Updated: Oct 10, 2018
It was 1995, and I was 13 years old, this is when I think my anxiety started, it was when I first experienced the grief of losing someone close, my grandma, basically my second mum. It was then that human mortality hit home, and my worry started with that, worrying about death and the impending doom of nothingness. From that point on, I remember being a “worrier”, I worried about everything.
So naturally becoming a police officer at 22 seemed like a really wise decision. I joined because I wanted to help people, and my 8 year old self wanted to be a detective. After 20 weeks of training, I spent my first days on the streets, on my first day I had my first arrest and on my second I saw my first dead body. It was terrifying, but being a working-class Yorkshire lass, I got my head down and got on with it. But I always worried, I would replay the events of the day in my head and wonder if I missed anything, was someone going to die and it be my fault? did I deal with it correctly? I should have said this? I should have done that? To be fair, I never got negative feedback and always felt supported by my colleagues, although that wouldn’t stop the panic and worry.
In the police, the term “mental health” was used in a negative way, if you had “mental health” you had a mental health problem. If you were a police officer with “mental health” you clearly weren’t right for “the job”. Colleagues did not talk about their own mental ill health, for fear of being branded a failure, weak, “sicknote”, unreliable etc. Also, there was an unspoken fear that if you did have mental ill health on your police sick record, you would ruin your policing career. Every police officer I know has seen and dealt with terrible things and we all learned to compartmentalise it, if you couldn’t there was very little support following a traumatic incident, although I hear that it is getting better. I always thought I was fine, just part and parcel of the job, constant worry and if you couldn’t cope then you were a crap police officer, so I often thought that of myself.
It’s not until 2015, after I left the police and entered a workplace where people spoke more candidly about their mental health, that I realised I might have an issue with my own. I started to realise that there might be a name for my constant worrying and racing thoughts, “oh my god I have anxiety” the penny dropped after 22 years. And, more importantly, I no longer felt alone! I continued to self-manage my own mental health, I still carried a lot of self-stigma instilled from my upbringing and the police. I didn’t want to go to the doctors as I didn’t want it on my record and I didn’t want to be seen as weak or not being able to “handle it” myself.
My workload increased and I became really stressed which made my anxiety worse and I became depressed but it is only when it began to manifest physically did I think I needed to get professional help. As if I now had validation as it was physical and so had permission to do something. I had a consistent pain in my neck and shoulders and lower back, insomnia, I was clenching my jaw which then resulted in vomit-inducing tension headaches, I was constantly tired and constantly on the verge of tears.
Going to my GP, was at the time, my last port of call, I had reached the bottom. Before I could speak, I started crying and the GP signed me off work for 3 weeks, it all felt so easy and I felt so relieved and finally had a name for what I was going through. We talked about medication but I was frightened it would alter my personality, so declined, again lack of knowledge and self-stigma on my part.
After the time off, I went back to work thinking I was better, I wasn’t. I ended up rushing into a new job thinking that part time work would be the answer, it wasn’t. After just 6 weeks in the new job, I quit and decided to take back some control. I decided to live my dream and start my own company, you know, something relaxing!
Unsurprisingly, this did not suddenly cure me and solve my anxiety or end my depression, but it gave me the time I needed to get to know myself better, take breath and take positive action to get well.
I had been referred to an online CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) platform via the GP, which is a process you have to go through before you can get close to face-to-face counselling. I decided I couldn’t wait and so paid for private counselling. I also decided that I needed medication to help me, medication would help me make the most of my counselling and was a vital part of my self-care. I was prescribed Mirtazapine which is an anti-depressant that also helps you sleep, and it did really help me get and then stay asleep, and initially it quietened my anxiety, and more importantly it didn’t change my personality as I had first feared. However, I realised that the medication wasn’t right for me and I continue to work with my GP to find a better one. I feel that I have been so lucky, my GP’s are always understanding and never dismiss me or my opinion, but I know not everyone has the same positive experience.
One of the hardest parts for me was telling my parents, my mum had already noticed that I wasn’t myself but I had dismissed her observation as "just stress". I didn’t want to disappoint them, and I didn’t want them to worry more than they already did/do. But I had to be honest, I had spent too much of my life hiding my sexual orientation and quite frankly it was exhausting, I didn’t want to spend years hiding my mental ill health. So, I opted to tell them via WhatsApp, the reason I chose this method was because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through a phone call without crying. So, I sent a very formal message (I'm well known for doing this), and reassured them that I was going to be okay. Nevertheless, my parents came to visit me the next day, they were “down south” visiting my sister. We had a very honest emotional discussion about how I was feeling. My dad wanted to know why I hadn’t told them sooner, and he was upset that I had felt that I couldn’t and he also found it hard to believe I was depressed because he always thought I was “the light in the room”. I told him I am still that person, and always will be. I felt so relieved that they knew and that I didn’t have to pretend anymore.
This isn’t a story about how I overcame my depression and anxiety, it’s still an ongoing process and likely always will be. I know that I will always have anxiety, I am inherently an anxious person, but I now have the power, knowledge and support to notice and acknowledge those intrusive thoughts and feelings and where possible challenge them, I am learning to be more self-compassionate, and finding what works for me.
For so long I felt stifled by the culture I worked in which then grew into my own self stigma, had I been better informed and supported I might have felt empowered to access help sooner. I now work with people and organisations to help reduce the stigma, still associated with mental health, and use training and workshops to raise awareness and empower people to talk about mental health openly and freely.