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You’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t look like ‘the type’ of person who has been sectioned.
As a vicar, wife and mum, I speak to an awful lot of people and find that everyone is quite open about their physical scars, or wounds. When it comes to mental health, it’s a completely different story – people don’t share as freely.
I can see why. I’ve found that when I talk about my past psychosis and manic episode, some people treat me differently.
They don’t ask how I am because they don’t know how to ask; they’ve never been taught anything but shame and silence around mental health.
Back in November 2016, I was signed off work with anxiety and depression.
I was feeling really low; I’d lost all energy and motivation, I was starting to cry at tiny things, which is really unusual for me, waste connections allied waste and I was experiencing panic attacks and intense anxiety being around other people.
After seeing my GP, I was put on standard antidepressants – I’d heard they worked well for some of my friends, so I was hoping they would make a difference for me. After two weeks, I didn’t feel much difference, so the GP increased the dosage, and then upped it again after four weeks as I prepared for a phased return to work.
By this point, the medication had now started to help reduce the extreme levels of panic and anxiety that I had been experiencing, and I was just starting to feel able to go out a little bit, to be seen again by other people.
But after 10 days of this upped dose, it felt like a switch had been flipped. My thoughts were racing but physically my energy levels and speech were slow.
I felt scared because I didn’t know why things had changed so much. If my brain were a computer, it felt as if someone were overclocking it, and I didn’t know how to slow it down.
The only thing that calmed me was having cushions and blankets piled heavily on top of me.
I spent hours sitting on the sofa, flicking through channels restlessly, scrolling through my iPad, then laptop, and then rummaging through my bookshelf.
I ended up surrounded by books as I just couldn’t concentrate enough to read them for more than a few minutes.
Though I had no energy, I couldn’t sleep for more than two hours. I kept Googling my symptoms online, and interestingly I discovered ADHD – so many things added up. Hyperfocus, quick thinking, quick connections, bored easily, intense emotions, interrupting others, tangential thoughts, lots of different interests.
I was anxious and shy growing up, which are common traits for many neurodivergent people. I got so desperate of my racing thoughts and sleeplessness that I arranged to speak to my GP; I wanted an explanation, but I also wanted to find out if I had ADHD.
While I know now that I was experiencing mania, my symptoms were atypical – I had slow speech rather than fast, and no energy. My GP vowed to put me forward for an ADHD assessment, but he still wanted me to stay on the higher dose meds.
I cried. I described the medications as being like poison, they had changed something for me, and I knew they were making me unwell. But I promised to trust him because he warned of suicide risk if I came off them cold turkey.
Looking back, I don’t blame him for it, and I didn’t want to do that to my family, so I kept taking the tablets.
The next day, looking in the mirror, the possibility of an ADHD diagnosis sunk in. I smiled at myself in the mirror for the first time in my life feeling as if I was finally starting to know who the person was looking back at me.
A couple of days later, I stayed up overnight and wrote a 30,000-word essay in just 14 hours on why I thought I had ADHD, how this manifested in me and who I had always been – I was hyper-focused and bouncing off the walls.
Despite not sleeping, the next morning I went to a church training session to prepare for my return to work and I constantly interrupted everyone to give my thoughts and opinions, whether relevant or not.
I couldn’t stay focused, my mind was racing. My bishop recognised something was wrong, and said he may need to call the police to get me the help that was needed. I felt scared and angry: I was ill, I didn’t want the police. I shouted at him.
Another bishop helped to calm me down and took me home. It was confusing and terrifying. I didn’t know what was happening to me, and I knew something was wrong when the operator recommended I go to the hospital when I called 111.
I spent 48 hours in A&E, waiting to be seen by a psychiatrist who was miles away, in another hospital. At times, I was lying on the floor with my coat over my face as I couldn’t bear the bright lights. It was like a sensory overload.
They moved me to a hospital bed, but I didn’t know if I was dead or alive. I could hear voices, and I was convinced that the nurses taking my blood were trying to kill me. I tried to tell the nurses that I thought they looked like my local funeral directors, but apparently, all that came out of my mouth was nonsense.
By this time, psychosis had kicked in within the mania. Where mania is psychological and can cause people to have very intense moods, hyperactivity and delusion, psychosis is a severe mental disorder that can trigger hallucinations, and you become detached from reality.
For me, psychosis was hearing things that others couldn’t hear; the real voices around me morphed into the voices of loved ones, while people’s name badges transformed into names of people I knew.
I tried to make sense of my environment but ended up trying to wash myself with hospital cleaning products.
I could no longer communicate in a way that made sense to those around me. That’s when I agreed, with the nod of three professionals, to be sectioned.
I wondered if I would ever see my family again. Would I ever go home? Was there a way to be able to communicate again with those around me? Was this the end for me?
I’ve described being sectioned as being on an NHS sponsored retreat. I had a room on my own with a window in the door, so that they could check up on me. Day to day, I’d spend some time on my own, and then sometimes would hang out in the living room or dining room with other patients.
I spent two weeks there, an hour away from my husband and seven-year-old daughter, on four different types of medications – to sedate me, to try and help my body to sleep, to rest and to bring me down from the high, manic state.
The nurses and doctors wanted me to trust them, but I couldn’t: I’d trusted the GP a few weeks earlier, and he had got it so wrong and now I was in a psychiatric hospital.
Something I found really hard as a patient was feeling as if no one believes what you say. They kept phoning my husband to check if what I told them was right – he got a bit fed up of this because all of what I’d said to the staff was correct. It felt like I’d lost who I was.
But what shocked me the most was hearing other patients’ stories – some of them didn’t feel safe to be open about what was going on, so they were lying to relatives or colleagues about where they were. They were ashamed; they didn’t want people to know. The stigma is so great, the consequences of other people’s fear can be too costly. They weren’t open and honest like I was.
Before being sectioned, I’d spoken on Facebook about having depression and anxiety. I continued that choice and found myself still being open about my journey on Facebook: through A&E, through the psychiatric hospital and through recovery at home. I still do to this day – online and in person, to my community and even in job interviews.
I speak out now because I know there are many who have experienced mania and psychosis, for whom it is not still not safe to talk about their experience. People laugh about it, or jest. But people are also scared by it. Openness about mental health can have really difficult consequences: losing jobs, losing respect from others, friends staying at arm’s length.
When I returned home after two weeks in the secure psychiatric hospital, I was feeling numb. In hospital, I had been taken off the antidepressant/anti-anxiety medications, because they had triggered mania. I was then put on really strong anti-psychotic medication and sedatives to stop the mania that had been triggered. I was sleeping about 16 hours a day and was initially only awake for a few hours at a time.
The acute mental health team came to see me at home and were able to adjust the medications with me, reducing the sedatives so that I was able to stay awake for a bit longer. After a couple of months, I was able to start making a phased return to work and had to be willing to grow my confidence and energy again, from scratch.
A few weeks after the hospital I wanted people to stop asking if I was ‘better now’ as I ‘looked better’. People were so desperate for me to be OK that they weren’t able to ask open questions about how I was. I think they were scared and wanted to fix me but didn’t know how.
I used to answer that ‘I’m not better, I’m on tons of meds because I’m still unwell’. I was under the care of the psychiatrist for eight months after hospital to help me transition off all the medications for mania and psychosis.
Because of how I reacted to the antidepressants, I am now diagnosed with bipolar – meaning that there is always the possibility that I may have another episode of depression or mania. The psychiatrist has said that underlying bipolar is why I reacted to the antidepressant medication in that way.
Thankfully, I was also officially diagnosed with ADHD and autism. I had a assessment about three weeks after hospital, which confirmed that I had ADHD. I was subsequently prescribed medication for ADHD, which I take every day, which has helped me a lot to focus on the things I mean to and reduces the amount that I interrupt or go off on tangents.
The assessment also picked up strong indications of sensory processing challenges and autistic traits, and I was put on a waiting list for an autism assessment, which came through a couple of years later. It felt like I’d discovered the real me – something that perhaps wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have my episode. I’ve been learning a new language around neurodivergence, helping me to understand more of who I have always been, and to learn specific strategies that help support the challenges that I have.
Some members of the clergy tell me that I shouldn’t be allowed to work in the church with my demons, but it drives me to be even more transparent about my mental health. My friends always say to me that when life gives me lemons, I make lemonade, as I find the positives in everything.
My psychosis and manic episode have given me a brand new sense of self-awareness. I’m telling my story, not for your sympathy or fear, rather I want people to be willing to make these conversations and not be scared to ask.
Rachel is supporting mental health charity Hammersley Homes, whose aim is to provide supported homes for adults who have life-long mental illnesses. For more information, visit their website here.
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