It was a little over 2 1/2 years ago that I decided to go public with my battles with depression and anxiety.
Well, more public than I already was as I’d already been sharing my story on this very blog.
In 2013 I decided to go all in.
It’s the year I allowed myself to be truly vulnerable.
Throwing myself into the public speaking circuit, I spoke to 800 teenagers at a high school, to suits who were project management professionals (my former career), to large groups of surly men, some who ‘didn’t believe in mental illness’, all of which I was left sporting one hell of a vulnerability hangover.
What follows is the written version of the speech I gave.
In its written form it presents differently to how I ‘speak’ it – more serious, I guess, since I’m one big nervous goofball in person.
I’m 39 years old.
I’ve had depression on and off since I was about 15, and chronic anxiety since I was a little girl.
My first memories of anxiety.
A little redheaded girl who freaked out over the smallest of things.
Shy as a mouse, I was scared of everything.
The bullying started around year 5 when I moved towns and started a new school.
As the new kid and a pasty redhead with freckles, I was an easy target.
The teasing ramped up in high school, and it’s a real shame I listened to those damn bullies.
I believed I was fat, ugly and stupid.
I started to hate myself.
I’d cry all of the time.
And I started to starve myself.
At the age of 15 I was drinking booze and landing myself in bad situations with boys regularly. With alcohol being a depressant I always woke up the next day feeling like crap and having to deal with the consequences of my actions, as well as my parents.
With ambitions to become a lawyer or a journalist, my dreams were dashed when one of my teachers told me I wasn’t smart enough. I wish I hadn’t listened to them, but I did. I know now that I was smart enough…I just needed guidance and counselling, some mentoring, and some time to find myself.
It was year 11 when I was ready to drop out of school, but my Mum intervened and after talking to some career councillors I changed schools and went on to graduate and head on into University.
The ‘D’ word
It happened in my first year at university.
My ‘moods’ were given a name.
To finally have a name for what I was going through, well, on one hand it was a relief to think there was name for it, but on the other hand I wasn’t ready to admit that something was ‘wrong’ with me.
It was confronting. I mean, at the time a lot of people didn’t believe depression existed, and so the stigma and disbelief was hard to face.
And so the black cloud descended over my life for years as I embarked on a self-destructive period in my life – stress, booze, bad food, starvation, over-exercising, too much or too little sleep, partying, over-working, dodgy men, and bouts of ‘straight and narrow’ living.
I didn’t stop until my body crashed or I got sick.
After plunging into the corporate world I reached both my highest and lowest point. Struggling with social anxiety I became a shut in, whilst on the flip side, I excelled in whatever job I landed in. After consulting a GP – who I still see to this day – I levelled out on anti-depressants but ended up weaning off of them because of the adverse side effects and because I had decided to throw caution to the wind to embark on my one true passion – travel.
After the insanity of backpacking and working around Europe and the UK I returned home, plunging into a new career. Project management, possibly not the wisest of choices by someone with chronic anxiety…but that was a lesson I had to learn later! I came up trumps, winning company awards and delivering the undeliverable and this should have been the most amazing time of my life – one of love – as this was when I met my now-fiancé, celebration and success, but on the inside I was a nervous wreck. Unable to sleep well, over-worked and stressed to the max, I physically and mentally burnt out a number of times. And when I started to experience bullying at work I decided enough was enough and quit to take a few months off to…sleep and get some help.
It was around this time that I started delving into the history of mental illness in my family (both sides), which was an eye opener as it was present in both sides of the family. I also saw a fantastic psychologist and started taking anti-depressants again, this time with no adverse reactions. She was a godsend and helped me overcome my body image and confidence issues.
It took me a few years to find stability but by 2012 I was healthy and happy. The year started out amazingly – my career was going well, and my partner and I had even walked the Great Wall of China. Life was good. Reinvigorated and loved up, we returned home on a high and two weeks later my partner had a freak accident at home and nearly died. We are incredibly lucky he has made a miraculous recovery, but you can’t play down the impact of post-traumatic stress. Me being me though, I totally ignored it and ploughed through! People were amazed at my resilience!
I thought the accident would be the hardest thing we would ever have to go through, but it was the reality when everything hit me. In late 2013 I went back to therapy and it was obvious to the therapist that I hadn’t dealt with the trauma of the accident as I was still having flashbacks and was highly stressed.
The wake up call after the wake-up call
If the near-death experience of a loved one hadn’t woken me up already, I certainly did in 2014 after my 3rd car accident in 1 ½ years – in my own driveway.
This shook me to the core, embarrassed me, and made me wake up to the fact that I could not keep going the way I was going. I was so incredibly fatigued, I couldn’t work full-time anymore, and I was struggling to focus. My mind was racing on so many things and the car accident, well, it was my sign to stop.
It took three car accidents for me to finally realise I was chronically stressed and that I needed to make some drastic changes in my life or else I wouldn’t have a life left to live.
And so I finally decided to put myself first. I enrolled in an intensive mindfulness based stress reduction course which was designed to provide stressed out people like myself with the tools, knowledge and practices to take better care of themselves, both physically and mentally. It was also designed to help people develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between their mind and body.
It was during a meditation session where I started to tune in to my mind and my body that I started mulling over how I was feeling, entering into a conversation with my body.
Focussing on my gut, listening to my heart beat, tuning in to the tension in my feet and shoulders, I finally opened up to how I was feeling, and of course, my body wasn’t happy with me. Eczema, stomach pain, fatigue and forgetfulness…it was all a result of chronic stress. It was in that moment I realised there was only one way forward. That my health and well-being had to be my number one priority before anything.
Talk about hard decisions. I’d been putting it off for the longest of times. And the fact is it SCARED me. The thought had scared me for years. And I didn’t think my hubby would agree. But deep down I knew. It was the only way and it was time. And so I quit my job and left my 12-year career in project management behind me. With no savings, I was absolutely terrified… AND I hadn’t consulted my husband. I just did it…
I hate to tell you but it hasn’t been easy. Far from it. BUT I’ve never regretted quitting my career, even when I was struggling to scrape money together to pay the mortgage or put petrol in my car.
I put up with holes in my underwear, isolating myself at home to save money, overdue notices galore, too many arguments with hubby, potential ulcers and working in a cafe for peanuts when compared to what I previously earned to change my life for the better. And it’s all been worth it.
It helped to break the fight or flight response I’d become accustomed to. It also helped me to release trauma I’d been holding onto, as well as the shame I’d been carrying around associated with having a mental illness. And it helped while I worked at the cafe, or sat at home alone, or attempted to not argue with my husband one more time…
I stay well by ensuring I get plenty of rest. That I have me-time, I eat well, drink less, practice yoga, read self-help books, pursue what I love and live according to my values.
And the reward to living more in tune with myself, to living mindfully, is spending more time in the moment rather than in the regrets of the past, in the fears for the future, or in various versions of the present I would constantly recreate in my head. It’s also experiencing life for what it is. And it’s wonderful.
I’m the first to admit I need to remind myself what is important – regularly.
It’s easy to fall back into old habits ESPECIALLY at times of stress. For instance, after a series of stressors – my cousins death due to a drug overdose, the suicide of my step-dad, and my husband losing his job – I had to step back. I closed my business, took a job at a cafe, and slept A LOT. Burn-out, emotions, colds and infections, fatigue. It all came back. BUT the difference was I recognised it for what it was before it got out of control. And thankfully my depression stayed at bay. It was just the anxiety I had to deal with. And I am. Somewhat successfully.