Dear Recovery…I Chose You.

I’ve just come across this on my PC. I wrote it a couple of months ago and then forgot about it. Now that I am recovering so well, it’s a delight to read. I was obviously teetering on the edge when I wrote it. Thankfully I chose Recovery and challenged the temptation of Relapse. 🙂

Dear Recovery,
You have been illusive for so long. I have dreamt of you. I have hated you for being so far out of my reach. I have longed for you. I have cried in desperation, believing I would never meet you. I have even hidden from you, once my depression became weirdly comforting.

It’s been endless, unbearable and agonising.
Yet, from nowhere it seems, you are tantalisingly close. Waking up is no longer dull and foggy – my brain buzzes with plans for the day and it feels good. Family meals are no longer a time to survive – I enjoy the chatter, the banter and the noise rather than struggle with it. Going to work, after a year off, is stimulating and exciting instead of being frightening. Conversations about next week, next month or next year engage me rather than fill me with dread. There’s never enough time to write about the ideas that flow around my head, instead of trying to find the energy to put that one thing in my journal.
As you can see, Recovery, I’m on the edge of meeting you in full and even of excluding my pursuit of you from my life forever. I will no longer need to dream of you. To focus on you. To believe in you. We will have met, shaken hands and said farewell. You see, I now have the tools in place to do that and I have no intention of needing to strive for you in my life again.
The problem is (isn’t there always a problem?), that your enemy Relapse is hovering around the corner and I still fear that my grasp on those tools is not strong enough to fend him off. It’s not that I am on my own. My therapist, my family, my friends and my colleagues are all there ready for me. Ready to remind me of those tools. Ready to pass them to me. Or even ready to force me to pick them up.
But that’s the other problem. Relapse is clever. He knows my fears and he plays on them. He knows how much I want to recover. How much I don’t want to let anyone down. How much, when I am overwhelmed, I need that readiness of all those people but how much I am unlikely to ask for it.
So during those overwhelming moments that still creep in every now and then, even as a warrior who has won so many battles, Relapse suddenly becomes appealing again. He’s there, hovering in the corner and ready for me. He means other people making decisions for me. He means lying on the sofa for hours without expectations. He means comforting, warm words from all those around me who have remembered I am fragile again. He means avoiding the responsibility of work. He means sloping off to bed when it’s all too noisy or chaotic or simply too difficult.
Dear Recovery, I voiced by concerns about Relapse’s power to a friend the other day. She took me seriously but she was also tough on me. “If you’re not careful, you’ll talk Relapse into happening. To be firm: stop looking at the mountain and thinking it’s impossible to climb it. You have already climbed through the ugliest and hardest part. Next you’ve got a bit of grind, but sooner than you think it will get easier every day.”

These words struck a chord with me. It’s hard to admit it but it’s true. If I focus on you, Recovery, I can make it and we will meet. If I give into the temptation of Relapse, believing those absurd notions that it would be good if he takes over, then I’ve allowed myself to be talked into it.
And I will not allow that to happen.
Thank you for always being there for me. Although I couldn’t see you for much of this journey, you were always waiting for me at the summit. True, Relapse has been there every step of the way too. But I’m a warrior with a great support network and I’m ready to kick him off.
Looking forward to shaking your hand,
Claire x

Routine – How I Learnt Its Importance The Hard Way

A big thank you to mind.org.uk for publishing this article this week. 

Having been mentally and physically strong all my life, fifteen months ago I crashed. Big time. I have only just returned to work following a year of absence. After 16 years of working full-time, this was a great shock to me. It was incredibly hard. It was a year during which I lost all the energy, enthusiasm and vitality that had previously come so naturally to me. I lost interest in myself and in those around me and spent the first couple of months essentially clinging to the sofa.

I was referred for therapy but, although I thought it was a good idea, the start didn’t go brilliantly. My therapist seemed too young and naïve to understand what I was going through. Besides, I couldn’t bear the fact that she spent so much time talking about the importance of a routine. Of exercise. Of eating well. Of sleeping regular hours. She’d ask me to tell her what I had done the day before; and what I’d be doing the following day. It seemed like such a waste of time – this was all common sense but I certainly didn’t have the energy or the willpower to stick to a routine at this moment in my life!

To my great surprise, things changed one day and so too did my perspective. Having worked from home for a couple of weeks to keep me company, my husband decided to go into the office.  By 8.30am the house was silent. He had gone and my daughters had left for school. I sat on the sofa and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. The silence was deafening. I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No-one to speak to. What was I supposed to do all day? I vaguely recollected conversations with my therapist. Perhaps this was what she meant about the need for routine?

In the months that followed, I tried hard to carve out a routine for myself. Early morning walks with the dog; healthy eating (giving up beer was the hardest part); and lots of exercise. Most days I would have preferred to roll over and go back to sleep. But, most of all, the exercise was good for tiring out my whirring mind and calming the adrenalin that constantly pumped around my body.

After six months, I began to feel better and consequently complacent. I suddenly started to feel less of a need to force myself to exercise on a daily basis. My poor appetite had improved and I started to eat too much of the wrong things. As well as this, my better mood gave me the excuse I needed to buy beer again as I no longer felt at risk of it bringing me down.

Three weeks on I found myself alone, under the effects of alcohol and in a very risky situation which led my husband to rush to the beach from work to ‘make me safe.’ Following a number of beers, I had put my life in danger without any concern for the consequences. Understandably, both he and my therapist asked me why. Why after a period of apparent stability did my mood escalate from one to a hundred so suddenly? The explanation from me that I had received an upsetting email seemed to hang in the air and mock me as they stared at me in despair.

Following extensive dissection of the day’s events, I had to admit that the weeks preceding that day had contributed too. Although it seemed minor at the time, by stopping exercise, eating crap and drinking beer every day, I’d pressed the self-destruct button long before. By the time that day arrived, and I received an email I felt I couldn’t cope with, I was in no state to deal with it. Lack of exercise meant I was wired with adrenalin; a rubbish diet meant I felt lethargic; and I’d become convinced I needed beer to help me relax.

And there you have a perfect cocktail for a crisis. The debate about what constitutes self-care has been discussed a lot recently. I’ve come to realise that what once would have been a lazy few weeks in my life, can now actually compromise my mental health. So, if I choose to decide to abandon my routine, I either have to be sure that I am feeling particularly mentally strong or, that I am ready to accept the consequences.

Recovery – Give Yourself Some Credit Too!

During an incredibly difficult fifteen months, while I have battled depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have been incredibly grateful for the support I have received. Throughout this period, I have thanked many people for their vital role for helping me reach the seemingly unreachable…that glimmer of hope called recovery.

These have included my husband and daughters for their immense patience, love, understanding and thoughtfulness. Day after day after day after day.

My parents and in-laws for dropping their lives in order to prop up ours.

Siblings and special friends for reminding me that I am important. That I do matter.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers who’ve responded to me personally or through my blogs, showing empathy or giving encouragement.

My company and my boss for their willingness to wait until I was ready to get back to work and their flexibility in helping me do it in the right way.

Medical professionals, from my incredible therapist to random nurses who I only met once, for their professionalism, skill and care.

Even my dog. For whining at me until I got my butt off the sofa and walked him.

It has been difficult. At times it has been agonising. And I have no doubt that without this tremendous support, I wouldn’t have made it through the hardest year of my life. I will be eternally grateful to all of these people and, if I haven’t managed to tell them that yet…well, they know now.

Yet reading this list, it is startlingly obvious that I have not credited the most important person for their role in my recovery: myself. Although most of the time it hasn’t felt like it all, I, myself and I have actually been fundamentally important on this road to recovery.

For the times I dragged myself out of bed to have a noisy family breakfast when all I craved was silence.

For the times I met a friend for a coffee when I just wanted to be alone.

For the times I got on my bike and rode to the beach when I longed for the sofa.

For the times I kept writing, even though the sting of a rejected blog hurt so much.

For the times I engaged in painful, embarrassing or downright unbearable dialogue with my therapist when all I wanted to do was run away.

For the times I decided I could go on no longer but reached out for help before it was too late.

The list is endless. No-one else could have done any of that for me. No-one else could have made that difference in that moment on that day.
Therefore I deserve some credit, some appreciation, some gratitude…and I must remember to give it to myself.

For all those suffering from mental illness, don’t think for a second that I am suggesting it is all about choice. There are people out there who believe that happiness is a choice. They are the people who have either never experienced mental illness; or who have put their recovery down to choice without noticing the many other factors involved.

What I am saying, however, is give credit to yourself when it’s due. For every time I cycled to the beach, the temptation of the sofa won five times. For every time I opened up to my therapist, shame or fear won ten times. That is why I am congratulating myself on my own role in my recovery, for all those crucial moments when I did manage to win.

Yes, I couldn’t have done it without all those incredible people in my life.
But actually, I also couldn’t have done it without incredible me.

Falling Ill Taught Me To Empathise

Just over fifteen months ago I was a dynamic, energetic and enthusiastic teacher. Passionate about my job, I placed huge importance on being efficient, organised and flexible and I rarely took time off. As a Year Leader of four classes, I expected the same of my team. In the name of improving, progressing and innovating, there wasn’t much time for listening or for being empathetic.

That was incredibly hard to write. And to admit. At the time, I thought I was a good leader. No doubt in some ways I was. Of course it’s good to be committed and to strive for success. But, during the hardest year of my life while I have fallen apart mentally, I have realised that there was not enough balance, either for myself or for my team. That lack of listening and of empathy was actually incredibly significant. I didn’t know it at the time. It’s taken a long time for me to get there.

A large part of my drive came from my boss. The headteacher of my school is dynamic, energetic and ambitious. I believed that anything less wouldn’t be good enough. So that was what I strove for too.

So when I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, having been mentally healthy all my life, her reaction was a major concern to me. I was initially told I’d be off work for four weeks. I was horrified. Four weeks! How could I possibly leave my class and my team for that long? My naivety seems laughable now!

Ashamed as I was about not being at work, I have never felt ashamed about my diagnoses. I sent my head teacher an email explaining what was wrong in a desperate effort to convince her that I did actually need to be off work. I was terrified about what her response would be, fearing it would be dismissive or cold.

When this appeared in my inbox, my fears disappeared:

“It takes courage to begin to process the impact of these kinds of experiences and I acknowledge you in being brave enough to start to face it all.
You need to prioritise yourself at the moment – all will still be ticking along at work ready for when you feel back on track. There is absolutely no rush and no need for you to worry about school.
So, take your time. Enjoy walking the dog, being a mum, chilling out, staring into space…whatever you need to do – it’ll be very well worth it in the long term.”

I was so relieved and grateful. Despite her drive and ambition, the headteacher I admired so much had just acknowledged that it was ok to take time out for mental health. The fact I hadn’t expected her to be so understanding, made it seem all the more significant.

Receiving that email was just the beginning of me realising how important it is that people truly listen and show empathy. I’ve benefitted from endless similar experiences since when my husband, my family, my friends and my therapist have simply listened to my confused and jumbled thoughts without judgement. Every single time that has happened, it’s been so precious to me. And, time after time, it’s slowly taught me how I can be a better listener and how I can show empathy too.

This week, a friend who I’m not very close to, popped by on the off chance for a chat. I wasn’t home. As I re-read her message, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it that it seemed. So I suggested meeting for a coffee the following day to which she replied ‘wonderful.’ When we met, I was a little nervous. We’d never done this. Would conversation be awkward? In the past, I would have leapt in with constant babble about not very much to prevent any awkward silences. On this occasion though, I simply asked ‘how are you’ and sat back, ready to listen.

For an hour, she talked. She’d read my blogs. And appreciated them. And needed to share.  I listened. I made the odd suggestion but I didn’t jump in every 10 seconds thinking I had a quick fix to everything. A year ago, I would have done just that. Striven to fix and then to move on. Listening felt good. Feeling her relax and open up even more, felt good too. Realising how much I’d changed for the better, felt great. Receiving this message a few hours later, made me feel so proud:


“I really wanted to say Thank You for everything today. The idea of the coffee, the beautiful present and mostly Listening!! Thank you so much. I really felt Much Better after that :)”

The ‘beautiful present’ was a note book and pens to record how she, as a mother of four, is going to prioritise and treat herself. So simple. That was another tip I’ve learnt this year. Never forget to prioritise number one!

A year on, after a couple of false starts, I’m finally about to go back to work. I am so much better. I feel ready. I am excited. Fairly nervous. And hopeful it will go well.

Above all, however, I want to go back and be a listener and an empathiser. To students and colleagues at work; and to family and friends at home.

If I have ‘only’ learnt the importance of that during this intensely difficult journey, then I know my headteacher was right.  It has been ‘very well worth it in the long term’.

Thank you to ‘The Mighty’ for publishing this article.

Being Thin: Losing Weight Doesn’t Always Mean What It Seems

I wrote this back in October. A lot has changed since then. For a start, I’ve gained all the weight I lost…and some! But it’s always good for me to go back and read what I wrote during difficult times. It makes me realise just how far I have come; and just have much I am learning on this life-changing journey. 

I braved a party this weekend with people I hadn’t seen for ten months. With the help of make up to give me some colour; a lovely dress to help me feel good; and a glass of wine to take the edge off my mood, I ventured into a crowd of family and old friends for my mother. Only for my mother. My mother who has supported me so much through a major depressive episode, who was celebrating her 70th birthday and who really wanted myself and my family to be there.
It was tough. Tough to make small talk. Tough to smile. Tough to hug and be hugged. Tough to bullshit about how marvellous life is for five long hours.
The hardest part, however, was hearing the endless comments about my figure:
“I know you’re having a hard time at the moment sis but your figure is amazing.”
“What’s your secret? I wish I could be that thin at 40!”
“Wow, you look fantastic!” I am so jealous of that waistline!”
Positive comments, I know. Yet my loss of four kilos in a month, which removed every trace of my post-holiday chubbiness, told another story. That was why those comments were so hard to hear.
After eight months off work, I finally returned full-time in September to my job as a Primary School teacher. My heart glowed. It was so good to have a purpose again; so good to have an important part of my identity back; so good to be leaving the house in the morning along with my children and husband.
That was until the pressure started to build. Pressure. Tension. Desperation to prove myself. The demands of twenty-four students in their new class. Long hours. Family life. Plus, just in case it wasn’t enough, my husband went away for work and my anti-depressant changed. The Perfect Storm. Easy to spot, looking back.
Well that Perfect Storm caused my stomach to twist, to burn, to cramp. Eating became a duty. My appetite had gone.
The change in medication led to extreme nausea. Eating was no longer a duty. It felt impossible.
The stress made adrenalin surge relentlessly through my body. Intense exercise was the only way to calm the chemicals that rushed through my veins.
Excessive exercise and lack of food meant lack of energy. That, in turn, meant light-headedness. That was strangely welcome. Feeling faint, I could lie down and rest without my head bursting with a stream of destructive thoughts.
And then, as I lay on that sofa, and put my hand on my flat belly, I felt a great sense of satisfaction. I had failed at work. I was on long term sick leave once again. Due to concerns about my safety, my life was once again dominated by concerned looks, probing questions and others making decisions for me. Whether that be a company doctor about when I could return to work or a psychiatrist about what I should be taking every day, that lack of control frightened me. Touching my flat belly, on the other hand, was reassuring. Reassuring because my weight was the one thing I could have complete control over. The buzz that gave me was huge. The incentive to push myself to eat properly was even more limited.

So whether it was nerves or nausea, exercise or a need to control, the hidden reasons were many. That’s why those four kilos fell off my body with seemingly little effort. That’s why I had a waistline to be admired.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t like those compliments. Who doesn’t like a compliment?
But next time you see someone who has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, think before commenting. There’s bound to be a story behind it. If it’s a good one, the person you are admiring will be quick to share. If it’s not so good, perhaps it’s wise to look beyond the thin waistline, the excessive blusher, the lovely dress and the wine induced positivity and simply ask, ‘How are you?’

 

From Baby Steps To A Monumental Leap Towards Recovery

After 40 years of good mental health, my breakdown came from nowhere. So, too, did my diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression.

A year on, and the impact of baby steps toward recovery is finally evident. I am not yet the energetic, enthusiastic and tireless mother, teacher and wife I once was, but I am suddenly beginning to recognize myself again.

The problem with baby steps is that you often don’t see the progress you are making. Each step forward is so minuscule that you barely notice it; and, of course, the steps backwards make recovery seem impossible. But then one day, something happens and you suddenly realize all those baby steps have contributed to a monumental leap from where you were in your darkest days.

My “something” was my sudden urge to book a flight from the Netherlands to the UK to support my younger sister. She’s in the middle of a big project for work, her husband’s away for the weekend and she has two young children to look after. As we chatted on the phone, it seemed natural to suggest that I pop over for the weekend to help her out.

This would have been no big deal 18 months ago. Yet now it is truly monumental.

A year ago, leaving my bed or the sofa seemed impossible — now I am leaving the country.

10 months ago, I couldn’t walk down the road without clutching my husband’s hand — now I long for some independence.

Six months ago, I couldn’t bear my teenagers’ chatter — now I am throwing myself into family chaos with young children.

Four months ago, I couldn’t cope with thinking about my own issues, let alone talk about someone else’s — now I’ve happily offered myself as sous chef, nanny, therapist and drinking partner for my sister.

Two months ago, I felt like this nightmare would never end and constantly wanted to be alone — now I am excited about the future and being with my family.

So, if you feel all those baby steps are pointless and getting you nowhere, I encourage you to keep believing and keep going. It might take a while, but one day your “something” will happen and you will realize that you have taken your monumental leap too.

I am realistic. I know there will be steps backwards. There will be more occasions when baby steps are needed. To remind me they are worth it, I might just frame that flight ticket.

Juggling: Part Two. I Now Know It’s OK To Drop A Ball!

For this to make complete sense, read my first Juggling poem earlier in my blog. 🙂

JUGGLING – a year on: post therapy

Well I didn’t decide to give up, my mind just took control,
And for a full year of my life, held a dominant role;
I plummeted into severe depression, ceasing to be me,
Wife, mummy or teacher, I could no longer be.

My hair thinned, I lost weight, I could no longer care,
Detached from all who loved me, life’s joys I didn’t share;
Moving from the sofa was an impossible feat,
I often longed for my heart to cease to beat.

The situation was extreme, from intense pain I couldn’t hide;
Nightmares of past traumas, led to my attempted suicide;
It broke so many hearts but mine was numb to it all,
My emotions had been dead since the day of The Fall.

With therapy and love, as well as vital medication,
I’ve managed to turn a corner with anxious trepidation;
As I tiptoe towards the future, I feel hope once again,
And I’m more able to cope with that intense pain.

It’s been a traumatic journey but I’ve learnt what life’s about:
Human connection is crucial, as is the courage to reach out;
I don’t need to prove anything or to always be strong,
And if I drop the odd ball, nothing will go wrong.

It’s true that life is challenging and we’ll always need to juggle
But please be self-aware and ask for help when you struggle;
I always thought I was invincible, I’d cope with any strife,
Please don’t believe in that, you might just save a life!

‘Attention-Seeking Is Not A Swear Word

As a teenager, hearing the “dramatic” girls in school described as “attention-seekers” was the norm. Whether they sobbed loudly in the school toilets or rushed out of the classroom in a panic, the gossip was always the same. The words, “she’s such an attention-seeker,” would be spat out with contempt. Being shy, I didn’t use those words myself, but I also didn’t challenge them… largely because I thought they were true.

During my college years, teacher training and first 15 years of teaching, my opinion didn’t change much and my reaction was much the same. Of course I’d show sympathy if any of the children in my class were upset but, in true “British-stiff-upper-lip” style, I would encourage them to go out to play as the “fresh air will make you feel better.” As for colleagues, I truly believed feelings could be kept under control, there was no place for them at work and that any outward display of extreme emotion at work was indeed “attention-seeking.”

Then, out of nowhere, I was struck by severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the first few months, I didn’t recognize it, acknowledge it or even see it. I continued to work, though it was an unbearable struggle. A year on, a good friend and colleague told me how I behaved in that time and according to the standards by which I had always harshly judged others, my behavior could only be described as “attention-seeking.”

I’ve never been one to sob loudly, even in the comfort of my own home, but after two hours teaching, I would frequently cry in the toilets during my break. My red eyes gave me away as I returned to class, but I’d avoid eye contact with anyone I passed. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I began to avoid meetings with large groups, knowing it would be noticed, but also knowing I couldn’t bear being in a room with so many people who were more confident, smarter and more in control than I was. But I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I started to mark books in my classroom with the door closed and the lights off. I knew it was odd, but the brightness and the hum of the strip-lights tormented me. And I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

I ceased to eat lunch in the staffroom, before ceasing to eat it altogether. Weight was falling off me. My clothes hung off me, but I felt so sick that eating felt impossible. It sapped my energy. I looked pale and weak, shuffling around school rather than dashing as before. Everyone noticed but I certainly wasn’t attention-seeking.

After a few months of this struggle, the school nurse invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. She asked me how I was. “Fine,” I answered, without looking her in the eye. I knew that was a tell-tale sign of lying, but I had no real reason to feel so awful and didn’t want to believe it myself. I certainly wasn’t attention seeking.

“No you are not OK Claire,” she replied gently. “You’ve lost so much weight, you’re not eating, you’re pale, you’re distant from everyone, you mark in a dark room… the list goes on. Can I ask you something? Can you look me in the eye? Claire, are you suicidal?”

My eyes that had met hers for a millisecond, hit the floor. For the first time in my life, my body was overcome with heart-wrenching sobs. Putting my head in my hands, I bawled as though I could never stop. How on earth did she know I no longer had the will to live? Was it that obvious? I swear I hadn’t been attention-seeking!

There began a year-long absence from work, intensive therapy and endless moments when I “sought attention.” These included moments when I sobbed down the phone begging for a “crisis” appointment with my therapist. Times during which I spent days on the sofa or in bed, barely responding to those around me. Desperate occasions when I self-harmed but never actually went “too far.”

All of these occasions filled me with shame and disgust. How was it that I couldn’t control my emotions? Why couldn’t I just “get a grip”?  How could I put my family through this? And so it went on… and on.

This self-battering took place one day during a therapy session. My therapist listened patiently, waiting for me to finish. Her words that followed provided me with more comfort than anything that had been said to me for a long time.

“‘Attention-seeking’ is hardly a swear word. I see all of your actions as a cry for help. You were desperate. You needed support and you asked for it. You did it in the wrong way sometimes. But we can work on that. You need help. You simply need to learn how to ask for it.”

I absorbed her words.

And then sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed.

She had undone three decades of prejudice against others and prejudice against myself.

It was OK to need attention. It was OK to seek attention. And once I knew that, I was ready to do it in the right way.

Why Is It So Hard To Simply Ask How Are You?

I wrote this five months ago when I was off work on long-term sick leave. It expresses my sadness about a common problem: people find it so hard to ask after you when you are mentally, rather than physically, sick.

I work in a fabulous school that is staffed by a dynamic, passionate and caring team of teachers. As well as having high academic aspirations for our students, we also focus a great deal on their emotional and social development. Teachers are extremely attentive to their students’ well-being and teach both PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) and P4C (Philosophy 4 Children) to help them develop their thinking and problem solving skills so that they can overcome any challenges life might throw at them. When we aren’t teaching, time is often spent listening, helping and supporting both students and one another…and then, when we are really stuck, we can always approach our lovely school nurse who has a cosy sofa and an endless supply of tissues.

My school rocks and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. I am also very fortunate that my daughters spent three years as students there, before moving on to the senior school. Not only have I therefore benefitted from this marvellous ethos as a teacher but also as a mum. It has enabled my daughters to grow into mature, empathetic and balanced young women who also know it’s OK to ask for support when needed.
I am currently absent from work as I continue my battle with depression. It’s incredibly hard to admit that I am not well enough to be there; and to know that it will be a while before I will be teaching full-time again. I miss my job, my colleagues, my students and the buzz I get from working in such a positive and thriving environment. But I really look forward to the day I will be back there amongst them all.
Yesterday, I had to see the company doctor and this involved going into school for half an hour. He was running late and I had to, rather nervously, hover in a corridor to wait for him. During the ten minutes I stood there, I saw seven of my colleagues. They all smiled at me. A number said how good it was to see me. One of them gave me a warm hug. Four of them stopped for a chat. I paused sympathetically as they searched for the right words to say. All four opted for the safe option: “So, how are your daughters getting on at Senior School?”
I had tears in my eyes by the time I went in to see the doctor. Before any polite pleasantries, I said to him straight away: “Why is it so hard for people to ask how are you? when the problem is mental health?” He smiled sympathetically as he shook my hand.
“Awareness of mental health is improving but we still have a long way to go,” he replied. “They are all worried about what to say.”
Well, what I’d like to say to my colleagues is this: it was lovely to see your smiles, great to be welcomed back and even better to be given a warm hug. If you could please just manage to ask after me, rather than only my daughters, it would help me feel that I haven’t failed, that my mental health problem isn’t something to be ashamed of and that I am still accepted amongst you. You see, on a good day, I know all of those things are true. But, on a bad day, I can’t do that by myself and the simple question How are you?would help me overcome that.
Oh, and by the way, if you fear that asking that question might lead to me breaking down in tears and giving you a thorough update about my rollercoaster journey, don’t worry. It won’t happen. I already do that to my therapist and my husband. When I come into school, I simply need to feel a part of that wonderful team that I so miss.

It Was So Hard To Give Up Control and Let My Therapist In…But it Was Worth It

A year ago, my first few sessions of therapy were a challenge. Although I had started going to them voluntarily, I was sceptical it would make any difference. I’d always preferred to keep my worries to myself. I prided myself on being strong. Independent. Not too reliant on anyone. Not even my husband. Over anxious people often irritated me and I had spent much of my life working hard to be in complete control of my emotions. I also found it very hard to trust anyone, unless I had known them for a long time. I didn’t really see how therapy sessions could help me. Unbearable nightmares. Significant weight loss. Panic attacks. Extreme irritability. Many of the symptoms of depression were there. But how exactly could talking about them make them go away?
I was even more sceptical having met my therapist. She was clearly at least ten years younger than me. Probably didn’t have children. Possibly had little life and work experience. And, in those first few sessions, all she seemed to talk about was the obvious: the importance of creating a routine now that I wasn’t working; ensuring that I exercised every day; eating and drinking regularly; and talking to my psychiatrist about medication to help me sleep better. Was this woman for real? Was I really spending my time on being told what was: a) common sense and b) impossible right now? How could I create a routine when work had been my life for ten hours a day for the last fifteen years? How could I exercise when I lacked the energy to get out of bed? How could I eat and drink when I felt so sick that I couldn’t even look at food? And did I really want to go down the road of taking medication to help me?
She was also predictable at the end of every session. She’d remind me to call or to email if I needed to. That her support wasn’t limited to our weekly sessions. She was busy but she, or someone else at the centre, could always find time for me in a crisis.
I would look at her blankly. As if I would call her in a crisis! What would she do, tell me to go for a walk with the dog or distract myself doing something else? As if that would help me in a real crisis!
To my great surprise, things suddenly changed one day and my perspective on therapy was transformed. Having worked from home for a couple of weeks to keep me company, my husband decided to go into his office. It was an hour’s drive away but we were both happy that I was ready to be on my own and it was easier for him to work from there.
By 8.30am the house was silent. My husband had gone to work and my daughters had left for school. I sat on the sofa and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. The silence was deafening. I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No-one to speak to. What was I supposed to do all day? I vaguely recollected conversations with my therapist. Perhaps this was what she meant about the need for routine? The emptiness of my day before me was overwhelming. What on earth was I going to do with myself?
An hour later I had walked the dog and done the ironing. Back on the sofa, the rising panic was even more intense. Thoughts began to bulldozer through my mind. How can it possibly have happened that I wasn’t well enough to work? Was I not good enough to teach anymore? Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be a Mum anymore either? I felt that I was a bad wife. Always stressed or irritable or tired or something. No-one actually wanted or needed me anymore. There was actually no point in me being here at all.
Heart racing, I looked wildly around the room as if in search of inspiration. My eye finally caught my phone that was tucked safely in my palm. My therapist’s words came to mind. Call or email when you need to. That was what she’d said, right? Did that really mean I could email her though? I mean, maybe she’d just said it. I didn’t want to disturb her. This probably didn’t really count as a crisis. Even though I wasn’t sure if I was safe in my own company. Phone her. That was the other option. But that meant calling the office first. So I’d have to speak to two people. And maybe I wouldn’t know the first one. No, I couldn’t do that. Email was the only option.
I paused and took a deep breath. ‘Please help me’ I wrote in the subject box and clicked ‘send’. Leaning back on the sofa, I worried about what I had done. Maybe she wouldn’t answer because she’d be cross with me. She’d probably think I was wasting her time. What could she do anyway? She was on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t as if a conversation would change anything.
Five minutes later, my phone rang. ‘Unknown caller ID’ appeared on the screen and, as I answered, I heard my therapist’s voice. “How can I help? How are you feeling Claire?” I took another deep breath. ‘How could talking help?’ I thought once again. Wondering immediately why I had bothered to email her.
After some gentle encouragement, I began to open up. Then, within minutes, she knew everything. My fear of being alone, the intense sense of panic I felt, my concerns that I wasn’t safe. I sobbed as I spoke and all the words just fell out of my mouth in a relentless cascade that probably made little sense.
With a level of calm that I hadn’t expected (how could someone be so calm when someone else was so hysterical on the other end of the line?), she told me to listen to her plan. I had to hang up the phone and call my husband. I needed to ask him to come home. In the meantime she would free up her schedule to see me. She would call me back in five minutes. Was I listening? Had I understood? Yes, I thought to myself. And thank goodness you are speaking to me like an idiot right now because that is just what I need.
Within fifteen minutes, I knew that my husband was on his way and that I would be seeing my therapist by lunch time. I had a plan to do even more ironing until he got home. That was all I needed to focus on. The ironing. My husband coming home. My appointment with my therapist. I took deep breaths. And focused on those three things. Nothing else. Just those three things. And some level of calm began to return.
I entered my therapist’s office a few hours later and began to sob before she started to speak. She had yet to see me cry and once again I was struck by her calmness. Edging the box of tissues towards me, she waited patiently for me to speak. “I can’t do it,” I whispered. “Life. I can’t do it. It’s just so hard. No-one needs me. No-one wants me. I’m useless. And I just drag them all down. That’s all I do. I drag them all down.”
In a measured and decisive manner, she moved from the chair in front of me to the chair on my left. We were much closer than we’d ever been before. Quietly and softly she began to say, “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but this moment will pass. You will feel better. You do matter. You are important and you are needed. You can’t see that right now and that’s ok. That’s because you aren’t well and that is why I am here. I am here to remind you. You will get through this. It will end. You just need to hang in there.”
She went on, essentially saying the same thing but in different ways. Her soft words and her physical closeness began to have an impact on me.
After a while, I began to look at her in a different way. I did need someone else after all. Right now, I needed to hear those words and to believe them. She was the one who could say them because she got it. She’d heard it before and, ultimately, she didn’t care. Not in a brutal way, of course, but she didn’t care in the way that someone close might have done. It was a true revelation to me. That was why it was helpful to talk. That was why I was here. This young, unworldly person before me, could offer me something that no-one else could. And I had so much to learn from her.

So, what is my advice to you? Well, when you begin something new, such as therapy, try to abandon preconceived ideas. Both about yourself and about others. As you embark on a new journey, you might surprise yourself and others may well surprise you too. If you are open to that from the beginning, and allow your therapist in, it may well make your travels a little smoother…or at least get them off to a quicker start.