They say Friday the 13th can be unlucky. But I regard that day in 1997 as the exact opposite. That was the day when it seemed my world completely fell apart, but was actually the day I recognized my illness.
For around a year I had no idea what was happening to me…why I felt so depressed, why panic attacks were a regular occurrence, why I wasn’t sleeping…do I need to go on? I’m sure many of you recognize the symptoms. I simply soldiered on, as I suspect a great many of us do. Eventually, on that fateful day, June 13th, my mind reached overload point when I was away on a business trip.
I was suicidal, and rang the Samaritans. Without being dramatic I can safely say that phone call saved my life that night.
There followed the inevitable counselling, but nothing seemed to do the trick. So, roll on another memorable date: Wednesday September 10th. My counsellor decided I needed to be admitted to hospital, and so I became a voluntary patient at a private psychiatric clinic. Well, voluntary at first. During my ten weeks there I was sectioned for 28 days, and a nurse was assigned to never be more than six feet from me for around four weeks.
My life was at rock bottom. My family never thought I’d work again…in fact at one point they never thought I’d leave hospital.
Eventually those dark days turned towards dawn and the light began to shine on me. Thanks to the love of my family and the dedication of superb mental health professionals, I learned how to create effective coping strategies and actually changed my whole outlook on life. Before my diagnosis I was an overly ambitious perfectionist, keen to please everyone and get everything absolutely spot on. That, coupled with the fact that three people who were very close to me died within a few months of each other, drove me over the edge.
During my treatment it was found I had suppressed memories from my childhood which became repressed. With everything out in the open I was on the way to recovery. And once I was discharged, my coping strategy became all about casting off the things I no longer needed in my life, including corporate success and the stress that comes with it. I returned to my first love of writing, and now work as a novelist and Public Relations writer, and have my own fortnightly magazine column.
A good coping strategy means we can all better manage our day-to-day struggles without constant input from mental health professionals who play a major role at the beginning of our illness.
To me, coping strategies are highly personal, and you need one for every situation that can cause difficulty. For example, I realized that if I were to continue seeking perfection in my work and myself, I was destined to fail, and would, in all probability face an even longer spell as a hospital in-patient. So my coping strategy for that was to accept compromise, both from myself and other people.
Whenever a deadline approaches I ask myself what is the worst that can happen if I don’t meet it? Occasionally I need to burn the midnight oil, but in the olden days it was a daily occurrence. Now, time and again I miss deadlines and no-one worries. Least of all me.
I have also had to learn how to handle the stigma from some quarters, facing anyone with mental health issues. Social media is a double-edge sword for this, and, in my opinion, requires its own coping strategy. On the one hand social media is a positive, empowering tool, connecting us with others who can support us through the difficult times. On the other, it can be used as a means of dragging people even further down, by posting less than helpful comments.
So another coping strategy quickly came about – to simply ignore any negative comments. That now works for me; I used to worry about what people thought. Now I don’t. In all honesty I no longer care. Negative comments no longer bring me down.
And that’s the secret, not only of handling how the stigma is perpetrated by the darker side of social media, but coping with the stigma in the “real” world too. You can’t make everyone see the truth. You can’t make everyone be kind. You can’t turn everyone into a decent human being. So don’t try too hard. Enjoy the successes you have, and enjoy your family, friends and online supporters. And ignore those who revel in giving you grief. In other words, ignore the ignorant.
As one of the lucky ones who has managed to build a successful new life from the ruins of my old one, I can honestly say I owe it all to coping strategies. For several years I have got on with my life and not consciously employed them, because they have become second nature to me.
However, while I have numerous coping strategies for individual aspects, which have just become part of my psyche now, I have one overall philosophy – I now ensure that I am very much my own person, going barefoot most of the time, which I find is a powerful influence on my mental well-being. The physical connection in this way with the planet that supports me gives me inner peace.
Stewart Bint is a novelist, magazine columnist and PR writer. He lives with his wife Sue in Leicestershire in the UK and has two children, Christopher and Charlotte. Previous roles include radio newsreader, phone-in host, and presenter. A big champion of mental health awareness, he uses his Twitter account @AuthorSJB to promote the cause and fight the mental health stigma. He is a massive Doctor Who fan, having watched the show since the very first episode in 1963 when he was seven. You can check out his website here.