At the age of 17 I suffered an episode of severe psychotic depression. At that age I had no idea what it meant to have a mental health problem; no one had ever told me about mental illnesses and I didn't have the words or knowledge to make sense of what was happening to me. I just knew something terrible was happening in my mind; and I can wholeheartedly say that no physical pain I have experienced in my life has ever come close to the level of emotional and mental torture I felt during this period of my life.
Although I was unable to recognise it at the time, the gradual and insidious onslaught of psychotic depression had actually begun some time prior to reaching crisis point. Looking back, during the months leading up to becoming acutely unwell, I experienced occasional visual hallucinations (I did not realise they were hallucinations at the time), anxiety and feelings of paranoia. Due to my professional experiences I now recognise this as the "prodromal phase" of my psychotic depression.
I began isolating myself from friends and family; and gradually withdrew from the world around me. I dropped out of school at the start of my A Levels. By the time I was acutely unwell all my energy was spent on battling my thoughts, and I had none left for anything or anyone else. On my worst days I was so crippled by anxiety I couldn't move; let alone leave my house. Consumed with disproportionate feelings of guilt for things I'd done or said in my past; my depression convinced me I was a terrible human being capable of causing harm to others. I was preoccupied by ruminations of the worst moments of my life. My mind was in utter chaos and macabre images of horrific things happening to myself and my family plagued and paralysed me.
Due to the psychotic element of my depressed state I swam against a current of paranoia that washed over me in gigantic waves; I was drowning - I couldn't breathe. One night, as I hid away in my darkened bedroom, I firmly believed that the sounds of a police car siren I could hear in the distance meant someone was coming for me; to lock me away for something terrible I convinced myself I had done. I became suspicious of my family and isolated myself from them, I was certain that they were plotting to hurt me in some way; or arrange for me to be taken away. Reality became an uncertainty and I could trust no one.
I was terrified and confused about what was happening to me. I remember thinking to myself, at my lowest point, that if this was how I was going to think and feel for the rest of my life I would rather die. I remember the day I summoned the courage to finally speak to my mother after months of silently battling these horrific ruminations and mental images. It took everything I had. All I could muster to say was "Something's very wrong"; and given my behaviour over previous weeks, she agreed. Things got worse before they slowly got better; but that was the start of my lifelong battle with mental illness.
That was the start of my journey through mental health services, of trialling various antidepressants, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines and sedatives (to aid the anxiety and insomnia that went hand in hand with the depression). Many of the drugs prescribed initially made my symptoms worse and/or resulted in physical side effects. This was the beginning of psychiatry and psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling and clinical psychology which, after many years, helped me to understand the connection between past traumatic experiences and my mental health difficulties.
Today I feel a million miles away from the shell of a teenage girl that mental illness reduced me to. But I still struggle. At 31 years of age. My journey of recovery is ongoing, lifelong even. It took almost 2 years of high doses of psychotropic medications and regular psychotherapy before I reached a point where I felt strong enough to start rebuilding my life. Although I came through the acute phase of my illness with a lot of support, the remnants of it left me to battle, over the years, recurrent mild depressive episodes and anxiety, obsessive-compulsive thoughts and an eating disorder - which I continue to have therapy and take medication for to this day and now have under control.
I wanted to share my story and give voice to my experiences with the aim of inspiring and bringing hope to those currently struggling. If mental illnesses had been discussed openly as I was growing up, when I became unwell I wouldn't have felt so alone. It would have normalised what was happening to me. It would have allowed me to vision a future where I didn't feel as I did. I believe that people stepping forward to discuss their mental health experiences openly, honestly and without shame, sets the path for creation of a world where mental health problems are no longer stigmatised; but just another illness that requires treatment.
I also wanted to highlight the misconceptions that people may have of those with mental health problems. The belief that psychiatric illnesses are rare and that those who suffer with them are dangerous or violent; that they are untreatable; that they are unable to work or to contribute to society in positive and meaningful ways. When, in reality, mental illness effects all of us. Sufferers could be your friends or relatives, we could be your colleagues, we could be your doctors and nurses, we could be you.
I don't think one can go through mental illness without a shift in their perceptions of others, themselves and the world around them. Mental illness left its mark on me. So much so that I went to university and trained to be a mental health nurse; I qualified in 2011 and I am so grateful and honoured to now be in a position to help and support others on their journeys of recovery. This is how I have found happiness. By turning my struggles into something positive. By using my experiences to aid, love and connect with others as a nurse. By acknowledging that for all I have lost due to mental illness, I have gained something in return. Mental illness has made me strong, resilient, compassionate, empathic, creative and so much more. And, I would not change a thing; as without it, I would not be the person I am today.
- Jasmine Amber
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