Time To Change

I suppose you could consider this post to be my New Year’s resolution, so apologies that it’s three weeks overdue. Apologies too if it’s a bit too personal for comfort; it’s difficult to get the mixture of public and private right when you run a blog.

Anyway, regular followers of this blog will know that I had some problems with my mental health last summer;  I posted a partial explanation here.  I completed a course of treatment last autumn and have since been feeling much better.  Words can’t express my gratitude to the people who looked after me when I was unwell nor to the friends and colleagues who put up with my unexplained absences for so long.

In November last year I came across a website run by Time to Change Wales which was in the middle of a campaign to get people talking about mental health issues. Among the things they were doing was getting people to post short blogs about their experiences in order to help people overcome the stigma that sadly still surrounds mental health. It seemed right to contribute something to this campaign, so I decided to write a piece for them. I probably don’t have to explain that I didn’t find this easy to do, and I changed my mind several times about what to include or indeed whether to send anything in at all. In the end I plucked up enough courage, and my piece went live last week.

I was given permission to post it here also but, on reflection, I decided that might detract from the campaign by deflecting traffic from the Time to Change website. I also thought I’d leave it a while before referring to it on here; as it happens, there were also practical reasons why I haven’t had much time to blog in recent days.

If you’d like to read the piece you can do so here. And while you’re there, why not check out the rest of the site? Or maybe even follow them on Twitter?

Closer friends who know the whole story will realise that I’ve edited it quite severely; they’ll probably also understand why. I’d just like to add here a few things I left out because I didn’t think they were relevant in the context of the Time to Change campaign.

First, you will probably now appreciate the irony in the fact that I’ll shortly be returning to live in Brighton when I take up my new job as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. That this opportunity came along when it did seemed so implausible a coincidence that  I’ve almost started to believe in fate. I feel a bit like a character in a play with a very strange plot; I haven’t a clue how it’s going to end, but I’m obliged to act out my part regardless.

In case anyone is wondering, before being appointed to my new job I did have to complete a medical questionnaire, and I did make a written statement about the problems I’ve had. I was more than a bit nervous about doing that, actually, and for a time I thought I’d get turned down. But instead of being declared unfit, all that happened was that I had a discussion with an Occupational Health Adviser who was very supportive. I know that my problems may recur, but now I know how to handle them I don’t see any reason why I can’t handle this new job either. I’m very much looking forward to it, in fact.

I’m by no means an expert on mental health, but I couldn’t resist ending with a comment arising from my recent experiences. The human brain is an incredibly complicated thing which means that even when it’s functioning “normally” it gives rise to a vast range of personalities and behaviour patterns that largely defy categorization. Likewise, when things go wrong they can go wrong in so many ways that simple descriptions such as “anxiety” or “depression” aren’t really all that useful or even complete.

You might think, for example, that panic disorder describes a fairly well-defined condition, but it really doesn’t. The things I have experienced during panic attacks – which includes alarming visual and auditory hallucinations as well as an overwhelming impulse to flee – are quite different from what others with panic disorder may describe. Post-traumatic stress disorder can likewise manifest itself in a wide range of behaviours, including extreme aggression. In my own case the dominant factor has been hypervigilance and I’ve never showed any sign at all of some of the other indicators.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that there’s no ab initio theoretical understanding of what causes such conditions, and that treatment is largely by trial and error. In short, neuroscience isn’t at all like physics. It’s also very very much harder.

9 Responses to “Time To Change”

  1. I have not read your blog before but I will be again. Dealing with mental health is challenging and takes a lot of willpower; recover is rarely a passive process like it can be with physical health.
    I am in the earlier stages, yet to be correctly diagnosed, as depression nor bipolar fit what I experience. I am glad you have got to a level of recovery that you are feeling comfortable with.
    I love they way you write and look forward to future posts.
    Regards x

  2. Reblogged this on What does it mean, how does it feel? and commented:
    Smile because recovery is possible! x

  3. Jules Venning Says:

    All the very best for the new position in Sussex. In Aotearoa one in four persons is diagnosed with a Mental health ‘problem’ from mild depression right through the spectrum. Post earthquakes, (several of my family including me were in the city at work when they happened) daughter’s accident (hit by car as she cycled to work last year) and other events of my life, I have PTSD and prefer time alone to cope sometimes. Nothing to be anxious over. Keep on being you, surround yourself with loving friends and be honest about how you are feeling. Kia kaha – stay strong.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have offered before my great sympathy to Peter over the initial incident in Brighton and its consequences last year, but I would like to do so again here. I hope the memories of the original incident will become less acutely painful as time passes and that there are no further repercussions.

    I have not had an opportunity to talk to Peter about the incidents last year that led to the more recent problems, or to ask what they were, but I trust they will not recur.

    Writing the account of these incidents for the Time to Change website would have taken courage and I am sure that many people will find the account helpful by showing them that they are not alone, and that seeking support can be highly beneficial.

  5. I posted a blog about a ‘breakdown’ I had after coming off my medication for Panic disorder. I was taking the medicine throughout University and I had no idea I could declare it to the academic department or anybody – it was like my own little secret, The GP was useful however. He at least listened to what I had to say!

    Its more awareness that this happens. and what happens that I wanted to put across in my message, as it isn’t something that you can control, and it can be triggered by numerous things.

    I’m not going to say “well done” as the incidents in themselves aren’t something to celebrate. But thank you. Thank you for raising more awareness. People used to think I was over reacting when I couldn’t breathe properly and just panicked when anyone touched me. It was like an outter body experience.

    Your recovery is one I will follow, something to add to my inner strength as such. – Good luck

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve tried to understand what precisely triggers these attacks, but although there are some common features in the circumstances they’re still unpredictable. For example, with a few exceptions, I’ve never had much problem actually at work. Busy public spaces, shops, and places like that are most likely to trigger an episode, and I can often simply get out of there with no harm done. The most severe attacks – and thankfully those are very rare – are more terrifying and more debilitating than I can possibly explain.

      I took a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as part of which I was supposed to go deliberately into situations likely to trigger an attack. At first I found that impossible to do, but I got a bit better at it.

      I still carry around a couple of the pills I was prescribed during the summer in case of emergency, but I haven’t needed them at all recently.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes there are profound mysteries. Some people can suffer panic as a result of experiences that are comparatively mild relative to wartime encounters which leave (selected) others unscarred. And in the 1929 Wall St crash plenty of financiers committed suicide, yet still only a small minority in percentage terms, meaning that financial stress might have been a precipitating factor but was not the decisive factor. Conclusions: (1) Some people reach adulthood “pre-stressed” so that smaller things can set off panic or depression than in other persons; (2) anybody suffering panic or depression should be treated with utmost compassion and their symptoms taken totally seriously, regardless of the precipitating factor. Suffering is suffering.

    Opinion is divided over whether people I have called “pre-stressed” are born that way or whether pre-stressing is due to bad childhood experiences before the age of memory. I hesitate to comment, although this will affect someone’s choice of treatment.

    Peter, may your treatment lead you to healing.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      As far as I understand it (which isn’t much) there are some indications that there may be a genetic predisposition to some forms of anxiety disorder but it’s clearly not the whole story.

      Peter

  7. […] further than just disclosing my problems to my employer; I’ve even blogged about them, both here and elsewhere. I also stood up in the University of Sussex Senate about two years ago and spoke […]

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