We want to thank Nicola for sharing her story with us.
I’m Nicola and first experienced mental health difficulties in my mid-twenties after an incident of self-harming. Today I use the scar across the back of my hand as a daily reminder to be self-compassionate. Believe me I wasn’t always as grounded!
From that first incident until my first hospital admission over twenty years later I survived outside the system without knowing I was bi-polar, which was just exhausting but had become my normal. All the while I was trying to live up to the imagined impressions I believed people expected of me however the most critical person to deal with was myself. I put new challenges in front of me before I was even halfway through the previous ones, setting the bar higher and higher each time. All this was unconscious, I was only aware of the fast raging thoughts that tied me in knots and sense of inadequacy that dogged me. Sleep was also a lotto as overthinking was worse at nights.
Inevitably I would crash, and from a dark place, I would hit out. Me, my situation and any future plans i had were useless, not good enough and it was all my fault. At these times I would make bold, life-changing decisions in an attempt to “fix it”. This included, deciding to get married eighteen months before my 30th birthday (without a boyfriend at the time), I managed it but unsurprisingly the marriage failed. deciding I needed a more European, metropolitan outlook and accepting a job in Brussels for two years which effectively meant being alone in a hotel room every weekend.
I battled on, friends accepted my moods as “wackiness” but deep down I knew something wasn’t right. My GP was kind and patient and diagnosed with dsythmia (a low grade depression more than two years in length), I reacted against his advise and refused any medication. Another instance of me trying to fix things in a vacuum.
Jump forward to my present situation, the intervening years had involved self-medicating with alcohol. Not a pretty time but I got sober and remained so for 9 1/2 years. Unfortunately the accumulation of years struggling finally boiled over in a series of Work related stresses and I started drinking again. I hated myself and was suicidal. Things were very bad, deteriorated quickly and I was hospitalised.
Ashamed as I was to be in a psychiatric unit, what a relief to let someone else take the decisions for me. At this point my tank was empty and I had been running on fumes for far too long. Being in hospital scared me just enough to make sure I fully participated in whatever was asked of me. I even did the art sessions despite being incredibly self-conscious and quite rubbish at it. I tried mindfulness, which is still part of my recovery today. Most importantly I just let go, it felt like I had been holding my breath forever.
A condition of my release was to start counselling, something I had never done before due to the travel commitments with work which meant that I never knew where I was going to be. I waited almost three months for the appointment which wad an anxious period but I was determined to take any help offered.
Once home and more settled I realised I didn’t want to return to my job with the travel and pressures it now caused me. There wasn’t another plan in place but for the first time in my life I didn’t try to rush into anything. It was a counsellor who suggested I try to use my lived experience to help others. Now here was something I knew the truth about, something that was so me I wasn’t trying to be anything else. The sense of calm that accompanied thinking about a full on career change was all I needed to convince me to take the leap of faith.
With the backing of my GP, psychiatrist, counsellor and family I started to look at the options for a 47 year old bi-polar alcoholic. Surprisingly the list was limited to none. Changing tack I thought about retraining but all the courses related to mental health required a background in either health or social care. Changing tack again I thought about the competencies of being an advocate and came across an MA Advocacy and Activism at NUI Galway.
Now things were starting to click into place, I live an hour outside Galway and one of the silent promises I had made to myself was to spend more time sleeping in my own bed so I could try and engage in real life.
The course had places but funding wasn’t available for me, paying for it would reduce my savings to nothing without any means of support during the course itself.
Without counselling running along side these times of doubt, I would have folded. The opportunities to examine my options from all sides and know I was making considered and rational decisions, as opposed those previously driven by the manic need to “fix it”, were truly life-affirming. A whole new, positive experience.
I decided to take one day at a time and signed up.
The first day was quite an eye-opener, I was 30 years old than the other graduates but training is a greater leveller and we were soon all enjoying and struggling with the same things.
I was acutely aware that my memory had taken a bashing from my last illness and worried about my retention and recall. Once again my therapist and I were able to anticipate and prepare coping strategies. In practice this meant I needed to start my assignments a week earlier and make sure I got all the sleep I needed.
Today, lectures and essays have now finished and I’m concentrating on getting a job. Eighteen months ago I was still in St. Patrick’s Hospital totally lost.
This experience has shown me many things all of which I’d have told you I already knew but was not able to put into practice. My top three are that:
- friends accept you as the package you are – lumps and bumps,
- that money is less important than we imagine and
- that it is possible to like yourself (still having to work on this one).