Let’s talk about mental health

The Firth of Forth, looking towards the Isle of May

One year ago today, I walked into work and burst into tears. I didn’t even make it to my desk. I felt the anxiety rising as I approached my office building. By the time I reached the top of the stairs I was shaking and hyper-ventilating. I walked past my office, sat in my boss’s office and wept.

I had come to the end of my ability to cope. It felt like my life was a house of cards and it had finally collapsed. My anxiety levels were in the red, my brain was screaming at me, I just wanted everything to stop. There was too much going on, too much to juggle, too much stress, too much, too much, too much…

For a few weeks leading up to that crisis I knew that I was struggling. I would disappear to the loo a few times during my working day and sit on the floor and cry. I reached out to a few people including my immediate line manager but instead of receiving the support I thought I was asking for, it felt like the pressure increased.

I sat in a meeting and I asked for help. The conversation, as I remember it, went something like this.

“I’m really struggling,” I said.

“Well, if you need any help, just ask.”

I took a deep breath and swallowed my pride.

“Thank you. I do need help,” I said.

It took a lot for me to say that. I had prided myself on how competent I was, how well I could juggle work demands.

“Okay. Well, if you need any help, just ask,” they repeated.

My heart sank. And a few weeks later, so did I.

I had what would probably have been called in the past a nervous breakdown. These days it would probably be classified somewhere between anxiety, depression and acute stress.

I had a lot going on. By day, I was working in the digital communications team at the University of St Andrews, managing multiple projects. At night, I was warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, the largest hall under one roof in St Andrews with around 540 students. My divorce proceedings were grinding to a horrible conclusion. I was trying to juggle work with seeing my children, and even when I had them I also had to juggle hall duties. I was in a relationship with someone but she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a series of operations, and then I got the news that I might have bowel cancer—I had most of the symptoms and would need to have that investigated.

The final straw was when one of the students at ABH went missing. His friends, on my advice, reported the disappearance to the police. My son Isaac and I stood for two hours in a hall corridor with the police as they searched rooms and took statements. Isaac was such a star, holding my hand saying, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to be here.” Me too, darling, me too. He was supposed to be spending the evening in my flat having a fun, mid-week father-and-son evening.

Two days later I had a breakdown.

I felt guilty. I felt I had let so many people down. If only I could have coped better, been stronger, done this or that… My mind was racing. I felt dizzy. My heart was pounding all the time. I was in a state of heightened alert. I couldn’t think straight. I was panicking all the time.

There were a couple of assistant wardens in hall, especially, who helped me so much, my neighbours, Chris and Will. They would check in on me. They would invite me into hall to sit with them at dinner. They would visit and sit with me and listen and chat and laugh with me. They helped me feel normal and they accepted me.

Occupational health also were really supportive. The occupational health adviser was a former warden so she understood the pressures that I’d been under: the lack of sleep, the disturbances, the constant barrage of emails that you had to keep on top of, the demands on your time and energy, the intrusions into your daily life and the need to make decisions at all times of day and night.

She arranged for me to see a counsellor, Andrew. He was brilliant. I saw him over six sessions and he helped me to understand what was going on in my over-stimulated, flooded brain. Over time, together, we brought my levels of anxiety down. I am hugely indebted to him for his care, his understanding, and his coaching.

I saw my GP. He advised that I start a course of antidepressant medication, Sertraline (Lustral). Within a few days, I felt it kick in a little and my levels of anxiety dropped. I could feel the anxiety was still there but it felt like the medication cut off the peaks and troughs; it was like watching a TV picture but with no sound.

But then things got worse. The longer I was on the medication, the worse I got. The anxiety was gone, but much of that had been dealt with in counselling. I then began to ‘shut down’ completely. For a whole week (it may have been longer) I didn’t get out of bed, except to use the bathroom or eat. I felt groggy and sluggish. I couldn’t put one thought after the other. I watched TV on my Android tablet and I slept.

I kept going in the belief that it would eventually get better. I was told the medication needed time to kick in. But it only ever made things worse. Four weeks into taking the medication, I felt like a zombie. I was physically shaking. I felt unable to stand still. I was wandering around, feeling agitated like something was trying to get out of me. And then I started fantasizing about suicide. I was having suicidal thoughts, considering the many inventive ways I could kill myself.

And then one day, as I was shuffling along the corridor to the bathroom, it suddenly hit me.

“It’s the medication!” I said, out loud. “Of course it is! It’s the medication. I don’t really want to kill myself, this is the medication doing weird stuff to my brain.”

I returned to my bed and started looking up online articles about the safest way to come off Sertraline. And from what I read, it’s a pretty nasty drug to come off. The advice I read everywhere was don’t come off it quickly.

I came off it quickly, over a long weekend in Wokingham at a friend’s surprise 50th birthday party. I had forgotten to pack any of my medication—although, I suspect my unconscious was really in charge of that one. But I couldn’t have wished for a better few days to come off that drug. I was surrounded by friends and love and laughter and I felt none of the side-effects that I’d been promised.

By this point, too, I had learned that I didn’t have bowel cancer, either. It was ‘just’ a large polyp that was removed and a wee drop of Indian ink was deposited to mark the spot. That’s right, I now have a small tattoo about 13 cm up my arse!

Deep breath.

I had also made the decision to leave the University, after working there for 12 years.

When I had returned home that morning from weeping in my boss’s office, I closed my flat door and said, “I’m done with this place.” It just came out. I love the University of St Andrews but I just felt so broken.

A few days later, I read something that further guided my decision to leave: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you ill”. That’s exactly how I felt. I knew that I had to leave, step out into the unknown and trust God and myself for whatever would come next.

On Sunday 5 August 2018, my employment with the University ended. I had not long moved from St Andrews to a wee house in Crail and I started to heal.

Five months later, in January of this year, I started a new job with Vision (In Practice Systems Ltd) in Dundee as a scrum master. We build software for the NHS. What a fitting next move. I am absolutely loving it. I’m so happy in that job. I work alongside some wonderful people. I feel included and valued and I’m really looking forward to what we can achieve together.

Life is simpler, I’m seeing my children most weekends and sometimes during the week. Life is good.

I didn’t share any of this on my blog until now, in part, I guess, through fear. In part because I needed time to process it. Last year was hard, really hard. Sometimes you need to finish the journey before coming back to talk about it.

My experience of deep, deep anxiety last year has changed me for the better, I believe. I feel more compassionate. I feel more patient. I feel more grateful.

The thing is, there is nothing shameful about mental health problems. I tried my best. I tried to carry too much on my own. I’m proud of what I achieved, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, but I’m grateful that after I hit my limit I found a way through to a place of healing and that there were some people along the way who cared and supported me.

I am deeply thankful to my counsellor Andrew, to my GP, to occupational health, to my friends and family for their love, their support and especially for listening.

That’s what helped me most—simply having people who were willing to sit with me and listen. Not try to fix me but to understand me, and help me to understand myself.

We need to talk about mental health more.


And speaking of mental health, today is also the 36th anniversary of the date that my late dad, Keith J Saunders, had his first brain haemorrhage.

Beware the Ides of March, indeed.

But that story is for another day.

I’ve moved house… again

Three houses in a terrace. The left most has a gable. Each has a door and four windows. Mind is the middle on.
My new house in sunny Crail is the middle one of these three.

After 871 days (that is 2 years, 4 months and 20 days) as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, University of St Andrews, I’ve hung up my gown and moved on.

I loved being warden, living and working amongst around 540 students and supporting a team of six assistant wardens. But it wasn’t great for my health, to be honest. It turns out you sometimes need sleep and time for yourself. And for many weeks I got little of either.

So I have moved back down the Fife coast to the East Neuk and am living in a wee two-bedroom mid-terrace house in Crail.

This is my third house move in as many years.

I’m much closer to my children now, and it’s an area that I used to cycle around over the years so I’m looking forward to getting out on my (newly serviced) bike over the next few months and gently improving my fitness.

From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua, sitting on the stairs. They are all wearing school uniforms.
From top to bottom: Isaac, Reuben and Joshua

The boys like my wee house and have been over to stay for a few weeks, and a few overnights during the week too.

I needed to buy a dining table and benches and a couple of chests of drawers (at Ikea, of course) plus a bunch of storage boxes for linen and shoes. But two weeks in and I have fully unpacked now and organised almost everything the way that I’d like it.

Here is to relaxing for a bit, regaining my fitness, losing the 2 inches or more than I put on my waist over the last 871 days, and figuring out where life will take me next. It’s exciting…

Here’s a video I found online from the developers. My house is featured about 17 seconds in.

Why I decided to SHARE my blood for medical research

The word share surrounding by multi-coloured speech bubbles

Although I attend clinics at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee on a regular basis, on account of my having inherited autosomal dominant polycystic kidney (ADPKD) disease from my dad, the last time I visited Ninewells Hospital in Dundee was when I accompanied a really close friend to her clinic appointment.

While I was waiting for her to finish, I got chatting to a woman in the waiting room who turned out to be a coordinator for SHARE. She told me about the scheme and I signed up straight away.

What is SHARE?

SHARE, the Scottish Health Research Register, is a new NHS Research Scotland initiative created to establish a register of people interested in participating in health research.

When you sign up for SHARE you agree to allowing them to use coded data in their various NHS computer records to check whether you might be suitable for health research studies.

One example is in allowing SHARE to use any leftover blood following routine clinical testing.

This can be incredibly useful when it comes to developing new tests, treatments and cures for a wide variety of health conditions.

Why I joined

Every time I visit the renal clinic—currently every six to nine months—I have blood taken to check my kidney function. They can’t possibly use it all when they do their tests, so I thought it sensible to give permission for my leftover blood to be used for research purposes.

As I write, there are currently 177,848 people registered.

You can find out more on the Register for SHARE website from NHS Scotland.

 

Getting fit again (and hey! so far I’ve lost 6 kg)

Six bags of sugar. This is how much weight I've lost in the last five months
This is how much weight I’ve lost in the last five months

On Friday afternoon I attended my bi-annual renal outpatients’ clinic at Ninewells hospital in Dundee. My appointments usually follow the same script.

Doctor: Hello, come in, sit down… how are you?

Me: Fine, thanks.

Doctor: Good. How have your kidneys been over the last six months? Any problems?

Me: Fine, no problems.

Doctor: Your blood pressure is a bit high, but you’ve probably been rushing to get here. Let’s take it again… Hmm… still a bit high. You’ve put on more weight, I see. You really need to lose weight. That will help with your blood pressure.

And off I’m sent with a slap on the wrist, a ticket to get my bloods taken, and an appointment for six months’ time.

Change of script

Well, dear reader, not this time. This time we had a change of script. I was in and out in about five minutes. No reprimand, my blood pressure was looking good, just a a request for bloods and to return in not six but nine months’ time (always a good sign when they don’t want to see you quite as soon).

The reason: over the last five months I have been exercising. A lot. And yesterday afternoon I discovered just now much weight I’ve lost: 6 kilogrammes (13.2 lbs).

I knew it must have been quite a bit: I am now back into my XXL t-shirts, and my 38″ jeans.

The last seven years have been in many ways the most brutal, the more difficult that I’ve ever experienced:

  • sleep deprivation (twins and then singleton) for about four or five years
  • two back injuries
  • two neck injuries
  • viral meningitis

Whenever I did exercise (walking, cycling or light dumbbell weights) invariably I’d get ill pretty quickly, within a few days I’d come down with someone, or I’d overdo it and pick up an injury.

And with a regular pattern like that comes fear. And so I ended up avoiding exercise because I didn’t want to get ill.

In June of this year I knew that something had to change. I was experiencing major headaches again, comparable with the ones I had experienced during last year’s meningitis. I knew that I’d put on more weight, I was already in XXXL t-shirts and these were beginning to feel a little tight. I was feeling so unfit and so ashamed of my size that I knew that I had to do something about it. It actually got so bad that I felt I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.

I knew that I could do it, I’d done it before, after I’d moved from Edinburgh to Fife. I just wished that I had written down what I’d done so that I could do it again.

So I committed to the following:

  • Eat less (especially, cut out unnecessary  sugars and sweets).
  • Cycle more.
  • Lift weights more.

With the exercise I committed myself to a little, often. And with that I got on my bike and tackled a familiar circuit that I used to do: home to Kilrenny, up the farm track to the main road, then back home. I knew that it would take me about 13 minutes to reach the top of the farm track, up a gently hill, and about 26 minutes to complete the loop and get back home.

A few weeks in, I started lifting weights again. A little and often. Squats, preacher curls, bench presses. I hit major muscle groups. I followed a couple of Men’s Health dumbbell guides that I’d collected over the years.

Then I went back out on my bike, and was amazed that I could go significantly faster. The weight lifting had given my legs strength. Who knew?!

Night rider

The clocks changed and I continued to go out in the dark. I have fabulously powerful LED bike lights that illuminate the road ahead. And that’s when I realised that one of my biggest enemies, one of the things that had been holding me back, was myself.

When I cycle during the day and hit the bottom of a climb there is a small, nagging voice in the back of my mind that says, “You’ll never make that climb!” And coupled with the fear of getting ill, or pulling an injury, my brain gives in and replies, “Yeah… you’re probably right”, and I slow down and don’t push myself quite as much.

But at night… at night I can’t see the top of the hill. And so I don’t hear the nagging voices. I’m in the moment, and I just keep going, until I find the top of the hill.

So, I set myself a goal: get from my house to the top of the hill in under 10 minutes. A week in to my challenge I got it down to 10′ 52″.

I then realised that I was taking it too easy getting from my home to the bottom of the hill, so a couple of weeks ago I set out with the attitude of going for broke.

I pushed myself harder than I had in a long time, through the pain, up the hill, pulling on my pedals when pushing hurt too much, pushing when that started to ache.

At the top of the hill I slumped over the handlebars, out of breath, my heartbeat in my ears, sweat turning to steam in the cool night air.

I unclipped my bike computer and held it in front of my front light. Five minutes fifty-six seconds. What?! 5′ 56″.

Well… that’s under 10 minutes.

Onwards…

The next year or two are going to contain a lot of changes, big and small. Some I will have little control over, others I will grasp with two hands. This is one of them. I’m getting back on track (metaphorically and literally), getting fit and regaining my confidence.

Yesterday’s renal appointment was a significant milestone. Let’s see just how much fitter I can be in nine months’ time when I present myself to the clinic once again.

The wait is over, time now to lose the weight

Dumbbells

Between 2006–2007 I lost six inches (15 cm) off my waist, through a combination of changing what I ate, lifting weights, and regular cycling. My motivation was to get fit in anticipation of our IVF treatment working and us having children; we now have three.

Fast forward seven years and sadly I’ve put it all back on again. A combination of being on the parent-of-twins’ sleep deprivation programme, two back injuries (from lifting babies and pushing buggies), two neck injuries (what happens when twins jump onto your head from behind), and last year’s episode of meningitis.

Back in September my GP told me not to push myself: meningitis takes it out of you. He predicted that my stamina might return in January or February of this year. Now we’re approaching the end of February I feel it’s time to start working myself a little harder. The fact that it’s Lent — traditionally a time of increased discipline — should also help.

My plan is that I’m going to start gently and gradually build up my level of fitness. My immediate ground rules are:

  • Drink more water
  • Go to bed earlier (sleep is really important)
  • No chocolate
  • No fizzy drinks
  • Lift weights (dumb bells) 2–3 times a week
  • Cycling 1–2 times a week

I have to admit to feeling a little nervous. I know that I’ve done this before, but back then I was younger and I didn’t so easily experience the back and neck pain that I can now. I’ve never really been good at pacing myself, it’s time for a crash course (I guess, without actually crashing).

I’ll report back with my progress.