Our Experiences With Mental Illness: My Life on Medication

Part 1: Our Experiences With Mental Illness: Anorexia and Anxiety

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but I never knew were to start. So, I guess I’ll start from the beginning.

“I need help.”

Prior to being medicated I was taking St John’s Wort, I had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I was doing Yoga, eating well, and had joined a gym to improve my mental health. Sadly, nothing was able to break through my exterior wall of sheer sadness and anger.

The day I decided to be medicated was the day that I got so angry at my cat (for being his usual pain in the ass) that I genuinely didn’t want him anymore. I thought of every possible way to get rid of him (some were truly unspeakable) and after a few moments of delving into a place I never thought I’d see, I burst into tears and decided enough was enough; I needed help. Now, this may seem like a rather ridiculous breakthrough for some people, but for me it was life changing. My cat, Bruce Wayne, had been by my side for over two years as I had raised him from a kitten and was his sole human. He was (and still is) the most comically moody, hilarious and quirky cat at you’ll ever meet. Everyone loves Bruce, even cat-haters, he is just the weirdest little dude and I couldn’t imagine my life without him – until I did. Strangely, the thoughts I’d previously had about hurting myself didn’t shock or scare me, but the thought of hurting one of the things I love the most did. I needed help, desperately.

Shortly after that, I spoke to some friends at work who had gone through similar experiences and they warned me against going on drugs. Now, I can see the thinking behind this but I can hand-on-heart say that am extremely glad that I didn’t listen to them. Going ahead, I met with a GP that I liked and trusted, she was genuine and I could see the sadness in her eyes when I told her everything that I had tried to do to be happy again. She told me it would be okay, we’d get me better and she started me on a high dose of Sertraline (with hopes of putting it up a few weeks later, but I declined).

“I feel weird.”

The first day I took the medication I felt like I’d just taken some weak acid or other hallucinogenic drug. I felt very aware of my body. Like I could feel each chamber of my heart as each valve opened and closed. I could feel every nerve in my finger tips and each muscle in my face contract and relax. It is truly an indescribable experience, that thankfully only lasted a couple of days.

Before I started taking “happy pills” I was a writer and an artist. I started writing a novel a few years ago and fell in love with the world and my characters;it was an easy escape from my reality – to go into a world that I created, solely for me and my characters.

From when the drugs became part of my routine, I started to feel that the love for my novel began to cease. Every day I loved it a little less. Now, 10 months later, I can barely remember the characters that I was so passionate about. I can’t see their faces in my head anymore, the sound of their voices, the interior of their world. My characters became distant friends, who I still cared about but no longer felt the need to connect with.

It’s as if my medication put my life on hold. Imagine an artist who suddenly goes colourblind, or a singer who gets permanent laryngitis. You can still function as a person but your art-form, your passion, becomes diminished and eventually dies off all together. That’s how I felt.

Without them, without my book and my art, I felt lost. But not wholly lost, like the panic you’d feel if you wandered too deep into a forest or got caught up in a conversation that you know nothing about. It was more like walking into a building that you know, and forgetting which room you needed to go into. You’re there, you have a sense of purpose, but you’re misguided.

“I feel like Me again.”

As the months passed, and taking the medication became ingrained, I acclimatized. The tingling in my fingers had subsided and the strange metaphorical bubble that formed around me, burst. I finally remembered what it felt like to be happy, actually happy. Pre-medication I had some anger issues. Nothing serious but I would basically turn any emotion (whether it be sadness, desire, fear, anything really) into rage. It was easier for me to cope with rage. I understood it. But on the medication I didn’t feel so angry, I didn’t really feel much at all; I found it easier to shrug things off and pretend that it didn’t bother me. I could jump head first into situations, that would have previously made me physically ill with anxiety. For the first time, in a long time, I felt at peace. 

The only way I can describe being on medication is like constantly having something with you that acts like barrier against the world. I call it padding. I hurt a little less, I rarely cried, I always laughed… but I never loved. To me, that padding stopped things from getting to me, it made me more resilient to the horrors of the world and of my own mind. But, it also stopped me from letting things in, people, scenic views, empathy. I struggled to sympathize with people who were having a hard time, as if it was simply programmed out of my head. Some of my nearest and dearest confronted me about it; saying I was cold, robotic, nasty, even selfish. To me, it felt like they were talking to me through a pain of glass in a prison visiting room, I could see their frustration and sadness but I couldn’t “feel” it. They were just words bouncing off my imaginary padding. I heard them though, and I thought about it a lot, but probably not in the way that most people would – through tears and “I can’t believe it”.  It’s hard for me to look back on now, but I was all of those things. The medication made me that. You may think “it’s no excuse” but until you’ve walked around like an emotional zombie for a year – you really have no idea.

“What now?”

It’s been a hard 9 months, but the 10 before that were unbearable, and I can proudly say that I am off medication and have been for 4 weeks.

Looking back, it’s hard to put a positive spin on medication. It made me numb, hard, thoughtless and unloving. But, and this is a big BUT, it kept me alive. It kept me mentally stable, able to get up in the mornings, able to leave the house, able to enjoy the company of my friends, able to change everything about my life that I had previously hated. I could do it all. No more sickness, no more rage. And for that, I will take the bad; I will take the lectures from friends and the concerned looks from my family.

I think it’s very important to speak candidly about mental health. I could go on for days, telling stories of things that happened to me while I was medicated (some actually rather hilarious) but I won’t. I want the world to know that it’s OK to not want to be medicated, I didn’t want to be for the longest time. But it’s also OK to need to be medicated, which is exactly what happened to me. You aren’t weak, You aren’t pathetic, You aren’t a headcase, you aren’t any of those terrible things that you may have convinced yourself that you are. You’re just in need of a bit of padding. 

It’s been an interesting month, but I’ll detail that in another post, another time. For now, if you’re feeling low and want the truth – I really hope this has helped. And please note: each person is different, and it’s important you take your own journey to find what works best for you.

Sufferers from any illness need love, laughter and support from everyone around them. Be that person for me, for your friend, parent, sibling, co-worker or partner.

Listen, understand, be patient and try to be conscious of the fact that it can’t be controlled and we’re still the same person who you love – in whatever way that is.

If you have any questions for me, please feel free to ask.

Knowledge is power, after all.

Poetry: Two parts of a Whole

If you’ll be my salt, I’ll be your pepper;
be by my side forever and ever.
I’ll be your fruit, if you’ll be my stem;
keep me held high when times are grim.
If you’re my paper and I’m your pen;
let’s 
doodle hope, again and again.
If you’re the wheel then I’m the car;
we’ll roll around together, near or far.
You’ll be mine and I’ll be yours,
so we can be happy forevermore.

© Phoebe McLaughlin – 2015.

POETRY: A Funny Thing

Life is not a funny thing.
It’s not a thing at all.
It holds us up
and pulls us along,
but it isn’t a thing at all.

The ‘things’ are in life itself:
the places, the people,
the falls.
But if you’re feeling
not so stable,
just remember
that you must be thankful.

So, thank you to my dad,
for showing me what a man should be.
Thank you to my friends,
for always being there for me.
Thank you to my sister,
for continuously being you.
Thank you to my cat,
for predictably being a loon.
Thank you to the man that broke my heart,
for melting the ice once again.
Thank you to my best friend,
for helping me dig deep for my zen.
Thank you to my mom,
for putting up with me.
But most of all:
Thank you to myself,
for finally seeing clearly.

Now I see that life is a funny thing.
It is strange and it is kind
and the past may sting,
but we should always be thankful
for the memories left behind
as they are a gift to mankind.

© Phoebe McLaughlin – 2015.

Poetry: A Nervous Twitch

A nervous twitch syncs with a watchful clock,
minds fading in and out of focus:
tick, tick, tick, tick…
People congeal in thin aisles, waiting
for sliding doors to give relief to strangers
standing too close.
Alone, a bag waits;
abandoned by its owner – a coward
with a cause.

A nervous twitch hides behind shifting eyes
that watch the last few minutes of lives.
The man daydreaming out the window,
his eyes moving
back and forth, back and forth.
The small child poking her reflection
in a shiny red balloon.
Pop.
Red faced, she weeps.

A nervous twitch eased with closing doors.
Proud footsteps leaving unknowing halls,
without a trace.
His eyes flicker passed faces looking
like cars on a midnight motor way.
Dipping in and out of the crowd his watch
tick, tick, ticks.
Light footsteps pad on walked paths;
enough time, enough space.

Tick, tick…

A nervous twitch made from a spark
as a line of zeroes freeze in time.
Thoughts stop dead in their tracks,
clasping hands fall away and
emotions disperse into air.
Faces melt into memories.

Silence
fills passengers’ ears
while deafening those not so near.

© Phoebe McLaughlin – November 2012.

Poetry: Symptoms

I feel You through me,
trickling down my throat;
suffocating my lungs.

You are a part of me,
I am sick with You.

I feel You inside of me
spreading like a virus;
draining my energy.

You are a part of me,
I am sick with You.

I see You under my skin
causing my heart to pulsate;
creeping a frown across my face.

You are a part of me,
I am sick with You.

I taste Your scent on my tongue,
turning my stomach into knots;
pulling at my soul.

You are a part of me,
I am sick with You.

But, you see, I am sick of this sickness
clawing at my being;
tearing me apart.

So, as of now:
You are not a part of me.
I am not sick
and no longer am I with you.

© Phoebe McLaughlin – 2014.

Our Experiences With Mental Illness: Anorexia and Anxiety

Recently my sister released a video about her struggle with an eating disorder.

As the protective older sister that I am, I was completely shocked and taken aback by this announcement – mainly because I didn’t know.

After speaking with a few of my close friends, and my sister, I realised that an eating disorder doesn’t really end there – it’s also a part of a much larger mental illness. The compulsion to not eat for these types of people is obsessive and most likely stems from a deeper unhappiness that can be found in depression or anxiety. This got me thinking about the lack of awareness around these disorders and how people who don’t suffer from them comprehend the effect that it has on you, as a sufferer. Or, on the other hand, how someone who does suffer from a disorder can’t understand the repercussions of another disorder.

They are different. Someone with depression may not suffer from anxiety. Someone with an eating disorder may have anxiety but not depression. Everyone is different, please remember that.

I suffer from anxiety.

Like my sister, it hasn’t been fully diagnosed because I was too scared to put a real label on it and, honestly, my doctor was useless. After many, many appointments he kept telling me to “take time off work” and “go on medication.” I know me, I needed the stability of my job and I didn’t want to depend on medication without trying to solve the issue from its source. So, I decided to take my diagnosis into my own hands and sought out Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The NHS service wasn’t an option for me because the wait for treatment was over a month and I could feel myself running out of time; so I turned to private care.

I researched for a while and found an approved therapist whose page really resonated with me. I called her and set up a meeting; it took off from there. My therapist and I discussed everything from my childhood memories to the days running up to each session. We talked about my relationship with my parents and my partner at the time. She tried her hardest to break me down and rebuild me back up, but I just wouldn’t let her. I never cried in a session, not once.

But, together we discovered that my own life pressures: money, work, etc, has absolutely nothing to do with my anxiety.

Scarily, the thing that causes my worst panic attacks is other people.

This, to me, is a terrible burden for everyone involved as others can’t control how you feel about them so they worry about you and you worry about them – it’s a vicious cycle.

My therapist said I’m so empathetic that I take people’s problems on as my own – almost to the point where I become more distressed than they do because I can view it from an outsider’s point of view, meaning that I not only get their thoughts and feelings but everyone else’s. This meant that things like keeping a secret would cause my stomach to tie in knots from the guilt of knowing something and having to lie about it. I no longer allow myself to learn secrets; as my therapist said: “it’s not your problem,” and she was right.

At one point, I became so engulfed in other people’s problems that I dropped almost two stone (just under 28 pounds) in a couple of months and I had become weak and vulnerable to everything around me. I was constantly sick, constantly tired and constantly on the verge of a break down.

Also like my sister, I hid this from the majority of people in my life. I honestly don’t even think my housemate knows the extent of the issue that I was having. My ex-partner knew, but she was one of the contributing factors to it worsening (to no fault of her own, she was troubled and I took that on because I cared about her so much). Eventually, I had to tell a few colleagues after I lost my personality to the disorder and people started to notice my weight loss, my loss of appetite and the fact that my humour and “spark” had almost completely vanished.

For months, I woke up every day hoping it wasn’t going to be “one of those days.” Part of my anxiety was severe nauseousness. Basically, my body got so stressed, so tight, so full of emotions about things out of my control that my muscles would contract in my stomach and make me vomit. There were days I couldn’t even keep water down. My skin worsened, my mood dipped and I watch myself waste away – mentally and physically.

Most of the time, I felt that I had no one to turn to. No one who could understand feeling so lost. It didn’t help that people kept trying to diagnose me: “it’s work”, “it’s your relationship”, “it’s a stomach ulcer.” Take it from someone who has good days and bad days, this is counterproductive. We want people around us who make us laugh and take our mind off whatever is weighing us down. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by absolutely sensational people who do this for me every day.

Saying this, CBT helped. I fought it for a few sessions, I manipulated the conversation to go where I wanted it to but eventually she saw through this and started asking the hard questions; questions about my family, about being bullied for so many years and about my overwhelming compulsion to be loved and needed.

She drew out of me that my mental block against sadness was so strong, that I never cried at my own life. Ever. Someone could yell at me and I wouldn’t cry – I’d get mad instead. But if you put me in front of a TV screen, and something even remotely emotional happens, I’d ball my eyes out for days, literally. It was very strange that it took other people’s lives, even fictional, to bring that emotion out of me. You should have seen me watching The Hunger Games or Toy Story 3… and don’t even get me started on If I Stay or Marley and Me – I looked like a hysterical mess for the next day and a half.

Seriously though, I used to see this as strength – the ability to disconnect myself from my own life. But I know now that this isn’t strength at all, it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism; a way to mask how I am actually feeling by expressing sadness for others.

Another major symptom of my anxiety is anger. Over time, I developed an incredibly short fuse. My emotions jumped from sadness to fury so quickly it would make your head spin, and I could hold anger in me for a surprisingly long amount of time. I found strength in my rage. I still say “I can run with anger” because I find strength in it, and honestly I do still struggle to let myself be sorrowful. But I’ve found a balance now, which is what we all need.

Thanks to CBT, I’ve learnt how to control my emotions better so that I am able to express them in a much healthier way, and I can happily say that I haven’t had a severe, physical anxiety attack in six months. I still have smaller ones, from time to time, but with the breathing exercises I learnt and actually allowing myself to “let go”, I’m able to move on from them in a more sustainable way.

The purpose of this post is to help raise awareness, like my sister did. I believe that anxiety is a very misunderstood and underestimated illness as people don’t realise that when you’re in it, when you’re mid anxiety attack and you feel like the walls are closing in, that you aren’t “you” at that point. You can’t stand up, you can’t talk, you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything but wait it out and hope it goes away before you run out of air.

I found some really beautiful things on the internet that I think perfectly explain what it’s like to have anxiety and I would recommend that sufferers and non-sufferers take a look:

The ManWho Tearfully Recorded Himself After A Panic Attack

and

The Photographer Who Explores Her Own Anxiety Disorder Through Haunting Self-Portraits

With regards to eating disorders, one of my friends recommended an organisation called B-eat. They are a charity that helps sufferers of different eating disorders, as well as their friends and family, come to terms with the illness and how to deal with it.

As for anxiety and depression, there is a similar charity called Rethink. They provide people with really crucial information about understanding different disorders including Psychosis, Schizophrenia and Bipolar. There is also information for friends and family, which you may want to look at / pass on. Mind are also really good for help and support and explaining how things work.

I want to make it very clear that I haven’t written this to seek attention, sympathy or well wishes. As nice as those things are, they don’t really help. Awareness helps. Not rolling your eyes when someone says they feel “anxious” and don’t want to do something and not forcing people into things they don’t want to do. If you’ve ever seen, or felt, an anxiety attack firsthand then you’ll know that an “attack” is exactly what it is. It rips you apart and not everyone is able to put themselves back together without help.

Hopefully, some people may read this and relate to the experiences that I’ve had and will listen when I say: it’s okay to be scared, but, the worst thing you can do is ignore the problem;  I did and I almost lost myself to it. By tackling it head on I was able to understand my triggers and learn how to avoid situations where I am putting myself under excessive amounts of pressure. I learnt to say “no”, I learnt to do things that make me happy and I learnt to stop adopting people’s problems. Most of all, I learnt it’s okay to not please everyone – something that I keep reminding myself on a daily basis.

If you know someone with anxiety (or an eating disorder or another type of mental illness), my advice is to ask “how are you?” not “how is your anxiety?” It’s great that you care but you just being there is enough. Like any problem, if we want to talk about it we will and if we don’t, it’s nothing personal, we just aren’t ready.

My sister has given me permission to share her video with you, which you can watch here. It’s 10 minutes long but it’s worth watching the whole thing to see the real struggles that people suffer with.

Sufferers from any illness need love, laughter and support from everyone around them. Be that person for me, for your friend, parent, sibling, co-worker or partner.

Listen, understand, be patient and try to be conscious of the fact that it can’t be controlled and we’re still the same person who you love – in whatever way that is.

If you have any questions for me, please feel free to ask.

Knowledge is power, after all.

Part 2: Our Experiences With Mental Illness:My Life on Medication