My mental health journey

This is my most vulnerable blog post so far, sharing my mental health journey, but I’m hoping that by being vulnerable, I can help others who can maybe identify with my experiences. I’m currently at the end of receiving treatment for anxiety, where over 12 months, I’ve been to courses, group therapy and received 1 to 1 counselling.  I want to share my story to help other mums who might be feeling like me, who may be struggling and continue to struggle. And to let other mums know that it’s OK to talk about mental health. Usually when you open up to another mum about it, they will often share their own personal story or will know someone who is going through mental health issues.

Where did my anxiety come from? I was used to having my harsh inner critic constantly berate me, so used to it that I thought it was normal. I’ve always been an over thinker and a worrier and always had the ‘I’m not good enough’ thought at the forefront of my mind. Whether it was pushing myself hard in school to achieve good grades, or pushing myself in my career to be successful, it was like I was trying to prove something to myself and if I achieved what I set out to do, e.g. the next promotion, then that feeling would go. But it never did. Before I had children, I had a successful career and was earning good money, but in truth, I was miserable.

Then when I had my daughter in 2014, wow, I mean what a shock it is being a first time mum. The sleep deprivation exacerbated my perfectionist tendencies and I became very insular, insisted on doing everything myself and refused to accept any help. This coupled with my daughter’s hip dysplasia, dairy and egg allergies and severe eczema all when she was under 6 months inevitably led to burnout and anxiety. I used to stay at home a lot with her and refuse social invitations. My grandad also passed away around the same time which added to the anxiety. This led to me recognising that I was really unhappy and I went to the GP to talk, and they referred me to the Primary Mental Health Care team who recommended that I attended courses. At the time, I didn’t go to these courses because of timing and location and consequently I didn’t get better, the anxiety was always there.

I had my son in May 2017, and up until he was 3 months old, I was pretty happy and confident and felt like I had the whole mum of two thing nailed –that feeling was nice while it lasted! Then once the naps started to drop off and he was more active, while having my feisty toddler daughter/threenager too, I struggled.  Mentally, I was back at the same place, with the same anxious thoughts racing around and around in my head…’I’m such a bad mum’…’I’m stunting my daughter’s growth by not taking her out and about every day’…’She must be so bored and wishing that she had a mum who had more energy’….’I can’t cope if I go out with both kids by myself’….’If they both kick off at the same time, how will I cope and everyone will stare at me and think I’m a bad mum’…’I’ve got so much to do but no time to do it in’….

Then one day, when my son was about  7 months old, something snapped in me and I thought, I am so fed up of feeling like this, I can’t carry on feeling like this every day. I felt numb. Not even sad just numb.

I rung MIND, the mental health charity and they fitted me in to chat just before Christmas. Even just talking to a stranger about how I felt helped. I shocked myself sitting there saying I was a bad mum, and I actually wholeheartedly believed that, and said that my best just wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t see a way where my best ever would be good enough. I couldn’t see that my children were happy and healthy and that that was enough. I remember saying, I know I should be grateful for everything I’ve got. The lady said, that’s fine, but let’s get you to a place where you are able to feel better and don’t use it as another thing to beat yourself up with.

She recommended I go to the GP and he then referred me to the Primary Mental Health Care Team again. It was good to chat about how I was feeling to them and they sent me a list of courses that I could go to and put me on the waiting list for other ones too. I had a choice. I could not go to the courses, just like I did 3 years previously and carry on feeling like this, or try the courses out (even though for timing and logistical reasons they were a bit of a nightmare), but at least there was the hope that I might feel a bit better. Otherwise, I couldn’t see how I would ever get better.

So, even though going to the first course stressed me out and I nearly didn’t go, I am so glad I did. Looking back that was a huge first step for me into the unknown. The first course was about ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ which is based on the book ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harris’. What struck me about the course was the amount of people there in this church hall, probably about 70 people, men and women and all ages. This fact alone, made me think how mental health affects people from all walks of life. It was a lecture style course and the important part was that we didn’t have to talk or share our stories. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is quite unique but the tips really helped me. One thing that stood out was that we don’t have to focus on getting rid of the anxiety. Actually we can do things with the anxiety running alongside us. And challenging the anxiety helps the focus on it lessen. Also, by challenging the very things that worried us the most, we could collect the evidence of whether this was actually reality or just a thought that we had made up.

This was huge to me at the time, just thinking that, there may be a possibility that I don’t have to find a magic cure, and that I can still carry on in spite of the anxiety. At the time, I really wasn’t going out with the kids much because I told myself that I couldn’t cope with both of them on my own and would make up these crazy scenarios in my head of them both screaming their heads off and other mums looking at me in disgust! Crazy now, but at the time, I believed it to be true. So, one of the first things that I did was try to push myself to go out more with the kids. And then, I could reflect on that trip out and say to myself, well did they both have a tantrum or was it OK? Did I cope or did I crumble? I could gather the evidence that actually maybe my thoughts and the reality were different and maybe I could cope. It reminded me a bit of a book that I read years before called ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers and that it what it felt like, I was facing my fears. I also started driving again which I had stopped because of confidence issues too, so that also gave me a boost and some independence.

Then I did the ‘Stress Control’ course. I’ve read so much about stress over the years but hearing the same words I had read from a mental health professional made the same words sink in deeper.   Even the act of just going to the courses made me feel more positive, like I was finally able to do something to help myself.

I then had a group course based on ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ (CBT) where I was able to delve deeper into the root of my issues. I learnt practical tips too, like breaking the vicious cycle and identifying different types of thoughts. Plus the nods around the table when I shared my experiences helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.

I then had 1 to 1 counselling which was nothing short of transformational. It was based on modules to help me change my perspective on anxiety and worrying and it worked. I was really able to drill down to my limiting beliefs and had so many lightbulb moments of, oh OK, this is why I do this behaviour, it’s because deep down I think I’m not good enough. I was able to have the time and space of focusing on my issues which helped in the sense that I ended up answering my own questions. I think a lot of the time, we just need that time and space to be heard, to be listened to, and that in itself can make us feel more worthy.

It was mid-way through this counselling that I decided to set up Mum2Mum Penarth, as a way to help me to connect with other mums who may feel the same as me, and to provide a supportive space for them to chat, without their kids there.

At the end of all of my treatment, I stand here now as a totally different person to who I was when I started out my treatment. I have more self-confidence, more self-belief and self-worth. I still struggle and have to bring myself out of that negative spiral, but I have the tools and the daily practice of self-care to help me. And I am open about my struggles, which has helped me massively. Yes, I’ve felt vulnerable opening up but it’s also so freeing and then, I’ve got nothing to hide either, and I don’t have to pretend I’m fine when I’m not. When I do have blips or a bad day/bad week, I know that this is OK, that I’m human and aiming for 100% happiness all of the time is totally unrealistic. To experience the highs, we need to experience the lows and everything in between.

As you can see, my journey wasn’t a short one, and there was no quick fix. But actually I’m glad that it worked out this way. This is a lifetimes worth of thoughts, patterns, behaviours and conditioning and it makes sense that it wouldn’t disappear overnight. If you are in a place where you are thinking you would like some professional help but you are worried about making that first step for help, just know that showing your vulnerability is a truly courageous act. You deserve to prioritise yourself to help you feel better, you shouldn’t have to suffer and pretend you are OK, we deserve to be kind to ourselves and find that self –compassion and self-worth that we all have deep down, it’s just got a little bit lost.

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