Being mentally healthy
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Mental health has been pushed to the front of our lives by various media outlets, celebrities and even royal princes over the past few years and it is something which I personally have had much difficulty with but it wasn't until more recently that I came to realise and accept that I had been living with a mental health problem for many years, probably since I was a teenager.
Depression affects people in many different ways and if you suffer with depression it can come and go in what feels like enormous tidal waves of emotional delirium. At the beginning of January 2019 I finally succumbed to the advice of my GP who suggested I start a course of anti-depressants having listened to me spouting stuff about my emotional state over the course of two meetings. One of the things I clearly remember telling her was about how I would drive to school in the morning and just burst into tears, for no apparent reason. It wasn't that I didn't like my job as a teacher. I loved it, I loved teaching and I loved working with the people in school, both adults and children. I couldn't put my finger on why such sadness would suddenly come down over me like a dark veil.
I was also dealing with the very untimely diagnosis of Meli's inoperable cancer and preparing myself for what were to be the last few months of her life. It was on Christmas Eve 2018 that my vet had informed me of her fate and this was such a devastating hammer blow. She was the first dog I had owned and she was to be taken from me far too early. I would not get to help her through to the old age which she so deserved. She had been my life support for nearly ten years but I didn't realise this until I was told she was to be taken from me.
After a false start, my GP increased the dosage and over a period of ten days to two weeks I could feel a weight lifting, even in the dark days of winter. I remember going for a walk with the dogs up in the fields on a sunny day a month or so later and quite suddenly felt a sense of weightlessness, a carefree feeling that I hadn't felt for probably decades. I felt happy again, even in light of dealing with Meli's impending demise. This sense of happiness made me feel stronger and able to tackle things head on without any of the anxiety that would usually stand right in front of me and literally knock me back.
Meli went over the rainbow bridge on a beautiful Spring day at the bottom of our field by the pond where she loved sitting. I didn't know this at the time but was made aware by my sister-in-law later on that the sheep in the next field had come down to see what was going on and to this day I believe they were there to help Meli over the bridge. We took the vet to the pub afterwards and then, having drunk probably too much alcohol, I went for a walk with the girls up in the fields. The sky was azure blue and I remember rolling around in the grass just like Meli would have done. No inhibitions, I just did it because I wanted to.
In May, at the recommendation of my GP, I started some counselling sessions - 'talk therapy'. These sessions proved to be a revelation for me and my understanding of how long I had been suffering with mental health problems. Things came out that I had never before spoken to anyone about and I was also able to realise how specific events in my life created waves of personal depression. The first two of these events or life experiences happened simultaneously at secondary school in my teenage years. I was at an all girls school and a year younger than the rest of my year. I took the eleven plus a year early because it was thought I was clever enough and I passed. I was also good at sport and excelled at music and some girls hated this, were jealous and verbally and emotionally bullied me for it. This happened all the way through my time at school and I just kept quiet about it. I assumed this behaviour was to be tolerated and so my life was miserable. However, it wasn't until these sessions that I realised that this had had such a profound affect on me.
The second of these two events was that I was diagnosed, aged 12, with a genetically inherited condition called "Gorlin syndrome" (also known more ominously as "nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome"). It has since been discovered that this is due to a fault in one of two tumour inhibiting genes. The only way one can't pass it on to the next generation is through selecting eggs without a faulty gene and IVF treatment. I wasn't to know this until I was in my early 30s. Gorlin Syndrome manifests itself in various forms at various stages of life. The medical conditions associated with this are:
skin problems, such as skin tags and skin cysts
cysts on the jaw that usually develop during the teenage years
basal cell skin cancers
changes in the bones, they may be longer and larger than usual
pits on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet
non cancerous (benign) tumours of the ovaries called fibromas
a type of brain tumour called medulloblastoma
I was referred by my dentist to the dental hospital in Bristol because I appeared to have an abscess at the front of my mouth in my upper jaw that would not go away. X-rays showed this to be cyst and at this point having undergone various examinations I was diagnosed with Gorlin Syndrome. It was then that my father was also diagnosed having been through horrific operations as a child which left him with large holes in his jaws because the cysts had eaten into the bone. In the next few years from the age of twelve I had three general anaesthetic operations to remove cysts from my jaws including two that were around my wisdom teeth.
It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was told I would probably suffer with skin cancer for the rest of my life. Therefore, I should not expose my skin to the sun and neither should I have x-rays because radiation increases the occurrence of skin cancer. I have had many operations since to remove these carcinomas, three from my face, and six monthly full body check ups are now the norm.
So dealing with constant bullying and a life changing diagnosis as a teenager was incredibly hard. No one offered me any support or counselling then - this wasn't offered to me until I around 35 years old!! No wonder I was depressed. Both of these events had made me extremely self conscious and insecure around people. I still suffer with this to this day but I have learnt to cope with these feelings. My counsellor was brilliant. I felt I could tell her everything, and I did. And what a relief. Finally, someone knew and what had been stored in my head for nearly 35 years had been released. My prison term had ended and I felt I could get on with the rest of my life.
The rest of the school year seemed to go by and then a new academic year was on us in September 2019. I had been through many changes over the past few years at school. For five years I had been Head of Music and Head of Year, both positions I had been appointed to by the previous headteacher. I knew the current headteacher didn't like that I did both jobs, he told me so on more than one occasion. He thought that I was essentially spreading myself too thinly and that whilst I was capable of doing both jobs I was a better head of music than head of year. In many respects I agreed with him but I wasn't going to tell him that! Too much pride. What I ended up doing was deciding to relinquish the head of year role so that I could really focus on my position as head of music. I did this in my own time and when I was ready.
I love music. It has been my passion for all of my life. I have loved being able to nurture young musicians at school and see them grow into adults and pursue careers in music. It is knowing that I have supported them in that process that makes it worthwhile. Various things happened in September last year that made me realise that I was unable to continue this nurturing of young people at school. Music, and indeed other performing arts, is very slowly disappearing from our schools and whilst I have done everything I possibly can to buck that trend in the school I was at I felt that there were more and more barriers rising up that prevented me from doing what I knew was right in terms of educating young people in music. The biggest of these barriers was time and money. So far, I haven't worked out how to get more time into a day and schools are relying more and more on the goodwill of teachers to support the extra curricular experience of youngsters because funding is not available.
And so over half term in October 2019 I decided that I would leave teaching altogether because this was no longer able to provide me with my love of nurturing young musicians and I needed to find another way to do this. I also needed to give my mental health a chance to improve and this wasn't going to happen if I continued at school. I told the headteacher of my decision in November and he gave me until after the Christmas holidays to confirm this. When we returned to school in January this year I had not changed my mind, in fact I was even more determined that this was the right thing to do. Even though I was walking into the unknown, I felt so much happier and over Christmas I slowly weaned myself off the antidepressants. At this time the headteacher lent me a book by the author Matt Haig called "Reasons to Stay Alive". He gave it to me because he cared and wrote me a note reassuring me that he was pretty sure I wasn't as low as the author but he felt it would help me make sense of the depression I had been suffering. I was unaware at this point that the author had attempted suicide! He was right, he often was. I read the book faster than anything I had read before and it was such a relief to be able to understand what depression is. It also had very good tips on dealing with depression which included giving up coffee, which I did immediately and I have stuck with it ever since.
In early March I took a group of 50 students to see Les Miserables in London. Covid-19 had already begun to rear its incredibly ugly head and I was a little anxious to say the least that I was taking these youngsters to the capital city to sit in a packed theatre for two hours!! We had a lovely time and it was great to see them enjoy themselves. This was the last school trip that I organised and it will sit long in my memory. The rest of my time as a teacher played out during the Spring and Summer of 2020 working from home.
I was recently given a copy of Noel Fitzpatrick's latest book "How Animals Saved My Life". It is well worth a read and highlights the difficulties he has had with mental health. He discusses bullying at school and difficulty socialising with people and how his work with animals has helped him. I can draw many parallels with the difficulties he has faced. He too takes solace from a love of music and the therapy it provides.
As I sit here on the sofa with my girls I feel so grateful that they are in my life. They bring me so much happiness. They are the love of my life and an eternal font of joy. We can learn so much from dogs and their behaviour and I look forward to the rest of my life drawing on their unconditional love and trying to understand them more. If we look after them, they look after us. It's been a really tough year for many, many people. I hope we can all learn from the difficulties we have suffered and I am pleased that I can look forward with happiness to the rest of my life.