My name is Mary and I am 73 years old. This is the first time I have spoken publicly about the whole story of my mental health problems. I am doing so in the hope that it might encourage others to be honest and get some help instead of “soldiering on” and becoming more ill – either physically or mentally. I am in no doubt that there is a direct correlation between the two because I have experienced it personally.
First, a wee bit of context – I was married at 19 and had 3 children by the time I was 25. My husband worked various jobs before he went to university at 24 when our girls were 2 and 3 years old. I was a stay-at-home mum till our son was 5 years old when I went to college and qualified as a social worker. I had a wonderful career – not easy but rewarding. In hindsight there were times when I experienced stress and quite extreme anxiety but just “got on with it”. I became a granny at 46 and was over the moon. I got several promotions and eventually became Assistant Head of Social Work for my district at the time of local government reorganisation in Scotland. This was a tough job – our whole departmental structure changed dramatically as did our political masters. I was part of a supportive management team and in 1999 I changed from being in charge of Child Protection and Children and Families teams to Adult Care. This was a difficult transition since many of the Adult Services teams were totally opposed to the changes but it was my job to implement these changes despite the opposition. Work was really full on – then on top of all that our oldest grandchild who was 6 years old was diagnosed with malignant cancer. He had to have chemotherapy for months then radiotherapy. The experience of having a young child so ill and watching the effect this was having on my daughter who was trying to cope with it – and I was completely unable to “fix it”. This really took its toll on me. Added to this my father-in-law was seriously ill at the same time and subsequently passed away. Round about the same time my daughter’s second child – who was always very active and bounced his way around! – was diagnosed with Perthes Disease – a bone disease in the hip – and had to use a wheelchair much of the time. More pressure!
I remember struggling to cope with high level meetings at work, slowly losing my confidence and experiencing increased anxiety about things which in the past I would always have taken in my stride. Going into meetings feeling panicky, sweating, shaking and unable to focus on the issues became the norm. I didn’t share this with anyone for ages – not even my husband. I felt I needed to “get a grip”. I wasn’t sleeping, wakening up at 4 in the morning, sweating and having butterflies in my stomach. This had been happening for a while – to the extent that I was avoiding speaking to anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. I then developed a really sore throat and decided to phone my GP from work to ask for an appointment which I got the same day. I left my office and went for the appointment and it was like a dam bursting. I had no idea before I met with her that I would spend ages telling her how I was feeling. She told me that I was basically suffering from complete overload, partly because I wasn’t able to “fix” everything that was going wrong and the best she could do for me at that moment was to lighten the load and sign me off work. She couldn’t take away the rest of the stressful situations but as a starter she could help me off load as much as possible.
I never went back to work again!
I saw the department’s Occupational Health Doctor for many months who concluded that I was medically unfit to return to work. During these months I was quite “zombied”. I couldn’t cope with any demands. I felt I was in a very dark place and just wanted to cry all the time. I had no energy and even personal care was a real struggle. My husband was wonderful – he would write a list of simple tasks to attempt during the day.
Very slowly I got better and our grandson survived the cancer scare – he is now a strapping 27 year old. Although I felt much better for a number of years I have experienced serious health problems again caused by stress as defined by the doctors who looked after me. I have had two heart attacks – at the time when our youngest grandchild was born with major defects and had to have 3 serious heart operations. More recently I had a spinal stroke – at the time of my mother’s death. Both of these health problems were stress induced and showed a direct link between physical and mental health.
In my caring profession it was very obvious that many colleagues did not understand the signs or the impact of deteriorating mental health in a fellow worker but neither did I confide in anyone. How to say “I am not coping very well” is a huge ask – what will others think? Will I be seen as weak? Will they think I am unable to do my job? These are the thoughts that make you just carry on until you can’t anymore.
I have since had a very good counselling experience which has helped me see that in life I cannot fix everything for everybody and that when in the past I have attempted to do so that is when the pressure builds up and releases itself in serious mental and physical health problems.
This initiative of Rachel and Tony’s is such a breath of fresh air. Making it easier to talk to each other in a “safe” forum or explore your own well-being and learn to take care of yourself. I am living testimony to the power of family support and the benefits of being honest with yourself.