Mental Illness: First Hand Experience by Joel White
What is the meaning of life? From a lot of reflection and avoidance to some degree in writing this article I have finally reached appoint where I feel more able to be at one with my inner feelings of vulnerability whilst also reaching the full realisation that I beat mental illness.
Despite the pain, suffering, chaos, turmoil that I experienced before, during and after my ‘episode of mental illness’, I say with my hand on heart if I could turn back the clock, I would be more than happy to go through this experience again. REALLY I hear you think? Yes, really.
I personally see this experience as almost a reset button in my life. Before my nervous breakdown, I really had forgotten who I was, my purpose and my direction in life. I had become like a boat just drifting in the ocean of life.
When I look back on my experience of mental illness (and through conversation with others) I reached the realisation that I WAS NOT BROKEN, I DID NOT NEED FIXING. It is more to the fact that I lost sight of the overall meaning of my life. On reflection, for any individual to actually have meaning to their lives (If not work towards it) it is to some degree determined by the answers that we are able to provide to the following 3 questions:
1) Who am i?
2) What is my purpose?
3) What is my direction?
Every individual in life is exposed to various events that may happen to them (death of a loved one, bullying, abuse of one form or another). However it is important to point out that it is not the actual event itself that has a direct influence on their life it is the individual’s response to the experienced event. . In a simple sense things DO NOT happen TO US but happen for us. Thus, the less clear their knowledge and understanding of the 3 questions above, the greater the perceived impact of the event upon the meaning of their lives.
Throughout most of my life I had always suffered from a feeling of low mood (mild depression). From the age of 16 years old my mum left my dad and previous to that I was subjected to bullying my so called ‘friends’ (mainly mental bullying) from the age of 15 years old. These two factors had a massive impact upon my adolescent life (from my own experience, between the ages of 14 to 16years of old is crucial age where an individual is learning more about who they are, sexuality, values, believes, etc).
Hence it is clear to see, how I struggled to know who I was, my purpose and my direction with my life. However, I did not just accept my fate and sit there and wait for my world to fall in on me. I worked very hard academically (I had excellent GCSE and A level results and even went onto University to get a 2.1 honours degree), personally (I achieved my Bronze, Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh awards) and professionally (I became a qualified Learning mentor and then a Qualified Teacher). Despite these various successes in my life I did not feel I deserved them, as struggled to find who I was, let alone find meaning to my life.
At periods during my life I had self-referred for counselling. My first time was at University, (I had a panic attack during my first year of studies. After Graduating, I felt I had lost what I believed was my identity that I had built during my time at University. It is at this point that I searched for another course of counselling. I self-referred to a private counsellor who was specialised in the Psychosynthesis approach.
I saw my counsellor for a period of 2 years. During this time I found this experience to be really challenging in working through the personal trauma that I had experienced when I was younger. Following my time in counselling, I felt that I had a better idea of who I was and some awareness of my purpose and direction in life.
I actually decided I wanted to become a qualified counsellor and completed a number of different counselling courses. I also was successful in becoming a qualified learning mentor in a School. It is from here that I was given an offer that was difficult to refuse to enter the teaching profession. After 18 months teaching in England as an ICT teacher, I suddenly decided that I wanted to explore the world as well as see more of my earnings than them going into the coffers of the tax man.
I was successful in gaining a position of employment at a School in Thailand (a 2 year contract). In the final weeks of being in the Uk, my conscious mind seemed to be drawing my attention to my previous ideals of training to become a qualified counsellor. After giving this some thought, I stuffed it to the back of my mind and set off on my International Teaching Career.
From teaching in Thailand for 2 years, I then moved to teach at a school in China (for a 4 year period). In August 2013, I started employment at a school in South Korea. Most individuals in the teaching profession would have greeted this experience with excitement and wonder. I on the other hand greeted it with a sense of fear, sadness and anxiety. From my first week in the school, I felt a real sense of being out of my depth. I did ask for help and support from other colleagues in my role but that in itself only added to my worries due to the lack of self-belief that I had in myself and my abilities as an educational practitioner.
I felt I lacked both the competence and the self-confidence. A lot of this was due to my previous teaching role at the School in China. From my first year at the school, I was focused on building, managing and developing the ICT department (I was the HOD of the department). The rest of my time was focused towards my Master’s Degree in Education. Hence very little time was spent towards developing my teaching practices and my knowledge of various software packages. Consequently this impacted upon my competency as a teacher, especially in entering a new learning environment where the syllabus, age range of students, learning abilities and cultural background were all different.
This would not have been such a problem if I actually had the confidence within myself. The last year at my previous school was extremely challenging in managing a member of staff within my department, as well as going through a grievance that I had actioned against my line manager. Hence by the time I had successfully finished my contract at the school, I was physically, mentally, psychologically and spiritually exhausted. Instead of spending that summer resting and recuperating, I practically spent every day of my vacation visiting various locations across the Uk with my partner, seeing friends and completing my Masters degree. I failed to sit down and take responsibility and ownership of my wellbeing.
In the lacking of competency and confidence, my adopted coping strategy became to try and control the learning environment as much as possible in every class that I taught. Ironically the more I tried to do this, the less this was happening. All the things you read about being a teacher to avoid in the classroom I was doing. For example at the end of a class I remember doing a poll on asking the class how many of them found the lesson to be boring. The majority of the class raised their hands, with a sense of surprise being sounded around the classroom.
I had presented myself at the hospital to get advice and support in regards to the deteriorating nature of my mental wellbeing, after 3 weeks of being at the school (I felt under further pressure as my partner had arrive from China to live me). After my first visit to the doctor in the psychiatric department, I was given a course of sleeping tablets. I soon learned that sleeping tablets did not quite do what they suggested. They may make it easier for you to fall asleep (this is very much hindered if you are experiencing extreme anxiety) but they don’t keep you asleep (this scenario still applies even if you take 2 or 3 tablets before sleep and again when you wake up during the night).
On my second visit to the psychiatric department (for another supply of sleeping tablet sweets), I was given a course of anti-depressants. I had never taken anti-depressants before and thus had very little knowledge of their side effects, ( It was difficult to research the side effects of the ones I was given as they were listed in Korean). I soon learned the perils of taking anti-depressants with sleeping tablets. This was clearly evident when I went into school the next day and experienced the feeling of everything moving in slow motion (as seen in many Hollywood movies).
By the Wednesday, I had reached a point of pure exhaustion (I had not slept properly for a number of weeks) and the level of anxiety and fear that I had been experiencing was becoming paralysing. In the morning I had asked to have a meeting with a member of SMT and my HOD. They were very helpful in offering support and guidance. After our meeting I taught a lesson and really struggled to manage the learning environment. Following the lesson, my inner mind told me that things were not good at all. I asked for a further meeting with a member of SMT. It is during this meeting that I hit ‘meltdown’. I remember bursting into uncontrollable tears, with my head in my hands. Following this emotional outburst I just passed out with exhaustion (I was completely drained physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually). To give it a label I had experienced a full nervous breakdown.
I was taken to the hospital and given an injection to help me sleep (I found out the next day that I had been admitted overnight onto the psychiatric ward).Could things get any worse; this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Can things get any worse?
On my return home after being discharged from hospital (the psychiatric doctor told me that I had to return within 1 week to make a decision about whether to be ‘voluntary sectioned’ for a least one month), I had received a number of messages on my phone and by email. At some point during my stay in the hospital my mother had rang me as she ‘sensed’ things were not good and was obviously even more worried even when I had answered my mobile in a very medicated state to inform her that I was in hospital (I do not remember doing this at all).
By the Monday, my mother had flown into South Korea. This in itself was an incredible fete as my Mother was 61 years old and has arthritis. At this point I want to say that if she did not come out to bring me home I probably would not have been here today to share my experiences of mental illness. Through discussion with her, she wanted me to fly back to the Uk that coming Thursday (it truly felt like a hostage extraction mission).
On the Tuesday I went into school with my mother to have a meeting with a member of SMT. This was the most painful, resigned experiences of my life in which I wrote a note which I signed that I was unfit for work and that due to illness I would be returning to the Uk.
The most humiliating experience of my life followed two days later when I returned to the school to pick up my teaching resources and materials. I struggled to meet the eye of anybody and a mass sense of unease was in the atmosphere where ever I went. The last memory I have of the school was of the Principal and the Assistant Principal who both wished me well on my way. Following this exchange, they walked into the school grounds, looked back at me with a sense of pity on their faces and then turned to face a camera man for a photograph for some sort of school publication material.
Throughout the week I had become extremely disillusioned and refused to fully accept what was happening. I was struggling to think logically about anything and could only see my world falling apart around me. I even started to self-sabotage the efforts of my mother in helping me to pack up my belongings (such as losing my bank books, forgetting the access code for the door to my apartment, etc).
In the final days of my time in South Korea, I like a caged animal in a glass box (the apartment had large windows that overlooked the beach and the sea). My mother was afraid to let me out in case I never returned. At one point I remember standing outside my apartment block, frozen to the spot as I looked at all my belongings stacked high in the various recycle bins. It is in that moment that the train track that ran close to my apartment block seemed very appealing. After a period of time of standing there I returned to my apartment.
Among the chaos that my life had become my partner was in the middle of it. The concept of mental illness was very new to her (she originated from China) and as my mental wellbeing declined rapidly this had also started to have a real negative impact upon her mental wellbeing too. She was struggling to get any sleep in the evening as I would continually disturb her (I had decided that if I couldn’t sleep then she would not be allowed to either). During the final days of being in South Korea, was spent by her organising and packing her personal belongings as well as products she had bought for the business venture that she had just setup. The final blow to her came on the Wednesday night when my mother informed her that we were returning the UK without her (by this point I was unable to even reason or think straight about any issues what so ever).
The Journey Home
Due to my diminishing mental wellbeing over the previous weeks the apartment had not been cleaned for a long period of time. Consequently my mum wanted to clean is as much as possible before we left. I found myself being paralysed with anxiety and fear that I was unable to help her clean. The more she cleaned the more I begged her to stop. I have never felt as helpless that evening as I did. I remember crawling along the floor begging her to stop cleaning, as I just wanted to leave the apartment and go the airport.
On arrival to the airport (after a very uncomfortable goodbye to my partner) we arrived at the airport to be greeted with a closed terminal. We did manage to get a taxi to a hotel for the night, in which I managed to sleep for about 40 minutes, ( the rest of the night was spent in various bouts of hysteria and screams of refusal to board the plane the next day). I really do not know how we managed to travel without being refused boarding from South Korea all the way to Manchester. I definitely was not psychologically fit to fly. During the long haul flight from Seoul to Paris (approx. 11 hours) I did not sleep at all (by this point my sleeping tablets had also ran out). What made matters worse, 3 seats down from me was sat an incredible nervous flyer. He constantly shook his leg, wrote things in a journal and looked at me for relative periods of time showing real concern. All I could do was laugh inside to myself about this situation.
The hardest part of the journey was actually the last flight from Paris to Manchester as it was aboard a very small plane that shook every time it hit a patch of turbulence. What made matters worse was that when we did finally land, we had to wait on board for at least 1 hour for the mobile stair vehicle to arrive. By this point I was verbalising every thought of panic, fear and anxiety that was passing through my mind. I’m so glad this happened whilst the plane was on the runaway in Manchester and not as we took off from Paris. On leaving the terminal to meet my sister and her husband did it truly hit home that I was back in the Uk and a full sense of resignation of my fate hit me; I would not be returning to South Korea.
After arriving back in my home town on the Friday afternoon, my mother was obviously extremely concerned about my mental wellbeing. We were dropped off at the local walk in centre where a nurse referred me immediately to the mental health team at the hospital. On arrival, we had to wait in the A&E department for approx. 5 hours before we were seen (this was made even more difficult for both of us being severely jet lagged and sleep deprived). When we were seen, the consultant researched the anti-depressants that I had been administered in South Korea (My mother kept all the doctors notes and handed them over to the consultant). He prescribed me with more anti-depressants and sleeping tablets. I then went to stay at my mother’s one bedroom apartment where I would stay with her on a mattress until moving out in April 2014; (I am truly grateful for the sacrifices my mother made for me in rescuing her boy and supporting me back to a positive state of wellbeing).
I was also fortunate that the consultant directly referred me to the Community mental health team ‘ Crisis team’ with my first appointment on the following Monday. It is at this appointment that I became aware of a different identity that I had now adopted; clinically depressed, suffering from anxiety attacks (I also felt that I was suffering from psychotic symptoms). They gave me guides to take home and read that seemed useful if I was able to actually concentrate on reading a whole page in any of the booklets. My lack of concentration was also seen in the fact that I could not even sit and concentrate on any programme that was shown on TV. I used to sit there and flick through every digital channel that mother had on her TV.
Hell on Earth
The first few days of living with my mum were extremely difficult. I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms from the anti-depressants that were given to me in South Korea. I had a constant dry mouth, loss of appetite, shaking, etc. Even though I had started to take the antidepressants that were prescribed to me, it would take at least 2 to 3 weeks to enter my system.
I seemed paralysed in my ability to think straight. I actually thought that I had brain damage due to the fact that I was not ‘psychologically’ fit to fly back from South Korea. I struggled to remember individual’s names, details of family and friends and general day to day tasks. The more I tried, the harder I found it to recall information. However, my mind did become very good at being self-critical. I also found that my mind was very good at selecting past memories that only seemed to provide evidence for these self-critical thoughts. I also became extremely jealous and envious of others, even if they were close friends and family. At times these feelings were so strong I actually had strong thoughts to actually cause them physical harm.
I found it very difficult to do everyday tasks. I seemed to have forgotten how to do things in a logic way. For example, it used to take me 40 minutes to do the washing up. I also seemed to have lost the capacity of making choices as I was scared that if I chose to do X I would miss out on certain things by not choosing Y. I also developed a strong fear of failure. I became very good at procrastinating at every opportunity to avoid completing any task.
I suffered severe anxiety in regards to going out in public. I would argue with my mother, refuse to get dressed. Due to her stubbornness (I’m glad she was) she would get me out the door dressed. Once out I would struggle to meet other peoples gaze as I felt threatened by them. I would cling onto to her arm as we walked around. I also felt strong feelings of guilt and shame as I felt like a failure and that everybody knew this, based on my nervous breakdown. I also found it extremely difficult to make conversation even with my close friends, (it took at least 2 weeks to tell some of my closest friends what had happened and that I was back in the Uk). I had completely lost my identity, meaning in my life.
Evenings were very difficult. I used to look at my mum’s curtains and be able to make out evil looking faces that were staring back at me. I thought that all the statues/ornaments in my mother’s front room were also staring back at me (I remember one night having to turn them all round so they were not looking at me). When I did fall asleep the nightmares that I had were extremely frightening.
The Turning point and the road to recovery
It would be an understatement to say that I didn’t have really destructive and negative thoughts about not wanting to kill myself. I went through a period of time that every time I went into the kitchen I became drawn to the knives that my mother had in her kitchen.
Due to the fact that I was accessing the ‘Crisis team’ I was given a telephone number to call if things became too difficult for me to deal with during the night. There was a number of occasions when I called the crisis team line to confess my negative thoughts of wanting to harm myself or others. I even rang them once that I had made up my mind for them to section me as I couldn’t deal with life anymore. Fortunately each time I did call the line just rang and then an answering machine would kick in or was engaged. By the time they did call back, my urge to harm myself (and others) or the desire be sectioned would subside slightly.
Things came to ahead on a particular evening where I actually pulled a knife out of my mother’s knife block and stood with it in my hand in the kitchen. Many thoughts ran through my mind about ending my life. I also know looking back that if I made the decision to kill myself I would have done a proper job of it. The reason why I did not kill myself was not due to hurt that it would cause other individuals (to be honest at that moment in time I did not give a dam about anybody else), but was the fact that I reached the conclusion that my life had to be worth more than this; what a shit legacy to leave behind. After putting the knife back in the block and trying to go back to sleep, I knew that I had turned the corner in moving forwards with my life. The turning point came in the middle of November.
I seemed to become more focused on trying to move my life forwards. I actively looked for any opportunity or activity that would help in developing myself in regards to my Body, Mind and Soul (I somehow reached the conclusion that my recovery truly depended on the development of these three elements of myself).
In regards to my body I started going out running in my local area. This in itself was great to actually get me out of the house, but actually reminded me about how much I enjoyed running. I soon became bored though of running by myself and did a bit of research on the internet to discover a running club in my local area. I was hesitant at first in joining this group due to the amount of people that seemed to attend the running group and I also thought that ‘I would not be good enough’. In the end I bit the bullet and joined the running club. I also developed a passion again for swimming and got into the routine of going swimming at least once a week.
In relation to my mind, I decided that I wanted to go back to my original plan/direction in life in regards to pursuing a career in therapy. I am so grateful for the fact that I am computer literate as I found a number of therapy related courses that interested me at discounted prices. I also took advantage of all the courses that I could complete through the local government adult educational service due to the fact that I was on benefits.
In regards to my soul, I got a strong urge to start praying again (I had been a practicing Christian when I was younger). I actually found it challenging at first as I had even forgotten ‘the lord’s prayer’. From here I started to attend a local church. I also started to attend a spiritual centre that was focused around the importance of mindfulness and awareness. I started to attend various talks from different speakers, courses, workshops, etc.
I found myself being drawn to ‘spiritual’ related, self-help guides. They all seemed to be focused around positive thinking, helpful affirmations, the use of gratitude lists, etc. I am so grateful for websites that sell second hand books on the internet as they saved me a lot of money in purchasing a number of these types of books.
As I was engaging in these various activities, I truly came to fully appreciate and feel true gratitude to the support of my family and friends. In the early days of my affliction with mental illness, I could not be left on my own (I almost needed babysitting). My friends would take turns in looking after me, even in picking me up from my home and looking after me for a few hours. They were extremely supportive and some even opened up about their own experiences with mental illness. This really helped in the fact that I felt they understood the difficulties and problems that I was going through at that moment in my life.
I am also grateful for how complete strangers went out of their way to support me. A clear example of this was seen in the support of one of my sister’s friends. Before I had a nervous breakdown, I had started to invest in a housing property scheme. Unfortunately after what had happened I was unable to keep up with payments and actually was deeply afraid that they would take legal action against me for breaking contract. However my sister’s friend came to support me who was a qualified barrister. She looked over the contract and scheme that I was involved in. Her specialism was not in property issues as such and spoke to one of her colleagues who was a barrister specialised in property. Within a week she had given feedback to my sister in what exactly to do in making contact with the property provider, without charge. By following their advice the property provider was truly accommodating and allowed me to break contract as well as refund the majority of the investment that I had made in the property. I am so fortunate for the kindness and grace of individuals who have come to my aid in my time of need.
My New Life!!
Well I can truly say that I am not a victim of mental illness but a survivor. This has been shown to me in numerous ways based on my actions as well as the input and feedback from other individuals.
After 3 sessions with the Crisis team they signed me off and referred me to a counsellor. After 4 sessions my counsellor was truly impressed with how I was recovering and actually commented on the fact that she couldn’t understand why I had been referred to her in the first place (my counsellor was specialised in the CBT approach, highly qualified and engaged in supervision of other counsellors). After the 5th session she signed me off and gave me her work email address to keep her up to date with my progress of recovery. I also made a conscious decision to stop taking antidepressants and threw them in the bin after 4 months and never looked back.
Through the local council adult education provider I have completed 11 different types of courses (such as mental illness, substance awareness, pathways into health and social care, etc). I have also completed a number of therapy related courses; life coach certificate, CBT diploma, and Master NLP practitioner course. I am also in the process of working through a number of online courses.
I have secured a volunteer role within an organisation supporting vulnerable adults. I feel that I have strong drive to support the needs of vulnerable adults who maybe struggling with mental illness problems. I am also in the process of working towards setting up my own private therapy practice as well as applying for paid roles in working with vulnerable adults.
I have joined another church in which I regularly attend their Sunday service as well as getting involved in their outreach programme in giving food and provisions to homeless individuals. I also still regularly attend the spiritual centre, making active contributions to any talks, workshops that I take part in.
I have now become an active member of a running club, in which I have participated in a number of organised races. I have actually seen massive improvements in the times that I am running for 5km and 10 km distance runs.
A true marker of how far I have moved on is based on the fact that I moved out of my mother’s home and moved into my own place in April 2014 (I feel compelled to give gratitude to some of my close friends who donated to me so many items of furniture and provisions to me). I am actually coping a lot better than expected. I have even completed two different basic cooking courses.
What is more important in my life is the fact that I have now found true meaning in my life. I am truly aware of who I am? My purpose and My direction in my life! I also feel a lot happier, have stronger determination and self-motivation that I bring to each new day. I accept that there will be challenges ahead and dark hours; even days do come even now. However I am confident that I can overcome any challenge and problem that come my way. After all, I have beaten mental illness!!!