November 2020. I’ve tested positive for Coronavirus so I’m writing this post whilst in self-isolation. The UK is in its second lockdown. But it will be fine, right? It’s only four weeks, we’ve done this before. Only this time it feels different. It is different. Gone are the bright summer mornings and barmy, light evenings walking the dog through the countryside. Instead, it has been replaced with cold, and often rainy grey London, with its eerily empty streets and shuttered shops. It doesn’t help that I’ve been unwell for the best part of three weeks now. No, this time it feels different and there’s no two ways around it. It’s hard.
Since the prime minister’s announcement a couple weeks ago stating the country was entering lockdown again, I’ve felt a building unease in the pit of my stomach. The other day I awoke after another restless night’s sleep feeling nauseous with anxiety (and now I realise, probably a fever too). I ate my breakfast, and I couldn’t shift the feeling; I showered, and I still couldn’t shift it. My flatmate, Jonny asked if I was OK as I seemed dazed and out of sorts. I nodded, convincing myself it would pass. But by lunchtime I had pins and needles in my hands and sweaty palms. And by mid-afternoon I had reached breaking point and burst into tears. I hadn’t felt this kind of anxiety in years.
February 2012. I had graduated from university the summer before, broken up with my boyfriend, Darren, and had completed a three-moth unpaid internship at a PR agency in London. Broke, with no job or plans, I moved to my dad’s house in a small town near the Cotswolds.
I was 23, and quite honestly, I felt lost. At school and university, you’re taught skills and knowledge in the hope that it can be applied to a job that you’ll land once you have your desired grades. You’re taught how to write a CV, covering letter and standard interview skills but nothing prepares you for real life. Not really. Up until the age of 22 I had followed a structure of everything I ‘should’ be doing, and I fully acknowledge the privilege I have to have had those opportunities available to me. Nonetheless, once the scaffolding of early life came down; I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
I secured an entry level job in marketing and sales for a company in the town centre. It was a small town and having not grown up there I didn’t know anyone my own age. I was single for the first time since I was 16 and although I dated a few guys briefly, I felt quite isolated as I didn’t have any close friends nearby. But then I met Caleb.
Caleb was originally from Australia but worked quite high up in the marketing department at the company’s head office in America. He was young, charismatic, and always up for an adventure – he was the breath of fresh air I needed in the small, isolated town. Caleb would fly over to the UK every couple months or so and being the same age, we would often go grab a drink or go to the cinema after work. Very quickly we developed a secret, albeit casual, relationship (or so we thought).
It started with Caleb picking me up before and after work in the company car, but before long I was spending every night with him at whichever hotel he was staying at for the duration of his stay. At the weekends we’d take road trips to London, Manchester and Liverpool or mini breaks to Amsterdam and Barcelona. But despite feeling like we were in our own little bubble, there is no such thing as a secret relationship at work, and very quickly colleagues began to clock on to our romantic indiscretion.
My director, Kane, who you may remember from my ‘Yeah, Me Too’ blog post, noticed how much time I was spending with Caleb and his jealousy was quite transparent. He would often make subtle, snide remarks about Caleb to me, and gossip spread through the office about how Kane was seen peeking through his office blinds to see if Caleb and I got into the same car after work.
I was never happier at that time than when Caleb was visiting, but when he’d have to go back to America, I’d feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Gone was the romance and adventure, and I was left with the reality of my life in a small town in a job I didn’t really care for. Caleb’s absence would only highlight what I already knew deep down to be true; I wasn’t happy.
I couldn’t escape the feeling of not having a purpose or not having any control over my own life. I felt tearful a lot of the time or would experience pangs of anxiety, a feeling of unknown dread seeping through my body. I let seemingly small things consume my head and emotions, and I became obsessed with checking up on Caleb’s social media. I would obsess over what he was doing and who with, and anything I saw would determine my whole mood for the day. My weight dropped as I lost my appetite, and it took every ounce of remaining energy to drag myself out of bed each morning. My dad noticed it before I did, and one evening he sat me down and gently suggested that I talk to a doctor about how I was feeling.
I booked an appointment at the doctor’s and my GP confirmed that I was suffering with depression. It felt weird hearing those words. You hear about celebrities and assume ordinary people also suffer with mental health problems, but it’s weird when you hear your own diagnosis. I nodded, dropped my face into the palms of my hands and broke down in tears. I felt sad (of course I did – it was just confirmed that I was clinically sad!) but I also felt relief. Relief at finally understanding the reason behind how I was feeling.
The GP then further discussed my symptoms and my current lifestyle to try and determine what may have triggered it and therefore how I could start to treat it. I expressed that I wasn’t happy in my job, I didn’t live near any of my friends and I felt like I had no direction in life. I knew I had to make drastic changes, but I also didn’t have the energy to put those decisions into practice. I felt constantly emotionally drained and any remaining energy was zapped with bouts of anxiety. So, we discussed the option of medication. We agreed that I would try a mild anti-depressant which would ease any acute anxiety and help clear my head enough from debilitating thoughts so that I was able to make the practical decisions that would ultimately make me feel more fulfilled and happier. Finally, there seemed like there was light at the end of the tunnel.
But working in a small-town work environment, more often than not unfortunately results in a small-town mindset. Instead of feeling supported, a lot of colleagues who had heard whispers of my depression, used it as a form of entertainment. One middle aged woman started spreading rumours that I had an eating disorder, while another woman, who I once considered a friend turned on me and actually screamed in my face in an open plan office after I adjusted the air conditioning. I reported it all to HR, but it was quickly swept under the carpet and put down to women just being bitchy. Kane, finally realising that he couldn’t get what he wanted out of me, transferred me to another department with a different line manager. It was a toxic environment, which only heightened my growing anxiety. I would get home from work and immediately curl up in bed, exhausted from the office politics. I was so tired. Tired of the harassment, tired of the vicious rumours, tired of my long-distance non-relationship and tired of the complete lack of empathy. If I didn’t change something quickly, I would fast reach breaking point.
And then one day I woke up and I knew I had the strength to do what I needed to do. I still felt low and anxious, but I knew I had to start taking back some control in my life. I walked into work, straight pass Kane’s office and into my new line manager’s office. I passed her the envelope containing my notice of resignation. Exactly one month later I packed up a suitcase and moved to London. Which still remains to this day as the best decision I have ever made for myself.
I was 24 by the time I left that company. I had experienced sexual harassment, mental health discrimination and toxic office rumours all within two years at my first full-time job. It was an eye-opening experience of what it could be like to be a woman in the workplace. Once I moved to London, Caleb and I were never romantically involved again but we remained friends and over the intervening years whenever Caleb was in the UK we’d catch up over a few drinks. We even did a trip to Ibiza with a group of friends. Caleb will always be one of the most inspiring people I have met; forever positive, eager for adventure and he has even since gone on to give a TED Talk on travelling. Our relationship is a rare example of two people, previously lovers, who now have a platonic friendship and mutual respect for each other.
I don’t really talk about my experience with depression and anxiety with many people. I guess at the time when I was 24, there was still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health; thankfully in more recent years we have become more open as a society at recognising and talking about it. The few people that I have confided in outside of my immediate family, always express shock that I, a usually happy, positive, and confident person would ever have had experiences of depression. But it’s important to remember that depression and anxiety do not discriminate. It doesn’t matter where you live, what job you have, how many friends you have or what age or gender you are, one in four people will be affected by mental health at some point in their lives. There is no shame in admitting that you are struggling and there is huge strength in recognising that you may need help to overcome it.
By August 2014 I was off anti-depressants (gradually weaned off over a few months as recommended by my GP). I had been on them for about a year in total and thankfully, I have not had the need to go back on them since. I am not saying that they are for everybody and your GP should always be your first port of call when looking at treatment options. It’s important to remember that anti-depressants are not a ‘cure’ for depression, more an aid to ease the symptoms so you don’t become so consumed by it. They may be used in addition to other forms of treatment such as therapy. In my case, they helped me at a time when I needed to level out my head enough that I could make practical decisions that would help my mental health in the long run.
I’ve learnt over the years what my triggers are, and I’ve got better at identifying and mitigating them. Although, it’s important to remember that even recognition doesn’t make you immune. I can recognise that I’m anxious now and even what’s triggered it, but it doesn’t necessarily stop the waves of dread that periodically wash over me, leaving me fatigued and tearful. Living though a pandemic and then being unwell with said virus was not something I, or anybody for that matter, could ever really prepare for.
Distress in my romantic relationships used to be a big trigger, where I’d actively look for things that would make me feel worse, almost like a form of self-harm. For a long time, I believed that I wasn’t worthy of love, and that is why none of my relationships worked out. I’m sure a therapist would correlate this particular trigger and behaviour with bad experiences I’ve had with men from a younger age, right through my twenties, and they’d probably be right. But I’ve gotten better at not allowing men to have that kind of influence over my mental health. Over the years I have grown stronger in myself and mind. I know what my boundaries are, and I no longer have time for the people who don’t respect them. And if I have to, I will walk away from a relationship that is harming me, even if it breaks my heart. Heartache is painful and like many other forms of grief can be temporarily debilitating, but my mental health will always be my first priority.
I’ve also learnt that whilst someone doesn’t choose to struggle with their mental health, you should try to take responsibility for your own mental wellbeing where possible. If you know that something is a trigger or is likely to affect your mental health, then make the right decisions for you. In the past I have chosen to end relationships both romantic and platonic, change jobs, move home, or remove myself from certain situations as they were having a detrimental effect on my mental wellbeing. It’s not usually an easy decision, often it’s uncomfortable or hard, it may be a conflict of heart and mind or you may be labelled as ‘selfish’. But there is nothing noble about being a martyr at the expense of your own mental health. I try to strike a healthy work and social life balance where I can and have rest days where I’ll curl up in bed with a book all day. I like to do activities that can boost my mood and ease any building anxiety, like going for a long walk, yoga and running. And I’ve been known to disable my social media for months at a time when the negative impact far outweighs the positive.
I don’t claim to be an expert in mental health, I can only reflect and write on my own experiences of it. Although, I’d like to express that for anyone who finds themselves struggling, to remember that you are not alone. How you are feeling, as hopeless as it may seem at the time; it is not permanent. Some people may tell you to ‘cheer up’ or ‘snap out of it’ and I don’t believe that they are helpful or even possible statements. But it is important to remember that even your darkest moments are temporary and there are better days ahead. I urge you to talk, whether it’s to friends and family, a trusted colleague or to a professional. Just the action of trying to communicate your feelings to someone else can be the first step in identifying an issue, and therefore a step closer to treating it. And if you see someone else struggling, reach out to them. A chat over a cup of tea may seem small and insignificant (and very British), but it could make all the difference.
2020 has been a traumatic year for the world over. With an entire global population’s mental wellbeing being tested in one way or another. We are living through a pandemic. We have had to socially distance from our friends and family. We have lost jobs and loved ones. Our whole way of being has altered, of course this has affected people’s mental health, how could it not?! But as a race, humans are resilient, and we find a way of carrying on, together.
I finish this post as I finish my time in self-isolation and am permitted to venture into the outside world again. I walk the short distance to my local park in South West London and as I enter the gates, I feel the sunshine on my face, warm on my closed eyelids. I take a deep breathe to fill my lungs and the anxious knot in my stomach loosens slightly. I wiggle my clammy hands in the gentle breeze. I breathe out, a long stream of steam in the cold air and I open my eyes. You’re OK Jess, it’s going to be OK.
If you are struggling with your mental health here are some organisations which may help: