There’s a wariness associated with mental illness. I feel apprehensive about sharing my experience with new people that I meet. But I’ve recently decided to talk more about it. It’s important. And, in sharing my story, I often feel reassured that people can relate. They can clearly see how it happened. But why couldn’t I see it when I was becoming more ill?
When I was offered a graduate job, starting a mere week after handing my dissertation, I excitedly took it. I’d always enjoyed a challenge, managed a very full work load, and was excited to throw myself into a new adventure. Ignoring a couple of personal dramas, work was the most important thing to me. I moved city at short notice, thinking logically about my new journey. And I loved it.
But without a break from uni, trying to maintain my friendships, and also adjust to a new living situation, I forgot to give myself much down time. I felt myself becoming agitated. But for a while, I couldn’t tell if I was excited or stressed. Being under pressure seemed to make me more creative, confident and elated. And this worked well for me in many ways. A lot of people believed that I was thriving in my new situation. I agreed with them.
But when a few added challenges were thrown my way, I started to sense the underlying stress. Experiencing a panic attack on the way to work was a clear warning sign. So, I talked about it. I turned to my usual stress- relief: running. I thought it was the release of endorphins I needed. I had a break planned at my grandparents house. Surely that would sort it.
But, by this point, the stress had affected me too much. So, the moment that I ‘stopped’ I fell into a psychosis. This means that adrenaline takes over the senses, your brain instinctively goes into fight/ flight/ freeze. It looks for things that justify your constant fear. So I experienced paranoia, delusions, hallucinations. Alternate realities. With no sense of how strange I was acting, I was confused when I had appointments with the doctors. And it took a lot of work to recover.
On reflection, I definitely hadn’t been realistic about what I could handle. But I had always seen this narrative of people working hard, putting themselves under pressure to achieve great things. ‘Work hard, play hard’. I was ambitious, worked hard, and didn’t realise there could be a severe cost to not being aware of your mind. I hadn’t studied psychology. I had some awareness of mental health, but associated mental health breakdowns with depression and suicide. Luckily I had no thoughts of self harm. With no notion of psychosis, and unaware that I likely suffered anxiety, I had no way of knowing I was at risk.
What often motivates me to share my experience, is the lack of awareness there is about psychotic episodes. Media depictions often associate it with crime, as dangerous people, or people with a difficult upbringing. Sometimes people perceive it as a weakness. But mental health illness can happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe we need to be more aware as a society.
More needs to be said about the risks of putting yourself under more pressure. It left me shattered for a while. And I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that, because, like I did, they may assume that working hard has no limit. Let’s check in on each other, and be aware of sudden changes in behaviour. Life has a variety of stresses, and you can’t be certain what cocktail of challenges may take you too far.