Trauma, depression, burnout, anxiety or… skiving off work? How mental illness messed with my head

There was a dark time when I had trouble finishing my sentences. Among other things.

The breakdown

An accumulation of difficult life events came to a head for me in the summer of 2015 and I was signed off work sick.

The first official diagnosis was burnout, but a whole range of terms were used to describe my ailments from various doctors and psychologists. But whether you want to call it depression, PTSD, anxiety or simply extreme exhaustion, whatever it was hurt like hell. For a long time. And it might seem bizarre, but I was actually relieved when a professional would slap a name onto my condition, because it gave it credibility. I was believed. I wasn’t skiving.

The first time I was summonsed to see the work doctor, to begin with, she was extremely severe. But after about 10 minutes, her demeanour changed.

She looked at me and asked in a soft voice, ‘Have you become forgetful? Do you have trouble sleeping?’

When I nodded, she pronounced her verdict. ‘You have acute reactional depression. It’s serious, but you will get better.’

I almost cried with relief. A professional had given a name to how I felt.

The guilt and shame kicks in

During that period, I felt like a fraud and was consumed with guilt and shame. This, of course, aggravated my mental state. At a time when my body and mind needed (extreme) self-care – and when, in theory, I had time for that – all I could do was beat myself up and worry incessantly and compulsively. An internal battle constantly raged inside me. I didn’t want to be ill, but at the same time, I wanted to be ill because it kept me ‘safe’ and I wouldn’t have survived five minutes at work, if I’d even made it through the door.

I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew I wasn’t ‘right’.

If you relate, this is for you…

This is for anybody who might be struggling. For anybody who might be wondering whether there is something wrong with them, and if so, what. Or whether maybe, just maybe, you have depression. If just one person reads this and it gives some relief, then it will have been worth me ‘putting it out there’. I also hope that this might help to grow an understanding of how it feels when you have mental illness.

I realise that everybody’s experience is different. I can only tell you mine.

While looking back over notes I scrawled when I was really not doing well, I was quite shocked. It took me right back to that place, and I remember how I felt. Sometimes part of the problem was that I didn’t actually feel, which might sound peculiar if you’ve always known how to laugh and how to cry (and when to stop) and every emotion in between.

I would like to share a few diary entries with you. And if you can relate in any way, please know that I am feeling better than okay now (she says, pouring pet food into the washing machine dispenser and feeding the cat… washing powder 🙂).

So here we go.

Diary

July 2015 (Still at work)

I think I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

I suffer from migraines twice weekly, have IBS, can’t focus, have a short fuse, am teary but feel numb.

Could it be burnout or mild depression?

I wake up at night and am constantly exhausted due to my tedious work, the long commute. I’ve no time.

It’s as though I’m in a dream. Day by day – simply surviving.

In August 2015 my partner was unexpectedly rushed to Intensive Care where he spent a month followed by a second month in another ward.

October 2015 (My partner had just returned home, completely battered – both mentally and physically)

I have very limited concentration (paperwork impossible), make mistakes, easily aggravated, disoriented, mood swings, constantly wondering what’s wrong with me (is there something wrong? am I just being melodramatic?), no confidence, no more joy. Can’t switch brain off.

Physical problems: migraines, jaw problem – can’t open mouth properly, fingers and toes went ice numb when swimming, rash on torso, tummy ache, palpitations.

I have panic-attack-type feelings or am angry. Like I’m going to explode. Tight and tense around my heart. I can’t feel any happiness or other feelings. Too anxious to see anybody, frightened and anti-social.

Overwhelmed by tasks. I can’t concentrate. My memory is shot and I feel confused. It shuts down in the middle of a task. I can’t even spell! (I’d been a proof-erader up until being singed off.)

February 2016

I don’t know what to make for breakfast. It makes me feel like crying. I want to cry all the time.

A tiny thing can set me back for days.

I wake up and lie awake thinking. Exhausted all the time and I get up when I’m still tired.

I don’t want to drink but I want to drink (self-medication) which makes me feel ashamed.

I sometimes feel like screaming or vomiting with rage and I’m so frustrated with myself because all I want to do is be a good mum.

I find it hard to finish sentences.

In ‘stressful’ circumstances (driving in a city) I get anxiety attacks and can’t do anything spontaneously.

October 2016

Starting to feel ‘safe’ in my own little world. The slightest disruption sets me back, but I am feeling better, more capable. Social event anxiety is becoming less. Still often exhausted, but not all the time.

November 2016

I feel good. I notice myself smiling sometimes for no reason. It’s a surprise to me! I come downstairs and look around and am happy with my lot. This is a very new feeling. I suppose it’s been creeping up on me for a while. And I’ve been working at it so hard.

I think less about my situation and am more in the present. I used to have obsessive thoughts whirling round my head. Now I have nightmares instead and often awaken with a feeling of dreadful fear.

My short-term memory is useless. I am very forgetful. But the thing that has changed is that it matters less to me now. I can laugh about it sometimes.

I am finally getting my confidence back and am able to be happy again, to feel emotions, to be a supportive, attentive mother.

And now – I’m back

It took months, even years, for me to recover. But this was partly because I fought it, denied it, kept trying to overcome it and be strong. I didn’t get the support I needed at the time and was more than ever in the role of carer (in particular, for my children, but now also for my partner who had become chronically sick).

I was told and have learnt that healing takes the time it takes. If you are able to put yourself first, nurture yourself, then it doesn’t have to take as long as it did for me. If you do relate to any of this, my advice is to let yourself feel it. Don’t rush. Go with and… it will pass.

When people go through a life-changing trough, they very often rise to be somebody who is more in alignment with their real values. They’ve been forced to do the work on themselves.

The End (of this post)… is full of hope

Today, although everything in my life may not be as I’d like it to be, I generally feel very positive: present for myself, my children… the world. It may be a cliché, but everything I went through and experienced has made me who I am today. And (most of the time) I like the person I’ve become.

I still find it difficult to finish sentences sometimes and I’m sure there was a point I was trying to make there somewhere but maybe it’ll come back to me in a little while or, erm, perhaps…

Resources

If you are reading this and you relate and need some support, there really is some out there. The following resources are taken directly from the website of mental health and social equality writer, speaker and campaigner, Natasha Devon.
Young MindsThe SamaritansCALMThe MixThe Self-Harm NetworkBeatMind.

13 Comments

  1. What a wonderful thing you have done by sharing your demons for others to know, this too will pass. You’re an incredible lady, you’ve been in a black space and crawled right out of it. All will be well.xxxx

  2. This is me, literally, every day for almost 20 years now. I just can’t put it into words like you do. Some say they don’t see the problem, I’m only home all day doing ‘nothing’.. what I do is take care of everyones needs, home is tidy everyone has clean clothes and food to eat..yeah I’m not working, even the thought of going out the door makes me panic..but I still function on a basic level. Even smile sometimes. (How can you not when you have children.) I hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me too, your story gives me hope. Keep writing, it clearly is what you’re good at.

  3. Anna – I wrote this post for you. I don’t know who you are but I knew there were others out there who might relate and have a little hope from reading what I wrote. So I deeply thank you for making my own share worth it.
    You are not the only one who has reached out to say they relate… There have been some other amazing messages through email, FB, etc. so you really are Not Alone.
    Take care of you, I encourage you to take small steps towards meeting your own needs, towards listening to what you want and to believe that you deserve it just as much as anybody else. Step towards what makes you come alive. You truly are worth it.
    Heartfelt thanks for your message and warmest wishes for the light at the end of the tunnel to show itself to you. Every little step towards it counts. Love Eilidh xxx

  4. Hi dearest friend Eilidh,
    So well and strongly written. You can really put all feelings in words. You have really had a tough tough time. And you are so strong to have gone through all and being so positive, energetic, absolutely lovely and beautiful 😉! Please please continue writing 😊!
    Lots of love,
    Ingrid

    1. That’s really kind of you. Thank you! I hope that this topic isn’t one you would have personal experience of, but because I do, I thought it was important to share.
      I just had a look at your blog and you have a lovely engaging writing style and really beautiful pictures 🙂

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