Welcome to this week's Thursday guest blog, an occasional series of discussions, opinion pieces and reviews. This week, another well-written, heartfelt and searingly honest guest post by writer, musician and artist Darren Goldsmith.
At the end of 2006, I fell ill. It was my own fault. Too many late nights, not enough sleep, not eating properly. Stress at work. We’ve all done it but I took it to the extreme… then out the other side. And kept going. On average, I’d been getting about 10-12 hours per week. Yes, you read that correctly. Per week. And I did this for about 6 months.
At some point, no matter how strong you feel, no matter the few hours of kip (or calories) you think you need, your body will decide to do something about it. In my case, I collapsed. Nervous exhaustion. Everything hurt. Even my hair. My body felt battered. My vision was blurred. I couldn’t speak properly. Couldn’t think straight. Understandably, I was pretty worried but stupidly assumed I was just ‘a bit run down’. I thought a few days’ (a week at most) rest would solve it.
After said rest, instead of feeling better, however, I felt worse. On top of everything else, I started to experience dizziness, light-headedness and feelings of disassociation. The doctor checked me over and said it was probably some form of Labyrinthitis, even though I wasn’t presenting classic symptoms. She gave me a prescription for some pills to nullify the motion-sickness and told me it could take up to 3 weeks to clear up.
Part of the problem is I worry about my health. I always have. Not the physical pain stuff - I can handle that just fine - but wooziness, dizziness, light-headedness… call it what you want, that stuff freaks me out. So, I took the pills, which made me feel more nauseous than I was before and 3 weeks later nothing had changed. I started panicking about my condition.
I’ve suffered panic attacks since I was about 5 years old (that’s another story). Not the general feelings of dread or worry that a lot of people call panic, but the hyperventilating, chest pains, think-you’re-going-to-die sort. Awful. And they can come out of the blue, even if you’re feeling OK. In the last ten years, I’ve managed to crack it and I can prevent a full-blown one occurring. During this period, however, with no reserve of energy to draw on, they were coming thick and fast.
I’d wake in the morning, dizzy and sick. Weak. I couldn’t stand without feeling I was going to fall over. It was like being on the deck of a boat in stormy seas. I’d hear screaming in my head. My own voice… unintelligible shouts. I had typical symptoms of disassociation - not feeling as if I was ‘here’ or that anything was real. Everything looked and sounded wrong, like I was underwater. Days and weeks of this. Not able to work, not able to function properly at all. It then stretched into months. Besides work, I couldn’t maintain any kind of social calendar. My friends dropped off the radar. I became agoraphobic and avoided social situations. Not because I was scared of the outside or people, but because of how dizzy those situations made me feel. All the things I’d taken for granted, like walking in a straight line… driving, watching TV (especially fast motion), pubs, restaurants, train journeys. None of those things were possible, without some violent adverse reaction.
To make matters worse, I’d checked up on my condition online. Trust me. Never. Do. This. I became convinced I had contracted something fatal or near to it. A brain tumour, Ménière’s disease… multiple sclerosis. All the horrible ways in which the body can break down and fail. The symptoms were identical, you see. Or so I thought.
I had umpteen tests. All of which came back negative. I was put on beta blockers to help keep me calm but they only made me feel even stranger. A specialist performed yet more tests and I had a brain scan. He told me the only reason I was feeling this way was stress and anxiety. There was absolutely nothing physically wrong with me. He gave me some exercises to do, which helped me with my balance. After an evaluation with a psychiatrist, I had sessions with a £200 per hour psychologist. And entered a period of enforced rest. I didn’t think any of this was working at the start but, gradually, over the course of 8 months or so, I started to feel more human. I stopped thinking I was going to die. I recovered.
For a period of two years after, I felt good. I still had the odd wobble here and there but nothing serious, nothing lasting. Then at the end of 2010, as a result of trying to get a novel written, I got into the same bad habits. Now, no one in their right mind would have done that to themselves twice, right? But that’s exactly what I did. I overworked. I didn’t sleep. Didn’t eat properly. Perhaps I thought, having gone through it once, I had become immune or something. I’m shaking my head in sheer disbelief while typing this.
So, for pretty much most of 2011, I suffered the same symptoms. However, this time I was determined it wouldn’t stop me getting on with my life. Despite feeling utterly horrid, I did manage to carry on pretty much as normal. Knowing that rest was essential, I made sure I got some. Because food was essential (who knew?) I ate properly. I tried to attend more social events and so on. Stress and anxiety were still high though and the dizziness and disassociation were still very much present. After another round of doctors’ appointments, I was sent for some further counselling. To be honest, I wasn’t confident this would work. I’d got it into my head that the way I felt, especially since all my symptoms had come back, was now a permanent thing.
The counsellor, like the psychologist before, used a method called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, for short. If you Google this, use the long form otherwise you might find sites that offer… erm, therapy of another kind altogether! Anyway, I didn’t feel the sessions in 2008 with the psychologist had been that successful - my recovery was glacial, and didn’t appear to be inline with any of the treatment – so I wasn’t expecting much from this new batch. Imagine my surprise then, when after the very first session, I felt better. It’s hard to describe. I knew (and it had been explained to me) that I had a long and bumpy road ahead to full recovery but somehow I felt… lighter. For the first time in several years, there was actual relief, as opposed to suppressed anxiety and false hope. I have no idea why this counsellor worked when I felt the psychologist didn’t. Perhaps it was because I was more receptive to the treatment at that point. Perhaps how she conducted the sessions just clicked for me.
As expected, it did take several months but I was discharged at the beginning of 2012 and have felt great ever since. I do still get the odd day when I don’t feel quite right (who doesn’t?) but, as a result of the therapy, I now have a set of tools that I can use to counter symptoms of stress and anxiety. I won’t go into the specifics of the treatment here, not because it’s private - because I’m perfectly willing to share if anyone asks - but because if you feel you might benefit from this kind of therapy, it would be much better to speak to your GP. And I’ve already written far too many words.
There’s a stigma surrounding mental health. If you succumb to any one of the number of issues, it’s perceived as a weakness, rather than an illness. Even some of my friends… those I considered to be good friends, reacted strangely (and badly) to what I was going through. I’d like to think this post helps dissolve some of that stigma but I suspect not. It’s hard to understand something you can’t see or haven’t experienced for yourself.
If you are experiencing mental heath issues, anything from anxiety/panic attacks through to depression, please… don’t feel alone. Don’t feel embarrassed. Speak to a professional. The route back to feeling better may be hard and long but there is plenty of help available.
There are two things I’d like to sum up with. One is that although I’d paid for the psychologist in 2008 (via a work insurance), the latter CBT sessions in 2011 were available completely free on the NHS. I couldn’t have afforded this treatment, as it happens, so I find it very hard to hear of essential services being closed down or that our wonderful health service may be carved up. What will happen to those, like me, who aren’t able to pay for healthcare?
The second is another thank you to my wonderful wife, Hayley, who was an absolute rock throughout the whole thing. I hate to think about what I put her through. I could see the distress and pain my illness caused. Yet she was, as always, wonderfully balanced and patient. And full of good humour. And love.
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