed as a person. She’s still sweet, kind, generous, funny, and full of sunshine! She’s honestly the absolute epitome of that Roald Dahl quote: “if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams, and you will always look lovely.” Sophie is one of those people who brightens a room just by walking into it.
Then, I met Lauren in 2007 and we had actually known of each other for a few months but had each heard bad things about the other from our friends at the time (ironically, neither of us are really friends with those people now!). And I couldn’t be more grateful that neither of us listened to the bitchy comments because we wouldn’t have the friendship and the memories that we have now. Aside from our drunken nights (which I talked about way back at the beginning of this post!), dancing in her first car when we were trying to find the Northern Lights, and going glamping for the first time (which you can read about here); one of the highlights of our friendship has definitely been the birth of her beautiful little boy; Greylan in May 2021. The fact that she came on FaceTime to tell me how she’d been surrounded by hospital staff who seemed to just be taking all her clothes off and to show me Greylan within hours of him being born, felt like a huge testament to our friendship. A huge illustration of just how much we meant to each other.
Within days of meeting Lauren, I then met Ellie. We were in Philosophy and History together at school, but I hadn’t actually spoken to her until I was late to class one day and the only spare seat was beside her… I guess all the best friendships come from the most unassuming and unexpected starts! Because once we were brought together by chance, we didn’t have to put in much more effort to become friends! And sometimes it’s kind of surreal to think that the fellow redhead who had dressed up a melon after I’d drawn a face on it and named it Melvin, is now a mum of four of the most special children! One thing I’ve always been very aware of since Ellie became a Mum was ensuring that she knows I’m not only her friend because she brought these lovely little ones into my life. That I love her for being her.
Finally, I met Marty through a mental health event that I had been asked to manage the social media for, but it wasn’t until a while later that we actually started getting to know each other and meeting up outside of events. And when we did, I found out that he also has a mental health blog (www.gumonmyshoe.com). I can’t even begin to explain just how much it means to finally have someone in my life who really understands one of the largest and most important part of my life because I think that even from the very beginning of, I’m NOT Disordered, I had wanted someone who actually appreciated and recognised the power and influence blogging has on my life and on my mental health in particular. And being friends with Marty has given me that sense of empathy and comfort that I’m not completely alone in my blogging journey.
After Dolly was put to sleep in 2018, Pixie and I lasted six days as a family of two. Then my Mum sent me the link for a Facebook post about Emmy by the Adoption Centre who’d rescued her from the streets when she was only a few weeks old. And I had that same feeling I’d had with Pixie and Dolly; the ‘she’s-the-one’ kind of thing.
Bringing Emmy home, I didn’t really decide how to introduce her to Pixie… I just let them meet. I didn’t do things by the book or according to the advice of other pet owners and vets etc. I didn’t want to do things slowly and gradually; losing Dolly had shown me that there’s never enough time where a pet is concerned. You can never spend too much time with them. I mean, I was still very aware that there was a higher chance the two wouldn’t bond so well if I introduced them quickly, but I just had this feeling in my heart that they were meant to be together, and I didn’t want to waste another moment of Pixie not having a best friend. Of her having that big, gaping hole in her life.
Whilst I had that faith in my decision, I still recognised how fortunate I was that it worked out the way I had hoped/intended/expected! And Emmy and Pixie became a bit inseparable. The first time Emmy sniffed outside; she was shaking with wide, terrified eyes. Then Pixie went outside, and it was like a little nudge to Emmy to say, “if I can do it, so can you!” From then, Emmy stuck to Pixie’s side like glue whilst they played in the back garden and after her confidence started to build, she gradually got more and more energetic when she was outside. She’d jump up on top of Pixie and sort of… straddle her and Pixie would just sit there eating the grass and dandelions and looking like she didn’t care that her best friend was just casually sat on top of her!
People used to ask me if I had a favourite pet with Emmy and Pixie and whilst I realised my answer probably should’ve been ‘no,’ I was too honest for my own good. I love Emmy with all my heart, but I had a special bond with Pixie. Not just to do with the hallucinations and how protected I felt from them because of her, but also because we went through the loss of Dolly together. It was like… Well, I always say that my pets have become my family but Pixie? She had become a part of me. And with her importance in mind, it kind of made it even more essential that she and Emmy got along.
Knowing that Emmy was abandoned on the streets before she was old enough to leave her Mum, meant that immediately she was different to Dolly who had only known a comfortable, luxurious home with her Mum and siblings. I mean, when I’d feed Emmy, she would just wolf the food down without pausing for breath as though she didn’t know when her next meal would come, and she’d be constantly looking around as though ready to fight off any competition over the food. It was almost heart breaking, but also endearing at the same time. And to see this change in her – to see her now just pick at her food throughout the day, sounds like a simple improvement but it’s actually been really reassuring for me to think that I must be doing something right!
ST OSWALD’S HOSPICE
In 2019, I saw a voluntary role as a Digital Volunteer for St Oswald’s Hospice and applied, and then interviewed for the position. Walking into the Hospice that first time to meet two members of the Communications team staff, I got this like… Reassuring and comforting feeling. Kind of like… Well, like with Lauren when she lived at home with her parents, and I would go over and just let myself in and help myself to a drink or snacks. It felt like I was home. To the point where I became really nervous because all of a sudden, I actually really really really wanted the job!
Unfortunately, after being successful, the pandemic and lockdown really hit the UK and my volunteering was kind of put-on pause until the team could establish some new ideas on how to communicate tasks to me and how I could action them without having to go into the Hospice. So, it wasn’t really until mid-2020 that I started doing work for them on a regular basis and I literally enjoyed every single task I was assigned.
In early 2021, my line manager in the Communications team told me that there was a staff vacancy in a different department that she thought I might be interested in. Whilst it wasn’t in the industry (Communications) or field (mental health) I was most eager to gain work and experience in, it did involve working with young people and that was something I was yet to do but was keen to be able to try doing it. Since I was a volunteer, I had already had my DBS check and provided references to HR so to apply for the new role I just had to write a letter of application. After my interview I got a call from my new manager to say I’d got the job and made the decision to leave my voluntary role with Communications because I didn’t feel able to commit to both at the same time. And the team put on a little ‘leaving party’ via Teams!
My staff role was a temporary six-month long contract and once I found out it wouldn’t be renewed, I knew I wanted to go back to Communications, even if it meant going back to being a volunteer. I had learnt a lot in the staff role and whilst some of that was about using the internal systems and improving my knowledge of Microsoft Office, a bigger and more important lesson learnt was that I was set on a career in Communications. It was where I felt I performed at my very best. It was where I felt most confident and capable. Where I found the most enjoyment. And so, after being back with the team for a few months, I was offered a contract in my current staff role as Communications and Marketing Assistant.
Having been in this role for a few months now, I have never felt so happy in a job – voluntary or paid. I feel so content with everything I do and there’s not been a single task that I haven’t enjoyed! I’ve also always felt challenged in some way, whether that’s been in using a new website or function or learning how to upload news stories onto our intranet. And this has made me so grateful to the rest of the team. Firstly, for taking the time to teach me, and secondly, for believing that I’m capable of learning and then doing those things.
I was recently in a chat with two other members of the Communications team, and I joked that I’d be still volunteering with them when I was in nineties. I say ‘joke’ but I really wasn’t. I’ve found my home and I plan to stay there as long as possible.
In April 2021, Pixie had another episode of Gut Stasis and when the vet told me she had a slim chance of recovering from it and that even if she did, she would likely get it again, I made the heart-breaking decision to have her put to sleep. Whilst I cried on the phone to my Mum as I walked home from the vets, I realised that there was no one I could tell where it would break my heart more than having to ‘tell’ Emmy. I hated the thought of going home to her without Pixie. It felt like I’d failed her in some way. Like it was my fault her best friend was dead (yes, I’m crying whilst I type this!). And I felt so angry at myself for that intense worry that there was more I could have done for Pixie – even though I really knew there wasn’t. It just felt as though nothing I could say I’d done would excuse the fact that Emmy now without a family member.
For what it felt like a long time – but it was only a matter of months – I struggled with this thought and feeling and even when I thought I had come to learn how to cope and live with it, that didn’t last long. And finally, I decided to get a new bunny. It wasn’t just about me though – I mean, I didn’t need a rabbit to conquer the hallucinations any more… So, Emmy was at the forefront of the decision. I knew that she would love the company of a new bunny, but I also recognised that it’d been a long few months and worried that maybe she was starting to adjust to being my only little one. When we first lost Pixie, Emmy would scratch at the door to the room the sawdust and hay had been kept in and I ended up having to get a plug-in that promised to calm distressed cats. And it had worked… So why would I chance upsetting and confusing her by bringing those scents (sawdust and hay) back into the house?
In the end though, I reached the conclusion that if I didn’t try adding a new bunny to our home then I would always be wondering whether I should have. And I couldn’t live with that – the wondering. So, I went against the advice of everyone around me who believed it would be a mistake, and I found my mini-Lionhead lop, Luna, on the same website I’d used for Dolly.
When I first met her, she snuggled up under my chin and just stayed there whilst I just stood and talked to the breeder for about half an hour! And now, whenever I pick her up, she goes straight under my chin!
Fortunately, she and Emmy also hit it off straight away! I had Luna in a cat bed on my bed and Emmy came up and they sniffed one another and then Emmy just sat there next to her as though protecting and welcoming her at the same time. Like she was staking her claim and saying that Luna was going to be her sister. She’s ours. Accepted and appreciated.
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