Realising I was mentally unwell
Although I wasn’t aware of it, my anxiety had probably been building up for a number of years, but only came to a head when I was in my fourth year of teaching mainstream education. By Christmas, 2013, I had reached my limit. I found it difficult to cope with all the unnecessary additional pressure of teaching. Trying each day to live up to the school’s expectations to be “outstanding” caused extra stress and workload. I felt teaching was no longer about the children’s achievement but more of a tick box exercise.
I cried down the phone on my way to work to my Mum, my sister and Connor, or whoever would pick up the phone at half 7 in the morning, and started arriving at school later and later. My mind and body hated the idea of going to work, leaving me feeling so low, with very little self-esteem or motivation. After a few weeks of this I developed heart palpitations, dizziness and panic attacks when I found it difficult to breathe. I hated the person I had become, I felt weak and vulnerable and not in control of my thoughts or emotions. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
I had so much passion for teaching that I didn’t want my career in education to end. In the new year, I decided to apply for a job in a special needs school. It was for a post teaching children on the autistic spectrum but after interviewing me, they decided my skills would be better suited to teaching pupils with cerebral palsy and other motor disorders. I was to start after Easter and couldn’t wait.
Despite having another job to go to, my anxiety got worse. I still experienced heart palpitations, felt constantly dizzy, had dots in front of my eyes and had what felt like permanent pins and needles in both hands up to my elbow and in both feet. I went to the optician but nothing was found to be wrong. I visited my doctor weekly and, although he too failed to find anything wrong, he signed me off work for my last three weeks. The only time these symptoms disappeared was when I took my dogs for a walk or went swimming.
I felt sad that my career in mainstream education had ended this way. However, I knew I wasn’t mentally in the right place. This was the first time I accepted that I was mentally unwell. A very foreign, out-of-body place to be. I didn’t feel like myself and was also scared that I wasn’t in complete control. I was out of my depth with no way to make myself better.
After Easter, 2014, I started my new job. My teaching of a class of four amazing boys was all centred around the individual child and also involved working closely alongside speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. I loved it and found it fascinating. In a matter of weeks, I felt like a different person and the anxieties I had suffered in mainstream education had disappeared. I was a calm, relaxed person who was able to drive to work and leave smiling. Work no longer dominated my mind and haunted my dreams. My passion for education had returned and I finally felt happy and my old self returning. The heart palpitations, panic attacks, dizziness and pins and needles became a thing of the past.
Although my mental health related to work had improved, by September new issues began to arise. At that time Connor and I were renovating our end of terrace Victorian home in Newcastle upon Tyne and getting married the following September. After that, I wanted to live back home in Yorkshire so we could start trying for a baby. This meant finishing and selling our house, relocating and finding a new house to buy, finding a new job and planning a wedding.
To anyone else, including Connor and even to me now, this sounded absolutely crazy. But my vision was black and white and the one thing that I was certain about was that I was desperate to have children. However, due to my mental health and losing weight for my wedding, I hadn’t had a period in over a year and a half. I had an MRI scan which confirmed I had polycystic ovary syndrome but the obstetrician thought my lack of periods was mainly due to stress and being slightly underweight. This only left me feeling more anxious and desperate to start trying as soon as we got married. I was beginning to worry that I would never be able to get pregnant and have children of my own.
At the time, I wasn’t aware of this tunnel vision; asking the near impossible of Connor and being certain about moving back to Yorkshire.
Every evening, I would ask Connor a ridiculous number of questions. I would ask him the same question in so many different ways until I got the answer I wanted to hear. It was no surprise that Connor decided to put a ban on me asking any questions about weddings or houses after 9pm. After 9pm was quiet time, no talky!!
Poor Connor went through hell with my continuous questioning and although we both worked hard at renovating the house, we constantly argued about things I wanted done which were not achievable.
The final straw was laying down the laminate flooring in the utility room in December and as a result I realised I was asking the impossible of Connor, yet in my head it had to be done so we could move on and be closer to putting the house on the market.
After many arguments, Connor did lay the laminate flooring down the same weekend I asked. However, as you walked across it, each board moved under your feet. I tripped on the same board each time I walked to the back door and because I hadn’t given Connor the chance to level the floor first, the dogs managed to get under the rising floorboards, dig up the underlay and destroy it. The laminate floor lasted about two weeks before we couldn’t bear it any longer. We ripped it up and left it to look very unsightly rotting in the backyard. I am really sorry Connor! We eventually did the floor properly, when the time was right.
I became upset, knowing the countless arguments we’d had regarding the house or wedding were all my fault. I felt like a bully, but I also wasn’t in control of how I felt. I didn’t know what was driving me to be so convinced that these things had to be done. I didn’t feel in control of these emotions and along with other personal issues, I went to my doctor and was put on the waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy to help manage my problems by changing the way I think and behave.
Intolerance of uncertainty
I started my CBT in March, 2015 and had six months of very successful therapy. I worked with the counsellor to find that the root of my anxiety was that I could not tolerate uncertainty. This was uncovered by my writing down all my thoughts in a diary and being open and honest with myself and the counsellor. I held nothing back. My uncertainty had become an allergy.
Uncertainty as an allergy…
Being intolerant of uncertainty is a lot like having an allergy. If you are allergic to pollen, for example, you will sneeze and cough and your eyes may get red and teary when you are exposed to even a small amount of pollen. When people who are intolerant of uncertainty are exposed to a little bit of uncertainty, they also have a strong reaction: they worry, and do everything they can think of to get away from, avoid or eliminate the uncertainty.
I had to be certain about things. If I wasn’t certain, I would do so much research and then doubt my decision, or I would make a decision quickly and then spend forever doubting it. I would make myself so anxious thinking about how to make the future certain, but that is impossible and it only heightened my anxiety. This explained the countless arguments that Connor and I had had about getting the house finished.
Day to day example of my uncertainty
During one of my CBT sessions the counsellor asked, “If you were to have friends round for dinner what would you cook for them?” I found it a coincidence she had asked this as that previous weekend we had had friends round for a barbeque. I was put in charge of making a salad. As I wasn’t certain about what to make or what they would like (there were six of us in total) I Googled every salad known to man and went through all my recipe books. I ended up making a total of five salads that covered all the bases: pasta, potato, green leaf, tomato and vegetable kebabs. I never questioned at the time that this was a little ridiculous and Connor was completely baffled why I was getting my knickers in such a twist over making a salad. Safe to say, we had enough salad left to feed us all week!
One of the greatest feelings that came from my counselling was when I knew I didn’t need it anymore. For many months I went to each appointment with so much to talk about or that I needed to offload, that the hour-long session never felt enough. For my last few sessions, I arrived not knowing what I needed to talk about. I felt that I was just going in for a lovely chat. I had developed strategies to cope but most importantly I understood what was causing my anxiety. I felt so happy, relieved and excited about my next chapter.
I had my last counselling session in August. By this point, Connor and I had successfully finished refurbishing our house, sold it three times, (first buyers dropped out on the day of exchange, second buyer the day before completion and thankfully we struck lucky with the third), had our offer accepted on a house in Yorkshire, I’d found a new job and everything was planned for our wedding on the 5th September.
I am learning to overcome my anxiety by being aware of the roots of what causes it. It takes practise and as with many things it takes time. As I come across new challenges in life and as more uncertainties arise I have to learn to acknowledge these and understand that I have to let go of what I can’t control.
I am forever grateful that I had the courage to go to my doctor and ask for help. If I hadn’t found out what the root of my anxiety is, I would be in a very different place to where I am now. When I was having counselling I had no idea what I was in for in the coming year. There is nothing that could have prepared me for having my twin girls prematurely and then losing my baby, but the therapy I received helped me enormously to understand that I had no control of the future, as there is no certainty on a neonatal unit.