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  • Writer's pictureRachel Chan

Opening up....

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

I remember the very day it happened. I was minding my own business during an afternoon at infant school (probably playing in the pretend shop or something – remember those!?), and I got word that the rather strict deputy head teacher wanted to listen to me read. Assuming I was in trouble, I nervously obliged. In fact, she had been informed by my regular teacher that I read well for my age, and she wanted to see for herself.

From then on, I lived life hearing and believing that my mind was my greatest asset. Being scrawny with glasses and frizzy hair, my face was certainly never going to be my fortune, so I was quite happy to have something to work with! Not wanting to disappoint, I stretched myself as far as I possibly could, only finishing my professional exams well into my 20s and setting my sights on a high-flying career, a successful marriage, and a house full of children. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an era where women were encouraged to ‘have it all’, so I went for it! Nobody in those days ever mentioned caring for your own mental health, and mine was certainly ignored.

Little did I know, that around thirty years after discovering its potential, my mind would become my worst enemy and I’d be living every day trying to control it, in order to stop it from controlling me. I knew that depression and anxiety ran in my family, but I was going for a life without limits. So, instead of being proactive and looking after my mental health as soon as anxiety reared its ugly head or even before, I swallowed the pills and pushed those feelings down as far as I could, choosing to 'feel the fear and do it anyway'. At the time, this was the approach favoured for anxiety sufferers, but for me, it ended in me creating a situation where I was so out of touch with not only my feelings but also my body, that when I suffered a significant trauma later in life, I didn't realise I had PTSD until I could no longer stand up long enough to clean my teeth in my own bathroom.

Up until my first miscarriage, I managed to keep my anxiety at bay enough to go through life having the odd course of therapy and a tiny dose of beta blockers. Whilst finishing my professional qualifications and attempting to support my parents though my mum's chemotherapy, I decided to embark on a round of IVF. We'd already gone through various other treatments including surgery and medications, and I wanted to get on with achieving our goals. Our IVF produced one embryo which didn't implant. Less than a month later, I fell pregnant naturally but the complications and miscarriage that followed would prove the final straw for my mental health. I threw myself into work but struggled to get ahead to the promotion I had dreamt about. After a really steep decline in my mental health about 12 months after the miscarriage, three years later I'm still living with PTSD, anxiety, depression and perhaps the most limiting, agoraphobia.

When I was younger, to admit that you had a mental health problem was not met with support and understanding as is starting to be the case now. It was associated with weakness and weirdness, and I was already physically pretty flimsy and 'bookish' which of course to others translated to 'weird'. I remember at university disclosing a mild anxiety flare up to one friend who advised 'can't you just admit yourself somewhere as an extreme case'. Super helpful.

It's experiences like that which encouraged me to keep my struggles to myself, often burying my feelings so deep, I didn't even allow myself to acknowledge them. So why open up now? Well, the conversation around mental health has changed, and continues to change. My experiences have made me a part of that conversation whether I like it or not, and it feels time to share. I've certainly noticed a difference in attitudes to mental health even in the past fifteen years. Various campaigns (including the Royal Family's recent 'Heads Together' initiative and various tv advertisements) seem to have shifted the way we look at some mental health disorders, and I've been both surprised and impressed at the way that mental health seems to have been at the forefront of discussions around the effects of the recent lockdown restrictions.

In terms of where I'm at personally, I’m essentially living on two different sides of the same coin. On the one side, I’ve lost my mind, my independence, my babies, my career and almost my marriage. On the other side, I live in a beautiful place, in a gorgeous little house with my husband and dog, and have some amazing friends and great hobbies in my life. I genuinely believe that my situation is not insurmountable, but I am facing the reality that life is not going to look the way I had imagined. I've recently started some new CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) treatment and feel hopeful about that. I like to describe myself as a happy realist!

Since I’ve now got some free time on my hands, I started this blog to share some of my reflections on the events I’ve been through, and how I try to keep that coin the right side up. We’re led to believe that mental health problems accompany weakness.

I’m here to tell you that in fact, they involve great strength.

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