Grief is more than feeling SAD
I wrote before Christmas about how I'd been struggling and mentioned that I'd reached out to my counsellor for support. In our first session, she asked me a few questions to assess where I was at mentally and her response to my answers was that I was suffering with Severe Anxiety and Depression (my play on the word SAD in the title). In fact, I scored 19 out of 20 on her scale for levels of anxiety and depression.
I was anxious about sharing this, for fear of judgement, through feeling ashamed and because it feels so lonely and abnormal when you are in these places. However, I firmly believe that lifting the lid and speaking more openly about these sorts of things is the only way to change that stigma, reduce that shame and normalise that it is ok to not be ok, because ultimately facing and talking about it is one of the best ways for people to start feeling lighter.
So, following 12 weeks of counselling, being a month or so on from those sessions in which my score had come down significantly to 5 out of 20 (only moderate levels of anxiety) and with this being #mentalhealthawareness week, I thought I'd share a bit about what it felt like in this pretty open account, exploring some of what I'd been experiencing from uncharacteristic levels of anger to horrifyingly intrusive thoughts and use this as a reminder to me and others that these feelings can and do pass.
Please note, this article comes with a trigger warning as I do talk about topics related to severe levels of depression and although I wasn't suicidal I also touch on this subject.
Your body keeps the score:
There's actually a book about this that I'm yet to read, but my counsellor had told me about it when I was going through my first bout of therapy. Essentially, whether we are consciously aware or not, the things that cause us anxiety and stress pile up, and your body sends you signals to let us know that we've something boiling up under the surface.
For me these signals are that the quality of my sleep diminishes which for me is followed by chest and inner arm anxiety pains.
The challenge is, that as somebody who had survived for 33 years suppressing any type of emotion that is perceived as negative (sadness, anger etc), I've fallen out of sync with what my body is trying to tell me. So, although I had started to receive these indicators a month or so before I'd realised I was struggling, I couldn't have told you what was on my mind and how to fix it.
My counsellor told me that actually identifying the root cause, isn't always essential to reducing stress and anxiety. That sometimes just by recognising our emotions scaling them to see how strongly we are feeling them, and putting in the appropriate levels of self care can reduce levels of stress and anxiety enough to give you some clarity on the what's going on.
The darkness of intrusive thoughts
I want to start this section with a trigger warning as I'm going to talk about some pretty intense emotions that touch on the topic of suicide.
It's important to understand that in my mind there is a huge difference between being suicidal and having intrusive thoughts about not being here and at no point would I have considered myself suicidal.
During the peak of this emotional overwhelm and the depths of my stress and anxiety, I'd had several intrusive thoughts. I didn't want to not be here and never would I have committed suicide and orphaned Molly, but the level of my stress was so overwhelmingly high that at points when I was struggling with rationalising and prioritising the sheer volume of things in my head, I'd have fleeting thoughts of something extreme. Almost like my brain was trying to shock me so that I'd get out of my head, for example I'd be driving my car, throwing around an incredible amount of internal dialogue and suddenly a thought would occur like driving my car into a tree.
Now, this might sound utterly crazy, but, I believe this is my brains way of protecting me, almost an attempt at snapping you out of it for a moment. Shocking you into not thinking about all of those things that are keeping you inside your head and causing internal conflict. It's almost as if it is a relief from your stress.
Thinking of something so shocking that it's the only thing strong enough to distract you and allow you to step away from the overwhelming volume of things going on in your head at any given moment. Hopefully that explains somewhat why its different, because it's not about not wanting to be here, it's about a relief from stress and a relief from something you can't escape.
Thankfully, I'm through that now and the stresses in my mind have reduced significantly, so I'm in a better place and am working hard on re-building my resilience and coping strategies to avoid things getting this challenged again.
Brain fog and fight or flight switches:
Part of struggling with severe levels of anxiety and depression led to me having a limited capacity for things going on around me. I found myself being in situations where I might be talking to someone, something else is happening in the background and I'm trying to think at the same time and my brain would just give up. The fog would descend and it felt like I needed to escape, it was literally like my brain was refusing to process any more and it wasn't until I physically removed myself from a situation that the fog began to lift and my brain rebooted, allowing me to start thinking again.
Before the high levels of stress that I've experienced over the last few years, this wasn't something that had ever happened, infact I usually had the patience of a Saint and could deal with/ carry most any number of things going on around me at any given time.
I'm still experiencing this from time to time now, albeit far less frequently and I hope that eventually my ability to stay switched on despite how much is going on around me will return to normal levels at some point.
Another opportunity to grow:
Needless to say, I've developed a practical understanding of the things I can do to support if I begin to feel overwhelmed again.
So much of that overwhelm was driven by two main factors,
1. Going back to my coping strategy of old of internalising and supressing emotion rather than sharing and expressing it.
2. And, not feeling as though I was doing a good enough job for Molly, myself, my new partner Jess, my family, Lauren's family and just at life in general.
On top of that I'd compounded these feelings by being unprepared for Mollys birthday and Christmas, so was barrating myself because I felt as though I was letting her down. So in the space of a month November > December I'd had so many triggering activities (Lauren's memorial being ready, Molly's birthday, Christmas, Molly's first nativity play and so on) and with that piled on top of the overwhelming feelings I was already struggling with, it was all too much to cope with, especially when dealing with all of those things internally rather than blogging and talking like I had done before.
So in a practical sense, by being better prepared with key dates and certain things that I know are coming I'll be able to stop them from adding to the load in the future. Also, by staying open and being comfortable with exposing my vulnerability, I'll not be internalising such strong emotional experiences.
Aside from the more practical learnings, I also used this experience as an opportunity to grow as a person, I decided to continue with my therapy for 12 weeks rather than just to ride the severe wave of emotion and attempt to fix (or at least start to fix) some personal challenges, which, for those that don't know me well, it'd perhaps be hard to imagine that I'd struggle with, such incredibly low levels of self esteem and self worth, an unhealthy need to be a people pleaser and as a result an enormous amount of friction and discomfort that I live with whenever I choose to put myself first. All of which have improved significantly following my 12 weeks of counselling.
I feel as though by re-building myself in the right way, in a way that is sensitive to my own needs, and by being kinder to myself, it will help and is already helping with my resilience and reducing the impact of anxiety and depression on me as I continue to find my way.
Being nearly a 6 months since these feelings of overwhelm were at their strongest and reflecting on them, I am trying to continually add to my understanding that feelings are temporary, that there's always a sunshine after the darkness and that, just like that the nights turn to days and tomorrow always comes and it might just be tomorrow that I feel lighter.
Grief isn't just being sad, for me it has been an exhausting run of ups, downs and waves of emotion that are ever changing and do seem to be happening much less frequently as I continue to grow my life and learn to live alongside grief. It's also fair to say that I my old coping strategies and suppressing emotion served me well for 33 years, but grief has been a bit to much for those coping strategies. This assault of emotional waves has leant on the most challenging parts of my character and in doing so has pushed me in to moments of severe anxiety and depression.
However, in all of that difficulty, it has also pushed me into rediscovering, rebuilding and hopefully reprogramming some of the self detrimental parts of my personality and whilst those dark times are like nothing I've ever felt before, if I can learn to understand myself better, if I can grow as a person and if I can continue show Molly that no matter what life throws at you, there's always a way through it, then it's not all bad.
I'd even like to start introducing this idea of post traumatic growth, where in a world that I cannot change what I have been through, that it is possible that out of that darkness I can be inspired to be a better version of me, to be happier for me and to achieve more than I might have otherwise achieved had I not been through this. Almost like those stories of a pheonix from the ashes or Japanese Kintsugi.
Thankfully I am in a good place now, grief and bereavement have tested my coping strategies, reduced my tolerance for stress and even though at the point I am sharing about here I was 15 months post loss, had started a happy relationship with my new partner Jess and had grown around my grief signicantly in lots of ways, it still found ways to impact me in ways that were more than just being sad.
Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!