Mental Health and Grief Article

It’s a long one lol…

The trigger for first having to think about my mental health was when I was 22, after losing my little sister, Mollie, who was 20 years old. I didn’t reach out to anyone professionally because at the time I was so naïve, and I guess ignorant. While I thought I was dealing with it – I wasn’t. I really had no clue what was happening to me. I didn’t understand what the words anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’) truly meant at that time. Before then, anytime I heard those words, I ignorantly dismissed them as a taboo subject, and something that I never gave much thought to. I was a “happy, upbeat, and positive person” and had no time in my life to feel bad or sad. In hindsight, I’ve learnt this was super unhealthy as I was suppressing my emotions and fundamentally in denial that anything was wrong. 

It was just before the first anniversary of losing Mollie that I hit breaking point. It’s safe to say I went into a severve downward spiral pretty quickly.

Everyone around me seemed to be getting on with their lives. No one was stopping, so why should I? I didn’t reach out to my family properly. Of course, we shared tears and hugs, but I didn’t want to let them know how bad I was really struggling as the months went on, because I knew how bad they were also feeling. I really felt like such a burden to everyone. I didn’t want to add to the weight of their grief. What good is everyone being miserable and sad – someone has to be strong and carry on. No good us all falling apart. That was my mentality at the time, and with it came this enormous and overwhelming amount of pressure. It was pressure that I had wrongly put on myself. People would say to me all the time ‘but you’re so strong, you’ll get through this. You’re a strong person, it’ll be ok.’ While these are natural things to say, they really got to me; a) because I was strong minded in the past and now suddenly I had to live up to this expectation and I couldn’t and; b) because I couldn’t believe how weak and immobilising I felt inside. I remember wanting to scream at people ‘how can you not see that I’m a complete mess inside?!’ I hated that internal/external illusion and paradox. Even my closest family and friends found it difficult to tell. This is the crux of the issue with mental health. You never really can tell. People can look absolutely fine on the outside but be in utter turmoil on the inside. 

My housemates were probably the first to notice that things were really bad. I couldn’t stop doing stuff. Anything to distract myself from having to face my true feelings, because to be honest I didn’t know how to. I was over exercising; training for the London marathon whilst performing in a show. I was over-exerting myself to a level which was unsustainable, which ultimately resulted in a pretty bad injury. I was forced to stop. I was devastated as exercising and running had become my crutch and outlet for the grief I was carrying but hadn’t yet recognised. I now had no distraction, and the enforced stillness through my injury left me with too much time to come to terms with my reality. I couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that after losing my sister, I had also now lost the two things that had always helped me overcome obstacles in the past. Performing and exercise. I honestly didn’t know what to do. I no longer had a purpose. My sense of identity was being shaken. Up until that point I was doing well in auditions, and could feel myself breaking through and getting closer to ‘my dreams’ at the time. My perception was that I had ruined it all by injuring myself. I only had myself to blame. I started waking up in panic and extreme anxiety, not understanding it for what it was. I had my first really bad panic attack and remember feeling so out of control with it. It scared me so much. I couldn’t focus on anything. I couldn’t catch my breath and honestly felt like I was suffocating. I remember ringing my mum and begging her to come down to London and take me home. I guess this was the first point that I surrendered into the panic and blackness that was consuming me.

Mum took me home and I went straight to bed. For the next year and a half everything was a dark blur. I slept for more than 24 hours at a time, only getting up to use the toilet and eat food sometimes. To put a ‘label’ or two on it, I had complete adrenal fatigue, burn out, PTSD, crippling anxiety and a deep depression I didn’t even know was possible. All caused by unprocessed emotions. My whole body and mind had completely shut down. I didn’t know much about medication for treating these at the time, but I remember strongly not wanting to take any when people advised me to. It had got to a point where I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t care what happened to me. The only time I wasn’t in pain, physically or mentally, was when I was sleeping. So all I did was sleep. I physically didn’t have the energy to do anything else.

I think what triggered me to take the first anti depressant was when I over heard my mum crying about the state I was in. Although I didn’t care at all about myself, or what happened to me, if I could show that I pretended to care maybe it would help make mum less sad. That’s the only reason I started on the tablets. Literally within half an hour I had a horrific reaction to them. I experienced extreme paranoia and spun into one of the worst panic attacks of my life. It’s hard to describe really… I Just remember feeling like I was being sucked away if that makes any sense. Like I was going. Like a light bulb going out I guess. I had nothing left and something inside just switched off. I had always been really sensitive to medication, particularly since contracting severe Dengue Fever a few years back, which weakened my immune system. 

I remember being so emotionally scarred from that experience after taking that first tablet, that I was scared stiff and refused to take any more. So I went back to bed. I had cut off contact with everyone. My friends. Work emails. Social media. I just couldn’t face it. I remember at this point barely even speaking. From the reaction to taking the first set of tablets, I’d become so anxious. Even trying to get words out was a huge effort and my voice would literally stutter and shake when I tried to speak. This is a very common symptom in people who have experienced any form of trauma. 

Refusing to take any more tablets and with no desire to take any steps to “get better” I was stuck and completely numb. 

Eventually mum dragged me to the doctors again where they assured me that a different set of anti-depressants at a much lower dosage might help. Again the only thing that made me take them was the hope on Mum’s face that this might work. It was still nothing to do with me wanting to get out of my situation or to help myself.

I can’t say I ever had suicidal thoughts, I knew I couldn’t do that. Mum had lost Mollie and I couldn’t do that to her. It was just at that point in time I couldn’t face life and I couldn’t bare or accept the pain of grief anymore.

Over time the tablets, while making me void of any emotion, were at least taking the edge off the severe anxiety. I started to attend family events and occasionally would have some of my close friends to come round and watch a film with me. I still wouldn’t talk much, if at all. I felt that if it made them feel good by trying to do something to help me, then it was bearable. But I was just distant for the most part. Stuck in a funk. I remember feeling this constant shaking from the inside out, like my nervous system was all wired back to front. 

Fast forward 18 months. Having been reluctantly dragged from one counsellor to the other and different forms of talking therapies (both NHS and private) and still on medication, I went on a holiday with a friend and wanted to come off my tablets. I was incredibly nervous to go on this trip and almost didn’t as it was a big step considering I still barely left the house. By this point I had researched anti-depressants to the hilt and educated myself on how there is a risk that they can damage and re-wire your brain. I’ve always hated the side effects of any medicine and hated the thought of having to rely on medication. (Side note: they work for some people and have helped lots of people – this is just my personal journey and my personal views). They made me feel like the tablets had control over me and I hated that. I had heard that so many people are on meds for their whole life and I just found that so sad and something deep inside me just knew that it wasn’t the way for me. Knowing that it was unsafe to come off them by abruptly stopping them, I started to wean myself of them without telling anyone. It seemed to be working so I started taking them less and less when I was on holiday. In short, this caused a massive adverse reaction and I had an episode of serotonin syndrome, which is an overload of serotonin. Serotonin is sometime called the happy chemical, because it contributes to individual wellbeing and happiness. My natural levels of serotonin had started to slowly come back from the enjoyment of being on holiday, but I was still on a high dosage of the tablets which already contain high levels of serotonin. It was kind of like a breakdown, but it was actually such a breakthrough for me. It was a really scary time, but I now know this was something I had to go through that was a crucial part of my healing. I had to go to hospital for a week after the holiday to get my meds back on track and levelled out. But something inside me had changed. It truly felt as if tiny pieces of me that had been lost for the past year were slowly coming back and my past wounds were being  healed through this experience. It was such a poignant few weeks in my life and I always see my life now as before and after that trip. Something in me had been restored and I could breathe again. I could talk about this experience in so much more detail, but we would be here forever! but all in all, it was a tumultuous journey into to depths of my own inner psyche that taught me so much and brought me back to life. 

I was slowly weaned off of the meds sensibly this time. Deep down I knew I didn’t need them anymore. I had found or remembered my self worth and found a place of peace inside that I can honestly say I had never felt before, even before Mollie passed. It’s been two years, and I haven’t been on any type of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety tablets. Meditation, yoga, tapping techniques, NLP (neuro linguistic programming) work, taking life slow at my own pace, doing lots of inner work on myself, helping other people, trusting and having faith in the healing process and Mollie’s magic along the way 💫💖 has literally saved my life. I have a lot of people to thank for standing by me through it all. 

Do I think the performance industry had a part to play in the deterioration of my mental health? Yes. A huge part. I thought performing was the be-all and end-all. Despite losing my sister I felt that I couldn’t fall behind through grief and had to keep pressing on. There’s no patience in the audition process for unforeseen circumstances. Then when I couldn’t exercise or perform due to injury I quite literally had no idea what to do with my life. I felt so lost. I had no purpose and felt so unworthy.  After losing Mollie and then suffering the complex issues of anxiety and depression, the performing industry played its part throughout in exacerbating my issues but now also in healing me too. Back then, the industry had definitely taken its toll on me and I was at breaking point with it. The culmination of: not knowing what you’re doing from week to week, comparison to others, audition stress, never having enough money, putting so much time and energy into preparation for auditions and getting nothing back in return, being replaceable, rejection after rejection, sacrificing family time, and so on. All the challenges which all performers face.

Having learnt so much about myself personally and professionally, performing in the industry didn’t have to be half as stressful as I had built it up to be. Without belittling the unique stress the industry entails. It’s just there is so much more to life to be discovered and there are ways of working in the industry in a healthy way. You just have to find a way that works for you. Stress is unavoidable in all aspects of life and I’m thankful now that I have the coping strategies I didn’t back them. Whilst I haven’t performed professionally in a long while, I still absolutely love to dance, sing and write. It’s all been a massive part of my healing process and incredibly cathartic. I don’t take any of it for granted. I go to dance classes now to just enjoy the music and express myself. It’s a basic life force for me, and so many people, and that’s something that is your birth right and something that no one can ever take away from you. It truly is a gift.

This mindset shift is reflected in the performance industry itself – changes are happening in the industry, especially the commercial dance industry, with efforts being made to create more safe spaces for performers to train and express themselves with no judgement and just pure celebration and encouragement of their talent. It’s so magical to see and be part of. I truly believe that vulnerability is key and once we peel back the mask and realise that we all go through storms and that people are going through them daily, then we are all better equipped to help build each other up. Everyone has capacity to be kind, non-judgemental and help one another, and in so doing, can give other people permission to do the same. If you can do so, we can all take the weight off our own shoulders and those of friends around us and help everyone shine their own light. We’re better together and I feel much more comfortable in classes now. This feeling will go from strength to strength for all, if everyone as a collective continues to come together to help make positive changes across the industry. This page for mental health awareness can be a powerful trigger for such change. May these transformations in the industry long continue. 

It’s the isolation that comes with feeling so down that can have you feel like a burden to this world and a lot of the time that it what drives people to Suicide. Just knowing that someone  else truly understands can go along way. We’re all human at the end of the day and share the same emotions, we just experience them all differently in our own unique way. 

Your authenticity is your biggest super power and no one can take that away from you. 

Super Nervous to post this. I can be shy, introverted and weird sometimes… (wonderfully weird of course tee hee) But if I decide to post this it’s been really cathartic to write out and if it helps at least one person, by putting it out into cyber space, then that’s all I could ever hope for. 💗

Heart over ego always. 💗

– LJB x

 

Sent from my iPhone

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