It’s taken me 53 years to realise it’s ok to not be ok … ok for ME to not be ok! This is my 2020 mental health story. It’s far from dire. It’s nowhere near the scale of what others have experienced this year. But it’s my story and I’m sharing it because reading it might be the lightbulb moment you need as we limp towards the finishing line of a year that no-one saw coming.
On that note, I don’t think there will be some magical line-in-the-sand kind of thing happening on the stroke of midnight on December 31. I wish! I’ve have always embraced the belief that a new year could offer the chance to plan anew but a look back on the list of goals I wrote 12 months ago tells me that we can do all the goal setting we like but we cannot plan for the unexpected.
My 2020 mental health story
Three months ago I’d just returned from picking up my husband from hospital after his appendectomy. And when I say picking up, it really was like a fast-food, drive-through. Because. 2020.
After setting up the patient in bed, I sat down in my home office, the same office I’d worked from every day during lockdown earlier this year.
The tears started and they wouldn’t stop. It was like someone had pushed a button that released every single emotion I’d tried to bury during a year that just kept on throwing curve balls.
My husband’s sudden operation was the proverbial straw at the end of a month of “straws” that had hit me hard. These straws came on the back of a year where every work day has been about showing up with the goal of business survival, of keeping myself and my employees in a job.
When the tears refused to stop, I knew I was not ok. I picked up my phone and booked in to talk to my GP, advice I’d given to so many over the years but had never ever done myself.
I can tell you, as someone who operates better by taking action, just making that call gave me a small lift.
In this COVID 2020 year, every single one of us has had some level of stress thrown at us. Dealing with the unknown will do that. Some have experienced way worse than others. And my heart breaks most for those who have lost love ones in this pandemic.
The thing is, when it comes to our mental health it’s not a comparison game about who has more of a right to feel more stressed or burnt out than someone else. It’s about putting your hand up to say you’re not ok and realising it’s ok to not be ok.
That’s been my biggest learning in 2020. I’m the one who, pretty much my entire life, has just got on with it, pretending I’m ok but really just bottling it all up inside.
My wonderful psychologist said to me in our first session, “it’s never too late to take the lid off that bottle”. Well, that lid? It’s well and truly off.
Yes, you may have seen me show up most days on social media, smiling, keeping things light and breezy and positive. That’s my coping default. The reality is, I also run a small business. There is no sick pay! And there is little scope for just opting out of the day-to-day operations.
So, this is my reminder to you that when you see others looking and acting like everything’s ok, that it might not be. I was challenged on a Instagram post about why I was smiling when discussing one of the physical symptoms I’ve experiences as a result of stress this year and I replied that if I didn’t smile, I’d cry. And then promptly cried.
How I’m improving my mental health
I’m very much a “take action” person … coming at it from all angles. I’m not one to wallow or take pity on myself. It’s not in my nature. See above for just getting on with it!
I’m very grateful to have now found a psychologist who I’ve connected with and who I know I can work with. I didn’t get it right first time. The first psychologist pretty much dismissed my feelings and said there were people doing it tougher. Mmm … I’m very much aware of that, thank you very much. It should have been a sign that I could get in to see this psychologist within a week. It took six weeks to secure an appointment with the woman I’m now seeing. I took that as a very good sign and I was right.
I won’t go into the nitty gritty but I will say that this psychologist has helped me see that my pattern of bottling things up inside was something I established as a coping/survival mechanism from about the age of four. She’s recommended a number of books to me, including Motherless Daughters and The Body Keeps Score. Let’s just say, there is a lot of sh*&t to unpack and I don’t see our sessions ending any time soon.
My burnout and general anxiety disorder has also presented itself physically, in the form of a TMJ disorder (I’d been clenching my jaw in my sleep), heart palpitations and an overwhelming tiredness from adrenal fatigue.
All of those physical symptoms are still with me but not as severe as they were a few months ago. The TMJ was picked up by my dentist and is being managed by wearing a splint at night and seeing a physio who specialises in treating that pain.
I’ve been managing my energy around work, play and rest as best I can.
I’ve said “no” more often. Spending time with my supportive family and friends in small numbers has been my priority. Bigger events and gathering zap my already depleted energy.
I’ve pulled back from any adrenal-busting exercise. Yes, I miss running or doing a home HIIT workout but my body does not. For now, walking and home yoga routines (I’ve subscribed to the Yoga Studio app) are my friends.
I also like to embrace my woo-woo side at the best of times, so I’ve drawn on it in the worst of times! It might not be conventional or for everyone but I’ve had two Reiki sessions and I know I’ll have more. I don’t profess to understand how it works but these sessions leave me with a level of calmness and stress relief like nothing else.
Thankfully I’d already embraced the “soberish” life after a wake up call in June, post-lockdown. I wrote this post about it . After not drinking for three months, my liver recovered and I’ve spent the last three months (mostly) sticking to a maximum of two alcoholic drinks/twice a week. The night sweats have stopped – damn those researchers for telling me they would. I happily take my alcohol-free options with me to parties because I can only imagine how much worse I’d be feeling if I was throwing hangovers into the energy-depleting mix of what else I’ve got going on.
I’ve learned lots from this book, which I highly recommend: Burnout (the secret to solving the stress cycle) by Emily Nagoski. I listened to it on Audible but have not ordered a physical copy for highlighting all the useful advice.
I’d already been getting monthly Vitamin B injections at The Compounding Lab and I can’t imagine how I’d be if I’d stopped at any stage.
I’ve (re)embraced simple, small daily rituals to help calm my mind and body and to help me sleep better. I’m not generally good at keeping to them but I’m making more of an effort because it does help me.
I write down who and what I’m grateful for each day using this is dateless gratitude journal I was sent at just the right time.
I do a mood check-in with the Calm app that I subscribed to with the hope of doing more meditation … but I really do suck at it!
Most nights I’ll have a cup of this drink after dinner.
The only thing I’ve been really good at consistently doing on a daily/nightly basis is adding calming essential oils to my diffuser each night. I switch between three different brands and blends (The Goodnight Co Goodnight Blend; Ikatan Earth Water; and long-time fave Twenty8 Instant Calm). Getting a good night’s sleep is my number one priority each day.
It’s ok to not be ok. Where am I at now?
I still feel burnt out – the exhaustion is crippling some days – and I now know it’s ok to not be ok. I’m feeling better than I did three months ago but there is a lot of room for self-improvement.
As a small business owner you never really get to switch off but I’m working at becoming better at using the dimmer switch. You only get one shot at this game called life and I want to enjoy it.
If this post has brought up issues for you, please talk to your GP or phone Lifeline 131114.