I’m mentally ill. Not a criminal!

6 Apr

We still haven’t got to grips with dealing mental health issues yet. It’s not just about ‘feeling down’, feeling a bit fed up! It is an illness which prevents you from physically and mentally being able to do the simplest things. It’s the crippling effort it can take to get out of bed each day; to feed yourself; to leave your home.. let alone get to work and manage your duties.

I have always been one to put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself. I can see where the origins of this lie: when my parents split up I threw myself into school work and activities. If I wasn’t getting 100% in tests I had a meltdown! In my career I did the same…promotion after promotion after promotion. I had learned to use school, university, work to avoid the other stresses and strains of life. However, avoiding something doesn’t mean that the ‘something’ completely disappears.

My mental health was beginning to take a downward spiral. I was drinking too much; I was barely eating; I was having horrific nightmares…during the daylight hours. A work colleague noticed and they talked to me.

Depression and PTSD

The result was that I finally disclosed a rape from 12 years previously. There then began a very long and arduous battle with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The doctor put me on anti depressants but these made me feel suicidal. The doctor didn’t believe it was the pills and prescribed counselling. I had a 6 month wait and the pills were making me feel worse.

I managed my workload but alongside that I was managing the symptoms of depression and PTSD. What did this look like? For me it was flashbacks to the rape triggered by a number of different things: a smell; a tune on the radio; a word; a physical feeling; the time of day. Flashbacks made me feel intensely frightened for my life. I had panic attacks, I would cry. It eventually lead to a period of not leaving my flat for three months for anything other than medical appointments and to get food. I was too scared. But then I became scared of my own flat. In addition to this I couldn’t sleep, I lost weight, I couldn’t think clearly and the pills still made me feel suicidal. Indeed I found myself in A&E being assessed by the on call psychiatrist at least three times. The conversation always went the same,

Psychiatrist: Why did you take too many pills?
Me: Because I was raped and the feelings I have with that get too much and I just want to forget about them for a while.
Psych: So you don’t want to kill yourself?
Me: No, I want to feel better.
Psych: So you won’t do it again?
Me: No.
Psych: OK. I’ll write a note for your GP then you’re discharged.

And repeat…

Let battle commence

I worked my way through different counsellors including the one originally assigned to me by my doctor, Rape Crisis, Victim Support, ones I paid for privately. None of them were making me feel any differently. I finally, with the encouragement of that work colleague, went to the surgery again and demanded to see a GP who specialised in mental health. Eventually, things began to change. He altered my prescription and referred me to Cognitive Behaviour therapy. But this had taken 18 months.

The battle continued with further visits to A&E and consults with the on call psych until the GP found an anti depressant that didn’t make me feel suicidal. I drank too much while I was waiting for a drug that worked. The drink meant I was able to forget for a short while. I went clubbing 3 or 4 times a week. My CBT therapist gave me exercises to face my demons and desensitise myself to some of my memories so I could function. I finally plucked up the courage to report the rape to the Police and an investigation began with everything that that entails: interviews; statements; more interviews…

Alongside my battle with my mental health I was still managing my career. I had the odd day off, then the three month incarceration in my flat, back to the odd day. The colleague I had originally confided in was a huge support and tried to convince me to talk to my managers. But I didn’t. I was too afraid of the stigma. And I couldn’t take time off…the guilt.

My hand was forced after an A&E visit that resulted in me having to be kept in. I couldn’t keep my mental ill health a secret anymore. I had to tell. But aside from personal support from individual colleagues there was no specific approach from the organisation. So I continued my battle securing a promotion as a Head of Department. From the outside looking in I looked everything like the successful career woman! Only those close to me knew the reality.

Mental ill health in the workplace

My CBT therapist was superb and I am convinced he saved my life. I continued to meet with him on a weekly basis for 2-3 years. And the flashbacks and panic attacks began to recede. I didn’t drink to blot things out anymore. I had started to tell my family and friends what I had been dealing with. When the police investigation reached its peak I had a bit of a setback and ended up being off work for two to three week stretches as I dealt with the fallout from the investigation. Again, some work colleagues noticed I was struggling. They didn’t know why but they took the time to ask me and I felt I could tell them. They offered me personal support but again, from a whole organisational point of view, there was very little done to take away my anxiety about the stigma of mental health at work.

In contrast, a few years later I had a cervical cancer scare. The reaction to this physical ill health was so different. Sympathy, flowers, messages of concern and support. A meeting! A meeting to see if anything could be done to help me be able to do my job! I got none of this throughout my five year battle with mental ill health!

Time to change

It’s the 21st century. I really struggle with society’s treatment of mental health issues. Just because you can’t see the reasons why a colleague is having so much time off work or isn’t handle their duties well does not mean they are not ill! We have a responsibility as individuals and as organisations to educate ourselves about mental ill health and remove the stigma. Stringent support mechanisms need to be in place. The law needs to be followed. See http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/your-organisation/support-workplace

I guarantee someone you work with right now will be fighting their own battle. They may be fighting to get up in the morning. They may be fighting invisible fears you can’t possibly see or comprehend. They may be fighting for their life. If you think someone you work with may be suffering, talk to them! Ask them if they are ok? Don’t accept the, “Yeah I’m fine” answer…make em a cuppa and offer to have a proper chat. You could, quite literally, be saving a life – like that colleague did mine.


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