This is my first blog post in 8 years and I'm choosing to share this experience to reduce the stigma around men's health.
I like to think I'm quite switched on with my self awareness and mental health. It turns out, when a global pandemic comes out of nowhere, maybe I'm not so much. I say this through gritted teeth having first began my 'therapeutic journey' at 22. An experience which taught me a hell of a lot about myself and has since allowed me to connect on a deeper level with all people whether they are 'under the weather' or I am. So it was a surprise to me recently, at the age of 31, when I fainted on my bathroom floor at 9.45 at night, while living alone.
I started this 'project' (which is how I'll refer to it for the time being) following a period of time off sick from work, where I stayed at my mum's and was forced to listen to my body (and the doctors). I was made to rest.
I am lucky to say that I have never experienced ill-health but suddenly saw myself experiencing fainting episodes, light-headedness, the dropping of the right side of my face, some funny sensation around my right ear, regular banging headaches, numbness in my arms and some sort of weird 'swelling of the tongue' experience.
I generally felt weak and just 'not right' or 'funny' which were the only ways I could describe it.
I just wanted to know what was going on. I ended up getting upset to my mum about how unhappy I had been (which despite recognising weeks previous) came to me as a big shock when this happened.
The doctors told me it was important to run tests to rule out anything sinister. I was referred to neurology and put on the waiting list for a blood test (which wasn't possible at the time as there was a national shortage of blood bottles due to Brexit - I know!)
On the second night of staying at my mums, I was slurring my words and struggling to string a sentence together when talking about work. We questioned if this was stress related? "Surely it can't affect me like this" I said.
How do you just faint?
My period off time off work saw me sleeping a lot, deleting social media, muting my notifications, eating healthier, drinking water only and checking my blood sugar as if I was a diabetic... (it runs in the family and my mum was diagnosed at 38-years-old). I fell off the face of the planet to everyone else. And I really needed it.
I booked in with my therapist, who I had stopped seeing back in 2018, and began listening to (all of) Frankie Bridge's podcast - Open Mind. It really helped me through this time. One of its episodes, which I suspect would resonate with the entire country, if not the world, was titled 'Lockdown and anxiety with Joshua Fletcher' who is a psychotherapist and author, based in Manchester, specialising in the field of anxiety disorders and stress management. This was followed by another episode called 'OCD with David Veale' who is a psychiatrist specialising in obsessive compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, health anxiety, emetophobia and depression.
Suddenly, the penny dropped...
One week previous, after I fainted the first time, I was forced to open up to my mum about the full extent of how the pandemic was affecting me and it was a combination of a number of things.
I have had a fear of death since my grandad (and father figure) died of cancer within 6 weeks of diagnoses when I was just 7 years old. I look back through adult eyes and with the newer awareness we have of wellbeing and realise that experience of death in childhood is often referred to as 'childhood trauma'. 8 months later followed the death of my cousin's sister, Jillian, to meningitis, aged just 15, I began to develop an issue with germs which I believe wasn't helped by an unhelpful family member repeatedly saying that Jillian was 'kissing boys at a party'. From this I began to have a huge issue with germs.
I kept my issues around these circumstances to myself (until I was 22) despite the fact that I have an amazing mum who I knew I could have spoken to about anything. I learned in therapy that, as a child, I created this responsibly to not burden anyone with what was going on with me, and I later learned why.
Together with the extremely unhealthy relationship I had with my mum's brother and sister (who moved into my nan's house following the death of my grandad) and with the bullying I faced in school, I grew up as a frustrated and (what I now know to be) anxious child who lived in the silence of his pain. I feel this makes me sound melodramatic (which is an unhelpful thought) but this is the reality of my story.
As a result I developed a number of coping strategies to get by.
The birth of my little cousin was something hugely positive for me around this time, as well as for my mum and nan. I genuinely believe he gave me a positive reason to get by.
I have known that I have been living with undiagnosed OCD since I was about 17, before that you can only imagine what a boy tells himself (and none of it is positive). This is too personal to share so publicly. In therapy the first time I had more pressing issues to work through and I felt that my 'whatever it was' (the OCD) was controlled. In recent years, I have often said I felt like a 'childhood germaphobe' but that I'm not near as bad as what I was, then Covid-19 hit and sent me straight back into it.
A lot of people related to this, with an increase of excessive hand washing, cleaning and ‘spraying down’ of anything that came through the door, but for me, I was unaware that this disorder was having a field day on my habits and intrusive thoughts.
Dr David Veale's summary of obsessive compulsive disorder and how it resonated with me encouraged me to initiate this conversation on my first therapy session with my therapist, Rachel. While it was important to ensure the doctor's ruled out anything physically medical, Rachel showed the greatest amount of support and care, as she always did, and we began talking about the level of unhealthy coping mechanisms I was carrying out, during this pandemic, that may be contributing to or causing the amount of stress I was experiencing (along with other stuff).
I asked myself why I couldn’t just be a man that gets on with it - something which I know is an unhealthy and unhelpful statement to make. It’s actually quite upsetting to write how disappointed I felt in my experience and in my identity as a man.
At the age of 31, I have now been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (categorised under 'washing' and 'checking') and I'm working through exposure therapy with Rachel.
I still await my neurology referral but I am feeling a lot better. Recent blood tests initially revealed high liver enzymes (which can bring on the symptoms I was having) and two further tests have shown that these have gone back to normal. It may well be possible that my lack of self care (in the form of rubbish food, lack of exercise and sleep at the time) are likely to have contributed to this.
This wake up call was a really rough and unexpected time. And with the work I'm having (choosing) to do in therapy, it's going to be a good while before it is over.
But one thing is for sure, I am now becoming aware of how OCD has ruled my life significantly for around 24 years. And it's a difficult journey to embark upon but I know from previous experience of my inner strength that I will get through this and limit it's control.
I have said to a friend or two, reflecting back on my previous experience of therapy, that I have never wanted to be the poster boy for mental health, or the male friend that's always talking about his feelings or injecting references to psychology in everyday conversations, even though I often do. I have continued to believe that this makes me feel less of a man. And I recognise how barbaric this is.
I have spent the last few years, following positive results of therapy, still ‘closeted‘ in the silence of not sharing the truth around my mental health for fear of feeling like I won't be seen as strong and it's fucking bullshit. Because I am strong and emotionally stronger than I have ever been before.
You will hear in the trailer for my podcast that I mention being seen as 'confident' and 'talkative' like nothing phases me before mentioning 'but the reality is, as a man, I still find [my mental health] so hard to talk about' and this realisation (about myself) really surprised me.
I can change this.
This blog is my pledge to me and for the first time in my life I have decided that I will come first.
And that is really liberating.