8 May. My birthday was a good day. I received a couple of cards and I had an unexpected and very lovely gift of flowers delivered to my door. They were from Ruby, a close friend who is also battling with mental health concerns.
I spent the day on a training course with Brent Mind. The venue was the Mencap building in Dollis Hill. I’m not familiar with north London so, as usual, I turned to Google Maps. I wander the street view plotting reference points and finding nothing remarkable. I’m not anxious about the journey. South Ken to Westminster on the circle or district line, then change at Westminster for the Jubilee line straight to Dollis Hill. It’s roughly 45 minutes and I’m travelling at 9am, just past rush hour.
In the training room I meet six other budding volunteer mentors. Age and backgrounds vary, so does ethnicity, culture and gender. It’s a diverse and welcoming group so I feel at home. We spend the day learning about mental health, especially stigma, discrimination and perceptions in the media. We also learn about Brent Mind and the role of the volunteer mentor. Both morning and afternoon sessions are upbeat and interactive and I feel at ease with the two trainers and all of the volunteers. There’s an ex service user, a retired lecturer, a support worker, a mature student studying clinical psychology, and two young career starters. Where do I fit in?
I see myself as a trainee social worker, I plan to start a Social Work MA in September 2015. But I don’t introduce myself as that. Instead I say I’m interested in mental health and I mention my younger brother. He has bipolar disorder and he’s been frequently hospitalised over the past decade. I talk about him instead of me. The ex service user was far more evolved and I admired her, she spoke so freely about her experience. I haven’t reached that level of self reflection yet.
I can write the words: I was hospitalised, I’ve been diagnosised and I’m in recovery. But I haven’t yet reconciled with the experience. Hospital was harrowing and I don’t think I’ve come to terms with it. Instead, I hold the experience at arms length and push it away, trying to disassociate. The ‘new’ me wants to shrug off the weight of that experience and walk away.
But the new me is unformed, still developing. Am I choosing the right job? Will I be able to honour the voluntary work commitments I’m making? When will I get out of bed with energy and purpose? When will I start the paint job this flat sorely needs?
The new me is a construct, a fragile but strengthening shell of coping strategies. It hides the ‘old’ me, the once ebullient soul who now suffers from waves of panic, fear, self reproach, confusion, memory loss, despair and utter bewilderment. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I’m just trying to understand. On the outside I’m competent and functional but on the inside I’m broken.
I was released from hospital in October 2013 and spent the months until Christmas lost in psychological trauma. I didn’t see daylight until January 2014. I was a wreck of emotions but I needed to be active and I wanted to be ‘me’ again. Thankfully my family were very supportive, and messages and visits from friends kept me going.
February. March. Music, mindfulness and close friends Chris and Sonia really pulled me through. I started job hunting and I re-engaged with my profiles on youtube, ebay and last.fm. Small steps with vitamins and diet have helped. And so have my workouts: I dance around the living room to old favourites and then cool down with yoga.
April is good month and I can sense I’m improving, slowly. I have job interviews, CBT sessions and voluntary work opportunities. I also complete online courses in social work and mental health. My interest in social work is nothing new. I considered switching to the field a few years ago when I fell out of love with my media career. Now I’m ready for the change, or at least I think I am.
From what I’ve read so far, social work is a very competitive field, especially if you want to work in mental health. Jobs are scarce and funding for AMHP training is limited. And then there’s politics. Is this a healthy career choice for me?
The Brent Mind session ended at 5.15pm and I came away feeling mildly elated. The first stage of training was complete. The second stage would happen next week and would focus on the recovery star, a tool used to chart the status and progress of mental health recovery. I was looking forward to that. I headed to Dollis Hill tube station in the rain. I have head my headphones on, listening to Ital Tek and I’m not feeling anxious.