…and inevitably (and valuably) discussions about mental illness and mental wellbeing are rife. Raising awareness of the impacts and realities of living and working with mental illness is so important. Colleagues, friends and associates post awareness memes and quotes and it gets the message out there.
Knowing my friends and colleagues, I know that often behind those messages of awareness and encouragement lies the reality that they too are suffering from a silent illness. I am one of those people. Whether fleeting or chronic SO MANY people I know are suffering. Several people I know have had to give up work or at least take a sabbatical to manage their mental health challenges.
I still believe mental illness is generally not taken as seriously as physical illness.
Making a person with mental illness FEEL truly supported is no easy task. We know this is more than not telling people to “stop worrying” or “cheer up”. A lot of people have mastered the idea that asking people “what do you have to worry about?” or telling them their life is amazing is brutally unhelpful…a lot of people…not all. But to be able to “come out” as a person suffering with mental illness you have to put a lot of trust and faith in those around you.
One of the real turning points in my life was being able to be open with my friends and family. The relief of being able to say no to or cancel plans, telling them honestly that I was not mentally up to it was such an enormous weight off my shoulders. I no longer had to make excuses and I no longer had to choose between lying to get out of something, or forcing myself to go, resulting in an exhausting experience which would knock me back for days.
Work has been more of a challenge over the years. I have been told repeatedly, by a lot of people that I should not talk about mental health problems at work. The seed was sown that no one wanted people like me in their organisations and therefore companies would use any excuse to manage me out of a role. So for years I kept it to myself, terrified and stricken with anxiety over losing my job.
One situation that really sticks out in my memory was the consultation period in my first pharmaceutical sales role. My team were waiting to find out if we were to be made redundant in a restructure. As I was already anxious, and fear of losing my job has always been a real trigger for me, I understandably started looking for a new role.
The day of my interview with AstraZeneca, I cried all the way there. I put my make-up on in the car, smashed the interview, and then cried all the way home. That evening I received a job offer. I don’t think my manager ever knew how scared, how unwell, or how close to the edge I was when I walked into the interview that day. I arrived to that meeting feeling as though my whole life and worth hinged on my success.
I fooled everyone for a long time, and suffered in silence. Incidentally, at AstraZeneca I won my first ever Sales Excellence award, so as you can tell, mental illness does not affect my overall performance.
As years passed I struggled more and less. I worried more and less. I ruined relationships. I screamed at boyfriends. I got married. I got divorced. I worked in the West End. I got made redundant a couple more times. I had some amazing times and I also spent hours crying helplessly on my kitchen floor.
By June 2017, from the outside life looked rosy. I had (still have) an amazing boyfriend, a great job (still at Vodafone), a beautiful flat in London and a lovely lifestyle. But still I would have lows so low I could barely get out of bed. I should mention at this point that over the 10 years preceding this I had tried: counselling, citalopram, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, prozac, hypnotism & Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I had tried stopping all medications to eliminate side-effects. I had also by this point gained almost 4 and a half stones in weight. Partly due to medication, partly due to drinking to help me sleep, and partly due to the absolute lack of any motivation. I am a qualified dance and group fitness instructor. Alongside my day job I have taught classes and individuals since 2005. I gave this up, I felt like a fraud and had no self-esteem.
On Saturday 17th June 2017, I had a total meltdown at our friend’s wedding. I will spare you the details but it almost cost me everything.
At this point I knew I needed to try again to find a better way of coping. It was at this point that I had an odd conversation with a GP about the medication I was on. Something triggered alarm bells and I knew what she was telling me about the SSRI’s I had, and was being changed to didn’t add up. Lucky for me I had a background in pharmaceuticals. When I got home I got out the patient information leaflet and started trawling the internet for information. I also read the licenced indications for Sertraline.
One condition I was not familiar with was PMDD. For the squeamish I am about to address another taboo subject, women’s reproductive health, so you can avert your eyes now. PMDD or Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder is an endocrine disorder the worst symptoms of which occur each month between ovulation, when hormone levels start to drop, until the first or second day of your period. In layman’s terms, you have normal hormone levels but an abnormal response to them. So essentially you have a physical disorder with mental illness symptoms.
You may have heard of PMDD very recently in the press. The sister of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ winner went missing in Portugal during a PMDD episode. This brought much needed visibility to this disorder. I had never heard of it until two years ago. As I googled and scrolled, reading forums, clinical papers and patient stories I felt a wave of relief as I recognised my struggle being reflected back at me.
I will share some links below if you want to understand more, but in essence, I had never been able to figure out the cyclical nature of my despair. Why some days I was “normal” and other days I didn’t shower or get dressed. The symptoms and severity of PMDD are a huge spectrum but officially:
- Feelings of sadness or despair or even thoughts of suicide
- Feelings of tension or anxiety
- Panic attacks, mood swings, or frequent crying
- Lasting irritability or anger that affects other people
- Lack of interest in daily activities and relationships
- Trouble thinking or focusing
- Tiredness or low-energy
- Food cravings or binge eating
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling out of control
- Physical symptoms, such as bloating, breast tenderness, headaches, and joint or muscle pain
An estimated 15% of women with this disorder will attempt an act of suicide in their lifetime. And so you see why I chose September, Suicide Awareness Month, to write this.
After ten years I was finally able to understand why nothing had worked before. The Sertraline (which I assume I will take until menopause) does get rid of the more extreme symptoms. “Danger Zone” is more of a challenge, it varies each month, and the final two days before my period I am usually exhausted, foggy, clumsy, in a considerable amount of pain and very, very, sad. Dealing with it IS easier because I know it will soon stop. During “The Sadness” I rest, I set myself very specific tasks to complete to help my waning motivation, I allow myself the treat foods and I cut myself some slack.
I have read stories of women who have resorted to hysterectomies to stop the PMDD. At 40, I am not considering this as I think the menopause is close enough to not put myself through that. I am not surprised AT ALL that so many people contemplate or attempt suicide. I used to frequently feel as though my life were pointless and it would be better for everyone if I were not alive. Thankfully, those feelings are in my past now.
I got lucky.
So now you know my story, I want you to know this; it took a long time for me to feel confident and supported enough to talk about my mental health challenges in a work context. I put my trust in my friends, family, colleagues and in the organisation I work for to understand when I am having a couple of bad days. I trust them to recognise my capabilities regardless of my personal challenges.
You see, with mental health awareness, you have to walk the talk. Can your employees REALLY express their mental health challenges openly. If they do can you REALLY support them. Do you want to hear about this? Or would you rather people still swept it under the rug?
I urge you to nurture an environment where mental illness and physical illness are viewed as equally real and important, and act accordingly.
MIND Charity Real Stories
PMDD – Real Story – Cat