Yesterday, I had the enormous honour, and pleasure, of speaking at an event celebrating the NHS’s 70th birthday. The event was focused on highlighting the progress and leaps forward that have happened in Mental Health care and treatment in our amazing national health service over the past few decades.
The venue was filled with dedicated, incredible and passionate mental health professionals, patients and carers, and from what I heard and saw that day, I am both excited and hopeful for the future of our mental health services, and for the further progress to come.
It was a truly incredible experience, one that I found very empowering, but also absolutely terrifying. Although having a panic attack in a room full of people who know these conditions like the back of their hand is probably the best place to have one, I was determined to fight the oncoming storm off.
In the past I’ve given speeches about politics, performed (terrible) poems, and even done some karaoke (let’s never mention that again), but never, never in my life have I been so scared to talk to an audience.
Because, as I later realised, I’ve never actually spoken about my mental health publicly.
This might seem strange to hear as I’ve written extensive articles, blog posts and tweets about it, spoken to friends, family and strangers about it. But I’ve never actually stood up in front of a room full of people, and presented my most vulnerable, open and honest self.
There I was, shaking at the podium in front of over a hundred people, about to recall some of the hardest times and lowest moments in my life.
The classic insecurities popped up to greet me; what if they judge you? what if they think you’re weak? what if you say the wrong thing? Did I lock the door when I left this morning?
But as I looked out onto the audience, all I saw was love, support, understanding and compassion. I was safe here amongst this group of people who spend their days improving the lives of people like me. I was home.
So, I took a deep breath, and began. Below is the full transcript of my speech.
A Talk: Recovery Isn’t Linear.
Hi, my name’s Ruth, I’m 22 years old and I have anxiety.
When I was first asked to give a talk, my initial reaction was ahhhh, then absolutely, followed by another round of internal panicked screaming. But I agreed to do it, for the same reason that a few years ago, I began a blog documenting my best tips and tricks for overcoming anxiety and depression: no matter how terrifying, some things are simply too important to be silent about.
My big disclaimer was, and still is, I am in no way omniscient about the topics of anxiety or depression or OCD, despite having all three at various moments throughout my life. Whenever you think you’ve got a handle on it – boom – another symptom or fear comes popping out the woodwork and surprises you, like for me, party hats apparently.
I am constantly going through a process of discovery when it comes to mental health, and similarly, I am constantly going through a process of recovery when it comes to mental health too.
This is what my talk today is going to be about: a new way of viewing recovery from a mental illness, one that captures the messy, uneven and rollercoaster nature of it.
But first, a little about my journey. When I had my first panic attack almost five years ago, I literally thought I was dying. No really, I called an ambulance. My limbs were shaking, my heart was pounding, my head was slamming, I couldn’t breathe, and somehow my body was numb and in pain all at once. This lasted for hours. I had no idea what was happening to me, all I knew is that every instinct in my mind and body told me that this was the end. Fortunately, it wasn’t, but for months afterwards, that level of intensity was my daily reality, but daily I was determined to find ways to fight it.
Fast forward to a year later, and one sunny, saturday morning I decided to write a Facebook post, just giving a few of the best methods I had found that had helped me overcome my conditions.
I pressed send, then there was a few seconds calm pause, then I immediately had a panic attack. What on earth had I just done? All these thoughts were rushing through my mind like; what if people judge me, what if people see me differently now, what if people think I’m weak? I had spent so long hiding myself, and carefully curating this image of being a strong woman, and all of that was gone with the click of a button.
I was actually going to delete it, but as I reached for my phone, something stopped me. I found that I had messages from close friends, people I hadn’t seen in years, people I hadn’t spoken to in years, people I didn’t even know I knew, all asking me for advice, thanking me for speaking out, or telling me that they’d been going through the same.
Suddenly, it was like I had opened a door to a brave new world in which I wasn’t marooned on the isolated island I thought I was. There was a whole community of people out there feeling the way that I did, and when you’re fighting an enemy as powerful as anxiety, knowing you’re not alone is a powerful thing.
But one message in particular stood out. It simply read: got any more? And I did, but out of all the advice I’ve given over the past few years, one tip by far has had the greatest impact: recovery isn’t linear.
People tend to think that recovery is one upward trajectory. You go through a bad time, you get better, then you’re back to your normal self. Unfortunately, the complexity of human emotion and experience doesn’t quite fit into such a pattern.
I’ve met people with depression who can still just about get out of bed in the morning, I’ve met people with anxiety who no longer have panic attacks, but still have the cycle of doom trapped within their minds, I’ve met people with OCD who just really like doing things in threes, myself included.
It’s hard to say if anyone’s truly recovered from a mental illness, it’s more like a perpetual process of recovering. Now this isn’t all doom and gloom, far from it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve been there and seen it myself. But what I try to give people is a new way of viewing it, a new way of thinking about it, and a new way of reaching it: recovery isn’t linear.
But let me break down exactly what I mean by that.
The first key idea is that mental health is a sliding scale, a scale that everyone is on. Just as everyone has physical health, everyone, everyone, has mental health, even if not everyone has mental health problems. It’s a scale we move up and down on throughout our lives.
This means that mental health shouldn’t just pop up on your radar when you’ve called an ambulance for your first panic attack, it should be something you always look out for, and always look after. A good phrase I use to help people remember this, if you can excuse the bad pun coming up in a second, is to always keep your mind in mind.
Just as we’re told to eat vegetables, take vitamins and exercise to take care of our physical health even when we’re not sick, we should always be doing things to take care of our mental health too.
This rather simple idea has a far reaching impact: it tells us that even when we’re in the throws of a good patch, we should continue with the mechanisms we put in place to get us out of the bad patch. We shouldn’t assume that once we’re through the storm it’s going to be sunny skies forever.
Recovery isn’t just taking care of yourself when you’ve passed the mental health horizon, it’s about taking care of yourself at all stages of your life. Eating your vegetables.
The second is that you should see your individual self as just that, an individual. Everyone experiences their mental health differently, with different symptoms, different intensities, and different recovery patterns.
This mindset can open our eyes to what actually works for us, and what definitely doesn’t.
A good example of this is meditation, something pretty much universally recognised for dealing with stress and anxiety, for me, did. not. work. Whenever I would sit down to focus on my thoughts and breathing, I would just start hyperventilating. Not ideal. Similarly, when I was briefly put on anti-anxiety medication, having something unknown in my body affecting me physically actually made me panic more.
I would have been worried that two tried and tested and highly recommended methods weren’t at all working, but I was literally worried all the time. So instead, I decided to become a scientist about it, make it fun, though I know that may seem impossible. Through trial and error and a lot of testing, I found out what actually worked for me; what calmed me down and what sent my heart racing. Taking the time to figure this out is one of the main reasons I was able to right the ship so quickly so to speak, and even now when I hear anxiety whispering in my ear, I know how to very effectively shut it up.
Recovery isn’t a one-size fits all affair, it’s about what’s best for you.
The third is that it’s important to define what actually recovery is, and to see it as an ongoing, flexible process.
At first, recovery for me was taking the forty-minute train journey to work without getting off, or reaching for my paper bag – not the weirdest thing you’ll see on a London tube believe me. Then, recovery for me was being able to fight off a panic attack whenever I felt one coming on. Then, recovery for me was only having a panic attack every few months. Now, recovery for me is doing things every single day that terrify the living daylights out of me, hence this.
Recovery isn’t about being ill one day and better the next, it’s a slow-moving, gradual rollercoaster.
These three ideas can help people discover what recovery truly is: a bloody headache. It’s a continual process that takes trial, error, falling down, getting back up, and most importantly, time.
When I had this thought at 2am after a bottle of red wine – the philosopher’s witching hour – I felt like a lightbulb had just gone off. I shouldn’t be angry or frustrated with myself for still having the occasional bout of hyperventilation, or having a panic attack in a supermarket over what kind of shampoo to buy, or occasionally having to cancel social plans because I’m having a bad mental health day. Recovery isn’t linear.
Anxiety is like an ocean, it comes in waves. Tsunami’s at first, but just like any waves they decrease in frequency and intensity over time, until one day it’s just a, mostly, calm ocean. Over time, things get better.
If I could say anything to my younger self, or to anyone going through what I’ve been through, it would be this: poundland do really good stress balls.
Yes, things are dark and scary and horrible right now and yes, getting out of this hole may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life, and yes, you’re going to have many knock-backs, setbacks and relapses, make a tonne of mistakes, get better and then get so much worse. It’s going to feel like it’s never going to end and the truth is, maybe it won’t, not completely.
But along this path you’ve been thrust onto, you’re going to have bright, brilliant moments where you fall in love, do things you never thought you would, make memories with friends and family, and by the end of it become more happy, and more fearless and more brave than you ever thought possible.
These moments make it all worth it, even though I know sometimes it feels like nothing ever could.
They’re worth holding on for.
Recovery isn’t linear. The important thing is you keep pushing, and keep getting back up. every. single. time. And who knows, one day you may even get over your very odd fear of party hats.