Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘GAD’

It’s time to talk

Today, the 6th February 2014, is “time to talk” day. This is run by the charity Time To Change, which is led by both Mind and ReThink (mental health organisations). The idea behind today is to open up and be honest about mental health, to start a conversation and to help break down stigma. This is my contribution.

I’ve had mental health problems almost all my life. As a child I self-harmed and binged; I’ve had depression since my early teens. My current diagnoses are cyclothymia with underlying depression,and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). But what does this actually mean?

Cyclothymia is a mild form of bipolar disorder. Where most people’s mood averages out as a straight line with occasional fluctuations up or down, this is what my unmedicated moods look like:
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The psychiatrist who diagnosed me explained that cyclothymia often requires treatment with mood stabilisers as the hypomania (the highs) can be pretty disruptive. But because I have the peculiar combination of cyclothymia and depression, my base line is lower than most people’s. For example, at the moment I am a bit hypomanic. But instead of displaying the usual symptoms of hypomania I am what most people would consider to be normal. I’m enjoying playing with my children. I’m getting the housework done, I’m singing along to the radio and I’m able to talk to other parents in the school playground. I still find it hard to sit still without fiddling or fidgeting, my thoughts race and I constantly have new (usually impractical) ideas about what I want to do next. But for the most part I am “normal”.

Of course unfortunately this means that my low moods are lower than the average. When I’m in a trough I struggle to get out of bed, I struggle to interact with anyone and playing with the children is an almost unbearable ordeal. But this is also a kind of normal for me; this is what I’m like when I’m unmedicated and the depression strikes.

Cyclothymia isn’t just having hypomanic highs and depressed lows, though; there’s a reason it’s also known as “rapid cycling bipolar”. Although moods can last for days or even weeks, they can also change in the blink of an eye. Some days I can cover the full mood spectrum in a matter of hours, never knowing how I’m going to feel from one moment to the next. This isn’t in response to anything – I can be having a really good day and suddenly plunge into the depths of depression. It’s unsettling, not just for me but also my family.

Then there’s the anxiety. Mostly my anxiety focuses on my family – I live in perpetual terror that someone I love is in danger or about to die. If DH is late back from the shops he must have been run over. If the phone rings it’s obviously going to be DD’s school telling me she’s had a serious accident. At night I wake up repeatedly to check that 2yo DS is still breathing, and his recent surgery was almost more than I could bear.

The minor focus of my anxiety is quite common: I often struggle with social situations and talking to strangers, which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that I worked in the civil service for 6 years and used to present at high-level meetings and international conferences! But for now that’s how it is at the moment. I recently had to describe my social anxiety to a friend:

“Chatting to people at playgroups, in cafes, even the school run can be torture. When I have to speak to someone unfamiliar in a social situation my heartrate increases and my breathing gets shallow. My mouth goes dry and I feel as though my throat is closing up. If I can’t escape then I usually end up having a full-blown panic attack”.

Obviously this causes problems when it comes to having a social life of any kind! Although I sometimes manage to meet people for a casual coffee, in the last year I’ve only managed to go out with a group of friends once. Just once, to a local restaurant, and even then I could only stay for about an hour and a half before getting overwhelmed and having to leave.

So there you go. That’s me. Mood zipping around like a demented pinball and perpetually anxious. 🙂 I’m happy to answer any questions or comments that you may have, both here and in person if you know me. So come on – let’s talk.

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My inferiority is complex

I always got high grades at school. I played several musical instruments. I went to university and obtained 2 degrees. I had good jobs, first as a forensic scientist and then as an analyst for part of the Foreign Office.

And now here I sit. I am unemployed, unfit to work and living on benefits. My husband is also unemployed at the moment and has been for some time. We have 2 small children whom we manage to feed and clothe adequately (partly thanks to my mother, who pays for their coats and shoes). My husband and I aren’t fed or clothed as adequately – we mainly eat pasta, I’m down to my last pair of jeans and the only shoes I have are an old pair of hiking boots. (At least they’re practical for this never-ending winter! :-)).

So what happened? After the birth of my daughter I was unable to return to work due to a combination of PND and what I now know to be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). I was eventually dismissed from the job I loved on the grounds of ill health. My husband had lost his job some months earlier, when DD was only a few months old, and so we had no income and no way to pay the mortgage. Eventually the inevitable happened – we were declared bankrupt and our home was repossessed, forcing us to move in with my parents 200 miles away.

After a couple of months we discovered that I was unexpectedly pregnant with DS. We had to move out and start claiming benefits. Fortunately by this time DH was working again but he was made redundant when DS was 6 months old.

My mental health still isn’t good enough for me to work (I have recently been diagnosed with cyclothymia as well as GAD). Degenerative disc disorder means that even if I was mentally fit to work I would be unable to do any job more physical than sitting in front of a computer.

And I am ashamed. Although this situation isn’t my fault, isn’t our fault, I am deeply ashamed of what my life has become. I hate not being able to work, being reliant on the state and my mother’s charity. Every time someone asks me what I do I say brightly “Oh, I’m at home with the children at the moment” as though it was a choice we had made (and of course if money was no object I’d be happy to be a SAHM while the children are young).

Most of my friends are university friends and have good jobs. Many of them are starting to have children of their own and returning to work, something I was unable to do. I hate my weakness in not being able to go back to the job I loved. I feel inferior to those who choose to return to work and inferior to those who have to. I feel inferior to those who are wealthy enough to have one parent at home through choice. In short I feel inferior to just about everyone.

I used to be so confident, so good at what I did and I had a bright future ahead of me. These days I do almost anything I can to stop acquaintances realising the truth of what I am – the double stigma of being mentally ill and living on benefits is too much. I can’t remember the last time we had friends over, or the children had someone round to play – we always go to other people’s houses instead.

Rationally I know that I have little to be ashamed of. This situation isn’t our fault, we do all we can and things will improve one day. But I feel the shame nonetheless, and inferiority has become a part of my identity now. It’ll take a lot to shake it loose.

Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts

At the moment I’m like an aeroplane tossed around in turbulence; dropping like a stone one moment and bouncing back up again the next. Never knowing when the next air pocket will take me by surprise. I just want a nice smooth journey where I can get up and stroll around and maybe have a drink from the trolley. Maybe even pilot my own aircraft for a while instead of having to rely on autopilot medication to give me a smoother journey.

I took the first step towards this today when had my psychiatric assessment. It was much easier than I had anticipated – I think I had built it up in my head as a big scary confrontation with a besuited bloke sitting in judgement behind a large desk. In fact the guy wore jeans and a shirt and was very affable and friendly.

He was very thorough and at the end of the assessment he told me that in his opinion I have generalised anxiety disorder. He’s pretty sure I don’t have bipolar 2 as my GP suggested but wants me to keep a mood diary for the next few weeks to check for possible cyclothymia. He’s going to refer me for CBT (hopefully the proper face-to-face one this time instead of the crappy computer one) and suggest to my GP that she increases the dosage of my anti-depressants.

We spent quite a long time discussing my mood cycles and their effects and at some point it dawned on me that I have no idea what it’s like to feel normal. I don’t know whether my upswings are what a regular person would call normal, or whether they take me higher than that. Fortunately the mood diary has a detailed scale in it so I just have to find the appropriate box to tick.

It did make me wonder though. I keep saying that I want to be normal, that I want to function normally. But somewhere along this road I lost sight of what ‘normal’ feels like. I have had depression off and on for nearly 20 years; I have self-harmed for about 25. Would I be happy being normal? Would I even recognise it? What is normal anyway? When it comes to mental health does ‘normal’ even exist?

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