Tuesday 21 July 2015

Mental Musings

I have written somewhere in the region of 30 blog posts; Some have been easier to write than others. This one is, perhaps, the most difficult to articulate. It shouldn't be; And yet, it is. It will be equally uncomfortable to read. Again, this should not be so.

The stigma surrounding mental health is deeply troubling. We would never consider telling a cancer patient to "pull themselves together", yet when it comes to mental health, there are many people who seem to think it is that simple. If only...

My "battle" with cancer is well known, amongst friends and my Twitter followers (many of whom fall into the category of friends). In all honesty, it wasn't much of a battle. It was a slaughter. And I won. Easily. There was no great fight, no struggles with adjuvant treatment. I had cancer, had surgery, and kicked the aforementioned cancer right up the arse. Piece of cake!
What is less well known, certainly amongst my blog readers and Twitter friends, is my struggle with my mental health. Cancer was, for me, a walk in the park by comparison to the 30 years I have struggled to stay mentally afloat.
I do not remember the first panic attack I experienced. I know I was around 14 or 15. Perhaps younger. What I do remember is that it changed my life forever. Attempting to describe, accurately, and in detail, a panic attack, is akin to describing the colour blue to a blind person. I can articulate the symptoms of a an attack; the terror, the hyperventilation, the disorientation, nausea and physical pain quite easily. To put the experience into words is almost impossible. Unless you have experienced a full blown panic attack, it is something which is almost impossible to understand.
Panic attacks happen, often without warning, and usually when you least expect them. A tightening of the chest, difficulty breathing, or at least, the perception of difficulty, when in actuality, every breath compounds the attack; from these initial stages comes an intense fear. Pure terror. The sweat pours from every pore, the stomach churns, the head throbs. Sounds become an echo; vision narrows and becomes tunnelled  with every breath. Tearing at the chest, I scratch myself so hard I bleed. The heart races. Waves of nausea flow over me. And therein lies the compounding factor.; the vicious circle from which it is so hard to break free from.
I suffer from an intense phobia of vomiting. When the nausea generated by the panic and fear overwhelms the mind, the fear of vomiting kicks in, exacerbating the attack. The nausea increases. As the nausea increases, the fear of vomiting grows ever stronger. Desperately, you try to regain control of your breathing, as blood pours from the deep scratches inflicted in a state of panic.
(Warning. The next paragraph is somewhat graphic.)
A rush to the bathroom, amid the panic. Diahorrea and intense pain in the stomach. Does this mean vomiting is imminent? Panic levels increase. Bowels go into overdrive (I did warn you!). Blood, tears and less pleasant bodily fluids flow. Knuckles are bleeding. How the hell did THAT happen? You later learn you punched a wall or a door, in sheer panic. You have no recollection of doing so, nor did you feel any pain. Gagging, retching, fighting the urge to throw up. More stomach pain. More diahorrea. By now, you literally wish you would die. You pass out, unconscious, on the bathroom floor...
(Graphic depictions end)
Awake. Vision widens. The echoes that ring in your ears pass. Breathing slows. The heart stops racing.. Physically and mentally drained, you slowly return to reality. One last deep breath as you wipe away the blood, sweat and tears. It's over. For now.
Try, if you can, to imagine that lasting for ten or fifteen minutes. It doesn't sound terribly pleasant, does it? Ten minutes is the average duration for a panic attack. Ten minutes. Now, try to imagine that lasting for 31 HOURS. Oh yes, I don't do things by half! A ten minute panic attack, for me, was a merciful blessing. Most lasted for several hours. 31 hours of non-stop panic is my "personal best". It is an "achievement" I hope never to see again!
I have Crohn's disease. (Mildly graphic bit coming up!). Of course, when the panic attacks first began, I had no idea that I had Crohn's. But, with every stomach ache, every attack of diahorrea, came the fear that this may be a virus of some sort. Enter emetophobia (the fear of vomiting), and the panic attacks were never far behind.
I saw numerous doctors, and was hospitalised many times, often for months. Anxiety disorders invariably lead to depression, and with no firm diagnosis of either Crohn's or the anxiety disorder, I became very depressed. Compounding this depression, I hit the bottle. It goes without saying that this only exacerbated the anxiety, depression and Crohn's disease. I became trapped in a vicious circle.
By the time I had reached my mid twenties, I was an alcoholic, fuelling my own depression with beer and scotch. In attempting to drown the pain, I was, unwittingly, making it worse by the day.
Eventually, after seeing a never ending stream of gastroenterologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, I finally turned a corner. I was referred to a psychologist, who, within 8 months, did more for me than any other specialist had achieved in 15 years. I learned how to manage my attacks. I understood and became able to rationalise my conditions. I became capable of separating Crohn's disease from my emetophobia, and with the right balance of medication, was able to start breaking free from the depression which had haunted me for so many years.
I detoxed from the alcohol, although I did slip, spectacularly, "off the wagon" when I was stabbed, some years ago. A failed suicide attempt brought me to the realisation that I was, once again, spiralling out of control. I do not propose to go into the details of my assault, except to say that it was unprovoked, and consequently I was unable to process what had happened to me. Sleep eluded me for many months, and was only achieved at the bottom of a bottle.
Another detox, a spell with Alcoholics Anonymous, and my local Alcohol and Drug advisory service brought me swiftly back to sobriety, and I have remained sober for 15 years.
I still have panic attacks. I suspect I always will. But, thanks to the strategies learned by CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), medication, and sheer determination, I am able, finally to control them, rather than allowing them to control ME.
I still suffer from depression. Again, I do not anticipate that changing. I am tired; exhausted, even. There are days when I find my existence futile. It is on those days I reflect upon my prior experiences, I have come SO far. I have a long way to go, but having survived a severe anxiety disorder, alcoholism, a brutal assault and cancer, I know that there IS a light at the end of the tunnel. It is true that I often wonder where the tunnel is, let alone the light, but I NEVER stop looking for it.
Cancer is a fucking doddle by comparison to a mental illness, or at least, it is in my case. Cancer can be treated. Anxiety disorders and depression can be treated to a degree. The rest MUST come from within. Depression, anxiety and phobias will dominate and decimate your life if you let them. And therein lies the rub. We all, almost without exception, get our arses to the Doctor at the first sign of a physical ailment. And yet, when it comes to our mental health, we are oddly reluctant, to the point of complacency.
Similarly, people understand cancer. They understand Crohn's disease. Physical ailments are easy to understand. People talk openly about them, offer support and kind words. When it comes to mental health, many people have no idea how to broach the subject, particularly when talking directly to the sufferer. This is something which needs to change. Mental health is every bit as real as a physical impairment, and needs to be treated with the same level of understanding. Whilst mental health sufferers may find it difficult to talk about their situation, that does not mean others need to skirt around the issue. Whether you are a person with a mental health condition, a family member, friend, or stranger, we NEED to keep talking about mental health. We need to treat it with the same consideration and understanding we would treat a cancer patient. Because, often, a mental health condition IS a cancer; a cancer of the mind, the soul, the very essence of what it is to be a human being. It eats away at you, grows and metastasizes.
It is absolutely VITAL that people treat their mental wellbeing in the same way one would treat a physical ailment. Mental health conditions CAN be treated, but the onus is, ultimately, on the sufferer to seek help. GP's have a much better understanding of the mind nowadays, and can make the appropriate referrals to specialists who can help. No one should suffer in silence. The internet has a plethora of support forums, where sufferers can share experiences. These can prove invaluable, as it often easier to talk to people who can relate due to their own experiences.
By talking, we can overcome, or, at the very least, start to manage our mental wellbeing. By talking, we can overcome the stigma surrounding mental health. There are countless conditions which affect the mind. By understanding them in the same way we understand physical disabilities, we can take control of them, before they control us. The healing process, the management of mental health conditions, overcoming preconceptions and the stigma all start by simply talking.
We all need to talk a LOT more about mental health, because silence kills.


TG said...

One of the finest statements encouraging people to deal with their shit that I've read. Will be passing it on to many others. Thanks MetalOllie!

MetalOllie said...

Thank you very much!