Brother Steven Phillips, My Mental Health, My Story
Speaking out about my experience with mental illness is something I have been toing and froing about for a while whether or not to write this blog. After dialogue with my family, close friends, and my mental health team I want to share my story to raise awareness and lessen the stigma associated with mental illness.
''I used to be a very confident person and enjoyed life. I was very career driven and had a list of personal goals the length of a football field, leading a very structured life''.
In December 2012 I lost my wife Brenda to breast cancer. She had been diagnosed while pregnant in March earlier that year and my little boy Oliver was only 4 months old when she passed away. I felt that I had grieved ok – I would have the odd panic attack here and there but my health has since been slowly deteriorating.
Reflecting back, some of the issues I faced were caused by insecurities – worrying that I had offended people and worried that I would lose the people closest to me. Stress was also a major factor, while bad mood swings were regularly causing fallout with close friends and family over the silliest of things.
Adding to the stress, my son Oliver was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum in 2015. I had a very busy job and being a single parent was starting to get on top of me. The way I was living my life was gradually getting worse and worse in the tail end of 2016 from October until the New Year there were a series of issues which were incredibly hard to deal with. Instead of trying to talk about them I did what I always do and parked them to the side – telling myself it was just a blip and believing that I would be fine in the New Year coming.
In 2017 my health had started to spiral out of control and I was really struggling with my day to day life. I couldn’t cope in work – breaking down in tears several times every day and suffering reoccurring panic attacks. I was struggling to do my exercise routine of running and finding it near impossible to cope with housework and day to day life. After settling my little boy in the evening and dealing with my household chores I would just collapse in bed, drained and thoroughly exhausted.
By May 2017 I had gotten so low I was a complete mess and could not function at all. I started getting suicidal thoughts and felt so worthless and weak, having nightmares every night of horrible images of my late wife Brenda ill in hospital – something that, until then, I had managed to keep out of my mind. My negative thoughts were overwhelming – I kept telling myself how I wasn’t coping at all with running the house, how much of a bad Dad I was and how much Oliver would be better off without me. I completely withdrew from friends and family and just wanted to be alone.
After the suicidal thoughts had become worse I reached out to phone a private councilor who was available through my work. I remember sitting in my car in the car park in work on Friday crying my eyes out and telling him everything that had been going on in my life, how I was feeling, and how I could not stop the suicidal thoughts in my head along with the feelings of isolation and insignificance. I told him everything that had happened to me over the last 5 years and he explained that I had been through far to much trauma and stress in such a short space of time. He advised that I needed to see my doctor ASAP or I was going to become very ill. In a way I felt relief with him saying this but that was short lived yet again the negative thoughts kicked in – it was me who made myself ill, if I had only gotten help quicker I wouldn’t have been in this mess to begin with and I wouldn’t have been failing my son Oliver.
After the call I felt drained. I was shaking and had yet another panic attack at home. The only thing that offered any respite from the pain was alcohol. I just wanted to forget everything – the drink was a quick fix, giving me a false sense of comfort for a while but before long I had drank so much that everything was a blur and the dark thoughts were creeping back in. I woke up in hospital about 3am on Sunday morning to be told by the doctors that I had taken an overdose and had a dangerous amount of alcohol in my system. The police had found me wandering the streets in a state of total confusion and I was taken to the Police Station where my mum and brother had to come and pick me up and take me to hospital. When I woke up the next day all I can remember is the feeling of total guilt of how I could do that to my little boy. I was so angry with myself and so ashamed that I couldn’t stop having further panic attacks and hated myself for what I had done. The following day a priest visited from the chapel in the hospital and we spoke at length about everything that had happened over the past 5 years. He asked me why I wanted to end my life, I told him that I didn’t want to end my life, that the drink had taken over that night and I was feeling so low and like I was failing as a Dad – so much so, that I felt my little boy would be better off without me. He said that everything I had been through over the last few years would be enough to break the armor of the toughest tanks in the world and that I needed to help myself by letting the doctors help me and to stop beating myself up. I think that day I hit rock bottom. I have never felt so low in all my life.
Over the past 6 months I still wake up many mornings with suicidal thoughts seeping in to my mind. I sometimes consider how I would end my life, feeling like I don’t belong in this world. I can usually ground myself and remove these thoughts but if I am particularly bad or anxious I can call the Samaritan’s – I have done so several times so far. When I get into work I am usually kept busy so my moods are usually ok. I do still find myself crying at my desk and try and hide it by putting on my glasses, though to be honest it probably just magnifies the puffy eyes. Negative thoughts are always there too – even positive thoughts are affected, my wondering mind seeing the bad in anything I think of and causing me to worry about insignificant things. These thoughts are the cause of my panic attacks as well – I feel as if I cannot swallow, my heart starts racing and I cannot breathe. Once I was having a panic attack in the toilet in my house and my little boy walked in and started asking what was wrong. I couldn’t breathe or talk so I waved my hand as a gesture to say that I was ok but he started crying and clung to my leg saying “sorry daddy, sorry daddy!” – he thought he had done something wrong. This was one of the most soul-destroying things that I have ever had to see, my little boy apologizing to me because of my illness. All night I kept picturing was his face crying and again I had to reach out for help and call the Samaritans again because I couldn’t cope. I was advised to explain to him the next day that I was coughing and it wasn’t his fault. He was ok about that and just asked if I was better, though any time I cough now you can see his worried look as he runs over to ask if I am ok.
If I could ever describe how I feel most days it’s like I am a jigsaw piece that doesn’t fit anywhere. I know I have my family and my friends but I just feel like I don’t belong anywhere, I don’t fit in and I feel alone. It’s like a fog that sits in my mind and is always there, but it’s something I just try hide from everyone. I feel like I am on autopilot most days to get my work done, do my housework, then go to bed feeling low, anxious, alone, drained and upset, only to start again the next day.
Since being diagnosed 6 months ago with having PTSD, Depression & Anxiety and being referred to my local mental health team I have however been in a recovery stage. I have an amazing CPN within my mental health team who I get on with really well – both he and my psychiatrist have had a major impact in my recovery so far. I am currently going through a course of cognitive behavior therapy in an attempt to change my way of thinking and I will also be starting physiological therapy soon. I have tried various anti-depressant medications, though many have not been suitable due to aggressive side-effects, one of them for example making me violently sick for days. One that does seem to have taken effect though is Venlafaxine – for the first two weeks it was horrible with symptoms that were 10 times worse, and at times if I forgot to take them I would get severe withdrawal symptoms like electric shock feelings through my head and cold sweats. However, fortunately after two weeks I have started to notice a change in my state of mind, mostly helping with the anxiety.
I do feel like my life is changing for the better now. It’s very small steps that I am making towards recovery, but I do feel that I have come a long way from where I was in May. I am fully aware that there is still a long way to go and of course there have been plenty bumps along the way. I feel I am starting to live a functional life again and the good days are finally starting to creep back in. I have started some lifestyle changes – simple things like making sure I take breaks and lunches at work. Speaking of work – they have been very supportive at every level from my manager and HR, right up to the directors. In fact, coming back to work was one of the biggest things that I was worried about and the support that I have received has been a huge relief. I am exercising more and more, doing some hill-walking, and making sure to take respite days for me to relax and catch up on housework. I am also doing things right out my comfort zone like Buddhist Meditation, Tai Chi and Yoga to relax my mind. I have recently given up drinking alcohol – obviously the cons were far outweighing the pros and this was something that was seriously affecting my way of life. There will always be bad days but I am far better prepared at dealing with them now. One of my coping strategies is to keep videos of Oliver on my phone telling me how he misses me and loves me which really grounds me when I am in a bad way. It was a great tip from the mental health team and works wonders. If I ever get really bad I know that I can reach out to Samaritans and I am feel much more open with my family and friends, telling them anytime I am feeling bad and having no issues with them asking me how I am now.
I wrote this blog for a couple of reasons, mostly to try and explain to my friends and family what I am going through. There is a major stigma attached to mental health and there is nothing more disheartening than seeing the look of disappointment on someone’s face when you tell them what is happening. I am not looking to take an easy way out of this life but I need help and support to fight this. I am doing everything in my power and trying my hardest to get myself to a better place. Also, I want people to know that if they are going through something similar to understand that there is genuine help out there – I hid behind a false smile, facebook posts to make myself look ok and I stupidly held onto my pain myself for a long time because I was afraid to reach out. I was ashamed and my senseless male pride stopped me asking for help until it had taken full control of my life. Everyone keeps telling me I am doing great and I am doing a good job. It’s so hard to tell yourself that but I am trying to teach myself each day to tell myself this isn’t my fault, that I am ill and I am not a bad Dad, I am just trying my best.
I have been set the challenge by my charities that on the 17th March 2018 I will be running back to back every Saturday a half marathon in every Scottish City 7 runs in 7 cities then finishing my eighth and final run in the Isle of Tiree on Saturday 05th May 2018 to raise awareness of the stigma associate with mental health & to raise money for two charities close to my heart loveleigh & SAMH (Scottish Mental Health Association) both of which have helped me in their own way. They kick off in Glasgow March 17th, I will also be organizing a public 5k walk/run(families welcome) & 10K Run there will be more details to follow and the link for the event is below if you would like to register your interest it would be greatly appreciated. I would be extremely grateful if you could share this post please to raise awareness of the event please and also for anyone reading to raise awareness for anyone going through a similar experience that there is help out there.
The link is HERE