This is the account of young woman who had experienced mental health concerns since her teens and her battle during her mid-twenties when she developed what doctors diagnosed as chronic fatigue and post-viral fatigue syndrome. She sought a range of methods to help her recover, but it was only when she visited a counsellor did she find the most useful remedy.
We’re sharing this now on Time to Talk day, in the hopes that this may also help you if you’re feeling isolated, confused or anxious about seeking support.
Please remember if you would like to talk to us about what you’re experiencing or to find out more information about counselling, contact your local Foundation Centre.
“I have always ‘pushed myself’. Not in the conventional sense of pushing myself to be more successful, but also in order to be braver, produce more, meet more people, know more things, out beyond my comfort zone. Go harder and faster. Partly this was my belief that this was the way to get the most out of life – I believed, and still do in many ways, that being uncomfortable is a reason to do that thing. I also believed in my own strength and infallibility, 100 percent, and as such had very little fear.
I am still drawn to this idea I suppose, but in light of recent experience, now in a much more healthy way. I certainly believe that the strangeness and excitement and richness of the world and people is only revealed if you are prepared to put yourself out for it, but what I know now is that both the human body and mind are fallible, and that there is a too far. Put plainly, I learned my limits.
In hindsight, when I look back, the signs were clear that my way of life was unsustainable. In my late teens, I had periods of anxiety (which I couldn’t recognise as such at the time), and bouts of medical hypochondria. The first major sign though was my eating disorder, which began when I was about 16, and which I had on and off for over five years. I arrogantly believed that bulimia was in control – an easy way to eat what I wanted and to stay slim. But in third year in the midst of terrifying Oxford finals, it got the better of me… mixed at this point with anorexia, my body was in total deficit. What I have since learned is that when this happens, the eating disorder takes on a life of its own. My under nourishment was being to affect how I felt, how I experienced things, and my priorities in life. It was changing my character.
Friends and family saved me here, being constantly supportive and brilliant and I gradually somehow begun to understand that something was wrong. My desire to have energy and have fun again, plus the crutch of excellent tolerant people around me (eating disorders make people very difficult to be around) got me out of it – without therapy, but involving two hospital trips, one of which lasted two weeks). I think counselling might have been a good thing at this point. I never really understood how I got to where I had, and didn’t process the horrendousness of the experience – I had treated myself so badly, some of these memories are difficult to return to.
Once recovered, I was largely back to where I was before and pushed on in my same old ways. There were things which were again signs – I bought of bad panic attacks and fear of public transport, stages of terrible sleeping and seriously disturbing night mares, patches of paranoia, fear of my lack of control of my own actions, and good old health paranoia (2 trips to A&E and numerous other GPs appointments). I was also a serious smoker (I still am, though less so), and my weight fluctuated with my mood. I was still going at 100 miles an hour and thought that when people told me that, that it was the highest compliment in the world.
The big moment came though when I decided to leave London to study again. I was getting tired of the city and wanted a break (that I felt this so strongly was surely another sign). Work was nuts – I believed that it was possible to say yes to every opportunity that came my way and so was totally overworked. As ever I took no break before starting my new course – I worked right up to the weekend before I left – and was exhausted before I had even begun this huge challenge.
I was working on a serious project in the first two terms in addition to my school work, in the particularly stressful context that it was for a friend, I gave myself no time to miss my friends and family, I finished a relationship that I was enjoying with little time for emotional recovery (I had a beer that night and barely spoke about it again), and hammered on with new experiences and working harder. My body was beginning to shout for a rest – I had this chesty cough that wouldn’t go, felt horribly virusy all the time, and had this weird thing with my tongue where it went all tingly (these last two I think were signs that my nerves were shot to pieces). My Friends and family warned me to slow down (chill- have a slow weekend – take it easy) but as with the eating disorder I didn’t listen. I was probably also pretty good at convincing others as well as myself that I was in control.
I went home that Christmas feeling ropey. I climbed into bed and got very sick for a week. I was obviously wiped out. I missed Christmas and New Year, and was feeling very miserable. Before I was feeling better, I tried to go along to a meeting in town (as per usual, impatient to rest it off properly) and then I had this weird feeling of mounting panic, and had to go outside. I felt like I couldn’t walk like the power had gone from my legs. I now know that this was the moment of my literal nervous breakdown. My nervous system failing in the lower part of my body. I had pushed myself even when my body was trying to pin me to my bed, and it was inevitable that something was going to give.
I spent the next terrible two and a half months totally house bound. My legs literally wouldn’t work – that was all I knew at that time. I was terrified and it was awful. I moved from my bed to the sofa and back every day. Sleeping and watching TV and unable to think or do anything. I napped and stared vacantly off into the distance. Spending days doing nothing. My friends and family were amazing – I genuinely felt like we were all trying to work out what was going on together. People visited and stayed and kept my spirits up. I cried a lot – I was very confused about it all.
I went to the GP and they didn’t know what was wrong. My symptoms were similar to some fairly nasty diseases and so I ended up in hospital for a few days having some nasty tests that included a lumber puncture. The doctors couldn’t work out what it was – I kept being diagnosed with chronic fatigue and post-viral fatigue syndrome. This was very unhelpful – literature and advice on these conditions is patchy and confusing and I felt pessimistic about my prospects. I kept thinking that I was going to be sick forever.
I was however determined to try and get better, and even in my gloomy days found ways to get on. I started walking round the block even though I was tired and uncomfortable. I never collapsed, but it was the constant feeling that my legs couldn’t take me. I was able to do it though….
Having missed a whole term of university, I decided I needed to go back. So I went back to Cambridge. When my mum left, I literally sobbed like I was 12. I was so sad and scared that it’s painful to think back to it now. I started back at university – my legs weirdly felt better when I was in school – but at spent a lot of time at home. These were dark days. Little to look forward to – lots of TV, reading, resting… smoking a hell of a lot.
I was getting some acupuncture at the time, and also started some shiatsu. I bought a course on self-belief, which claimed to deal with CFS and PVFS (chronic fatigue and post-viral fatigue syndrome). (All these were recommended by ever supportive friends and family). I was beginning to realise what I deep down had suspected all along – that this was a psychological thing rather than a physical thing, though my GP in Cambridge was no better at helping me work this out than the GPs I had seen at home.
One of the big turning points was when I read a story on ‘health good news stories’ on the internet, and it was from a girl who had had a similar experience to me. She said it would get better – that it was little and often – that it was going to be ok. I took so much peace from that.
Things were gradually improving in my physical health too, as is perfectly normal given what I know is an inextricable relationship between mind and body. Doing more, feeling more energised, more able to escape the solipsistic state of sadness and panic that I had been solidly been in. I was back working again also. This was good I think as it gave me focus. I began sleeping very badly at this time and had some horrendous bouts of insomnia. This period of my recovery was particularly bleak, and so I went to the GP again in a bit of a state, and I was prescribed some sedative anti-depressants. This made things significantly worse – so I stopped taking them after one day.
My recovery has been painfully slowly. Maybe nine months after it happened I can say that I finally feel back to normal, and dare I say it, but also better. My family and friends absolutely saved me – I could not have recovered without them – I have so much sadness for those people who have to go through that kind of experience alone.
The biggest external intervening factor for me I think was the free counselling offered by my university. I started going on a whim and it has enabled this to be a thing that I didn’t just recover from, but crucially importantly, learned from, so hopefully it will never happen again. Though I had been talking to people all the way through, this was different as I felt like I could go into all the gritty self-indulgent details. Also though he didn’t guide the discussion he gave some fantastically helpful pointers, tricks for coping, and ways of understanding (often in the form of metaphor).
It was only through counselling that I could begin to fully understand that what had happened to me was a nervous breakdown, with an ensuing period of anxiety and depression. I was able to see the relationship with the events of Christmas 2014, with my past. In particular my manic relationship with production and doing, which had latterly as a result of the pressure of my continual studies, had become largely about work. I learned that my ability to push myself was dependant on my ability to block out self-understanding. I learned that I have a tendency towards anxiety and how to keep it in check. I learned a bit about mindfulness and going slow. I learned about my internal conflict between control and chaos. I learned to be kind to myself and my thoughts. I learned to let myself feel good & bad. I learned that you feed or deprive thought processes – you don’t have to attach to every thought. I learned to check in with my body. I learned most importantly that it would all be ok – it always is – which has a funny closeness to my original self-belief.
When I talked to my dad and he said these kind of things to me as a kid, I thought he was ridiculous. I pushed back against all kinds of counselling, talking therapy, mindfulness and self-help techniques thinking they were weak. I am so much happier now that I know, understand, and live these things. My head space feels back in my control.”
—-anonymous, but a very dear, cherished friend of someone that works at The Counselling Foundation.