The first time that I became ill was during travelling through South East Asia in 2012. A few months in, I attended a silent meditation retreat in Pai, Thailand. At the time, I was already struggling. I was having panic attacks but had no idea what they were. This was not the time to start a silent meditation retreat. I felt totally overwhelmed, I couldn’t eat and felt like I was a failure as ‘I couldn’t do it right’. I wanted the retreat to ‘fix me’, but you can’t undo years of stress through four days of being alone with your thoughts (funny that). I had heard stories of people going on retreats and ‘finding themselves’ or ‘finding enlightenment’, so when my expectation was so high, I was only going to come crashing down.
Travelling in itself was a difficult time. I had saved for years to get the money together to go and it was something that I desperately wanted to do, but due to a number of factors, I spent a lot of time feeling lonely and scared. All I kept thinking was that there must be something wrong with me and how ungrateful I was being. I made some amazing memories but it was also the start of something. When I returned to the UK, over a number of months, my mental health declined and I became so ill that I struggled to leave the house without having a panic attack. I felt too ashamed to be open with my friends and family about it. Eventually, I broke, moving back to my Mums one-bed bungalow. That was the beginning of my recovery.
After this, my whole life changed. All the plans that I had for the future drifted away, but I had no idea how much better my life was going to be. I didn’t know how many amazing days were ahead of me and how many people I would meet. About 18 months after my life fell apart, I got a job onboard a private yacht travelling the world and I had the most amazing time. It was a huge challenge which I made happen, but that was only with the support of the people around me.
I realise now that there was nothing wrong with me when I was travelling that first time, I was just ill. I had accumulated a lot of stress and became ill as a result of that. Sometimes it's hard to admit that things aren’t as they seem. Sometimes it is hard to admit that, even to yourself. I felt so much shame when all I needed from myself was some compassion. I thought my life was over when really it had just begun.
This time it was similar in some ways, as I definitely blamed myself. However, this time the people around me knew exactly what they needed to do. Recovery has been easier which I believe is because I have let people help me. It has been a massive learning curve, as I have always been fiercely independent and felt great pride in that. It is hard to admit that you are struggling but it is the bravest thing that you can do. The relationships that I have, have actually been strengthened because of this. I will be forever grateful to the people that I have in my life. They gave me so much strength when I felt at my weakest.
- People checking in. I had a lot of texts to simply ask me how I was. This made me feel cared for and more connected to others. Just to know that people were thinking of me, really meant the world.
- Being reminded that this is temporary and only a snapshot of my life. This was so important, at times I did think everyone was lying to me and that I was the only one who knew the actual truth (a bit conceited I know) but the more I heard it, the more I believed it. At my worst, I struggled with suicidal thoughts, my partner told me again and again ‘That is a long term solution to a temporary situation’. He had to tell me again and again because it took time for those feelings to pass, but he never lost his patience with me.
- Being told that I was ill and reminded that when I am well, I don’t feel this way. This really helped to put some space between myself and the illness. When it is your mind that is causing you pain, you can’t always detach your self from it, like you may be able to if your leg was broken. It seems like it is part of you so you may fuse with it. One of my friends told me often that it was the illness. I am lucky enough to have a Mental Health nurse/ Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and all-round absolute angel of a best friend. She was there for me whenever I needed her. Even though I knew how depression worked, due to experiencing it and learning through work, it didn’t stop me from being tricked by it. I really needed those reminders and they helped me so much.
- My feelings being validated, even if they didn’t understand them. My Sister is a superwoman. She is super resilient. Despite having really tough times, she doesn’t know how it feels to have depression. However, she knew that what I was experiencing was real and trusted in what I told her. She told me that she would listen to podcasts while running, about people who had been through depression to help her to understand it- as if I could love her anymore! She would also find YouTube clips for me to watch about overcoming depression. This helped me to feel hopeful and inspired. She learned about the condition so that she could understand me more. This is just one of the things that she did to support me, she has always been my strength.
- Being complimented. It is actually really hard to hear compliments when you are depressed, but it really does help. It helps you to get perspective, because if people are telling you these things then how can they all be wrong and only you right?
- Being told that it's OK, we can try again tomorrow. When I had to leave a shop because I was having a panic attack, or couldn’t face seeing people because of how I felt, this always helped me. There is always tomorrow.
- Being told you are strong and that this isn’t your fault. I remember reading somewhere that struggling with your mental health is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of trying to stay strong for so long. In those early days, I felt so weak, but I was reminded regularly that I was in fact strong. Getting through a day with depression and anxiety can be hell, but I made it through lots of them, being reminded of my strength always helped me with that.
- Help to plan structure in your week. This completely goes to pot! I talked through self- soothe ideas with friends so that I could include them in my week. These activities reinforced that I am worthy of self-compassion which was a big factor in my recovery. It's so hard in those early days, I think it is the shock of the physical effects of Depression as I remember just feeling stunned, but self-care is essential. Just having a routine that is manageable; getting up, making the bed, brushing your teeth etc, helps to add structure to your day. I made plans to speak to one of my best friends every Friday, which was something that I always looked forward to and it meant the world that she made time for me. She is extremely funny, so always made me feel better, but also let me just cry down the phone on a number of occasions.
- Celebrating the small wins together. I may have thought that it was lame that my win was being able to cook a meal, but others never did. They helped me to take notice of those 'small' achievements. It helped me to see that things were moving in the right direction. I always felt that I wasn’t doing enough but I remember one of my best friends always telling me that she was impressed with all I was doing and reminding me to take time out.
- Enjoy the moments, they will turn into hours, which will turn into days My partners Mum sent this to me when I was first unwell. It reminded me that although I couldn’t enjoy the whole day, I needn’t be disheartened. I just needed to try and see the parts of that day that were positive.
- Being relieved of any responsibility I could not even bear the thought of having to check my bank balance or feed myself. I had to drop everything and let people help me. This was HUGE for me, as I am a bit of a control freak, but I had to trust the people around me and they more than exceeded my expectations.
- It will pass soon. Being reminded that everything is temporary. Life is full of ups and downs. Being told this, just helped me to breathe through.
- I am here for you. Ultimately, the most important words that you will ever hear. So simple and yet they bare so much weight.
- Last but not least. I really can not forget Mervin, my little puppy. He was just there, lying on me, making me take him out for walks, licking my face and giving me something to get up for. Dogs can’t speak but we can learn so much from them, they love you unconditionally, even when you struggle to love yourself. He is one of my big loves!