I had a high workload that required completing out-of-hours, when everyone went home and when I got home too. I was under pressure to perform, constantly hour after hour when 30 new pupils walked through my door. I gulfed down a cereal bar and sipped water when I could. Often going hungry and dehydrated. I was on my feet from 6:00am to 6:00pm, so with an aching body I shrugged off any form of physical exercise in my spare time. Being constantly on the go, my compromised immune system surfaced as colds and cold sores. Through sheer exhaustion, I failed to recharge during weekends and went into the new week with a broken body. I was being pulled in a whirlwind of directions from work, in a body that was drained completely, battling emotional highs and lows from a struggling relationship and the rollercoaster ride of my physical health symptoms. Every time I ate my stomach cramped in ways that stopped you from standing. And if that wasn’t happening, I was suppressing the urge to release the contents of my bladder from wherever I stood or tried to distract myself from the back passage pain and red contents of the toilet bowl. My symptoms were complex – each issue causing distress to the other and accumulating its impact on my body and brain. And so, my mind began to disconnect. From family, friends, colleagues and my relationship too.
I woke up one day paralysed with emotional despair and feelings of being overwhelmed. Days felt like weeks. I was alive, but I was lifeless. I felt isolated and alone; I lacked motivation and purpose; I struggled to stay present as I was squashed under negative thoughts; I was unable to cope with everyday tasks such as getting dressed or having a conversation; I had no interest in anything that once gave way to joy, and my dietary habits ranged from binging carbs and sugar to no interest at all. With staggering effort, I visited the GP for a continuance of my sick note-I eventually resigned- just under two months of my first full-time job. I was diagnosed with stress–related anxiety and depression.
Everything came to a halt. They say that when you don’t have your health; you have nothing. This felt immensely true. I felt like I had failed and I felt like I was failing every single day with no job, no income, alone with my thoughts and emotions. The world was grey and as I often said, I was pinned down by a “sad cloud”.
It took time before I allowed some serious lifestyle changes to take place. I redirected what was left of my energy towards baby steps. My first baby step was getting up at the same time, every day and then making sure I got myself showered and dressed. Due to my depressive symptoms, I really benefited from simple routine. Starting slowly with small achievable goals and celebrating the success of meeting each goal were key. When we go through painful emotions from negative experiences, we allow these feelings into our lives for days, weeks, and months. However, positive experiences like promotions, new friendships, altering poor habits are seldom celebrated. Spend more time celebrating the good. Allow yourself to truly acknowledge your achievements, whatever they are. Everyone’s views of success differs. Ask yourself what being successful really means to you.
By utilising mindfulness and meditation strategies such as controlled breathing, increasing awareness of how I felt (particularly in trigger situations), researching and implementing cognitive behavioural therapy and keeping journals on how I felt regained a sense of control. When I felt particularly anxious, I laid down, and I mediated. I wrote endlessly in an attempt to untangle the thoughts that clogged my mind. I was dragged deeper into myself and I surrendered so that I could see exactly the way things are.
Through physical exercise, I froze downward spirals of negative emotions and tiredness by fighting back with endorphins. I remember my first day at the gym… I walked in filled with dread and anxiety, then straight past the spin class I aimed to attend and ascended up the stairs to the girls changing rooms and into hiding. I needed support. I turned to the woman washing her hands in the basin next to mine and asked her what she knew about the spin class. From here, we conversed effortlessly, and I learnt about her journey from leaving her job and using this class to focus on her health and recovery. Was this a coincidence? Or is it, as I found to be true later in my group therapy that this issue commonly circulates amongst many of us. From young to old, from gentle to rough, from weak to strong and balanced equally between both males and females.
Picking at my wristband, snapped me back into the present and away from unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes I would do this up to 8 times in one go. Now, I do this once every few days. I ate my food as medicine and although I binged on snacks often, my body slowly stopped relying on frequent naps. I then did the simple things. I went for walks. I read. I wrote. I asked my mother how her day went. I got hot chocolate with friends. I spent time with my boyfriend. Focus, really focus on the present. When you eat, eat, when you walk, walk. Admire the fading sunset colours, and the way the trees dance in the wind. I cannot emphasise finding the beauty in simplicity enough– it bought me a feeling of peaceful content. I was now armed with increased motivation which I used to attend GP/hospital appointments and put myself forward for group therapy.
I had beautiful discussions about the importance of putting your health first from a cousin who I reconnected with, a caseworker from the teaching union, the Head GP at my healthcare centre and friendships which were strengthened from patience and understanding. I felt a sort of humbleness wash over me. I used my motivation to apply and interview to a part-time job. Of course, there were days where attending work seemed impossible but encouraging words from my partner and from a friend whom could relate to the pain, helped shovel me out the door… It was not fun but the sense of achievement was worth it. Face those fears you have because through avoidance, you are only delaying your long-term recovery.
Overtime, the anxiety barriers gave away and my perception of self-worth improved. Whilst I was working on myself, I interviewed for another job role and made it to the final stage. No, I did not get the job, and yes it took me a weekend to recover from the tiredness, feelings of being overwhelmed and lack of sleep leading up to the day but I walked away with drastically improved self-confidence. The realisation, that I am able to succeed and able to pursue what I put my mind to. It felt miraculous.
I sit here now, writing and smiling to myself, knowing that I have fought back and I know that the journey isn’t over but I am equipped with the skills and knowledge to continue understanding and making positive adjustments to tackle my mental and physical health. 2019 was an earthquake causing many things in my life to break apart – I think they had to though because now I’m finding a better fit. I can now redefine my success and re-order my loves. I often read a passage I wrote inspired by an optimism technique. You write about where you want to be in 10 years from now; you write about where you are, what you are doing, who you are with, the smells, the feelings, anything to help envision it. In times of confusion, it can help to go back to this and re-align your well-being.