What Does The Initial Shock Feel Like After Being Diagnosed With A Mental Illness?
When I came away from my first mental health assessment I felt like I was in a bubble. As I walked down the street I could see people going about their business, walking past me, getting on buses, going in and out of shops... and I felt completely invisible. I felt separate from them all. I could see them, but they couldn't see me. I was in a different dimension. It was all very strange. A little bit... "twilight zone".
I once witnessed a suicide. It happened very quickly and very quietly, and I was the only one on the platform who saw it take place. After I had given my witness statement to the police I left the train station, and as I was walking down the street... I felt exactly like I did after my first mental health assessment.
Reaction to suicide: Did that really just happen? I just witnessed someone jumping to their death. I was the only one who saw it... Did that really just happen? - Pinch yourself Zara to see if you wake up.
Reaction to diagnosis: Did that really just happen? I've just been diagnosed with a mental illness. I'm the only one who knows it... Did that really just happen? - Pinch yourself Zara to see if you wake up.
I didn't wake up, of course. Either time.
It wasn't that I felt upset, or emotional, or that everything had suddenly changed in my world. I think I actually felt more confused by the fact that nothing had changed at all.
I thought there would be... more. More information, more support, more guidance, more emotion. But there was just me. It was the same me that went into the mental health assessment pre-diagnosis that came out. It's just that now I had a post-it note in my pocket with an illustration scribbled on it depicting my mental illness.
You can read the full story of my diagnosis and how the psychiatrist left me with a post-it note in place of my mental health. Yes, I am still bitter about it.
What Happens After A Diagnosis Of Mental Illness?
Obviously, I can only give you insight by telling you my own experiences, so my answer to this question is entirely subjective. But keep reading if you are interested to know what happened after my diagnosis of a mental illness.
I know, short story, right? Well, nothing would have happened if I hadn't got extremely defiant that evening. Let me explain...
During the mental health assessment, which lasted less than an hour, after I had been told what my diagnosis was and it had been briefly described to me, I was offered an antipsychotic.
I mean, how scary is that? All I heard the psychiatrist say was the word "psycho".
Psycho... was he referring to me? No, he must be mistaken. Surely I don't need to take the same medication they give to psychopaths. Maybe if I promise not to go on any killing sprees he'll offer me something else?
I exaggerate for the comic impact of course, and I know that antipsychotics have nothing to do with psychopaths - they are prescribed as mood stabilisers for people who suffer from bipolar disorder. My point is that the main problem when you are in that room with the psychiatrist and they have just told you that you are suffering from a mental illness is that your head has basically gone to fuzz. There is just white noise.
It is impossible to really register anything on a sensible level, let alone find the right questions to ask in order to relieve yourself of what I can only describe as "internally freaking out - with a straight face".
I think I managed to pull myself together enough to ask a sensible question - Will there be any side effects?
He said that I would only need a very low dose as I am not fully bipolar, but that I can expect to feel quite sedated and that some people experience weight gain.
Again all I heard was - I'm going to be an obese pill-popper with no sex-drive, and psychotic tendencies if I forget to take my meds - Well that's going to make relationships ten times more difficult than they already are!
"You'll also have to remain on the medication for a minimum of 6 months before we can determine if it is working for you." He said.
Oh hell no!
I asked him, sensibly, what he recommended I do, and he said that he didn't necessarily think that I needed to take the medication, but it was really up to me and what I felt I needed, after weighing up the pros and the cons.
I said that I wasn't sure. So he said that he would put the prescription with a note into my report letting the GP know that the option was there if I decided I wanted to take it.
And that was it. End of assessment. End of the line.
Why It Is Important To Take Control When It Comes To Your Mental Health
I have to say, it was a shock. I was in shock. I honestly did just think that there would be more to it than that.
I thought that I'd be given a follow-up appointment with someone nice and friendly who would offer me biscuits as we sat down to discuss support options. I thought there would be some kind of therapy. A list of local support groups. I thought I might even get something that resembled a welcome pack - "Welcome to your new mental illness - here is your itinerary." I mean, where was my lollypop damn it?
So yeah, I got a bit mad. Really quite mad. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning writing and re-writing a 20-page report on all of the reasons why I thought my diagnosis was basically bollocks - cue symptoms of hypomania.
It was extremely thorough and well-written, complete with subheadings and bullet-pointed lists... or so I thought as I smugly proofread it for the fifth time admiring my skill - hello grandiosity! I'm surprised I didn't include a contents page.
I bypassed my surgery and emailed it directly to the psychiatrist via his personal secretary, which I had to google like the crazed stalker patient I am. I was desperate for it to get to him before he wrote up my report and I was discharged back to the GP - completely misdiagnosed - Oh the scandal!
I can't imagine what the poor guy must have thought receiving my epic letter. He was very professional though and basically reinstated that he was standing by his original diagnosis.
When I got my copy of the report I was still very upset. I felt like I was lost on the windy moors, that no-one could hear me, and there was no search party being sent out to rescue me.
So I had to rescue myself.
Readers, if you are on your own diagnosis/treatment journey - you have to rescue yourselves! Otherwise, it's going to be a long wait, and you're going to get really wet and cold.
Somehow I managed to get a second mental health assessment with a different psychiatrist, and the experience for me was much better. I came out the other end with a kind of treatment plan and the ongoing support of a professional and nurturing psychiatrist who was going to hold my hand through the various stages until we found a treatment that worked for me.
I felt safe. So safe that I'd honestly have accepted any medication or treatment she suggested - Antipsychotics? Yeah, why not! ECT? Oh, what the hell, let's do it! No, no, I'm kidding. I'm kidding! No meds for psychos, no electric shocks.
I agreed to try an anti-depressant. An SSRI. Alas, it didn't help me so she said she wanted to try one more SSRI before we considered our next options. The next one didn't help either.
I was given a course of psychotherapy sessions. My therapist and I talked a lot about my sister. Mentioning my "diagnosis" during those sessions felt taboo because I discovered early on that they don't like to put a "label" on things. I found myself feeling resentful and secretly blaming my therapist for the stigma of mental illness in society - if you can't mention your diagnosis to your therapist who can you mention it to?
But she was delightful, very pretty, and hey it was nice to have someone to chat to every week, I don't have any friends of my own. She also put up with me sporadically bursting into tears and was polite enough not to mention the fact that I never ever took my hat and coat off during sessions. She probably had a heyday with it when writing up her notes though...
Patient X has intimacy issues and uses outdoor wear as armour to shield her vulnerability. Patient X is dissociated from her own identity and fears that this will be exposed if she removes her coat. Patient X has not brushed her hair again today and is wearing "the hat" to disguise her self-neglect and therefore avoid exposing the fact that she suffers from "that which we do not name"...
Voldemort? No... CYCLOTHYMIA! I HAVE CYCLOTHYMIC DISORDER - SPREAD THE WORD!
How Do You Live With A Mental Illness?
Try to resist the urge to find a high vantage point and shout the above statement out to the whole neighbourhood and you'll be just fine!
On a serious note, it's hard, I'm not going to lie to you. If you thought life was hard when you were blissfully ignorant about your disorder, there will be no relief for you now that you know. Or maybe that's a bit harsh. There is a certain kind of relief in knowing.
I am glad that I know, for example, because everything about me makes so much more sense now that I can actually see the part my illness has played in my life. It's actually rather fascinating.
But it will always be frustrating because now I know that my brain needs medication to help keep it in balance. And despite taking the medication, it will never be fully balanced, and I have to deal with unwanted side effects, like getting drunk and having epic hangovers after just one cider with a high-carb evening meal. One cider.
Living with a mental illness can feel lonely, even when you have people who are willing to listen and support you. It can feel like you have your disorder written on your forehead. People's kind gestures will feel patronising.
You may feel like you will never reach your full potential, and that all of the hope you had before is futile now. You may feel trapped in a web of medications. Every morning or evening when your phone alarm goes off to remind you to take your meds it is a reminder that you're not who you thought you were, and you may never get to be who you want to be.
Half of the time I want to escape. I want to flush pills down the toilet and leave my life and all the people who have known me behind, to go live deep in the middle of a forest somewhere where nobody can find me, and I can just - be - me - whoever that is. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent researching how to live off-grid, or how to build your own secret hobbit house from mud inside of a hill.
You just want to escape your diagnosis. At least that is how it has felt for me. More so in the beginning. I've come a long way though, and I always like to be optimistic, so I will end on a positive note and say that at least I know that I am always going in the right direction now. I know that every meltdown and mood swing just brings me one step closer to knowing myself and my illness better.
They say to keep your friends close but your enemies closer... and so I'm getting real cosy with my cyclothymic disorder.
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