If 2016 was the ‘year of like, realising stuff’, for me 2019 was the ‘year of something needs to change or you’re not going to be around anymore’. I had surrounded myself and almost every aspect of my life with the wrong people, and it was affecting my already damaged mental health. Shortly after the year began, I had a breakdown.
It was terrifying because I didn’t understand why my imagination was conjuring such dark thoughts. I had stopped sleeping normally, waking up at 3am and couldn’t bear to shut my eyes until dawn broke. My hair was falling out at a rapid pace and my sensitive scalp issues exacerbated. I’d also been suffering from extreme gastritis throughout my adult years and it came back in a bad way. I was stuck in a cycle of shame, guilt and fear, which was mostly self-imposed, I should add.
When I first decided I had to see a therapist, I thought I was ‘sick’. I’d been to a psychiatrist before, so I thought I knew what was wrong: a chemical imbalance triggered by a stressful situation. The last straw for me was one late afternoon in March. As I was leaving the gym, I reached into my tote bag for an energy ball – because of my stomach issues I had to eat every four hours – and as I tore open the packaging, it leapt out and landed on the pavement. My eyes welled up, I was going to cry. I stood staring at that ugly brown vegan lump of 360 calories for a good few seconds, trying to snap out of it.
You can find out all about the mechanics of stress from medical professionals and mental health websites. But you’re here. So I’m going to share with you what it meant to me, which was total loss of control. For some, this triggers extreme productivity. I would go into overdrive, trying to do everything ‘right’ and this failing – because you can’t do anything perfectly – feeling purposeless for weeks on end. Others sink into a comatose state, freezing and unable to self-motivate with an intense desire to escape. In some ways it’s a variation of fight or flight. Whatever my response to a situation, I learnt I had to honour it. I had to tell myself: “I feel this way for a reason and importantly, all of it is natural – I’m supposed to”. In fact, I probably would be ‘sick’ if I didn’t some kind of reaction!
Then came the bad thoughts. It’s a terrible thing to lose control of your mind and to me, it was a form of self-harm. But bad thoughts isn’t another person in your brain that you can try your hardest to delete, block and report. Yet, it really feels that way because you don’t understand yourself anymore. I can honestly say, I had no idea who I was as a person because I was only one thing and that was scared. But these nasty thoughts show another side that you may have ignored while you were beating yourself up. I kept thinking, “I’m not good enough, I’ve made such bad mistakes, if anyone knew this, they would never accept me”. I hope you’re reading this and thinking it’s pretty dramatic because if you can relate, it’s scary and it hurts. I’m sorry you’re going through this.
Therapy taught me that one, thoughts are not facts. And two, there’s always another side to the story. With a different perspective, what I hear is: “I care a lot about other people’s opinions”. And to go further, those nightmarish ideas I was using as self-flagellation actually means I’m a conscientious person and hold myself to very high standard. It’s easier to manage positive things about ourselves than our flaws. We tend to think these traits are uglier than they actually are and we can’t bear to look at them. Practicing the capture of these harmful thoughts, dissecting what they really mean and turning them into something enlightening, helped me reform my sense of identity.
When I accompanied a friend of mine to an AA meeting, they finish every session with a ‘prayer’ and talk about ‘God’ in a very universal sense. It refers to a higher power, whatever that might mean to each individual. It’s to acknowledge that we as humans are not in control of… anything. So much of overcoming stress and fear is acceptance. Once I became comfortable with that (it’s an ongoing process that never stops), the next exercise was forgiveness. Being on edge all the time made me ultra sensitive, to the point I’d take offence to anything and everyone. Even that bloody energy ball and Deliciously Ella for making it. I had to purge the grudges that were draining my energy and in turn, contributing to that vicious cycle of strain on my health. Whether you want to admit it or not, the quote “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”, is one of the truest. I also had to forgive myself, for all the self-induced punishment every time I felt an emotion that wasn’t happiness.
My therapist #HayleySays told me that I needed to treat myself as if I were my own child. If my child (so in my mind it was my sweet Labrador) was afraid and nervous, would I tell him to “get over it and carry on as usual”? As we strive for perfection and order in the beautiful chaos that is our lives, we forget to take on the role of the nurturer. Consciously or not we can take a rather militant approach. But if we can stand up against bullying others, why shouldn’t we do so for ourselves? Stress is normal, own it. Cry and give yourself time. Show yourself kindness and when you feel strong enough, give others the support to do the same.
Contact mental health charity, Mind for professional advice and information.