Diagnosed with depression at just 16 years old, Sarah has been battling her mental health on and off for ten years. When her depression took a turn for the worst, she chose her health over the financial freedom of a job. With a strong belief that recovery is not a race, her story reminds us that with every bump in the road – we are stronger.
Explain the origin of your mental health issues i.e., what is your mental health issue, how did you realize what was happening, how was it affecting your everyday life at the time?
I was diagnosed with depression when I was 16 years old, I had been a bit sad and flat and at my mother’s suggestion, went to see a counsellor. From the age of 16 until 25, I struggled with my mental health on and off. I took medication, saw the occasional psychologist but never really took it seriously. These feelings were all that I knew and because I was high-functioning most of the time, I didn’t feel I needed to do anything about it.
Just weeks after my 26th birthday, my mental health took a turn for the worst. Triggered by the rejection of an important relationship to me, all the emotions and trauma I had been bottling up for years finally decided to release themselves and I broke down. For the first time in my life, I found myself unable to get out of bed and go to work. I was physically and mentally unable to complete my uni assignments.
Thankfully, I was able to recover from this episode quite quickly but continued to struggle with my mental illness over the past two years. The most recent episode has changed my life considerably. It has left me so low-functioning that I couldn’t continue to work full-time and had to leave my job. There were days that I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t find the strength to cook dinner or do the dishes, feed the cats and even shower myself. My confidence was at an all-time low, I was so anxious. I started to experience physical symptoms such as nausea and headaches.
What was the resounding moment when you decided to get help? What made you do it?
The moment for me was when I broke down in tears during class one day. I so desperately tried to keep it together but the feelings were too strong. I was scared and for the first time, felt sick and knew I needed help. I rushed over to the campus medical centre in hopes of being able to see a counsellor, as there was no way I was going to be able to drive myself home in the state I was in. They told me there were no appointments available and I panicked. I needed to see someone because I was worried about my wellbeing. I saw the triage nurse and told her I was scared and I didn’t know what to do. She booked me into see the next available doctor who managed to squeeze me in to see the counsellor immediately. I started to calm down after speaking to the nurse, doctor and counsellor, who were all very lovely and decided that the next course of action was to see a psychologist.
During my latest episode, I was fortunate enough to already be attending regular psychologist appointments, however, felt I needed additional help. She suggested seeing a psychiatrist alongside her therapy to discuss my diagnosis and review my medication.
How does it affect your everyday life now? Challenges? What skills have you learned to cope?
My most recent episode has left me very low-functioning, to the point I decided to leave my full-time job to focus on my health. I’m still a work in progress, trying to build up to be the high-functioning person I once was. I’d love to get back to work sometime but for now, I’m just focusing on regaining some energy, both mentally and physically.
I’ve been off work for 3 months now and there have been some challenges associated with that. At times, I often feel guilty that I am unable to work and contribute financially within my relationship and I get frustrated that I’m not better yet.
Setting small goals for the day and week ahead is helping me get back into a routine. I try and get to yoga twice a week as I find focusing on my breathing helps me with my anxiety. There’s something really magical about yoga, it’s my kind of exercise. Everyone is focusing on themselves and their practice in a non-judgmental environment. I feel like I can fully accept myself during yoga, it’s a nice feeling! Being mindful is another really important skill I have learnt to help me cope when things are a bit tough. Being present and in ‘the moment’ was totally life changing for me. For so long I didn’t even realize I wasn’t being present and now I make a conscious effort to try and incorporate it into my daily routine.
How has living with this mental illness benefited your life? What has it given you?
Although the decision to leave my job was hard, especially financially, it has given me a new outlook on life. There’s this idea that in order to have a successful life we need work hard, keep up appearances and have it all together but I’ve decided I don’t want to live like that anymore. Before my latest episode, I was working full-time, studying part-time at uni and trying to maintain my blog. I’ve accepted I that I probably won’t be able to continue that way of living anymore and that’s okay. I’m going to have to make some financial sacrifices but the most important thing is my health and having time to do the things that help my recovery and enrich my life.
I also feel like I’ve been given a new purpose in life, which is to share my story and hopefully help others. I’ve started blogging about my personal experience with mental illness to encourage others to speak up and to reach out for help if needed. By sharing my story, I hope to help, inspire and encourage others – I want to make a difference. I have also started volunteering for mental health organizations in my area, I really want to get involved and show others that it is okay to experience mental illness and that it is nothing to be ashamed about.
What is one piece of advice you would give yourself when you were struggling the most with your mental illness?
When I’m struggling the most important thing I do is make peace with my feelings. I give myself permission to feel the way I do. If I’m having a bad day, I tell myself it’s okay and I can try again tomorrow. If I can’t muster up the strength to get out and exercise, that’s okay. If I put too much pressure on myself, I just feel worse when I don’t achieve what I have set out to accomplish and it becomes a vicious cycle. It pays to be kind to yourself, it really does help. Stop and think about the negative thoughts you tell yourself, would you say that to a friend or a stranger in the street? Probably not! I am my own worst enemy sometimes but I am slowly learning to show myself the same compassion I would give to others.
Recovery is not a race, nor is it linear. I often feel that when I finally take a step forward, it’s followed by two steps back. It’s hard, but I just have to remind myself of the progress I have made and will continue to make. Recovery is different for everyone, it’s ongoing but with every bump in the road, I become a stronger person.
Are you a Work in Progress? Share your story in the comments below and you could be featured on the blog!