Online Diary: There’s more to mental illness than symptoms

There are some obvious things that are hard about having a mental health condition. The constant sense of foreboding, getting angry at the slightest thing and feeling like there is nothing in the world that can make me happy are hard enough. However on top of the symptoms there are many other levels on which my life is made more difficult.

Let’s start with medication. I have been on and off medication since 2012 and even now, almost exactly 5 years since I first went to see the doctor about my mental health, I am still working with professionals to try and find the right dosage and types of medication to alleviate my symptoms. I have taken medications in the past that have made me nauseous, have palpitations, aged my eyes by 20 years in the space of a month and even some that have perverted my sense of taste. Even now when I have finally found three medications that seem to have stabilised my condition, there are down sides in terms of side effects. I have very low blood pressure from one medication which leaves me feeling dizzy, another has a strong sedative effect making it hard for me to get up in time for work and the third increases my appetite which has led to me gaining a stone and a half.

Having a mental health condition has also had a huge impact on my ability to live an independent life. A huge factor in this is my inability to work full time. At first I cut down to part time simply because I could not cope with full time work. It was exacerbating my anxiety and depression and I simply could not maintain consistency and quality in my work. In the last year I have continued working part time to allow time for hospital and doctor’s appointments, therapy and classes to keep my health under control. Working part time has restricted my income and made me more reliant on my partner, who I have also had to rely on to manage the household chores, cook and provide emotional support. Sometimes this can cause immense frustration and I feel the major choices in my life have been driven by necessity rather than desire.

I also have to monitor my day to day activities and plan my life to a greater degree than someone without a mental health condition. Things such as staying up late, drinking alcohol and having lots of busy days can have a huge detrimental effect on my mental health. In my teenage years and when I was at university this was very hard as I watched my peers indulging in their ability to be carefree and reckless and paid a hefty price whenever I tried to join in. For example I can’t even decide on a whim to stay over somewhere as I need to make sure I have adequate supplies of medication, plan to have regular mealtimes and ensure I get at least 8 hours sleep.

All these things make it very difficult to forget for more than a few hours that I have a mental health problem. Learning to cope has made me mature before I would have wished to and I definitely feel older than 24. I know that following the rules I have established for myself over the last five years will keep me healthy and functioning but sometimes they take a lot of the fun and spontaneity out of life. The constantly battle for me is to learn to make the best out of what I have.

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My mental health hero: My manager

It’s been three months since I last wrote. In that time I lost my therapist as he felt therapy was causing me to be a danger to myself, fought through the mental health system to get new medication, and whilst all this was going on, started a new job.

I have been struggling with my mental health my whole working life and it has always been difficult. In the two unpaid internships I have undertaken since leaving university I have had very accommodating line managers who have let me have time off whilst I got used to new medication. However I was giving my time freely which is very different to paid work.

In my first full time paid job I was warned 3 months in that I might not make it past my probation if I didn’t find a way to deal with my crippling anxiety around driving alone at night in the dark. There was no suggestion of reasonable adjustments and my anxiety that I might lose my job made everything worse.

After this I tried going part time so I could access mental health services in my spare time. However my new employers took the opposite approach and ignored me completely. I worked from home with no company and eventually the lack of support meant I could not longer cope.

So in October when I started a new part time job with a disability charity I was understandably scared. Before I had even started my line manager suggested that I write a crib sheet for my colleagues explaining my condition and how they could help me. In this sheet I mentioned that I suffe from paranoia about failing at work and struggle when receiving criticism. The fact that my colleagues know this means they give me lots of reassurance at work and can frame feedback positively. I feel very liberated that I don’t need to hide my struggles at work anymore.

Just before the Christmas break my line manager pulled me into a meeting. She told me that the team had noticed that I was on my phone a lot during work hours. I thought I was getting in trouble and my mind instantly compared the situation to getting in trouble at my first job, sending me into a spiral of anxiety. Before I could reply my line manager asked me if I felt my phone was a safety blanket for my anxiety. I was amazed that she had the thought through the situation enough to realise this. She brought up reasonable adjustments and we decided to split my lunch break up so that I could take time in the morning and afternoon to check my phone if I felt the need. Her help has allowed me to stop a very damaging habit that perpetuated my anxiety.

I still have a lot of anxiety around work and it takes constant effort to stay in employment. However my manager has made everything a lot more comfortable for me. Being in work is really good for me. It keeps me distracted, makes me feel useful and allows me to be independent. I wish that more workplaces were aware of mental health issues and how they can support their employees.

If you suffer from anxiety and would like more support in the workplace you can contact Anxiety UK at partnerships@anxietyuk.org.uk.