World Mental Health Day 2017

This year’s World Mental Health Day has the theme ‘in the workplace’. I am not in paid employment at the moment but I feel this theme is still very relevant to me.

I have had mental health issues since as far back as I can remember. My official diagnosis started in 1993 when l was sectioned after a suicide attempt.  At that time I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Not that l needed a label to tell me this but this label allowed me access to the mental health system, support and various modalities of treatment

In the years since then, my mental health became steadily worse. Unfortunately, the main way I dealt with my depression and anxiety was to numb it with food restriction, alcohol and drugs. Doing this also allowed me to keep working. If I was numb then l could blot out the anxiety and exhaustion that being around people caused and cope with the sickening feeling of nameless dread I experienced on a daily basis.

Not surprisingly, living life like this was not manageable and soon, not only was l caught using cannabis and being drunk at work, but also being numb just was not masking the low mood and anxiety like it used to. I then moved from being, in the loosest possible term, a ‘functioning person with mental health issues’ to being completely non-functioning. My anxiety was at astronomical levels, to the point where I was constantly rocking and l had picked up self-harming as another futile coping tool.

No longer functioning, my life began to shut down. My University faculty department suggested I take some time out of my University degree studies which I wasn’t managing at all. I approached my local GP for some support and was officially signed off from work. Later that year, I was admitted to a full time 18-month non-residential treatment at a therapeutic community in which I stayed for 23 months including assessment phase. There I was diagnosed with various personality disorders, to add to my already existing diagnosis

Although the therapeutic community addressed my drinking and using, it wasn’t enough to stop me completely. For the entire time, except the last month of therapy, I was free from using cannabis but I was still drinking alcohol. The communities approach to alcohol misuse was to use controlled drinking methods rather than abstinence and this allowed me to continue to drink and lie about the amount I was drinking. Once I finished the 18-month program in the April of 2010, l went out for a drink to celebrate and that party lasted 4 months.

Waking from a particularly wild night in early August 2010, for some reason I found myself for the first time really wanting off of the hamster wheel of it all. A series of chance events led me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous where for the first time I was able to admit I was an alcoholic, stop drinking one day at a time and begin to take responsibility for my recovery and my life.  Not only am l now 7 years clean and sober but l am also managing my various mental health issues in healthy ways and am able to move forward in my life, despite them often making things more challenging

And this is where I return to how this year’s World Mental Health Days theme applies to me. I am still unable to return to paid work, although l am so much better than l was l am still unable to stay consistently well enough to withdraw from benefits into paid employment. On top of my mental health issues, I am also undergoing gender transition which currently involves a lot of medical treatment and surgery recovery. This in turn has an impact on my mental health and l have to be so careful to make sure I’m being balanced and taking care of myself. If l don’t stay self-aware and vigilant about my recovery and my mental health, I risk relapse and if that happens l could lose all. mental health progress I have made.

The worry and shame of being on benefits affects me every single day. I live in dread of the constant reassessment forms and medical assessments which are done by people who have never met me and make an assumption based on a small snapshot of my life. It’s an exhausting and humiliating process that you never get a break from for more than a few months at a time and always negatively effects my mental health.  As anyone with mental health issues knows, the benefit system, including the back to work team, are not clued up about how having long standing mental health diagnosis effects trying to find and keep employment. This means that many people with mental health issues fall into two categories. The first are those forced back into work due to inadequate mental health assessments deeming them fit for work by the benefits team. The second are those who are awarded benefit and then get stuck on it because they are too scared to move forward into work for fear that if they do and they find it negatively effects their mental health, they will then lose their benefits.

I am trying to develop a career for myself that allows me the flexibility I need to make my own income. I’m not lazy, l don’t want to be on sickness benefits, l am hard working, and driven but the current general pattern of work that employers ask for just do not suit my mental health needs. I need to be able to evaluate where i am on a daily basis and set my own hours according to my level of mental well being. I need to be able to simplify things when times are tough or take time off when my mental health is feeling too fragile. I have to put my mental health first or nothing else is possible. The way we work in our society does not allow for this flexibility in employment.

Surely there must be a better way. Can the benefit system and employers work together to provide a system whereby a person with long standing re occurring mental health issues, can be supported into work with flexible hours and the option to withdraw at times where their mental health is too severe without losing their money? This would be so fantastic and would also help in recovery as the self-esteem generated from managing to be productive and achieve something is so good for one’s mental health. Additionally, knowing that in times of need, some down time can be taken without fearing looking money, would also remove the shame or worry of having mental health issues and encourage better self-management. Until something like this is created, those attempting to make the transition from benefits to work will be failed by the system time and time again causing a cycle of constant relapse, shame and stigma.

 

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Remembering the whole picture

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Last week, the date of the 9th March, marked 5 years since I officially changed my name by deed poll to Finlay. I had entirely forgotten the anniversary until Facebook reminded me by posting an old picture of my very proud boyish looking face celebrating the event. Being prompted to remember brought with it a flood of memories and a huge smile. I need that, with all that has occurred lately in having a setback in my surgical journey, it was wonderful to be reminded of just how far I have come. I haven’t gone backwards at all, not in terms of the whole picture at least.

The picture of me that flashed up on my Facebook news feed, with such a knowing grin, proudly clutching my signed deed poll, symbolises far more than just an official change of name. It even symbolises more than the official start to my living my life as a man. It represents the birth of Finn but far more it represents the birth of my whole being.

Just a year prior to changing my name, I entered the rooms of Alcoholic Anonymous and started my journey of recovery after a lifetime of abuse of drugs and alcohol. I truly see myself as being born the day I put the drink and drugs down. My video diaries and writing may well be heavily focused on my being transgender and undergoing gender transition but in all actuality, I see my journey as about being sober and in being so, being finally able to find the truth of who I am. By this I mean that the discovery of my being transgender was a consequence of getting sober and the start of my gender transition was the result of finding the courage to face myself and make the changes I needed to make, thanks to the fellowship of AA.  In this way, my being transgender is a small part of a much bigger journey rather than being the journey itself.

It is for this reason that this picture symbolises far more than just the change of name. The grin I am wearing symbolises the relief in finally getting to the bottom of a lifetime of depression, anxiety, self-loathing and self-destruction. It symbolises an awakening, to myself and to life and an excitement in finally being able to live, rather than to simply survive. It symbolises hope and opportunity, possibility and adventure. It symbolises an eagerness to commit to the journey of continuing to peel off the layers to reveal the truth of who I am

It has been so wonderful to be reminded of this and the way I felt when that picture was taken and even more wonderful to be reminded that I still feel the exact same way, even with all the bumps in the road. Most importantly it has reminded me that my life is far more than just about my gender transition. It can be incredibly hard not to get lost in that one part when things are not going to plan. This has been and continues to be an incredible journey of exploration, discovery and self-development of which being trans is, in the grand scheme of things at least, just one small part of a much greater whole.