I would like to talk a little bit about mental health because it is a subject close to me and I think particularly important now more than ever. We have just had children’s mental health awareness week 1-7 Feb My own children are now 25 and almost 21 years old! They aren’t children any more exactly, but I still worry about them and their mental health, especially at the moment.
I'd like to explain something by telling you about some personal life events.
I am the youngest of five siblings with only one other being at all interested in horses…my sister. I was a painfully shy child and never interacted easily with other children. I didn't have many friends my own age. The school was ok when I was young, but I didn’t love it. The school was very academic-focused. I loved the learning, but I struggled with socializing. I was fairly happy, just a little awkward. Things began to change when I moved to senior school. Suddenly I was the youngest again and everyone seemed so confident, it was intimidating. I began to have panic attacks.
Before the age of 10/11 I was often ill. Measles 3 times, chickenpox twice, mumps, whooping cough, and tonsillitis loads of times. I remember the awful high temperatures well. I think my mum forgot to vaccinate me, but she says not! My uncle and grandad died within a week or so of each other before I moved to senior school. My first human grief. My parents weren’t getting along so well around that time too which led to divorce a few years later.
The panic attacks were bad and most days. My only respite was riding and being around other crazy equestrians…the best of times. I developed a phobia of school. It went on for about 3 years. I continued to be in the top 5% of the class in all exams etc. but my mental health was failing. I was prescribed tranquilizers at 13 years old by a psychiatrist (can you believe it?!) but nothing helped. I left education at 14 as no one knew what to do with me. It would forever frustrate me to have no qualifications knowing I was capable.
I worked with horses from a young age and met my future husband at the stables. He was so confident and took more risks than me, I felt secure around that type of personality. We were together for 22 years and there is so much I cannot say specifically but I can summerise a condensed version of that time.
His personality was actually something way more complex. He suffered from bipolar disorder. The risk-taking, confident, outgoing side was largely due to the manic highs. He worked in the city for 6 years as a highly successful bond broker. There was a full mental breakdown at one point when our son was 1 year old. The pressure of work, a child, and a house move around that time was too much. He spent months in hospital and then many years rehabilitating with me. We had a stable yard so plenty to do. I worked more and he did more childcare now that we had 2 children.
Things were up and down for the next 10 years. Some difficult lows, but some fun too. I learned how to be a counselor for him, but I didn’t always get it right. I had some incredible horses to ride mainly because he was so good at talking to people, he was like my agent. He organized for horses to come over from a big stud in Holland for me to ride and sell. One jumped on the WEG team and Nations Cups for Team GB after we sold him. The stud was just about to send me a beautiful 7-year-old stallion to ride by Quidam de Revel when I then broke my neck! Typical!!
That opportunity was missed through no fault of my own, but others – like being asked to go to Holland and ride for the stud there, I turned down because I had no confidence in myself. My anxiety came flooding back and I couldn’t do it. I had boxed myself in. That is typical of what can happen if you don’t regularly stretch, even a little bit, outside of your comfort zone. That sort of thing happened a lot. It was a shame.
We did divorce a few years later as things deteriorated. I can’t explain but it was impossible to stay. An absolutely terrifying prospect for me having 2 children 15 & 10, no business as we had to sell the yard and having to face my own anxiety fears. It was bad for everyone but inevitable.
Fast forward to having Roy beside me as a partner. He is so supportive but will also push me and let me fail, which is so important to learning. Roy, who isn’t so mentally challenged has had times in life when he felt anxiety and now recognizes it more.
There have been some positive highlights on the way too. 3 times I have managed to qualify for HOYS finals, had 2 children, pushed myself to finally take my UKCC 2 coaching in 2010 which had terrified me to do and then Level 3 in 2019 which I’m very proud of. I haven’t stopped learning since then. I’m gradually getting braver and more out of my comfort zone during lockdown too. I’m only 48 so plenty of time!
If I can summerise and make some sense of all I’ve learned, it’s this:
Given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, I believe absolutely anyone can suffer from mental illness of some kind. No one is immune. If you are pushed hard enough you can break.
Genetics play a part for sure, but I think that is to do with what you are more likely to suffer from or whereabouts you start.
I like to imagine stress levels like a jar full of dirt. When it is full it will overflow, and that represents a breakdown of some kind.
Manage your jar! If you have the genetics that means you begin with a jar already half full of dirt….be aware and extra careful about how full it’s getting (how much stress you are under) If you are starting with a fairly empty jar – lucky you – but don’t be complacent or surprised that it will fill up and can still overflow, it just might take longer.
Look at what you can remove it from the jar to make more room. You cannot remove everything (if only) so look closely. Things like COVID for example can’t be removed right now so maybe 2 smaller things like… don’t judge yourself harshly based on unrealistic expectations……do one less thing on today’s list (mine is usually cleaning the house) and do it tomorrow instead
Do something good/fun to strengthen the jar from within. Building your strength/resilience can help you cope when the jar is getting full.
Remember even dropping the level in the jar by the tiniest amount will mean it doesn’t overflow. That can be enough for now. You can bring the levels down further later… right now every little bit helps.
I believe, looking back I probably just had too many things filling up my jar of dirt when my anxiety really hit me. The experts kept looking for the answers at school or my parent’s divorce. I now think that it wasn’t particularly important to know the cause, just that it was one too many things, and reducing the anxiety in any area would have helped. There is definitely a panic within me of being in the spotlight or speaking in front of people which I am trying to address but that will take time. I now try to manage some little things better which helps me cope with the bigger challenges.
You know the saying of the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s not the straw of course, but the fact that the straw was the last thing so that gets the blame. Like a game of buckaroo, you can’t keep loading things on without getting an explosion at some point.
I hope that wasn’t too heavy going to read. I can be quite intense I promise something a little more lighthearted next time! Take care.