Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Mental Health

 As we are currently in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to share a little about my own mental health. I’ve undergone several brain surgeries since 2007, my most recent being Feb 2015 and I can honestly say that I am very much aware of how my mental health has subsequently been affected.

To be honest, as "The English” – there are several topics that we just don’t like to talk about or even really acknowledge. Mental health issues are certainly one of those subjects.

I was warned by my surgeon when having to undergo my first open brain surgery that my personality could well be affected. The general expectation would be that (assuming nothing went wrong during surgery), it was more than likely that I would become either a) a more aggressive person or b) a more sensitive person – likely to take things more personally and feel more hurt or upset by things. Well for me, it’s certainly been the latter. Having undergone 2 further open brain surgeries since then, it’s even more apparent.

On top of this, I have suffered with panic attacks and anxiety issues alongside periods of feeling very down. Some might even say periods of depression.

Panic attacks, for me, are something that I honestly hope others don’t have to ever experience in their lifetime. Actually – scrub that – I would like everybody to experience one in their life so that they may have a little bit of empathy towards those who do suffer. The only way that I can describe the feeling that rushes over and consumes me is that of genuine fear. How I would imagine it feels if you are going to be murdered. My heart feels like it’s going to explode, my breathing rate goes crackers, my hands go numb followed by tingly sensations. I sweat. I feel like I’m going to pass out and there’s times where I’ve almost (quite literally) not made it to the toilet. It’s really not fun. Especially if you’ve ever been driving up the A1 on your own at the time. The old breathing into a paper bag trick does actually help. It’s something to focus on if nothing else. But not entirely practical when you’re trying to pull over so you can rummage around in your bag.

I have had periods of time where I have been relatively panic free but I still have anxiety issues that seem to come from nowhere. For no real reason. Like, if I want to pop into Tesco’s. Seriously. I read somewhere that supermarkets are one of the main places for people to have a bit of a wobble. Something to do with no windows and the lights they have in there. Unfortunately – and please be ready for a wee bit of TMI,  my main problem with these anxiety episodes involve me needing to find a toilet. The Tesco toilet in Royston and I are very very well known to each other.  

I will often get this before I’ve even been able to leave the house. So even if my head isn’t playing up too much, my guts are. I’ve had many a time that my main daily intake has consisted of Imodium and/or Peppermint capsules. It’s basically like a form of ibs that’s caused by an anxiety that I might not even be registering in my brain.

Most people who’ve spent any time with me in general situations like standing in a queue, waiting in the Dr’s waiting room or being in the hospital environment know that I’m a “rocker”. Either standing up or sitting down – I’m not fussed. My best friend of nearly 30 years just refers to me as “doing an Arthur Fowler”….. “you’re doing an Arthur, dear” followed by “I’ve stolen the Christmas club money Pauline”. Some of you MUST remember that! Haha.

I have a couple of friends who have suffered with mental health issues over the years, Bulimia being one of them. My other friend is suffering with something that generally people assume would make you a lunatic. It’s called Borderline Personality Disorder. When she told me she had been diagnosed, my instinct was to tell her basically, “right-oh. Let me go and read up about that so I can help or understand what’s been happening to you”. Her response…. “You’re the ONLY person who has said that”. Now – I know it’s not something she’s announced from the rooftops so there wouldn't be a million people she'd told, but I had to ask myself why? Why was I the only one who actually wanted to go and have a little research session on something before making assumptions? Why would I NOT want to do my best to understand my friend's mental state? Someone I care about is dealing with a pretty tough mental health problem. Is there anything i can do? Ask yourself the same question.

Needless to say that I have been given a few medications to try over the years but nothing has really helped as an all-rounder and so at the moment I’m just getting a nice drop of Rescue Remedy down me as and when I might feel a bit anxious.

I mentioned it all once to the brain surgeon I was under originally at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge – Mr Kirkpatrick. A very experienced Neurosurgeon at the top of his game. He basically pointed out that even people who have never undergone any form of brain trauma suffer from anxieties and panic attacks so I shouldn’t feel so bad about it. He also announced that if it was up to him, he’d give me a slap round the head and tell me to just pull myself together. He then admitted that that was perhaps why he had failed his exams in Psychiatry. Great. Thanks for that.

Now – as much as this whole battle seems to be about me, it’s not. Those who are around you also have to deal with the fallout. The general stress that is created for them to cope with. The missed days out. Even just something as simple as going for a walk in the lovely countryside that we are blessed to be living in can become a rollercoaster for everybody. The turning around to go home because I think I’ll die from crapping myself. Ha. It’s a flippin nightmare for all concerned. I certainly have the support from my Maff and my Max but I know that’s it’s bloody hard work for them too.

To this end I am awaiting an appointment so that I can actually get onto the waiting list to see a Psychologist. I would very much like to try some cognitive therapy. The chances are I’ll end up having to pay to see someone privately but it’s worth a go. I find it tremendously important for people to be able to talk about their feelings, especially with their family, friends and loved ones without the “shame” that I think so many people feel if they’re not conforming to “normal behaviour, feelings or emotions”.
I’m definitely a little softer in the middle than I used to be and I guess that sometimes makes it easier for the arseholes in this world to think you’re just a bit of a fruitcake who deserves no respect or compassion. Or for people to just make assumptions about you without ever really taking the time to at least try and understand where you’re coming from or what you might be going through every day. I don't have the "normal" life that I used to have. I don't even have the "luxury" of being able to go to work anymore with the amount of migraines and severe headaches I have. But make no mistake about it – I know I am one of the lucky ones. I was on a ward several times over the years where I was face to face with others who had not come out of their surgeries or causes for surgery as seemingly unscathed as me. I would get so annoyed whenever I was asked the basic questions to check that my brain still worked properly – especially maths questions! But there were women who couldn’t even talk anymore. Didn’t even know what day it was. Some who couldn’t feed themselves and whose light seemed to have gone from their eyes.

In the end though, the light in my eyes is still very much there. Still burning. I’m not out yet. And I am definitely still “me”.
PS - if you can, have a watch of Louis Theroux's A Different Brain on iPlayer here
(French, ahn-bawn-pwan)
noun   Excessive plumpness; stoutness


  1. Hey, I enjoyed reading your blog, thank you for sharing your experiences, sorry to hear you're suffering.
    I have had anxiety, depression and panic attacks my whole life, but mine were due to bad experiences through my childhood. I am also extremely sensitive and I get very bad bouts of insomnia and sleeping generally can be quite tough.
    I never found any meds that helped, nor Psychologists, but I did find help in meditation, free-writing and therapy. I no longer have panic attacks, and only get the odd anxious day now and then. I believe everyone can heal from them and would be happy to share what helped me

    1. Hi Jamie
      Thanks so much for reading my post and for your feedback. And I am sorry you too have had to go through such tough times. It's great that you've managed to find something that works for you, and yes! I would love to hear more about what's helped. Please. X