Two months ago, I wrote an article in Grazia about my nervous breakdown. It’s scary writing such personal, honest pieces, and I often wonder if they really DO anything to help other people. The response I received gave me a very clear answer; overwhelmingly YES. They do. And then can changes lives. Now, with my mental health website Headcase up and running and my inboxes buzzing with feedback, am totally blown away by the effect it’s having already. Every day I’m getting emails, Tweets, FB and Insta messages from people visiting the site, telling me that it has changed their life. That reading just one story about someone else having similar experiences was enough for them to go and seek help. That they want to write for Headcase, contribute, help in any way they can. It’s amazing, as well as shocking, to know that SO many people are struggling with mental health issues, but never knew what they were, where to go, or how to get help. And how many had never spoken about it before. Here is the article I wrote.
Last year, I had a complete nervous breakdown. As distractions from doing the laundry and sorting out my tax return go, it was pretty effective.
Like most of us, I'd heard the term loads of times, bandied about with its sister phrases like "going ballistic", having a "manic day" and "stressed out". They're phrases we chuck out there like filtered selfies, without having a clue what they actually mean or represent.
So when I found myself curled up on a sofa for months, in so much physical pain I could hardly bear it, unable to eat or sleep, I didn't know what the heck was wrong with me. First came the months of night-sweats where rivers of salty panic soaked through the whole bed, then heart palpitations, blinding headaches, "explosions" in my eyeballs that left me limp, mood swings on a shocking scale, constant high-level anxiety, and finally full-body spasms that looked like epileptic fits.
I thought I had flu. MEGAflu. Or possibly Ebola or the Bubonic Plague.
I did all the usual jazz of going to my GP, describing my symptoms, and mentioning the minor fact that my 23-year relationship had just ended, I had been enduring huge financial, professional and personal stress for over a year, and felt in a state of constant terror, mixed with dizzying free-fall.
They decided to run some basic tests, and eight vials of my aching blood were duly sent away to what I thought must be the "Laboratory For The Broken", to be examined for everything possible, including self-pity and weakness. I remember desperately hoping they would find something physically wrong with me. Early menopause, addiction to flat whites, anything other than the dreaded Mental Health Issue.
But no. I was declared to be a perfect specimen of physical wellbeing. I'd never been angry to be so darned healthy. I was informed that my symptoms were those of a nervous breakdown caused by chronic, extreme stress on all fronts and over a long period, and that I needed psychotherapy, psychiatric treatment, six months off work and mood stabilizing drugs.
I'd had various mental health "Things" in the past - post-natal depression, sudden onset of panic attacks in my thirties, and an eating disorder in my teens. Gold Card Membership to the Crazy Club, you might think, but actually nothing out of the reasonably ordinary, over the course of a life. I got over all of them with some CBT, and the passing of Time.
Being the stubborn old "I can cope!" mule that I am, I refused to believe that I was ill, so ignored everyone who told me I needed help, played it down, and thought it would just go away if I carried on as normally as possible.
But predictably, things got worse. Much worse. I spent a lot of time in a so-called "catatonic state". Unfortunately, similar though it sounds, it's not nearly as much fun as a gin-and-tonic state. Basically, it means you're immobile and unresponsive. I spent hours huddled on the floor, staring at a wall or the carpet, unable to speak or react. Rocking to and fro, I would finger the corners of my sleeve, trying not to move the molecules of air around me. I wished every breath away and hauled life on my shoulders like a crippling, unwanted burden.
For those who care about me this was terrible and distressing to see. They had no idea what to do except wait for me to come out of it, sometimes forcibly prising my fingers open or trying to make me say just one word.
But still I refused treatment. I tried to be as normal as possible, for my children. However hard it was, I got up, dressed and was there for them before and after school. I made sure I went out every morning for a coffee, to be among people, write, and keep my work deadlines met. My job as a broadcaster and writer, commentating in a jolly and engaging way on stories in the national media, requires that "yes I can" attitude. And without the income, I would have nothing at all.
The second I was back home that façade vanished. I reverted to silence, unstoppable crying, and feeling the raging heat and pain in my bones and muscles return. To the outside world I was ok. But I wanted to be dead. All day, every day. Some people might call this selfish. But you can't explain such irrationality to anyone who still possesses rational thought.
During this time I blogged about some of this, thinking that it might help others going through similar things. Helpfully I was then trolled online for being narcissistic and attention-seeking. A shining example of our fantastic understanding of mental health. This, of course, made everything much, much worse.
I had never cut myself before. I never understood it. Why would anyone do THAT? But it happened. It felt oddly comforting, like a thing I could see, that represented the hurt I felt inside. I still have the scars, but it's the only part of all of this that I still find almost too hard to talk about.
I thought I had flu. MEGAflu. Or possibly the Bubonic Plague.
I had already seen a clinical psychiatrist and a psychologist, as advised by my GP, and they had both diagnosed mixed-state depression and mania, caused by extreme, persistent psychological stress. But I refused to take medication because I was scared of the negative side-effects, and I felt it would mean I was a failure. I still thought I could get better by myself. But the cutting was the final straw. I did some googling of my symptoms, and everything I read told me I was now in a very high-risk category for suicide. And so, after 6 months of this hell, I relented; I took (and am still taking) mood-stabilising drugs that moderate the extreme lows and highs, and bring you into a state in which you can rest, recover, and finally start to help yourself to get better.
After a few days of feeling very jumpy and angry, I then calmed suddenly, and was more focused, less terrified, and I could sleep a bit, and eat a little. I carried on seeing a psychologist. Soon I was able to face things head-on, that I had been too weakened to deal with before. Five months on, I now believe in a future, and I feel I've got my life back.
I learned a lot about how fragile minds are. But I've learned a lot more by talking with people about it. Most of all, I've learned how incredibly common mental health problems are. I hear the same thing over and over again: "Oh God, me too!" or "I know someone who had that." These are normal, functioning people who live with a mental health issue, but never dare to talk about it, face it or seek help, because they're afraid they might be mad, weird or socially stigmatised. The minute they feel they can safely speak out, they feel a huge sense of relief, and can start to get better.
And that's why I've set up Headcase - a beautiful, honest, ballsy – and often funny - website and podcast series, that totally smashes all perceived ideas of what someone with mental health issues looks like, does, and thinks. People like you, me, almost everyone we know. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I still feel very weak at times, but I know that I've seen the bottom, and now, if I see it again, I'll know what to do to bounce back up. If I can share any of what I've learned to help others, through Headcase then it will all have been worth it.
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