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Other World

Some children have imaginary friends, I had a world. A world of mythical folk and magic. Maybe you did too. My other world was a place where anything was possible, a place I understood. A place where I belonged. By around the age of seven, most children wave goodbye to imaginary worlds and friends. I did not. Maybe you didn't either.

I have always found life difficult, never seemed to have the required skillset to cope with all its demands and challenges. It is only recently that I have come to realise few people do. Since my teens, I have battled an internal critic that never seems to tire of its relentless assassination of my character, and just about everything I say and do. I try to counter it with reaffirming thoughts about what I have done that is good and positive. But to be honest, some days this internal battle is exhausting. I carry a darkness in me that seems to be trying to consume me. I push back that darkness with every bit of light I can find in life. I have tried to pinpoint when I started feeling this way, but the truth is, I can't remember a time when I didn't.

School reports inevitably mentioned how introverted I was, that I did not make friends easily. I had lots of friends, they just lived inside my head. As an adult, when I couldn't cope with the intensity of my depression, I would mentally escape to my other world. No one knew of its existence. It was my sanctuary, and no one was going to find me there. This resulted in several stays in psychiatric units. At one point, I remember sitting with my husband, Simon, in the consultant's room. My prognosis for the future was summed up with, ‘She may never be able to cope with everyday life.’

Family suffered as much as I did, although at the time, all I had room for was my own pain, I didn’t even acknowledge theirs. During this period of my life, I did and said things that hurt those I love the most. I am so fortunate that they never gave up on me.

I have been married to Simon for thirty-seven years. We have four children and six grandchildren. I have gained a degree through the Open University and have a full-time job. People tell me I am confident and capable, the life and soul, the go-to person when things need fixing at work, the one family can rely on. I do not see much of that person when I look in the mirror. Someone once said to me that I do not see myself as others do. Maybe no one does.

So, what changed? There was a lightbulb moment. During what was to be my last stay in a psychiatric unit, I was allowed home for a few hours to see the children. I had been in the kitchen-diner, drawing and colouring with our three youngest. We were having a great time. Then one of them said to the others not to make too much noise because mummy was ill again, and it would give her a headache. Their laughter died. I remember looking at Simon who was cooking dinner. He looked so worried, exhausted. It was in that moment I saw his pain, understood those I loved were suffering as much as I was. I went back to the unit determined to get well. And stay well.

I have had various labels attached to my mental health issues. At one point, I felt like I was nothing more than a collage of medical terms. I am more than that. Over the years, I have grown to understand how my mind works, what my strengths and weaknesses are, what helps me stay well and what does not. I have come to accept my other world as something positive in my life, not something to be feared or denied. I have learned to recognise the signs when the line between reality and fantasy is becoming blurred. Believing what I do, seeing the world as I do, does not make me crazy. It makes me unique, just like everyone else.

Because of my past unmanaged mental health issues and the pain that caused others, I used to feel ‘lesser’. It was as if on the mountain of humanity, there at the top were the Einsteins and Gandhis. Spread over the rest of the mountain was everyone else, and then there was me, at the bottom, desperately trying to get a foothold. This persistent image nurtured a need in me to be better, do more.

In the workplace, my willingness to go the extra mile, to help everyone with everything, to prove that despite my mental health issues, I am as capable as the next person, has not been a good thing. I used to put up with unhealthy work situations for far longer than anyone should have to, because I assumed if I couldn’t cope, it was because of my ‘weak’ mental health. I have learned this is not true. When I struggled to cope, it was because I was being asked to carry too many of the burdens that others were unwilling to pick up. Possibly because they valued themselves more. I have learned to use an important and healthy word. No.

I am overly sensitive to loud and competing sounds, so I thank whoever invented noise cancelling headphones. One day at work my headphones wouldn’t connect to my PC via Bluetooth. As the usual loud trance music wasn’t being played, I thought I would be okay. Then after lunch, on went the music. The fact that I am sensitive to noise shouldn’t stop others enjoying their ‘tunes’. So, I tried putting my foam earplugs in and wearing the non-working headphones over the top, but the music was still cutting through my every thought while I was trying to work. Then a favourite track was put on repeat. When it became a bit much, I made a cup of tea, went outside for some fresh air, but in my head, all I could hear was the relentless loud beat of the music. It triggered a panic attack, and I was taken home.

When I have been under excessive stress for too long, one of the first warning signs is that my mind starts playing tricks on me. I look at something, and it seems strange, out of place, and then a few moments later, it morphs into what it really is. The same with sound. I once heard a distant drumbeat in the house. I couldn't understand where it was coming from. Then I realised the beat was in time with the ticking of the lounge clock's second hand. Once I knew the sound was not what it seemed, it stopped. I no longer drive. When too much is going on around me, everything slows down, and I feel as if I am floating. Then a few moments later, my brain seems to jump forward in time and catches up. It is as if, from time to time, my mind is gently reminding me of how bad things could get, if I do not address my high and prolonged stress levels.

There is no hierarchy of mental health suffering. I have heard, too often, that because someone, or someone they know, has ‘been through worse’, they think the person on their knees should stop feeling sorry for themselves, get up and crack on, just like everyone else has to. Just as physical pain thresholds vary from person to person, so too our individual threshold as to how much mental pain we can cope with.

Years ago, I met a man who had lost his entire family in a car accident. He came to terms with that terrible loss, grieved, then learned to live again. He never remarried. Years later, after he was made redundant, he was admitted to a psychiatric unit, curled up in a ball unable to move. With time, treatment and care he made a full recovery. Some people take redundancy in their stride, but the loss of a beloved pet will send them headfirst into a pit of despair they struggle to get out of. And sometimes people cope for years with everything that life throws at them, suck it all up, then one seemingly minor incident, the car breaking down, a baby that has had a bad night, an awful day at work, and it is the final straw that breaks their mental resilience.

I have only been able to articulate all this after much therapy, treatment and the love and support of my husband, children and sister.

If you are struggling with your mental health, please talk to a friend, family member, or work colleague. If you feel uncomfortable doing this, go to my 'Mental Health Support' page. There you will find links to the Samaritans, Mind, Grass Roots, and NHS websites.

You are not alone

 Samaritans Call 116 123 

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