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Mental Health Week

To mark mental health week we have created a blog. One of our directors, Suzanne, writes about her own experience and view on mental health

Suzanne is a director at Ocean Zen and is also a therapist and coach within the business. Lets look at her views:

All my life I have been involved in some way in mental health.  My grandparents were mental health nurses and it was my passion from being a child to understand the human mind and to work with mental ill health. 

As I grew up I became intrigued with intellectual and learning disability and went into the world of learning disability nursing as my first career.  My passion was working with people who had learning disability and mental health issues

Since being a young woman I have battled with my own mental health and wellbeing which has been the driving force behind my journey into therapies. My experience with my own mental health issues has spurred me on to work with mental illness.  Im passionate about people having the right support, at the right time, with the right person.

My own journey started with a trauma .. I was attacked for no discernible reason by a random stranger one night. It was really over and done with very quickly, a punch in the face and that was it… it thought very little about it other than being given a tot of brandy and being taken home by my friend after I refused to go to hospital

A day or so later I was unwell, with confusion, tiredness and feeling very low with a mild headache.  My very good friend insisted that I go and get checked at hospital and so I did.  I was shocked to discover I had a fractured skull and was suffering from concussion. I spent 3 days in hospital and was even more shocked when the consultant said “I don’t think we will need to operate” .. glad of course that he didn’t feel he needed to… but so shocked to think that it had even been an option.  I didn’t realise how ill I was.

I spent the next 7 weeks off work, having been told to rest, lie in in the mornings, nap in the afternoon and go to bed early.  In truth I didn’t feel like doing much else. 

I found my mood was erratic and spent the days feeling extremely low or feeling quite well and happy … the mood would flip quite quickly on some days and others it was a gradual transition.

This was my first encounter with mental ill health.  I was given Lithium (used for bi-polar disorder – although they never actually told me that’s what I had).  I took it for 3 days and threw it in the bin! I was confused, losing my memory and unable to function safely in my job as a nurse, to which I had recently returned after my long period of recuperation. Little did I know back then that this would be the start of a long and traumatic relationship with mental ill health.

Over the years my mental health has deteriorated on several occasions, often triggered by a life event, but sometimes no trigger at all.  The curious thing about it is that no two episodes are the same.  I’ve been given diagnoses of S.A.D (seasonal effective disorder) Depression, Post Natal Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder … and also M.E. .. But do you know what I have? What I really believe I have?  I just have an incredible ability to respond to life as a human being… I truly don’t believe I “HAVE” any of those labels at all.

You see, as humans we are programmed to respond to situations which threaten us, it’s a safety mechanism. Its like we learn very quickly to put up a protective shield and unconsciously create methods of keeping ourselves (or others) safe.  This changes our body chemistry as we start to produce the hormones which we use in the stress response.  Of course that’s not all that happens, we start to respond to feelings, creating patterns of response and behaviours, which further affect the way our mind, brain and body respond.

Here’s an example:

When I was a young mother I was diagnosed with Post Natal Depression and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

I think the depressive element came from the circumstances I lived with, for example I was on my own as my husband worked away from home and I had no family other than his family near me.  My parents lived abroad and most of my other close family members lived hundreds of miles away. Life felt a bit like one long round of work and nappy changing. Now, I loved my gorgeous daughter (and still do of course) but inside I felt just cold and empty, and I couldn’t work out why. On top of the cold and empty feelings, was a feeling of doom and dread in relation to my beautiful daughter and her safety.  It would seem that from nowhere, all of a sudden, I would be gripped with absolute terror in case something bad had happened or was about to happen to her. Its very hard to explain in written form, but it was an absolute feeling of utter dread and fear, it would affect me physically such as making me feel sick, need the bathroom and feel dizzy.  It felt like I had to do something to keep her safe.

Being away from her at work did not help at all.  I think that lack of control, not being there to protect her from any danger was a huge factor (of course, she was very safe with a lovely childminder)

So I unconsciously started to carry out little acts of “control” so that I was “keeping her safe” .. I started to double check the doors as I locked them, double check turning off the cooker and lights at night, that sort of thing.  It felt good, the dread feelings were somewhat appeased by these little actions, but they became the monsters. If the light wasn’t switched on and off so many times, if the key didn’t make the right sort of noise as it turned, if the curtains didn’t hang right in the window … these were all signs that things would “go wrong” .. that something awful would happen. And so the checking, key turning, switching and many many other behaviours became ritualistic and if I couldn’t carry them out the distress I felt was tremendous.

So my unconscious mind had taken a situation I found myself in and in an attempt to protect me and my lovely baby, it actually turned on me!

I was given medication at the time, but the biggest help I received was talking therapy.  I was able to examine and unpick why I was behaving like this, and start to rationalise my actions using sets of questions about the relationship to the actions and reality.

My point here though is about how we unconsciously create these “illnesses”.  In many ways its just a part of being human, it’s a system used to support us just over-reacting. Labelling it as OCD, Bi-Polar or anything else may have its place for some, but for me these are unhelpful labels which serve to pigeon-hole individuals into neat little boxes .. but as humans we are so very complex and boxes don’t work for me. I would rather ask “what happened to you” rather than “what’s wrong with you”!

Id love to know your thoughts on the difference that question might make to someone’s recovery?

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