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I never thought that self-image would be my un-doing

Posted: 13/05/19

#Mentalhealthawarenessweek: The second anonymous blog this week, this time from the perspective of a carer.

I never thought that self-image would be my un-doing

Warning: contains content that some people might find upsetting

As a carer, I’d always felt that stress and anxiety was just a part of my life, something to cover-up, ignore and tolerate. For nearly 50 years, I’d just got up and carried on. Whilst I understood and empathised with friends and family who struggled, I thought I’d been blessed with some kind of super power or somehow become immune. I’d lived through childhood trauma, work traumas, relationship traumas - cared for my family, built a home, built a career. Whatever it took I could be relied on to support my family, friends and work colleagues. I was always upbeat, I was always coping - Until very suddenly and unexpectedly I wasn’t.

Whilst I put my effort into coping with the day to day, depression had been sneaking stealthily into my life undermining my self-esteem, my self-image and my self-control. It slowly brought with it a confusing array of thoughts, feelings and emotions about every decision I’d ever made in my life. I tried to ignore it, but eventually I started to feel that I didn’t know myself anymore. The image I had of myself was no longer a reality and I had absolutely no clue what to do.

Although I carried on working, it was becoming harder to mask how I felt.  I retreated - from friends, family, ambition, responsibility. I stopped paying bills, I stopped engaging with anything that wasn’t getting up, going to work and then coming home again. It took every ounce of my energy to go through those motions. I hated looking at myself, I hated being seen. I hated the thoughts in my head. I hated not being in control. I hated that I didn’t know what to do. If I couldn’t rely on myself then what good was I? So, in a split-second decision I tried to take the ultimate out. And it was only in that moment that I realised I needed to get help.

The first steps were a mix of complete rest and medication, both of which I was resistant to. Thanks to support from friends, family and work colleagues I was reminded to take the time I needed to try to come to terms with what had just happened. I’d forgotten the basic rule of caring for others – to take care of yourself first. Physically and mentally I didn’t feel like I was the same person anymore. My biggest anxiety was that I would never be the same again.

Trying to find the right kind of counselling was hard. Luckily my employers were able to get me some help as part of my phased return to work. During the early sessions I found it hard to do anything other than express my self-loathing, but I knew there were unspoken traumas that needed to be addressed. I’d learnt the hard way that coping isn’t about neatly packing away your anxieties and traumas, at some point you have to let them go. This would have been unthinkable to me before, but once I committed to the idea and had the support of my counsellor, it was remarkably easy.

I think some people (including me) expect you to take some time off after mental health difficulties and then return the same as you were before. My phased return to work was tricky. My work persona is an important part of my self-image, it signifies achievement and control for me. But my mind wasn’t as quick as it was before, and I worried that it never would be. My hardest lesson was not to expect too much too soon.

The uncertainty of recovery is a difficult thing for employers to plan for – How long will it take? What do you need? What can we do? The answer to all of those things was “I don’t know”. Those three words became my standard response to many things in my life whilst I tried to find my way through a fog of emotions and thoughts. Where they once would have filled me with fear, I learnt to accept that I didn’t have the answers and that it was ok.

I never thought that self-image would be my un-doing. Several months later I’m still on medication but my mind is quicker again, and I can look at myself without hatred. It still frightens me how quickly I unravelled, but I know now its important not to dwell on things from the past. I’m also more accepting of my limitations. We all carry around baggage of the things that have happened in our lives, but eventually even the strongest of us will run out of strength.

What I’d like to see…

  • I think there needs to be regular checks-ins for Carers that reminds them in a practical way how to look after themselves.
  • Mental Health awareness and understanding is scarce amongst employers, but really, it needs to be treated in the same way as health and safety. Every organisation should have at least one person, (preferably many)  looking out for the mental health and wellbeing of staff