Being Kinder to Yourself Despite Mental Illness

I first experienced severe depression when I was twenty-three. Up until then, I’d had the odd bout of heartbreak but I’d been lucky enough not to have any serious mental health issues. I got stressed out when I started my legal training to be a solicitor. I changed everything in my life at once and it was too much – a big move, living with my boyfriend for the first time and thrown in at the deep end at work. I’d never even failed an exam up to that point so it was no wonder I struggled to cope with life after university. I am ambitious but sensitive, and not great with too much responsibility, but I had to learn that the hard way. When I got ill, I had to move back to my parents and totally change direction, I knew that Law was going to be too stressful for me.

At first, I didn’t even know what was going on with me. I was tired a lot, struggling to get up in the mornings and worried all the time. I lost my appetite and snapped at the slightest things. I wasn’t enjoying my life at all at a time when it should really be fun. It was a big shock to the system being told I was depressed and had to take medication, and I felt like a failure instead of maybe looking at how I was treated at work (there was some bullying going on). The thing is, a big part of depression involves blaming yourself. Your brain lies to you and tells you that you’re worthless. That you’d be better off dead. I compared myself to my friends who at the time were all doing well at work, which just made things worse.

Luckily with age I’ve learnt to have much more kindness and compassion for myself, but it didn’t come easily. I became ill again after I’d done my teacher training and was left to run a department in my first year (I was working eighty to a hundred-hour weeks). My mum got cancer too. But again I kept going, not wanting to admit that I hated my job that I’d worked so hard for. I fell down again, and was ill for three years. It took a long time to find the right medication that time and I don’t know how I got through it to be honest. But I finally realised that traditional professional careers were not for me. It was time for a new path.

My mum suggested to me to try writing and I started an arts and culture blog, and got my reviews published in a local magazine. I was finally enjoying myself! I took different roles working in universities for a while, where I could do a thirty-five-hour week and not have to take work home. I built up my writing on the side and realised I could be paid to write for businesses. I took a job as a copywriter and at thirty-one finally felt like I’d found the right job. But unfortunately, I was made redundant after three months and the depression came back. I ended up in hospital and asked for ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy) which thankfully worked. I worked as a temp for a while during my recovery and eventually felt well enough to become self-employed as a copywriter, and was well for three years.

It was difficult for me not to blame myself for the depressive episodes, but in time I realised that it’s easy to end up in the wrong job and society puts a lot of pressure on people to aim for those careers. I have pushed myself very hard at times, but now I have come to learn that I have an illness. I have a responsibility to manage that illness with medication and the right support, and try to avoid too much stress, but at the same time life happens and becoming ill is often unavoidable.

Since my Bipolar II diagnosis, I am learning to accept that I am not to blame for being ill. I have an illness which is no different to a physical illness. I want to share my story to help others to realise they don’t have to push themselves so hard to fit into a box. Some people take longer to find their purpose than others, so it’s important to accept your own path and become aware of what works for you. If you have to change direction, be brave enough to follow your heart. When we get creative and do things differently, life can get so much better.

Debbie Stokoe is a freelance mental health and wellbeing writer based in the North East of England. She has experienced work-related depression and has written about her experiences in her book Awakened: Depression, Recovery and Breaking Free. She has recently been diagnosed with Bipolar II at 40. Finding her passion (writing) has been pivotal in her recovery. She also runs a Facebook group on the subject of mental health and spirituality. She is a former copywriter and teacher.