Over three years have now passed since my first manic and psychotic episode, and I sometimes wonder just how much I’ve changed. Lately Luke has been telling me that I’m growing back into my old self, my pre-mental illness self, and that’s been so encouraging to hear. I am the type of person to set targets; I tend to work in measures that I can quantify (I have to remind myself that one person’s comment on the site is worth innumerable page views). So realising that I’m somewhere back to where I was before everything changed is heartening.
It was only a few months after we married that I became unwell. I’ve written previously about the experience of visiting a –crappy – locum doctor for my anxiety issues; how she dismissed me and my concerns out of hand and sent me on my manic way with an SSRI. From there the anxiety grew and the paranoia grew and I quickly retreated into my own world of psychosis. To give an example of how I was at my worst, I could only leave the house with someone I trusted alongside me; shopping trips were pre-planned and super speed with Luke in charge of getting in and out in minimum minutes. Going to work was only enabled by virtue of my then-manager collecting me from my front door and dropping me back again after we were done for the day. Looking back I have no idea how I actually continued to work at all; my mind was elsewhere most of the time so I can only hypothesise that I worked on auto-pilot, that pretending I could still work kept me going along as normally as I could’ve hoped.
Since that first, protracted episode I’ve been different. I’ve always been fiercely independent since I was little; I moved out of the family home when I was 17 and took the decision to leave college around the same time despite the protestations of parents, mentors and friends. Being brought to my knees by schizoaffective disorder left me nervous in public thanks to a paranoia that I have only recently been able to shake off. To my mind, every person who cast a glance at me in the street was implanting thoughts in my mind, or planning an attack. There was no escaping the endless thoughts of suspicion and the anxiety of being alone in public was crippling. Lately, as I’ve been finding my confidence again, I’ve been able to open my horizons beyond home-work-home-store-home. I posted yesterday about step-class – something that would have been beyond the scope of my mind even six months ago. It feels fabulous to be re-embodying the confident woman I know lives in me.
I no longer walk with my eyes cast to the ground to avoid eye contact. I get into casual (and sometimes heavy) conversations on the bus. I have the enjoyment of some alone time again – I love my husband but it feels amazing to trust myself enough to be home on my own! I walk myself to the gym, through the park and just enjoy being surrounded by the greenery. The change in just six months has been drastic and I am thankful every day for the new outlook I have been granted that enables me to not just live, but actually enjoy living.
Last Thursday was just one of those days. No particular reasons for it; just seemed to be cruising high and low all afternoon until I got home. Ordinarily I would have suggested a night in with a takeout to the hubster and most likely would’ve stewed until my frustration took me to bed for an early night. But that was the ‘old’ me – without wanting to jump the gun and being very aware that I do go through ‘new and improved’ phases, I think the new attitude is here to stay.
So instead of just vegging out in front of the telly and letting things simmer away I booked myself into a fitness class at the gym; a step class no less. You probably couldn’t put me further out of my comfort zone. I’m not fit; haven’t been for years since Luke and I stopped walking places for the fun of it. I am not body-confident either. I literally had no idea how I’d manage a step class when walking more than maybe 3 miles leaves me totally puffed-out.
I rocked up to the leisure centre a little earlier than I had planned and checked in with reception. They pointed me in the direction of the fitness studio and off I went to await my – to my mind – total humiliation. There was a circuits class happening in the main hall and I stood watching these ultra-toned men and women moving nimbly around the stations; even those doing strangely froggish squat jumps somehow looked sprightly. I felt anxious – I wanted to run away from this place that pushed my body-consciousness buttons to the max.
In the end, I stayed. And I’m glad I did – it turns out step class is great fun (and totally exhausting; but wasn’t that the point?!). The first ten minutes saw me obsessively watching my classmates – all gym bunnies – hopping off and on the step like they were born to do it. Pretty soon I realised that the whole time I was focussed on what they were doing I wasn’t paying enough attention to my own form; no wonder I felt clumsy in comparison!
Sure, I was silently pleading for it to be over before we’d even reached the half-way point. Sure, I felt absolutely ridiculous with my spare-tire stomach jiggling around. And sure, I had twice as many water breaks as any other stepper. But – I did it! I got through 60 minutes of high-intensity exercise and I felt amazing for doing it. So good that I am planning on making this a regular activity; especially given that historically Thursdays are my worst.
There’s a lot to be said for the benefits of exercise for mental conditions. For me personally it meant that I felt I’d done something productive with my day and that I’d worked out all the frustration in every bead of sweat that slid over my forehead. The science backs this up; when you move your muscles release hormones, not least of which are endorphins that act to reduce stress, ease anxiety and depression, boost self-esteem and improve sleep.
Exercise isn’t a panacea, but as a natural and holistic therapy it seems to work wonders. Now, someone be sure to remind me of that when the next class rolls around!
When you’re living in another reality it is easy to get lost in the world you perceive to surround you. There is no way to understand the people who try to reason with you that you are lost in a universe created entirely by your mind. In fact, this can lead to much hostility from the person in psychosis.
Here are just a few things I wrote about during psychotic episodes:
“It sucks you in but you know it isn’t real. Suspension of disbelief cannot work when you know you are disbelieving. You see the rush and push along that is guided by another’s hand to show you only what you need to know and hides secrets to the end.”
“So watching the world is a screen but more than that it is cinema and bright and dazzlingly loud.”
“I am losing myself in thoughts of taking off escaping. Gravity is an illusion, head to the stars and to a better place.”
“The void is the space within matter the empty space in the atom. That’s where the answers are and that’s where I’m going. It is big and scary and exciting and so tempting.”
“Are thoughts mind or matter? They are the influence of mind on matter perhaps? Your mind is setting off the impulses to create the thoughts.”
As you can see, there’s no cohesion in these thoughts. Reading them back, they make perfect sense to me; because I experienced them and understand the (flawed) logic behind them. But I will be happy if I can live my life without experiencing that alternate reality ever again.
I heard a wonderful quote today: “Never look down on somebody unless you’re helping them up” (Jesse Jackson). It got me thinking about what my goals in life are; what am I aiming for? When I am old and frail, what will I count amongst my greatest successes?
Smile: sums up the attitude I take to everyday life. I am inclined to see other people as customers-of-sorts (my old work did some psychometric testing once, and I came out as a “circle” – resilient, bouncy and no sharp edges!). It’s hard to get through a day where I don’t manage to make a human connection with someone; whether that’s online, in the office or simply a giggle with my husband when I get home. Smiles matter to me!
Praise: I promise to praise others achievements. I also promise to praise myself for reaching those standards. After all, as much as I’m my own worst enemy I equally can be my own best friend. When I see a disheartened friend, colleague or just a guy on the bus; I will praise, compliment or otherwise cajole a smile from their downturned face. Credit for our actions is vital!
Love: I’m lucky; I have a lot of love in my life. Between my husband, my family, my friends and my online community I have all bases covered. I will always appreciate the love that I receive; I will always aim to give out just as much!
Activity: No resting on my laurels. Work keeps me busy, but I admit to being less than passionate about inputting data and checking through records. I need to do something worthwhile with my life – the site, Twitter, the shop. I have a voice and I fully intend to use it. It is vital to my sense of wellbeing to be heard; I will not stop shouting and lending my words to a cause I am truly passionate about.
Punk: I will always have a rebellious streak – and it’s a good thing (no, really!) . To me, punk is an expression of being dissatisfied with the world as it is, and represents an intrinsic need to do something about it. I will be a punk today, in whatever way I am able!
I am always going to be me; I just want to ensure I’m the ‘best me I can be’.
My brain – although rebellious at times – works pretty damn well. I’m intelligent, I am articulate (generally; I admit to getting somewhat flustered on occasion!), and I am creative. My mind is sharp and all the sharper since the meds have been changed and moods have stabilised.
Two things need to happen for my life to feel ‘normal’. One is the thing I’ve been semi-ranting about over the last few days here; workload! But that’s in hand and I have a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow to discuss what value-add tasks I can take on. When that’s sorted I hope to be able to get through a work-day without stressing out about being idle. Without endless hours staring at a computer screen waiting for emails to filter in or the clock to tick round.
The other thing I hope will help me greatly is this referral to the Personality Disorders team. Much as I really don’t want another label/diagnosis, I can almost bring myself to acknowledge that this referral can only be a good thing. If I am being honest with myself, there are still things that aren’t-quite-right in the ol’ noggin. Things like my reaction to criticisms (sheer panic), my catastrophizing (frequent) and the need to be loved (constantly). They’re not unusual in their scope, but in their reach. They are extreme. They cause problems.
I need to learn to love my life; I want to know how to be content with what I’ve got. I know, intellectually, that I am lucky. I have a wonderful husband, a nice flat, great family and a good income. Maybe it’s because I didn’t do university; maybe because I’ve not gone off on wild backpacking adventures. Whatever the reason, I still feel this unease in my gut when I am on the treadmill of life. And I want to stop wanting more, more, more. I don’t know how that would come about but it needs to. I need it to.
Most of all, I need stimulation for my brain. I need more mind-food – my appetite appears to be insatiable.
The stay-cation is over; I am back at my desk and it already feels like a distant memory. The week off was a wonderful and much-needed rest. It was appreciated. But I forgot just how tedious this job really is.
The problem lies with my supervisor – a really good guy – and his ‘concern’ for me. About 6 weeks ago we had a conversation in which I requested more responsibility and a heavier workload; his reply was that he is nervous of over-loading me and losing me to sickness. Read: he thinks I’ll have a mental breakdown if I get stressed.
What I can’t get him to understand is that the long, quiet days cause me more stress than my time spend working at break-neck pace ever did. I crave excitement, pressure; I am unashamedly a fantastic corporate firefighter! The hours I spend here are, by contrast, routine and unchallenging. I rarely talk to anyone (colleagues included because of my desk position). I miss the variety. I miss making connections with customers. Most of all, I miss being mentally stimulated.
The issue is that having a secondary psyche is that idleness is a trigger. Filling my life with activity gives me the best chances of Eve keeping her head down. At home it isn’t such a problem, but when 10:30am rolls around and I’ve completed my tasks; well then there’s an issue! We are good at co-habiting in this body but the longer I let my mind wander, the more she takes over. Lately things have been so wonderfully stable; I don’t want what is basically boredom to be the deal-breaker.
I am unsure what to do about this situation; I don’t know how to broach the subject with my supervisor. Our head of department has scheduled in 1-to-1 meetings with each team member – mine isn’t until July 15th. I need to get this sorted long before then; that, or find an alternative.
Time off makes me anxious. Luke and I have booked a week off for some much needed R&R so from tomorrow I’ll be a lady of leisure for a whole seven days. But the list of worries passing through my mind is stressing me out.
First of all, there’s the concern that I’ve been cocking up my work for the last 6 months. You might think the reassurance of the half-year of few complaints would be enough, but it really isn’t. When I’m here I rarely doubt my ability to do the job and succeed at it. I think I’m just that much of a control-needer. ‘What if something comes to light and I’m not here to explain the mistake?’ and so on.
The issue that underlies all this anxiety is the events of three years ago when I first took time off ill because of a psychotic episode. I had continued to work right up to the point that my psychiatrist threatened to have me sectioned if I didn’t take two weeks off. I know some of you will have experience of what it’s like to try to continue living normally when your mind is rebelling against you. Little wonder then, that I made some mistakes. Amazingly they were not big bucks mistakes; simple things like forgetting to send an order confirmation or return a phone call. Shouldn’t really have been much of an issue, except my manager at the time didn’t see it like that. Whilst I was away on sick leave she got access to my computer from IT and went through to find anything that I had made a mistake on. When I returned to work, these were presented to me as a significant failing. It was horrible, I felt terrible; despite my illness I had worked hard – so hard – at that job despite being over-worked and under-staffed.
So that’s why I get nervous about time off. I know for a fact that I have been doing a good job here. The figures and feedback reflect that; I’m on target and have built fabulous relationships with my accounts. I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s going to be something I don’t even have the first inkling of rearing its ugly head to ruin my life.