Well it’s Thursday 10th October 2019. Another normal day you think. In fact it’s a very important day – today is World Mental Health Day. A day to be aware of our own and others mental health. A day to show that mental health and mental illness are in fact different. Mental health is something each one of us have – why does it take illness for people to even think about talking or in many cases not talk about it? Mental illness is something a fair number of us have in various guises and is NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF.
As most of you regular blog readers might have read on my last post, I recently became a Time to Change Champion, due to my lived experience of mental health problems. My main issues are anxiety , both generalised and social forms, seasonal affective disorder and I have previously struggled with depression. Part of our roles as Champions is to talk about our lived experience where we feel safe enough to to others about it, mainly to try and get them to change the way they think and act about mental health and those who have mental health problems and basically reduce and eventually (hopefully not too far in the future) get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health and those with mental health problems.
So I thought this year, that I would share a little more of my story on here. Focusing mainly on the last 18 months from around February 2018 up to just before now. Not only to show how someone with a mental health issue can lead a relatively normal life, but also show what kind of discrimination, stigma and bullying can happen and you can feel like advantage is being taken of you because of your mental illness. I’m obviously not going to place real persons names or workplace names here or the lawyers will be giving me a bell, but I will be as truthful and honest as possible as I can. I will give a definition of one term here – gaslighting. Gaslighting is, to put it simply, a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser manipulates the truth, or outright lies, in order to make the victim (god I hate that word) doubt their memory, perception and sanity. Bluntly put, it’s a way for the gaslighter/abuser to gain control and change the victim. As the gaslighting continues the victim often wonders if they’re overly sensitive, paranoid, or even mentally unstable. Gaslighters use persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying, and involves attempts to destabilise the victim and makes the victims believe that their own beliefs are untrue. The ultimate goal of a gaslighter (apparently?!) is to make their victim second guess their every choice and question their own sanity, making them very dependent on the abuser.
Phew! That was intense! You probably think, why on earth has she waffled about that? Why could anyone be a gaslighter? I promise that it will be less murky shortly. I did get that information from Google though, as contrary to popular belief I am in fact not the font of all knowledge ;-). Gaslighters are awful, awful people though, all jokes and joking aside. They manipulate and destroy or try and destroy people and their careers/lives.
So let’s rewind back a couple of years then, tail end of 2017 coming into 2018….
Previous readers will likely remember already but for anyone new reading this I’ll give a quick recap. So I used to play rugby back from 2015- early 2017, and did really enjoy it, but unfortunately towards the middle / late part of 2016 events occurred which were the initial trigger for my anxiety. My rugby coach and someone who was who I thought and then considered to be a close friend, manipulated and gaslit me systematically. I was sadly unaware of what was happening to me as I was having frequent small panic attacks before travelling to training, which I brushed off as nerves which steadily were increasing in intensity. I’d previously had a good relationship with the coach who suddenly changed in the way she spoke and behaved with me, but yet in similar scenarios with others she had not. I had not changed or done anything wrong or differently. There were a couple of issues I did have were I was silly but she then subsequently bought up old situations and accused me of dragging people back through them when I had not, accused me of being a “drama queen” if I had any sort of problem, including where one of the coaches blocked me on Facebook then she at one point did so, then I was accused of being dramatic because I had no idea of any idea of team selections or whether training was on or off because she was the one putting this information on Facebook. They stated if we had any problems we could go to the coaches, but how can you if they are the problem? I was almost forced back into my shell because of her and found it incredibly hard to react normally around her like nothing was wrong. Eventually I snapped and the “close friend” I mentioned earlier was the person I vented to in March 2017 about how the situation made me feel over messenger, met with distinct silence, but I was seething so I wasn’t too fussed at this point. Suddenly a couple of days later I came out of the lab in uni (I was studying for my masters at the time) to about 6 missed called, 3 messenger messages and 2 voicemails all from her. It was at this point I had what I actually recognised as a panic attack. It was a rather big one. I phoned my mum and I ended up speaking to the ‘coach’ that night where I was talked AT for half an hour by her where she threw numerous, untrue allegations and lies at me which I somehow didn’t react to, one because it would not have been rational to respond and two, I couldn’t be bothered with her shit any more. At that point I made the decision to leave and quit playing. I ended up on medication because I was so anxious and on edge and thank god, because without it, I wouldn’t have finished my master’s degree and wouldn’t be where I am now. Fast forwarding to February 2018 ish now….
Starting a new job in Harrogate at a large company as a graduate, I hoped, perhaps naïvely, for a new start. Due to the location I had to commit to a long commute and early starts which I was prepared for, but for that reason I foresaw a maximum of 18 months to 2 years there before moving on. Anyway….
Given what had gone on in 16/17 plus a full and honest explanation of my anxiety, it surely would be understandable you would think, for me to be a bit quiet for the first few months of a new job. Apparently not. I was told I was “too quiet” at a catch up meeting with my then line manager. Hmm. It doesn’t help either when you explicitly state what doesn’t help and in fact makes your anxiety so much worse to the same person and ask them to stop doing it (sending cryptic Microsoft Lync/Skype messages asking me to come to the office without reason, knowing full well this causes a huge spike in my anxiety levels and in many cases, results in panic attacks) and then has a further effect in that it then makes me extremely anxious for meetings that I did know what they were about and weren’t ad-hoc, then she seemed surprised when I arrive at said arranged meeting in a real state. I even provided a solution for her that wasn’t exactly difficult. With anxiety, I automatically assume in these situations that I have done wrong or am in trouble which causes panic and extreme anxiety.
Go a few months further forward them to summer 2018. Having taken the “too quiet” advice on the chin, by now I’d settled in and made a few friends, most whom present day have ditched me with a couple of exceptions after I left. I was then pulled in via cryptic message (cue panic attack) and told I was now being too loud! Apparently I was being disruptive and shouting in corridors. This in addition to my next pre arranged meeting with line manager with the, well let’s call it invisible feedback, from yup, no-one, with a bunch of absolute rubbish.
By this point the gaslighting had started. By who? My line manager.
What’s worse was it was all so nicey nice at the beginning and slowly turned into someone who was the opposite, more faces than a portrait gallery. On one hand I was getting great feedback on my lab work then the other hand I was being told off weekly for mistakes, allegations that I’d been loud and distracting, being pulled into the office because “we’re concerned”. Now I see how naïve I was, it was my first full time job and I just thought that was how it was. Up until a point. It was gaslighting. In light of what I now know, I was being directly discriminated against. Because they knew my mental health problems and I even stated what were potential triggers, but yet this was not just ignored , but worse, taken advantage of. Because of my mental health. Because of my anxiety.
The next few months I was almost a bit overconfident and possibly was a bit, for want of a better word, high, I suppose? I was performing well in the lab work or so I thought, earning money, enjoying what life I had out of work. Then I made a mistake in the lab. Not horrific, but could have been avoided with training or, you know, management! Well it’s almost predictable what happened next. I didn’t realise the alleged enormity of what I did or in this case didn’t do, and was thrown under the bus. Not that it’s anything helpful but 3 other staff missed it too plus my manager before it was even spotted. I was scapegoated for that month with most errors to be honest. I was upfront and honest s soon as it was realised admitting my error but apparently it’s not enough. The random being hauled in to my managers office on a regular basis over minor stuff good and bad, continued. I found myself starting to second guess everything I did, scrutinising my work, even my daily commute and routine. Because of the actions of one person. The overall atmosphere was becoming toxic and I was becoming less naïve and starting to question things.
I had also heard of several occasions of colleagues walking down corridors past my manager and colleagues that had overheard my name mentioned, which is a massive breach of confidential information and not theirs to share.
Around August of that year, it became apparent that the medication I was taking for my anxiety , citalopram, wasn’t working well enough, as I had had my first ever suicidal thought. One night while waiting for my train home from work it flashed across my mind. “If I jumped in front of this train would anyone care?” . Just as quick as it flashed in it flashed out and I rationalised it with thoughts such as “my best friend” “my mum” “my dad” “knights” (my rugby team). It was extremely frightening and I did phone the crisis team after first phoning GP surgery, 111 who gave me a wrong number, then a children’s crisis team who gave me the correct number. It was highly upsetting having to repeat myself that many times.
I then did make an appointment with my GP, and we tapered off my citalopram and started on sertraline over a space of 5 weeks. I told my manager that this was planned and that it was likely to be difficult. The second week of this tapering ended up being the most difficult and I was off sick the entire week because I just wasn’t in any kind of headspace or anything to work. Upon my return they were unprepared and I should have been phased back in due to the nature of being off – that said when I phoned in sick at that time of day it wasn’t my line manager I spoke to and due to the fear of discrimination and stigma still surrounding mental illness, I didn’t fully disclose the nature of my sickness. My return to work meeting was not carried out until the end of the week, which by then was pointless.
Around this time I had been back a week, and myself and another slightly more junior colleague were asked to ‘look after’ some new starters on their first solo foray into the lab because of my line managers late starting time and the hour difference between the starting times. So we were proactive and did so. This was despite being told on a contradiction that because we were on probation, were were on no account allowed to supervise anyone. That said these new starters would have been hauled in the office for being sat doing nothing had we not acted. We were then told off when my manager did arrive, so how are we meant to know where we stand. Upon reporting this and the return to work issue to a more senior manager later, this got back to my manager and I was shouted at in the office for it.
It felt like being on a constant seesaw there as the levels of stress were not respected. I visited occupational health once, but you had to be referred by your manager and during the last few months there I asked four, maybe five times to be re referred as I knew I should go back and get some advice at the least, but each time mysteriously it never materialised . A good example of manipulation, and probably direct discrimination knowing what she knew through her gaslighting. We were told that due to being on probation we weren’t allowed to stay late but yet we weren’t allowed to leave lab work unfinished, yet no offers of help came our way unless you were a chosen one. Huge contradiction.
The best way I could say it was gaslighting was that she acted like she wanted to be my best friend in many respects, but yet was still my boss. She never set or appeared to try and set any boundaries. I was left very naïve and confused. I should mention too here that it was enforced for new people to go to lunch with colleagues for around the first week , friendships don’t happen like this, they happen organically, you cannot force a friendship to happen.
At this point I was unaware of the hold that my manager had over me until later, going through my self help CBT notes, done while I was still working there, it struck me just how much my anxiety was triggered or triggering situations surrounded her, her presence or her absence. Looking at these notes after the fact I saw the gaslight.
Remember where I wasn’t phased back into work properly? I started making a lot of errors that were distinctly uncharacteristic for me, due to increased stress and pressure placed on me by poor management, probably a good example of direct discrimination knowing full well I struggle under lots of pressure.
At one point half of my batched paperwork mysteriously went missing, my manager was getting in a tizzy over it among others , I offered to look for it over my lunch break. Lo and behold it was found on her shit tip of a desk. I got no thanks and no apology for being accused of losing it. I was made to feel distinctly uncomfortable if I was to raise any kind of problem legitimate or not. Accusations used to fly from management particularly about being ‘lazy’ without any evidence whatsoever. I felt constantly stressed like a hamster on a wheel on a treadmill. It was a horrid atmosphere where I was scared to make any kind of error or question anything at all.
October 2018 was the closest I ever got to losing my rag at work. Towards the end of the month was my weekly “can you pop up to my office please” message on my Lync . So up I went, inevitably thinking the worst. And for once I was right. This was after I’d returned from being off, and had spoken to a senior manager. I was hit with both barrels. Someone had turned up the gaslight. I was accused of acting resentfully. I was accused of not being able to think for myself and mentioned another colleague in all but name while bollocking me, suggesting I had been ‘put up to it’s indirectly while in the same breath speaks to me like a child, calling me a “clever girl” – my god I hated that it makes me cringe only my parents and grandparents were allowed to call me that you cow , I was 24 not 5!! The best bit of of all though was an absolute character assassination attempt, I was called surly. I was absolutely insulted. Furious. But there was no way I could react there and then because it was one to one and therefore my word vs hers, and likely instant dismissal. I defended myself and my colleagues, to this day the surly comment confuses me, I was short with several people that day due to it being winter and my SAD was kicking in which she also knew about (that’s not an excuse I’m aware of that) , I may have been caught off guard or something else. I have never been called surly in my life. Ever. Twat maybe, idiot yep, grumpy yeah sometimes. It’s an insult, especially if you actually know and have met me. I’m not like that. Then she later says she likes me as a person. If that isn’t gaslighting and emotional abuse I don’t know what is!
I had a conversation a few weeks after that started over Lync ended up in the office , where I raised an issue about it always being the same people (me) being essentially almost forced to do overtime in order to give the work needing a fast turnaround just that, she first blamed my commute for me doing overtime – ridiculous statement, during my time there I was late less than 5 times, and left late many evenings when I shouldn’t have. Then I was accused of suggesting that she was running a work camp. My comments and concerns I felt were not taken seriously. Each time I was summoned to the office after October I felt I was being goaded into a reaction, which I wasn’t going to ever give her.
I only really saw the effect that she had on me in terms of her gaslighting a few months after I left in January 2019. She had a real hold on me because of the relationship that had been created by her and her gaslighting. Just like the definition I posted above, “the ultimate goal of a gaslighter is to make their victim second guess their every choice and question their own sanity, making them very dependent on the abuser.” She definitely succeeded in that respect. I was heavily dependent on her while there, towards the halfway to end point of my time there I lost a lot of confidence and second guessed myself a lot because of her and the decisions she made surrounding me. Her gaslighting almost destroyed me. I had a sort of breakdown around Christmas of 2018 and there was a “thing” where various intimations were made to me a week or so after which led to me resigning (legally I don’t want to say here). All those blog posts from around June 2018 up to the start of 2019 singing her praises? Yeah, pretty terrifying just to read back and see the hold she had on me and my dependence on her. I was vulnerable and naïve then. Not now.
But it didn’t. I’m still here. I’m probably better mentally then I have been in a long time, and though I was apprehensive about this job I’m in now because it’s similar to the one I’ve written about above, it’s a world away. I’m paid less, but the commute is a lot less, and so is the stress. Money is definitely not everything.
So then, it’s World Mental Health Day 2019. People like me who live with mental illness can and do live normal lives. This is not anything to be ashamed of, unfortunately many individuals, groups and unfortunately employers seem to not share this view. Though prejudice is a natural human reaction, it is definitely 100% possible to change the way you think of and about others. People with mental illnesses aren’t dangerous, they aren’t really different, we breathe the same air, poo on the same toilets as people who don’t have mental illness. Time to Change Champions have a role to play in changing this prejudice and stigma. Prejudice can be changed by learning.
The topic this year for WMH Day is Suicide and Suicide Awareness.
I’ve recently done some suicide prevention training and I definitely think everyone should do it should they feel strong enough if they have been affected by suicide.
Important point here though – talking about suicide does NOT make someone suicidal. Not talking about suicide or suicidal thoughts or making out that it’s bad to do so is dangerous. People that are feeling this way and having these feelings and thoughts will likely be feeling a lot more isolated if they are in an environment where no one talks about suicide for fear of the notion of making someone else suicidal. It doesn’t occur like this.
We all have a part to play in preventing suicides, and we all have a part to play in changing and challenging this stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness.
On a personal note I did experience, as I wrote above, not so much stigma, but discrimination in my workplace. Direct discrimination because they were aware of my mental health problems and still did what they did anyway. Though unless the mental illness a person has is classified as a disability, unfortunately it is not yet illegal for someone to be discriminated against for reasons surrounding their mental health. That said it does NOT make this okay. It is absolutely unacceptable for this to still be happening in 2019. For people to feel they cannot speak up or speak out about what is happening to them because of the stigma still surrounding mental health in work, schools, uni (though from experience my uni was great), and in everyday life, this is not alright. We can’t accept this as normal. Mindsets and thinking needs to change. Not feeling or being able to speak up can kill someone or stop them seeking treatment that they need. There is distinctive stigma around suicidal thoughts and they seem to be laughed off, ignored, but yet when someone makes that decision, what is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, because that in all reality is what suicide is, as once you’re dead you’re dead, there ain’t no coming back, when they decide “I am going to end my own life” the reaction is along the lines of “why didn’t they say anything to us?” “Why didn’t they talk?” And that their death is so tragic. So why not take a minute to listen when someone says they are having thoughts about ending their own life, it isn’t a joke, you could really help.
On the lines of that , this is a brilliantly powerful poem, by Meggie Router , called ‘The Morning After I Killed Myself’ here – https://writingsforwinter.tumblr.com/post/125560163524/the-morning-after-i-killed-myself
We should be treating mental illness like physical illness. It’s not really that different only there’s nothing really to see outwardly.
That’s me. I have mental illness. I don’t look any different. Why would I ? The perception I suppose is that we are always crying, upset and physical wrecks, bawling and screaming. Thing is it’s like a swan, smooth and graceful on the outside, flapping like crackers underneath. We hide beneath our mask. We shouldn’t have to.
This is an incredibly important image. It’s not uncommon that people turn tail and flee when they find out you’ve got a mental illness or disorder. You are the exact same person. The illness is not who you are.
Right it’s been a reaaaallly long post so that’ll do for now 👋