About This Year

21 Dec

Content warning: mental illness

This year, I was unwell.

It’s a simple phrase, right? And if I’d had a broken leg, or the flu, or even some tropical disease, I would feel fine about admitting it. I’d brush it off. “Yeah, I lost June through August to a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. I’m taking some drugs for it. Feeling better.”

But it wasn’t a physical illness. It was a mental one, a three-month climax to a much longer suffering, that finally forced me to seek help. There are many people doing fine work to destigmatise mental illness, and attitudes are shifting, slowly, but still: it feels frightening to confess.

Hence this post. I’m not writing for sympathy – as I said above, I’m much better now. I’m writing to let you know hey, this happens, to all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways.

And I’m still here.

I’m not going to go into all the gory details. I don’t even know myself where this all started. The first time I found myself unable to get up off the sofa, seeing nothing but darkness in my future, was when my first school failed Ofsted. That was natural though, right? It was like being repeatedly kicked in the face as the bad news kept rolling in, my working hours ballooned to the point where I felt physically sick, and I no longer had any idea what I was doing. It was my 27th birthday and my mum had to come down to London to fetch me away for a few days because I was in such a state of torpor.

That was a low point, but as my years in teaching went on I continued to have periods of high stress and anxiety, culminating in a time when I would burst into tears just walking in the front door. I suspect that part of what I have been suffering is a post-traumatic reaction to teaching. Yes, that’s a bloody sad indictment of our education system, but if you have worked in it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Or perhaps the roots go way back, to the various medical interventions I’ve had over the years. I was physically unwell quite a bit as a kid and had some long and unpleasant experiences in hospital, alongside a raft of different medications and procedures. I’m unlucky when it comes to these things – that 0.01% chance of complications? Yeah, that’ll be me.

Developing hyperthyroidism as a teenager was definitely a disturbing event for me, especially taking place at the formative age of sixteen. For months I was losing weight, losing hair, unable to walk properly, unable to talk as I neared my worst point, and nobody realised I was ill, least of all myself. When I was skin and bone and nearly fainting from exhaustion and overheating, finally we understood I was not just a clumsy, unfit scatterbrain who didn’t brush her hair enough. Thyroid disease is not the worst thing you can have, by any means. But the fact that it was lurking there, silently destroying me, left a deep impression. It took me five years or so to fully recover, including some horrible surgery and, yes, complications that left more than physical scars.

Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that my mental illness manifested itself as medical anxiety. It has always been a feature of my personality, a certain hypochondria. But it began to spiral in the summer of 2016 – the summer I left teaching. It should have been a weight off my shoulders, but the sheer uncertainty I was stepping into – the size of change I was making – left me worse than ever. My need for reassurance got out of hand. I’d lie awake googling symptoms and rushed to the doctor’s surgery several times, even though there was not very much physically wrong with me at all.

From then, these episodes of panic got more frequent and longer. I’d be seized with a dread that something terrible was happening inside my body. It was growing, expanding, taking over. Until finally, I began to see things that weren’t really there. My need for reassurance became a compulsion to check myself for marks and signs, and I would find them. In turn, the panic would produce physical symptoms like a racing heart and dripping sweat that would leave me even more convinced that I was seriously ill.

It’s scary, to lose control of your rationality. It’s also exhausting to spend every moment of the day and night in total terror. I went to the doctor and pleaded to get some help because I knew this behaviour was getting to be extreme. First, they gave me sleeping pills that left me feeling like my feet weren’t even on this planet. Then they counselled me to wait for the CBT I had signed up for back in November, and was finally right around the corner. I was in such a state that I was not capable of advocating for myself. I desperately needed more help, but I could not ask for it.

Thankfully, my parents realised how bad things had got, and my wonderful dad got on the phone and hashed it out with the GP, who finally agreed that I had a serious issue that needed serious treatment. She put me on a course of sertraline, an SSRI, which I have been taking for the last six months.

Sertraline is not the easiest drug – it has some nasty side effects and I have to be very careful how and when I take it. But in many ways it has been a revelation. In the last few months I’ve had more happy moments than the last four years put together. That cloud, that darkness, has lifted long enough for me to feel joy. I can go about my daily life without my thoughts bubbling out of control.

My course of CBT was also a big help, taking place weekly over five months. Whilst I found some of the early sessions frustrating, it was beneficial to have exercises to complete and someone to make me accountable for doing them. For example, my therapist asked me to listen to a radio programme about cancer. It was incredibly difficult, because I knew how anxious it was going to make me. But I did it, and in the debrief with her we were able to go through exactly the moments that triggered me and the reasons why.

Other coping mechanisms when I was really panicky: listening to Hamilton at least once a day (Lin-Manuel, you saved me); listening to dense and boring podcasts almost constantly when I eventually needed a break from ‘Wait for It’; using the app Headspace, which teaches you techniques for mindfulness and meditation; eating something delicious; going for a walk; watching trash TV; getting goldfish and watching them swim.

I’m planning to come off the sertraline early next year, but I know there is a chance that I will have difficult times again. The difference is that now I know there is help available, and the signs that things are spiralling. I also know my friends and family have my back, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who acted to help me. Whilst this period of illness made 2017 a pretty rubbish year in some ways (in addition to, you know, the rise of the far right and imminent nuclear war), I’m determined to make up for it in 2018.

If you are reading this, and feel like things are hopeless, please know:

  • you are not alone
  • you are not weak for becoming ill
  • there is help available
  • life does go on even though sometimes that feels impossible

If you need to see a therapist or take drugs, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. You are ill, and you can be treated.

(If you need help right now, Mind has a good page of telephone support services or go to your GP)

So, yeah. This year I was unwell. All those memes about ‘what I achieved in 2017’? I’m happy for all those who got agents and book deals and film deals and got married and had kids and travelled the world and landed dream jobs and so on and so forth. But me?

I’m here, living and breathing and healing. Onwards.

One Response to “About This Year”

  1. Brian Curtis December 22, 2017 at 8:32 pm #

    Hi Catherine – so good to read your blog! So much of it I can identify with. As you may know I was a former colleague of yours and I also suffered a “mental illness/depression episode” as a result of the stresses of teaching on top of underlying anxiety attack issues! The medication did help but the “turn around” for me was the CBT course I undertook!

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