A Personal Account of Recovery from Mental Health Struggles

mental healthWith last week being Mental Health Week and World Mental Health day celebrated last weekend it got me reflecting on my own struggles with mental health and wellness and more recently my own healing. By sharing our stories and struggles we acknowledge and connect to our common humanity and perhaps in my sharing, others will find the courage to admit it if they’re not coping.

I have grappled with my mental health since my teenage years. Around age 15 I began to put pressure on myself to achieve and once this began I never lived up to my own standards of perfection – ever. Nothing I did was good enough in my eyes, despite a multitude of evidence to the contrary. Negative self-talk and a highly sensitive nature (that I have only recently learned more about) kept me in cycles of depression and anxiety throughout my twenties.

From the first year of my teaching career I struggled to switch off. I cried most evenings in my first year out of university as I stayed up late preparing lessons only for them to be hijacked by a particular student with ADHD and ODD in a year group that had been separated their entire schooling due to behavioural issues only to be put back together for me – first year out. No one else wanted them. I lasted the year but headed to Nepal and India the year after. I’ve always come back to teaching in between travels because in my gut I know it matters to the world despite it being overwhelming for me for so many years.

After the birth of my baby I expected to finally feel some peace and revel in the joy of maternity leave with my beautiful girl but unaddressed issues resurface – particularly in the face of sleep deprivation. In yoga we call these reoccurring issues “samskaras”, ruts in the road that we fall into time and time again – until we burn through them with consistent yoga practice. I found myself floored – in the deepest “rut in the road” of my life – by horrific post-natal depression and anxiety for which I desperately sought out medication. I had always eschewed drugs in any form despite being prescribed anti-depressants in the past but I knew that I needed them this time as my thought patterns became increasingly disturbing to me and I struggled to get out of bed each day. I remember saying to my mum “I feel like I don’t exist”. I’m not entirely sure what I meant but I was not living in the world that mentally healthy people inhabit. Every daily action was a chore, I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I experienced muscle twitching in my arms and legs when I did lie down in bed.

When I went back to work after 8 months maternity leave it felt good to get my brain moving in a different way again but looking back I was exhausted and depleted on a very deep level. It took 4 years of being back at work, perfectionism reigning supreme, rest-deprived, pushing through the tiredness and stress-addiction before something had to give. And it did. It took another teacher asking me how I was and then probing further for the truth, for me to admit I was not okay. I will be forever grateful to that colleague for his care and intuition that things were not right.

It has been over a year since that unravelling and it has been a daily practice and taken much effort to stay healthy but it has been worth it. I know I will never fall back into those ruts in the road – ever.

These are my top Positive Mental Health practices:

  • Be Honest with yourself: don’t just soldier on. Panic attacks, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, lethargy, nausea or feeling “low” for an extended period are all signs that you are not 100%. Honesty can be difficult but can only lead to positive outcomes.
  • Seek Professional Help: your work place will provide you with access to free counselling sessions or you can see your GP for a referral to a psychologist for 10 sessions a year that you can claim on Medicare (in Australia).
  • Schedule rest periods: don’t “rest when you’re done” because you are never done. If you are feeling particularly depleted take some long service leave or a mental health day and DO NOTHING.
  • Have time to yourself: to do what makes you feel alive, at least a few times a week.
  • Exercise every day: this doesn’t have to be strenuous and in fact if your nervous system is overloaded too much movement will have a negative impact.
  • Cultivate Stillness and Silence: meditation is optimal but can be torture for a frazzled nervous system. Practicing yoga prepares your body for meditation. It took me 12 years of practice to finally find stillness (I had a lot of samskaras to burn off!) See my post on calming your nervous system here.
  • Alleviate the internal (and external) pressure daily: the pressure to do more, be more, accumulate more. Repeat to yourself “I am enough” and “I have enough”.
  • Connect to your breath throughout the day: it’s a good measure of your internal state and anchors you to the present moment. Aim for some long, slow, deep, abdominal breathing each day –you can do this in bed!

Not only do the children in our classes need and deserve the happiest, healthiest teachers for their own wellbeing but you deserve the happiest and healthiest life. Only you can create that.

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