Helen’s story is one of triumph over challenge. She has worked a lot out for herself with very little outside support; she knows what does and does not work for herself. Her story is one we can all benefit from – What can we do to help ourselves?
People usually talk about life as a journey. I’ve always thought of it as a boat ride. Generally we bob along getting from A to B as well as we can, occasionally there are periods of flat calm where not much happens, and hopefully, less often, there is the odd big storm which tosses us up and down, hiding the sunshine behind huge dark clouds that we can’t see beyond…until one day they clear and we continue on to the next port in our journey. My boat has put up with so much that I think I must be sailing in a great big transatlantic cruise ship! One day maybe I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now, I want to focus on just one of those big storms.
I’m 39 years old and I think I must be a hedgehog! I’ve always been the same…during the winter months, I want to hibernate, and I become prickly, very prickly, if I am made to go out into the cold. Lots of people hate winter, of course, there’s not too much to like really…Christmas, Halloween and Bonfire night perhaps, but it’s dark, cold, wet, and dreary. I wonder if it’s possible to be allergic to Winter?!? I don’t think I’ll ever like winter, but I can cope with it the same as most people…but that wasn’t always the case.
Let me go back to Sept 2002. My dad died suddenly. I found him, where he’d been for several days, alone. I had 2 young children (3 ½ and 18 months), so I had to get on with things for them. Dad and my Mum had divorced a few years earlier, but they were still friends, so I had to be strong for her too. She had a complete breakdown in the months that followed. My brother had lost his mum 11 years previously and now his dad too, so I had to be strong for him, after all, life goes on and falling to pieces wasn’t going to change anything, was it?
My husband had been telling me he thought something was ‘wrong’ for a while after our daughter was born, but I couldn’t see it. Then, just after the first anniversary of losing Dad, he came home after a night out, when he sat on the bed he misjudged where he sat; landing half on me. A red mist descended and before I knew it I was sitting on his chest with my hands around his throat!! The realisation of what was going on occurred within seconds and I was mortified. I realised then that there was something wrong…I was worried I might do something to one of the children. The next morning I went to see my GP.
I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I was asked to answer some questions. My answers were all given a value, if they totalled to 15+ I was clinically depressed…mine that day was 25. The GP thought it might be delayed post-natal depression, or perhaps related to Dad. I was given anti-depressants and told to come back in a few weeks. Six weeks later I discovered I was pregnant and told to stop taking the medication immediately. Pregnancy hormones seemed to balance me out again, for a while, and my baby boy was born in July 2004. Initially, I didn’t have any signs of depression, but in September 2005 I crashed again…and here started a pattern that would continue for the next 10 years.
Over the next few years, I would find myself back at the surgery in tears every September. I assumed this was normal, but hated feeling low all the way through to March/April, when I would quite quickly begin to feel better again. A locum GP suggested that perhaps I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); although she didn’t give me much hope of getting a proper diagnosis or any help for it. I’d have to return at the same time every year with the exact same symptoms which cleared up at the same time the following year, only to return again a few months later. Even IF I got that diagnosis I could opt to take tablets or maybe buy myself a SAD lamp which may or may not help a tiny bit, I could try counselling, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference… Or I could think about moving abroad; apparently, this wouldn’t be available on the NHS!
By the end of 2013, I was convinced that SAD was what I have. I could feel my mood dipping and began to recognise when I’d been tossed completely overboard off my cruise ship. Some days kicking hard enough to simply keep my head above water was exhausting. There were days when I thought that my family would be better off without me, I constantly looked in the local paper at places I could move to so they didn’t have to live with me. My children, especially my oldest son, took the brunt of my mood swings. I’d snap at them for simply asking a question, as children do. I’d overreact at some minor thing such as a spilt drink and find myself wanting to lash out at them. Whilst I never went that far, at my lowest point, I understand how people snap and end up seriously hurting, or even killing their children. I didn’t like the idea of medication, I’d been given tablets for the second time in 2005 but they made me hallucinate so I stopped taking them. Instead, I started looking at other areas of my life.
I had worked for several years from home, as a childminder, and during this time my weight had crept up. It was very easy to snack on the little one’s leftovers all day as well as share a ‘treat’ with my children after school, eat big portions of the meals I made for my family, then enjoy another ‘treat’ in the evening in front of the telly. When we bought a Wii games console for the children I decided to get the Wii Fit board as well, and I started using that a little and trying to cut back on the treats. I stopped getting such dramatic highs and lows in the day, which had come from my blood sugar spiking and crashing. This helped me lose a little weight too, and I noticed that I felt more positive in general because of that. It’s amazing what a difference a compliment or two can make to someone.
The exercise was difficult but left me feeling on a high. It was an unusual feeling for me and I wanted to find out how to make it last. A friend suggested taking Vitamin D as I was always jollier in the summer. I noticed a difference after just a few weeks of taking it, and after researching how little Vitamin D we Brits actually get in winter compared to what we need, I decided I would take extra during the winter months too. As these things started to make me feel better, the crash in September became less. By 2013 I was back in a ‘proper job’ and being forced to be out of the house and around people also made a massive difference. Slowly I came to see that all these things together helped ease my symptoms. For the first time, I was controlling the SAD, not it controlling me. I can’t describe to you how that feels…for someone who is a total control freak in every other aspect of life, getting it back in my mental health has been like I imagine winning the lottery would feel. Now I can see just how bad things were and as cliched as it may sound, I realise that there really was a physically heavy feeling on my head and shoulders, and when that lifted it was as though all the colours in the world suddenly became brighter again.
My daughter called me out on the amount of exercise I wasn’t doing in 2015. Being aware of this with a by then 14-year-old girl watching me, I made a conscious effort to get moving again. Over the next 18 months I lost over 3 stone, and to my own surprise, found that actually I really enjoy exercising! Now I recognise how those endorphins help keep me on top of the depression and I also notice how my mood will fall if I go several days without doing something active. I’ve gone from someone who could easily sit and not move for 8 or 10 hours a day to someone that can barely sit still for an hour at a time unless I’m really engrossed in what I’m doing! Winter 2016 was the first one since 2005 that I have barely registered any lowering of my mood. The colours stayed bright, the clouds stayed mostly away. I’m still not a fan of winter, but I think this hedgehog may be losing her prickles!
In 2017 I did a lot of courses, qualifying as a fitness instructor, personal trainer and Sports and Exercise Nutritionist. I feel good. I’m still a work in progress and I think I will always be susceptible to highs and lows, but for now the cruise I’m on is full of music, laughter, dancing and adventure. I want to help other women to put themselves first and to use exercise and diet to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.
Have I found a happy ending…am I ‘cured’? I don’t think so…I don’t think that will ever be the case. I do think this is something that I, and sadly, my family and friends, will have to live with. The one thing now though is that I have ways of dealing with myself when I feel that familiar darkening of the clouds and the waves becoming a little choppier. As long as I am able to recognise that and stay on top of things I’m positive I’ll be OK. If I’m not, I’ll head back to the GP and think again. I’d never rule out medication totally…after all I’d think nothing of reaching for paracetamol if I had a headache or following a specialists recommendation if I had a serious illness. Depression, of any sort, is simply an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain, so if at some point I need help rebalancing them, I’ll be sure to ask for and take the help.
Helen Dennett of You First Fitness
To go to Helen’s website for nutrition and exercise advice and support click here