Geek Mental Health Week

This has been written as part of the Geek Mental Health Week – starting on Monday October 3rd 2016. 

You can hear me read this as an audioblog – 8 minutes.

T his time of year is a strange one for me, it feels like death is in the air – I see it in the changing colours of the leaves, I feel it in the slight nip in the air. It’s like the worst day of my life is coming all over again and the drumbeat is just getting louder the closer it gets. October 3rd is the anniversary of my Mum passing away. Unremarkable. People lose parents every day, right? I’m nothing special, my story is nothing remarkable and nothing that hasn’t happened to thousands of others like me in one form or another.

My mental-health however, is my unique story. We all have our own unique chemical makeup, and how we process different events depends so much on the grey stuff upstairs.

A little bit of back story. I come from an exceptionally small family. I’m an only child. My family consisted of Mum, Dad, Pops (Mum’s Dad), Grandma and Grandad. In the last 5 years, I’ve lost four of them, almost all five. I almost lost Dad to septicemia in 2011, and lost Mum, unexpectedly, a year later.

My health, mainly mental health started to deteriorate in 2013. 2014 I had such bad social anxiety that I stopped going out entirely. The nearer it would get to going out, the more anxiety I would feel that I would be the miserable one at the party. I thought people would judge me for it and I would have no excuse when my mind was telling me I’d had enough and needed to head home. Instead, I sat in my bed and watched TV on my laptop. Then as the months passed, the laptop was shunned and I would just sit there in silence, crying and wondering how I got into such a state.

Social media didn’t help one bit. When the inevitable photos of the night out were posted, and I wasn’t in my usual spot, it would make me worse. Gradually, other people unashamedly took my place in those photographs. I felt like social anxiety was out of my control and worse still, only one couple in my friendship group of 20+ people, actually reached out to me as to why I wasn’t going to events as usual. They had a hunch there was something else underlying other than me just being branded by the group as “anti-social” or “difficult”. Perhaps that says more about the people I thought were my friends. One by one, I’ve lost nearly all of them.

2015 I had a full mental breakdown. I knew I needed help, and I knew I needed it quickly. I contacted a number of places in the UK and none of them were able to help me at the speed I knew I needed it. What came next was a testament to my desperation, it was midday and I booked a flight that was leaving at 5pm to go to New York. I told no one but my Dad where I was going. I knew the best therapists and psychiatrists would inhabit that city and I would figure it out when I got there.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure how I managed to seek out the psychiatrist who turned out to be absolutely everything I had been looking for back home. I like to think my Mum somehow divinely intervened and played a part in getting him into my life. By midday the following morning, I was sat in his office in Chelsea, NYC. I was shaking like a leaf, desperately trying to hold it together. I didn’t breakdown, I don’t remember crying. I remember just being so desperate for him to tell me what was wrong and to get me on the road to recovery, I wanted to make sure I gave him a balanced view of everything that had happened in my life, so that whatever the diagnosis was, I felt like I had given a true representation of everything that had happened.

I stayed out there for 6 weeks. I invested in myself both financially and mentally. I needed a psychiatrist; I needed someone who understood that I need to know every nuance of why things happen. He would give me reading lists and books to help me understand the brain, and I soaked it all up like a sponge. Neuroscience books still continue to be my favourite genre.

I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). You know, that thing everyone is currently doing press-ups for on Facebook? A word commonly associated with veterans and war victims. This is going to come as a huge shock to friends and family who are reading this, I apologise that I haven’t had the guts to tell you myself – there’s no good way to bring it up in conversation without it seeming self-indulgent. You know I’m not the type of person who likes a fuss.

I saw some truly hideous things the day my Mum died; the kind of montages that if you saw them on television, you’d probably turn the channel. Let alone if it was playing out in real-time on your own parent. Add into the mix that I’m in graphic design and therefore have an exceptionally vision-led memory bank and the other ingredients of being exposed to death after death for almost 5 years. It’s apparently the perfect mix to bake a PTSD cake.

Knowing what I know about PTSD now, there’s no doubt that’s what it is. Ambulances made me feel physically sick. Ambulances on sirens made what happened that day start playing like a film, and still do. When a TV show starts casually performing CPR on someone; instant tears and my Mum’s face projected onto the actor.

Unbeknown to me, that day in NYC I had walked into the office of someone who had been the go-to psychiatrist for all the post-9/11 service workers; thus why I felt like our meeting was divinely intervened. He explained to me that trauma is like being hit over the head with a baseball bat, it can do incredible damage to your brain. PTSD can sit in someone like wood kindling, it starts as embers then waits for an incident to blow on it to ignite it into a roaring fire. It doesn’t get better on its own.

Living with PTSD, acute anxiety and depression is horrendous. There’s a saying, anxiety is where you care too much about everything, depression is where you don’t care at all, and having both is just a living hell.

One of the things I find most debilitating is that my perceived-danger-radar is going off all the time. It’s like my brain can’t distinguish between actual danger, and perceived danger. For example, the other day when Chelsea in NYC got bombed, my brain reacted like I was actually there; I was feeling the terror, the anxiety and the danger even though I was sat at home, safe in my home-office. My teeth started chattering (which I’ve now learnt is the first sign of a panic attack for me) and I was silently crying. It probably didn’t help that Chelsea was very familiar to me, but healthy brains can distinguish between actual and perceived danger. My brain was just firing off all over the place.

Acute anxiety in the mix is hideous – it’s the one thing I wish I could walk around with a sign on my head and have people understand how the smallest thing can set it off. Some of the worst things for me are “Can I have a word?” – or someone sending me a text “I need to talk to you” and then disappearing for minutes, sometimes hours before responding. I once woke up to a number of missed calls and some ambiguous texts from a friend – I was physically sick before I got an answer as to what it was all about. I have to keep a diary of all the times I’ve felt like something is going to turn out to be the most awful thing in the world, only to find it was either something nice/not anything to be worried about.

This is what anxiety looks like

This is what acute anxiety looks like.

Anxiety seems to be on the rise in general. At one of my companies, Blushbar – three out of four employees suffer with anxiety. I make sure I handle that in the same way I would any illness; ignoring it isn’t an option. On Slack (our company messaging system) I make sure I don’t leave any cliff-hanger or ambiguous messages. If I have to schedule in team meetings, I’ll put bullets as to what we’re actually going to talk about and write “Nothing to be worried about.” in the notes. If we need to address anything that could induce anxiety, I will write a message in Slack saying what the problem is (it’s rarely personal to any one person) and ask them collectively to put their heads together to solve it so that the responsibility isn’t on one person alone.

I’ve felt stuck in a merry-go-round of mental health for over a year now. I’m on pills which keeps some of it at bay, but the main thing I’ve found to be so debilitating is the low self-esteem and low self-confidence. I was never full of myself before, don’t get me wrong, but I never realised how having not a smidge of either of the above, can really turn you into a frozen mute, in both personal and professional life. That’s the most frustrating thing to me.

I’ve been very quiet in my industry for a little while. A mixture of imposter syndrome, quietly working on my companies and bowing out of freelance work. I’m getting there, slowly but surely. I’m trying to fight fear every day. I’m now trying to make a conscious effort to share my work and my learnings with the community once again.

Raising a glass this week to everyone voicing their problems and dealing with them silently, outwardly or seeking help. You’re doing great. You’re never alone.

  • Jennifer Murray

    Wow! This is beautifully honest Sarah, well done for speaking out about mental health. It is so often ignored ir played down as someone just having an “off day”. More needs to be done and spoken about as it is a disability that is not seen. I have a v v close family member who is battling depression and anxiety, so if you don’t mind I will be sharing this with them.
    I know we don’t know one another really well but however alone you feel just know that there are people out there who do care for you and wonder how you are, even those from afar.

    Keep strong lovely and know that speaking out and seeking help are two great steps for a road to recovery.

    Thinking of you xx

  • Elaine

    Thank you for being brave enough to share all this, Sarah. It’s really helpful to read. I have been through much of this myself recently – for me, the trigger trauma was the loss of the school, but there were many others hiding in the background. I can fully empathise with the anxiety and the inability to socialize. One to one, a small group of three is fine – parties are a nightmare. It’s made LTC very difficult for me at present.
    The new business is helping, and I’m loving the fact that it’s one to one and small groups.
    I’ll IM you later – don’t worry about it – perhaps we can get together over a lunch or a drink.

  • John Blatchford

    Such a Strong and talented woman you are Sarah. Well done for sharing your story. A true inspiration to many others xx

  • Thank you for sharing this with us. I can’t speak as one who experiences anxiety problems, but I hope that those who do are encouraged to hear they aren’t the only ones.

  • Just another voice to chime in with thanks. Thank you for writing and for sharing. The more people share, the less strength the stigma around these issues has. I really love the term “radical self-care.” We should all be practicing it and supporting others in practicing it too.

    (Wow about finding that specific psychiatrist! I love things like that!)

  • Mallen Baker

    Compellingly honest post. And whatever low esteem you may have felt, incredible initiative to get up and seek help the way you did. I hope that talking about this may prove to be part of the process of healing and help you back into a stronger position. Well done.

  • Thank you for sharing that Sarah – very profound and personal. I remember reading your tweets as it unfolded with your mum – you might be pleasantly surprised how many people you don’t even know were thinking of you that day.
    You are so right about anxiety – it does seem to be on the rise and that little tip about meetings is a great one. Thank you.

  • Russ

    Thank you for sharing this.

    It’s hard isn’t it? Feeling like you can’t confide in anyone, then, not feeling like you want to chat about anything. I’m certain you’ll get through it. Don’t expect to be the same. How can you? Sometimes, you’ll feel so very vulnerable. You are so strong. Stronger than you may even realise right now.

    You’re more sensitive. You can spot the warning signs in yourself and others. You can pick up on little things that nobody else really notices.

    I don’t think I had exactly what you had. I definitely had something. I was only ten at the time. Remember the good times, the beautiful laughter. These are the things that stay.

  • Emilio

    I can’t even imagine how destroying could this be. And as somebody said before, it’s got less visibility because a so-much-talented woman appears to be just as perfect inside as outside. Successfull bussinesswoman, worldwide respected of her knowledge, … maybe this perfectly hides any big trouble like yours.
    I’m really glad you are so valiant to take the bull by the horns and fight it. And show it to the world.
    The greatest of my respects. And the hope it soon becomes an old-bad-past to remember lightly.

  • Marsha grasett

    You’re never alone. xx

  • Respect, Sarah. Be well.

  • Dan

    Very brave of you Sarah! I can’t imagine dealing with such a thing, both the losses and the PTSD. Have you ever read “The War Of Art” by Steven Pressfield? It’s all about overcoming fear in our work, and daily lives. It sounds like you’re already onto some great reading, but that one was a huge help to me!

  • Sarah, your story sounds so familiar, watching my mom pass was amazingly horrible, and that chat screenshot made my heart race even when I KNEW it wasn’t directed at me!

    Keep trying, keep fighting, keep rocking. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Sarah.

    I suffer from social anxiety myself and though it has gotten better over the years, it’s been a constant battle. Learning how the mind works and getting into mindfulness has helped me tremendously.

    You’re never alone. Indeed.

  • Michele

    Thank you Sarah, for sharing this.
    It was great hearing it from your voice!

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  • Hi Sarah,

    I’ve been following your career for a long while, and have always admired you. I used to love Happy Monday – which more than most design related output had a genuinely positive change on my life. I’ve always respected you a tonne, and my respect for you has just totally gone off the charts.

    I don’t think there are enough words to tell you how brave you are, and how great it is that you feel able to write a post of this honesty. I hope you continue to find your way through life. Best of luck, and warm wishes.

  • Karthik

    Thanks for sharing Sarah, I’ve been going through chronic anxiety and depression for years. I could relate to a lot on your post. Really thnaks a lot.

  • Josie

    Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. Just recently, I was hospitalized with chest pains and heart palpitations. I felt like I was going to die. They found out I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Like you, I’m always thinking of the worst possible outcome, hiding out, staying away from social areas and contemplating how I got this way. Small, everyday activities have become scary. Going to the grocery store gets me in a tizzy. But through awareness and sharing, I have found it easier to speak with people about it. I realized it’s very common and we can help each other. It’s hard for those who are sufferers to understand. Luckily (if there is a positive), there are many people who understand what we feel everyday because they feel it, too.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Together, we can help each other.