I recently recorded an episode of The Weekly Wheatley, a podcast about mental health and different lifestyles. I chatted to Derek about my own experiences with mental health and related topics, you can listen to it here.
I had had a few panic attacks and a few small episodes of abnormal anxiety reactions after being bullied by a boss in a job over 10 years ago. It was just me and him all day every day in his shop and he blamed everything that went wrong on me. After six months of it I believed almost all of it, and became physically ill with the stress. I eventually realised that my health was more important than a job that wasn't even giving me full time hours and I left. I set up my own business because I couldn’t risk the same experience again, and threw myself successfully into that.
Unfortunately, the days surrounding my first son’s birth left me with PTSD. This manifests in panic attacks, obsessive thoughts (linked to my health/flashbacks of the week around his birth, subsequent traumatic follow up appointments), and was added to by panic attacks and reliving it all throughout my second pregnancy. I was unable to access help with the difficulties I faced mentally during that pregnancy, not through lack of trying.
Subsequent changes in our lives in the last few years along with 4+ years of chronically broken sleep with our eldest, coupled with the concern and stress over his issues (and that fact that nobody believed me about them) have taken their toll. I struggle to have any faith in myself to do anything well or succeed at anything, be it making a phone call, achieving something for myself, having positive thoughts about myself, because I was constantly told things were my fault throughout his birth and his first years.
What has helped me:
I’ve found Dr. Harry Barry’s book about anxiety helpful, even though I haven't even read it all! I’ve learned that I have to be quite selfish in some respects and step away from situations or people that stress or upset me, one of them being bedtime. My older son’s sleep was so terrible from 6 months to 4.5 years due to undiagnosed sleep apnea, glue ear and severe dustmite allergy (he's hugely improved now but we still deal with bad nights and leftover behavioural issues). I felt such weight on me for him being that way that I would regularly have panic attacks just by being in a darkened room at night trying to be quiet and getting either of my boys to sleep. Lots of panic attacks in the middle of the night, unable to physically get away out of the room/house like I wanted to because I was trying to calm and soothe one of them. My husband does bedtime 95% of the time because if I try to be a good partner and do 50/50 it is so detrimental to me that it’s not worth it for either of us in the long run.
There are really odd things I find stressful that are usually tied to some bad memory or thinking I can’t do things, there are endless ways things like this can manifest. One of them is our greenhouse. I don’t like to go into it or look after anything in it, it was built when my first son was a few weeks old and I was still dealing with the side effects of pre eclampsia. Last year I got so stressed with the idea of plants failing in there and determining that that meant I had failed at another area of my life. While I know that this is not a normal thought process, my feelings around it were very real for me. So I ask my husband Joe to deal with some things like that and bless him he always agrees even though I’m sure he doesn’t understand the reasoning!
I have a few very close friends and relatives who I can talk honestly to, it takes trial and error to find who these people are. Not everyone is suited to it or able for it, which is totally fine, it’s just a bit of work to figure out who you can go to. I’ve tried counselling, haven't had great success with it because again it’s trial and error to see who you click with, but this trial and error costs money unlike chats with friends! And between my son’s medical and therapy appointments and any I’ve had for myself, I’ve gone over the entire thing so many times that I am just done talking about it from start to finish, so am reluctant to continue interviewing counsellors. I need a template email to send them with the whole story!
The problem with panic attacks or bad times is that you need strength to access the best fixes, and if you can’t muster that you’re stuck. Exercise, eating well, consistent routine, good sleep all help me, but if I can manage one of them I’m doing well, doing any or some of them consistently is very difficult, and motivating yourself when you’re already struggling is so tough. I often think I’m so lazy and I’m sure others do too, but usually it’s apathy due to being overwhelmed, just completely stuck in my head and can’t make myself exercise or go to bed early or just distract myself which is what I desperately need. That’s how I started drawing, a quick easy way to distract my brain out of spiraling or obsessive negative thoughts by replacing it with planning patterns on the paper. I’ve recently been learning about “flow”, particularly artist Josie Lewis’ Ted Talks about it, and it’s so interesting because that’s exactly what I accidentally discovered with my drawings, the ability to quieten the panic in my brain and soothe it enough with doodling that I can see clearly again by the time I’m finished. Sharing my drawings and thoughts on social media has helped me greatly, because it’s shown me that others think like me too and I’m not the only “weirdo” completely alone in my experiences.
In January I forced myself into taking up a 6 week membership I won for Crossfit Cu Chulainn in Fusion Training Centre, Athlone. This has been a huge step out of my comfort zone but I've found it incredibly helpful for me in terms of anxiety and having a bit of self worth. I'm trying to teach myself and my sons that thoughts are not facts, I thought I was no good at Crossfit or out of place but that's not true, in fact the opposite is true. I'm pushing myself to learn something new that benefits me physically and mentally even when I find it difficult and am panicking before I even go in the door. It's great for focusing and calming the mind too, no time for racing thoughts when I'm trying to concentrate on counting sets or learning something new.
One of the people who helped me the most was a Play Therapist I met for my son last year. Out of all the professionals I’ve met over the course of dealing with his sleep issues and their effects on him she was the most helpful. She gave me great honest clear cut advice which changed how I parent, and how he childs! We had both developed bad habits that helped us survive the incredibly difficult years with his undiagnosed issues, and she really helped me see them and understand that it was time now for them to go. He wasn't the helpless toddler screaming desperately for the pain and discomfort to stop long enough to let him sleep, he was the older boy screaming at almost everything because Mommy remembers the bad nights with that sound and will give in and do anything to stop it. She brought such clarity after just an hour with him and gave me sentences and mechanisms to help us both navigate our way out to more normal communication. She also told me I wasn't a terrible parent and had done so much to help him so far, which was nice to hear after hearing the opposite for so long.