Today is World Mental Health Day so I thought probably a day to write one of my occasional blogs. This is quite hard for me to write. I’ve tried to keep it succinct but it’s a bit long.
I started my Registered Nurse preparation in 1973 and I retired in 2017 – that’s 44 years of full-time work. I worked clinically and in nurse leadership for 28 of them and then in academic leadership for another 16. I was (am) successful in both areas, became a Director of Nursing in an Acute Trust and then led a Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, became Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor and was awarded Professor title. I spoke, wrote and published for many of these 44 years. Was pretty well-known. Have a couple of textbooks under my belt, old now, but good sellers in their time, lots of articles. This is not trumpet-blowing, it’s simply a reflection of the facts. Good for me. But underneath that success was a different, untold story.
I had my first bout of severe anxiety in my late twenties. (I may have had one before, but I’m not sure). I was a Night Sister at the time. I loved the job – the autonomy, the busyness, the requirement to know something about a lot of different things. I was really ‘feeling’ my professional confidence. One morning on my nights off I started to feel ill. I was dizzy, nauseated, hot and sweaty, my hands tingled, I thought I was going to faint. I couldn’t breathe, my chest hurt, my heart was beating irregularly. I went to A and E, where they did all the expected things. Bloods were fine, nothing on my ECG. Because I was staff they kept me overnight for observation, but sent me home next day. It scared me. It kept happening. I thought I was going to die. I was constantly preoccupied waiting for the irregular heartbeat, surreptitiously feeling my pulse. My GP was kind and referred me to a physician who told me there was nothing wrong. He didn’t say I had anxiety or suggest anything other than rebreathing into a paper bag. I didn’t want to go out in case I was ill. I kept working – I felt safe at work. I became very depressed, had a psychiatric referral resulting in out patient treatment for depression. I still didn’t really believe it was anxiety and depression. How could it be? I was a competent professional, dealing with emergencies and significant clinical issues all the time. I spoke out. I supported others. How could I be anxious?
The bouts of severe anxiety continued to happen regularly. They would last for a couple of months, then subside, sometimes accompanied by depression, sometimes not. In my thirties I began to have episodes of supra-ventricular tachycardia. It was exhausting and frightening and reinforced my feelings of imminent death. I saw a cardiologist who told me to have a baby (yes, really), I obviously didn’t have enough to occupy me. I was a senior nurse by this time, working in practice development, travelling around the country and overseas giving talks, speaking at conferences. I was holding things together, but it was hard. I was on hefty doses of beta-blockers, then even heftier doses of verapamil.
By the mid nineteen-nineties the anxiety and subsequent depression had become chronic. I became really quite ill and didn’t work for almost a year. Prolonged episodes of SVT were a real problem. A Nurse Director friend put me in touch with a cardiologist who specialised in conduction issues. Within a couple of months I was diagnosed with a re-entry syndrome, had a partial AV node ablation (of sorts, it was pretty early days for interventional cardiology) and, hey presto, the SVT stopped. The multiple ectopics stopped. I came off all the medication. I was cured. There had been something physical wrong with me after all.
And then? The bouts of anxiety and depression kept coming back, without the cardiac symptoms. With help, I began a long period of accepting that this was and had always been, a mental health problem. Years of counselling, of regular anti-depressants (which by the noughties were much more successful), I found an SSRI which suited me well. I learned what the things were that pressed my anxiety buttons. I learned to recognise the symptoms at a very early stage and to seek help straight away. I recognised and accepted that this was me. That this had always been me. That anxiety and depression were my thing and that it didn’t make me a bad person, or an inadequate nurse, or something I had to hide. It was just a thing I had to learn to live with. And so I did. I had almost twenty five years of fighting with it, but when I stopped fighting it and started working with it, goodness me, how different it was. Not for my career – that continued on its successful, upward trajectory – but for me. Recognition and acceptance of my occasional mental ill-health – hard won, but so liberating.
It hasn’t gone away. I still take medication a lot of the time. But I’m not scared of it or ashamed of it. I know it. Anxiety and depression didn’t and doesn’t diminish my achievements or undermine my success. If anything, it makes those achievements and successes more extra-ordinary.
If you recognise anything here – I hear you, I feel for you. Get help. Work with it. Good luck.