I applaud those who break down the stigma of mental health - yet sharing my own mental health story is harder than it seems.
As an advocate for mental health (working for mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation) I applaud those who open up about their mental health. However, sharing my own story is still hard. Yet, here I am...
My inspiration to open up comes from a wide range of people that I have been introduced to through my work. Without sounding like an Oscar speech (minus the mix up), there are so many people would like to thank the following for giving me the courage to do this, from my employer to all the great people I have worked with and those amazing individuals who have submitted blogs, sharing their mental health journey with The Shaw Foundation.
So, now for the part I have been dreading...
Maybe this will demonstrate why both The Shaw Mind Foundation and indeed myself are so passionate about introducing compulsory mental health education in all UK schools. Something I needed when I was 17... (oh, and yes another reminder to sign our government petition to make it a compulsory subject!).
Chronic depression and me.
I have worked with a close colleague for around seven years now and until very recently, I had no idea of his history and journey with mental illness. On the outside you see a very confident, fun loving, very financially secure business minded individual who treats all with respect and has a real passion for seeing the best in people. So the confession of his past left me in no uncertain terms, dumbfounded.
'mental illness doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone and the more I read the blogs and stories of others, the more I realise that it really is an epidemic and can affect, and strike at any given time'
His honesty and bravery at opening up to others surrounding his severe OCD and the fact that it drove him to attempting suicide not only shocked me to the core but also made me face up to my own past.
One thing I have noticed is the sheer number of people having the courage to stand up and be counted when it comes to discussing their relationship with mental health. In certain communities and countries mental illness may still have a stigma attached to it, but stories like my colleagues give nothing but inspiration to the millions of others across the globe who are fighting mental illness, often in isolation, to also do the same and not hide away and feel shameful of their suffering.
He has always said that mental illness doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone and the more I read the blogs and stories of others, the more I realise that it really is an epidemic and can affect, and strike at any given time.
So, what is my story?
Well, I too have battled with my own mental illness since the age of around 17. I can’t really pinpoint why I started to have chronic depression during my teenage years but certain events in my life probably acted as a catalyst for it.
For the most part, I had a very happy childhood. I was a late starter with regards to boys as I much preferred spending time with my horses and with my head in books.
However, finding out that I was pregnant at almost 18, after losing my virginity, knocked me for six. The condom had split, the morning after pill hadn’t worked so I faced the decision upon which path I should go down. I could have my baby which could be severely disabled due to the effects of the morning after pill and bring the child up by myself, with the help of my parents. Or I could terminate.
I remember sitting my A Level English exam at the all girls’ Catholic school I attended, and one of the poems on the exam paper was about a mum- to- be talking to her unborn child, still in the womb. This woman expressed her excitement as her due date edged closer and how she and her husband had longed for this baby. Yet, here I was in my school uniform thinking about making a decision that would affect the rest of my life.
I had always been against abortion and still am to some extent under certain circumstances. Yet, the decision I made was to end my pregnancy. It wasn’t something that I made my mind up about with ease. I was tormented with thoughts of being a hypocrite after so many heated discussions with my friends about the wrongs of abortion. I thought myself a murderer and that I would be sent to hell when I die. I mourned for the baby still growing inside me. Yet I had made up my young mind.
Even as they wheeled me down to theatre to have the abortion, I remember crying and saying that I didn’t want to do it.
I woke up from the anesthetic feeling like I was the evillest person to have ever lived. I had a self-hatred and sense of guilt that would haunt me for years to come.
I wasn’t offered any counselling by the hospital (the year was 1995 so it may have changed now) but instead was whisked away to see a Muslim Iman (in lieu of a Catholic Priest not being available). I don’t really remember the conversation much, just that he seemed a nice bloke but didn’t offer the solace which I most desperately sought.
In the months that followed the abortion, I blocked what I had done right out of my head. It was too much to think about. I shut down when my Mum tried to talk about it, giving me the opportunity to open up. I just pretended that it hadn’t happened.
Yet when my baby would have been born, I took an overdose.
My guilt took on a whole new level. Not only had I killed my baby, I had tried to take my own life and had devastated my parents and younger sister.
After that I was put on anti-depressants. I don’t remember being offered any counselling but needless to say, I didn’t go to any.
Again, for years I continued to block out the abortion and my attempt at taking my own life. I began to forget all about that time in my life. I went on to university to train to become a primary school teacher (something I had planned to do before finding out I was pregnant) yet I felt bad to the core. On teacher training practice it brought it home that my baby would have been of a similar age to those I was teaching. I swapped degrees in my third year and graduated with a different subject.
As the years passed I had managed to convince myself that I didn’t very much like children and that I never wanted any of my own. I scoffed at those having kids but deep down I thought that I didn’t deserve to have children. What I had done has scarred me badly and by putting on a front about not liking children and wanting to remain child free for the rest of my life was my way of coping.
I remained on the anti-depressants and life seemed to go back to what I thought was normal. I sometimes forgot to get my repeat prescription for my medication and that is when I realised that it was the drugs that were making me feel normal.
I would go into a cycle of forgetting to take them or thinking I could do without them (and without any medical assistance of either reducing or coming off the tablets) – but I would always end up the same. A depressed mood almost every day when the drugs had worn off. I was teary, I was angry, I was aggressive and violent. I was depressed.
I sought comfort in cigarettes and food, becoming a very unhealthy 18 stone. My weight only added to my feelings of no self-worth yet I slapped on a brave face and often acted the carefree, happy go lucky, funny girl.
I married when I was 29, and it was a very volatile relationship. My low self-esteem had me enduring things in my marriage that nobody should put up with. It took me all my strength to initiate the split when my youngest was three months old, whilst still on maternity leave.
I have never looked back.
I am now 39, divorced and with two lovely, somewhat cheeky children aged 7 and 9. Something that I could not have envisaged back in my late teens and early twenties.
'I’m not sure if I will ever not be on the medication and if I will have chronic depression for the rest of my life. But this is me'
Motherhood has its challenges (especially as a single working parent with one child having a developmental delay and quite challenging behaviour) but it is a role I relish and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Although I have lost my weight, and my teenage years are far behind me, I’m still on my anti-depressants as they make me feel like ‘me’.
Working with The Shaw Mind Foundation is a new role that I am absolutely adoring. As someone who has depression, working alongside a boss who understands how mental illness can affect people is a refreshing change.
I’m not sure if I will ever not be on the medication and if I will have chronic depression for the rest of my life. But this is me, my story with mental illness and one that not many people know about, yet I am glad and relieved to have told it. Something, perhaps, I should have done years ago.
I would really, really appreciate it if you could SIGN (and maybe share) this government petition to make mental health education a compulsory subject in all UK schools. It may just help other young people who feel as desperate as what I did. Please sign it here.
Please do feel free to share my article as I want reach as many people as possible and hopefully if any other sufferers of mental health read it, then it may help them to open up - just like I was inspired.
If you have any queries at all about The Shaw Mind Foundation or would like to submit your own story about mental health then email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Natalie Beggs - Operations Director, The Shaw Mind Foundation.
Natalie Beggs is 39 and lives in Bradford with her two young children. She has suffered with chronic depression since her teenage years and is currently Operations Director for mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation.
Natalie is passionate about introducing compulsory mental health education into all schools within the UK – something she says would have helped her greatly as a pupil. The Shaw Mind Foundation are now petitioning the government to make this happen. Sign the petition now.