I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough this week on what feels like a bit of crash course in mental health self-awareness. It feels silly really, I’ve done countless courses on mental health awareness for work, and it all makes sense – but it’s a whole different gravy applying it to yourself when you’re in the throes of it compared to if you were spotting the signs in a team mate or employee, or a friend even.
The first obstacle is acknowledging and admitting that you are in a position of mental ill health. It took my boss to point that out to me (in a gentle way). We are conditioned societally to be strong, to cope with things. I’m not sure that it’s specifically true that it’s more so for men, anecdotally people seem to think so – it doesn’t really matter though, I certainly found it tough to accept. I’ve never been a “man up” kind of man, but I think we all naturally feel a little disappointed in ourselves if we are finding it difficult to cope with life.
Exposing that vulnerability filled me with an enormous sense of dread – people might judge, people might see me as a burden, people might see me as weak. In addition to that, people have their own problems – if you fall into the trap of trying to rank them, you end up feeling like you’re really making a mountain out of a molehill. I knew there were options for referring to NHS treatments but well, the NHS is really rather busy right now what with the whole pandemic thing, right?
That process of opening up was actually positive – some intuitive people probed (gently), others I selectively reached out to were receptive, kind and supportive. Realising that really recovery was only going to be driven by myself, nobody else has a magic wand to ‘fix’ me, that reluctance to share with people diminished. It’s helped me realise that when others are suffering I don’t need to feel pressured to solve their problems, but to be open to listening to them.
So by the time referrals to NHS CBT therapy and talking to a therapist via our Employee Assistance Programme (which I’m very lucky to have) had materialised into appointments I was actually already on the right road to recovery, definitely ably assisted by the group I talked about in my last blog post, as well as some great book recommendations. There were, and have been, and probably will be, bumps in the road – but the broad trajectory was improvement from the low base of going to bed and not caring whether I woke up again or not.
On Monday the NHS webinar I attend was addressing people who literally aren’t able to function – helping them form strategies to be able to build up to the basic tasks of managing their hygiene, their home and their work. Not really relevant for me, but reassuring that I’ve been really good at staying on top of those things. I’ve not shunned what social contact I’ve been able to have and I’ve been doing really well at staying physically active, eating well and hydrating.
My work-organised therapist is more bespoke but still centred around CBT – they’ve been really positive sessions, and the session today probably confirmed that landmark moment. Next week we’re going to spend the session mapping out an exit strategy from being in therapy. A lot of my issues are probably akin to the grieving cycle, unfortunately some of that just takes time to process, but the CBT techniques combined with the other extra-curricular steps I’ve taken have undoubtedly helped make more sense of and apply some structure to that processing.
I’ll miss my weekly catch-ups with Holly as they’ve been incredibly helpful and affirming, but equally, I’d rather not need to have them. Whilst I’m finding it increasingly less relevant I will stick to the NHS webinars too – each week we fill in a questionnaire to ascertain where we’re at with various measures – a couple of times that’s prompted a clinician to call me to check in, which at first was frustrating as it’s an indicator that those scores aren’t great, but latterly it’s more of a comfort that there’s a safety net there if needed. I think they have it set to a bit of a hair trigger personally, but better that than the other way, right?
More than anything though this process has helped me to correct the stigma I attached to my own mental health – not for others suffering, but just for myself. Mental Health is a shit term really – mental health should be the default, shouldn’t it? It should mean you are mentally healthy, and when things go awry then that is mental ill health. Just as with your physical health, there’s a sliding scale – we could all be more physically healthy despite describing ourselves as fit and well, the same goes for your mind. And of course that doesn’t even touch on the fact that the two are inextricably linked.
Maintaining good mental health is a never ending process just like maintaining your physical health. I think we all know that, but can lose sight of the muscle-memory nature of that when things start to go wrong. Just because you’ve risen from the pit of despair doesn’t make the kind of tools and techniques you used to ascend any less relevant. Perversely, I can see a path to actually being a much more content person than I was back when I thought I was a content person – but that will always require incremental adjustments and work to maintain.
So I’m feeling good about transitioning away from being ‘in therapy’ to more wholly self-managing the things I’m working through – and frankly, most of that management has been by me, but with a great support network of family, friends, colleagues and professionals when needed. I suppose the moral of the story, as ever, is that if you are struggling then please please do reach out for help. Particularly in the wake of 15 months of severe restrictions on our freedom, it feels like there could be a secondary pandemic of mental ill health issues on the horizon.