This year, I was sat in a classroom learning about relapse prevention as part of my training to be a mental health nurse. When I was 18, five years ago, this isn’t where I thought I would be in 2015. Before I became unwell, I’d never thought much about mental illness. Five years later, I’m embarking on a career dedicated to supporting people who experience it.
I had what you could describe as a ‘perfect’ childhood. I had the support of a great family, got on well with others and had a great set of friends. I excelled at school both academically and at sport. I left 6th form and headed off to study a science subject at a top university. I did what all 18 year olds do and flourished in my newfound freedom: I met some brilliant people, threw myself into my studies and played football for the university’s 1st team.
Things began to change halfway through my first year. I struggled with the fact that I was no longer top of the class: I was studying alongside hundreds of other extremely bright individuals and I was ‘mid-table’, if not below average. I was self-critical and punished myself for not performing. I became depressed and withdrew from everything and everyone that I enjoyed.
I remember when I realised I needed help
I don’t remember the first time I heard voices, but remember when I realised I had to reach out for help. I was sat in my room doing some work late at night and heard what I thought were two people having a blazing row in the room next door. I couldn’t tell what was being said but knew from the tone it was an aggressive confrontation. I rushed out of my room and banged on my neighbour’s door, who answered dazed and confused as I’d obviously just woke her up. Retreating to my room I began to reflect on other experiences, how I had heard people arguing before in rooms or behind doors. I didn’t know what to think, I could no longer trust my own sense of hearing. I was scared and isolated myself further.
After a number of weeks of continued, worsening experiences I decided to speak to my GP. At this point I had started to pick out words from the mumblings such as ‘disappointment’ and ‘failure’. My GP was great, really understanding and acted straight away in referring me to early intervention services and university support services. I struggled on for six months, but eventually managing my degree as well as my mental illness away from home became too much and I moved back in with my parents.
What followed was two years of appointments with psychiatrists, sessions with nurses and a lot of medication. I expected to be better straight away and be in a job in a couple of months, and I became frustrated when things didn’t happen this way. However, with the support of professionals and my family, I got there. I’ve been off medication for over a year and haven’t heard any voices in over two years.
My experience made me want to help others
When I was recovering, I read a lot about different mental illnesses and different treatments and found it fascinating. As a result of my own experience, and because of my interest in mental health, I decided to train to be a mental health nurse.
I think my experience helps me to do my job well. I suppose that most people can empathise with somebody who is physically unwell, as we have all experienced physical illness. However, being mentally unwell is entirely different and I think having lived experience makes it easier for me to understand how they are feeling, what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Choosing to train as a nurse was the best choice I’ve ever made. I was most encouraged by my psychiatrist who said that I had ‘so much to give so many’ and during my last meeting with her said that she hoped the next time she saw me would be in a professional capacity.
Stigma is something that still affects me. Working in mental health, you would expect that I would be able to be open about my illness, but I'm not. It's very much us and them, even though a large proportion of those who work in mental health have suffered ourselves! Even in the mental health profession, there’s still a lot of work to be done to change attitudes towards mental illness.
I still have bad times and do still take antidepressants, but I feel positive about the future and proud of myself. I can’t wait to qualify as a mental health nurse and start making differences to those who are in the darkest places.