June 4, 2009

Marnie talks about how her experiences led her to tackle mental health discrimination in employment through her job, and why taking to the streets of County Durham on behalf of Time to Change was so important to her.

I do not know where to start really. I work in mental health improvement for the NHS and yet even I feel nervous and concerned about committing my story to paper  there it is that little voice in the back of my head that is saying “What will people think?", “People will treat you differently if they know" and the one that has haunted me my whole life “People will not like you anymore". But I have to write my story because I am asking other people to, other experts by experience, to share their stories and how can I do that if I cannot share my own?

I think I will start at the end, well not really the end as we cannot ever be certain where the end is in mental health, so I suppose it is the present that I want to start from. Life for me is good right now, I am married and have a beautiful one year old daughter, I have a great house, a great job that I love and I am off on my holidays next month. You could say it is a happy ending. It is and it is not. Life is still hard sometimes. The past comes back to haunt me sometimes. I feel myself slipping sometimes. But don't we all? What I am is normal I have good days and bad days. Could I be happier? Probably, couldn't we all?

I could have more confidence, I could have fewer bouts of paranoia, my OCD could involve less washing up so my hands might feel smoother and look nice, and I could have more friends but would I want it differently? I do not know the answer to that. What I do know is that my OCD and my depression have made me know myself pretty well, I know when I am getting unwell and what I have to do about it, I feel stronger and wiser and I feel proud of myself for surviving when the times were harder than you could imagine.

The biggest sacrifice I have made due to my mental health is the feeling of loneliness. When I was 13 (23 years ago) and I first developed OCD and depression it was like someone took my world and shook it very very hard. It took many years for the world to stop and find where it should be. My family, who are great and have been my one stability throughout the last 23 years, said “tell no-one" and so how does a scared 13 year old explain very odd obsessive behaviour and weekly trips to a psychologist and missing school every Tuesday afternoon. People at school asked if I was pregnant!! But I told them nothing. Even my own brother we told nothing. Why were we telling people nothing - “Because they won't understand." Well 23 years later I hope we have moved on and many people have but many people still would not understand.

Being a suicidal, depressed 17 year old has its own problems such as sitting A Levels, alcohol, driving and what to do next in life. For me it had the added problem of being the start of a 20 year battle of trust. When I took an overdose at 17 my friends best friends said “typical drama queen" and immediately fell out with me. Not only was I severely depressed and suicidal now I was also very alone.

The same happened again at the end of my degree and I was hospitalised voluntarily for 2 weeks. Only 3 of my many friends visited, but I understand it was hard for them. My question is did all my friends leave me or did I push them away? It is sad to admit that out of all the people I went through university life with and I had one friend at the end. If you have been to a psychiatric ward you will know that you don't see many get well cards, balloons, flowers, grapes. People do not know what to say and so they say nothing. They do not know if you will get well soon so they don't mention it.

My one friend helped me to survive the hardest period of my life but that has its own problems. Imagine how guilty I felt, and still do even now, to be this awful depressing burden on her. She once said she was scared to come home at night in case she found me dead. I will never forget that but it changed me. I find it hard to trust people in case they abandon me if I get depressed again or conversely I don't want to be a burden to anyone again. I am amazed that I actually got married – that was a leap of faith.

Now I keep people at arms length, I have lots of acquaintances and I know when I get depressed I start to push people away. Push them away before they can abandon me. I like having friends, I am a really sociable nosey person but it is just safer this way.

Mental health issues change your life and society has so many stigmatised notions it is like a double battle, swords in both hands fighting your way to health and acceptance.

It is amazing how many different people have “not understood". Ex-boyfriends who said “tell no-one". Doctors, nurses, employers, colleagues, even financial advisers all making judgments about me based on an admission that I have experienced a mental health problem in the past. I broke my leg when I was 12 funnily enough no-one has ever asked me about it. The financial adviser skipped over the mental health questions on my life insurance application saying “that would be stupid". Not disclosing is actually fraud. My previous employer thought I was brilliant when my business was doing well and I was bringing in the big money but then a traumatic incident at work left me on the edge and my employer soon wanted rid of me, so I was on the edge and they pushed.

I work in mental health improvement because I want to change the culture we live in. I want people to be able to talk openly about their mental health without having to worry about how other people will respond or how others will judge them. As someone who knows how it feels to have that thought go through your head of “should I or shouldn't I" as you tell someone new, be it an employer, friend, lover or anyone. I know how discriminated against I have felt and how ashamed I have felt when I have told people and not had a good response. That is what motivates me to do what I do now. I do want to change the world which is a cliche I know, but I hope there will be a day when people won't experience mental health discrimination and that can only be done by dispelling the myths and changing people's attitudes.

In my job now I work with employers to help them become “Mindful Employers", to develop mentally healthy workplaces by looking at their policies and practices. When I worked for one employer I was treated really badly and that is because people think they can get away with treating you badly when you are vulnerable and unwell but it is not acceptable for anyone to be victimised and bullied and we need to change the myth that mental health problems are a sign of weakness.

This summer we are taking to the streets of County Durham and Darlington to engage the public in talking about mental health as part of the Time to Change campaign and that is exciting to me, that is what makes me come to work every day. I want to play my part in changing people's attitudes so that when my daughter is grown up society might treat people with mental health problems like human beings. I want to get other people who have had similar experiences to open up and tell people because when we start talking about mental health it will become more acceptable, people will start to say “I know how that feels, I have had that too" and then society might finally realise mental health problems are not rare at all.

Just to recap I have only ever had OCD and depression. I have not committed a crime or killed anyone. So why have I been judged and discriminated against? I have been told the same thing for over 20 years “Do not tell anyone". Do not tell friends, lovers, employers, financial advisers etc. Why not?

That is why I am telling you now. This was hard to write I feel anxious and exposed, yes my pulse rate has risen since I started typing and I have looked over my shoulder a few times to see if any of my colleagues can see what I have written. People might judge me, might change their opinion of me. Maybe they will but we all have mental health, sometimes it is good and sometimes it is not so good. I am not going to be ashamed any more. It made me who I am. I have survived more than most people ever have to endure. I am still here. I have not got a problem with it so why should any one else.

To end I will leave you with a final thought. I nearly did not have children because of my mental health. I felt I should not inflict myself on a child, I really felt I did not deserve a child, I thought I would be a useless mother. I know this is rubbish as I am someone's mother now and it feels amazing. I do not want other people to let their mental health hold them back and stop them living the life they deserve, the life we all deserve.

We all have mental health I actually think mine is pretty good. How is yours?

Marney Ramsey 2009

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