I gave a talk tonight at the Annual Members Meeting of the Mental Health trust for which I am a governor, my talk was about my journey of recovery and what it meant to me as I made the transition from service user to staff nurse, the words that follow are what I read:
My first contact with mental health services was in 2007 following the birth of my daughter, Eve. After she was born I knew straight away that I didn’t feel right. I spent the first five weeks after she was born racing around, I decorated my entire flat and held a dinner party every night for three weeks! When my daughter was five weeks old depression hit me like a shovel in the face, I didn’t just slow down, I stopped.
I was diagnosed with postnatal depression by my GP and Health visitor who supported me and gave me antidepressants. When our daughter was twelve weeks old I was referred to the perinatal community mental health team but my mood seemed to plummet with each week that passed.
When Eve was eighteen weeks old I decided I was ‘obviously hopeless at being a mother’ so returned to work as UK Head of HR for a charity. A couple of weeks later when travelling for business I found myself stood at the edge of a train platform ready to throw myself under a train. This scared me so I sought help, my GP called the crisis team who spent a couple of weeks trying with home based treatment. As time went on my suicidal thoughts no longer left me afraid, they seemed like a welcome solution.
I was no longer deemed to be safe at home so the crisis team had me admitted to a mother and baby unit. I took our daughter with me but still struggled with some tasks, I hated bathing her as I was convinced everyone thought I was a paedophile.
During my stay I felt very calm as I made the decision to end my life, it seemed like my only option by this stage. It was down to the intuition of the nursing staff who felt for some reason that they needed to check on me and not wait until my next observation was due that I am still here. Nursing intuition saved my life.
I spent five months on the mother and baby unit having ECT, medication and lots of talking to help me recover.
When I did recover I was asked to do some voluntary work with perinatal services which I did. I became involved with community meetings, recruitment for staff and speaking at conferences about my experiences of perinatal mental illness and also of ECT.
In spring 2008 I was made redundant as the funding which covered my post in the charity I worked for was cut due to the recession. I applied for lots of senior HR posts and secured interviews for them all, it was only when I got down to the final couple of applicants in each organisation and they asked about sick leave over the last couple of years when I suddenly discovered I had become unemployable. I saw their faces change, mental health stigma had left me unemployable even though I was educated to post graduate level and more than capable of doing the jobs for which I applied.
I became really fed up going through long application processes each time to be turned away, although I could never prove it, for my mental health. One day I had a light bulb moment and decided to open a business, I would open a bridal boutique. My business opened late summer 2009 and in less than a year I was financially breaking even each month but then my mood began to crash again for no apparent reason.
I knew I needed to take time off as I was becoming very unwell, we were doing well but not making enough to take on staff yet so I had to make the heartbreaking decision to close the shop for the final time. I had now lost my career and my business due to my mental health.
My mood worsened and my GP referred me back to a community mental health team who eventually decided I needed to be admitted to hospital for ECT again.
So 13th December 2010 I was admitted to hospital again again where I stayed for four months on an acute mental health ward having ECT and missing Christmas at home with my daughter.
When I was discharged on 30th March 2011 I felt so grateful to be alive, I had experienced some amazing nursing care. In Early May I decided I wanted to make a difference and applied to university to train as a mental health nurse.
I felt so proud when I was offered a place on the degree and yet at the same time still felt somehow unworthy of the place. Part of me still expected a hand on my shoulder saying there had been a mix up and that I was to stick to being a service user not a student nurse. It is only now as I am due to qualify that I have realised that hand on my shoulder isn’t coming.
With each placement my confidence has increased. I have met some awesome people who have guided me and reassured me that I do deserve to be on this degree. I have been fortunate enough to have been mentored by some truly wonderful nurses who have shown me patience and compassion during my journey as a student Nurse. They have taught me that it’s ok to show my vulnerabilities, that I don’t have to play at being a swan as I tend to give the impression I glide along on the surface but my panic underneath has me paddling away trying to hide my insecurities!
It has taken until the past few months for me to begin to realise that I am indeed worthy of my place on this course. Although I had recovered my experience had bruised my confidence.
I get annoyed when I hear clinicians saying they work toward the ‘recovery model’ as in my opinion recovery is a process, a deeply personal and very individual process and not a model or a buzz word created by academics. Please be recovery focussed but please don’t undermine the efforts of the individual by calling it a model!
Throughout the past three years I have experienced some really stressful times with exams and essays to write on top of the hours I work on placement whilst still trying to be a mother, a wife and run a home. I have become adept at juggling; remembering to pay school dinners, organise childcare and managing a budget whereby my bursary allowance doesn’t even cover my mortgage payments but I have not crumbled.
Each time the stress seemed intense I found myself worrying about relapse but experience has taught me that feeling stressed is normal, having a bad day does not automatically mean relapse. I still monitor my mood each day using an app on my iphone as knowledge is power and if I ever was to experience a relapse I would hopefully recognise the pattern and catch it early enough. That is empowering.
I have reflected upon my own journey and recognise that not having defined recovery early on in my illness hindered my progress. I was striving to achieve a return to the person I had been prior to a major episode of mental illness which had turned my life upside down. I was so convinced in this mythical ‘model’ which the professionals kept telling me about that I felt any less than this would let myself and those around me down.
I failed to pause and take stock. All life events, positive and negative, impact upon us as individuals and can alter our outlook, this could be a new relationship, a bereavement or a physical illness. Once a major life event has occurred we can never make it unhappen, it will always change us even if that is in a small way. Maybe we become more cautious or maybe we decide to exercise more? What I’m trying to convey is that mental illness can and does change us. It changed me.
Mental illness altered my life in many ways, I lost my career to mental illness, I lost a year of my life, I lost some people I had previously classed as friends but equally I gained some wonderful evidence of how true other relationships are. My experience of mental illness is that it made me realise that life is short and we must grab every opportunity it offers us. It made me realise that self care is more important than salary and that getting well then staying well is always the most important thing. My recovery began the day I realised I could live a full life whilst accepting my mental illness.
I redefined my recovery as things changed, as my mental health stabilised. When I started this degree I was only five months out of hospital from my second admission and still quite fragile although if I’d been challenged on this I would have likely vehemently denied that fact. I have taken care to ensure I have managed my mental health carefully, I realised that tiredness can have a huge impact on my mood for example so I ensure that I get enough sleep, if I have a busy few days I know I need a ‘rest day’. I include things I enjoy like meeting friends for lunch as busy days as I still need to take days to myself to ensure my wellness. That sounds rather indulgent saying it aloud back but it’s what keeps me well so I have to do it.
I see lack of hope in service users eyes as they are given a diagnosis and told that they will need to take medication in the long term. Medication which so often causes side effects which are an illness in itself and I empathise but I have hope that they can recover they just need help to define what recovery may mean for them.
I feel encouraged by the trusts investment in recovery focused services such as the recovery college and hopeful that one day mental illness will not be seen as the life sentence that it still often is seen as. I have come back fighting and retrained as a mental health nurse so am living proof that recovery can and does happen.
By the end of this summer I will be a registered mental health nurse so the stakes are high, I need to stay well, although I have an advance statement written so if I do become unwell again people around me will help me recognise that and treatment which has worked so well in the past will be chosen again to help me recover quicker. Although my experiences were generally positive it is imperative that as I go through my career I always keep in my mind how individual a person with mental illness is and how dehumanising it can feel to be an inpatient observed every moment of the day.
The first time someone refers to me as a staff nurse I fear I may burst with pride as I know I am in a position to be able to support others the way some very wonderful nurses supported me.
My decision to become a governor came half way through this degree when I found myself questioning things and wondering how the opinion of the service user had been considered, after sharing this repeatedly with my husband he informed me that I needed to either ‘do something about it or shut up’ so I stood for election and December 1st 2012 I began my term as a foundation trust governor, during that time I have felt listened to and believe my views have been considered. I have been able to represent the views of service users on various issues within the trust, its a role I would recommend to anyone who has a passion to make a real difference.
I hope that through sharing my story I have inspired you to believe that recovery is a reality and not a model and I would like to thank those individuals who have supported me on my personal journey as I would never have made it alone.