Updated: Dec 23, 2020
It seemed fitting for CONNECT - Mental Health's first BLOG Post to be my Mental Health Story. I hope that by reading this you will understand my journey, where my passion for mental health came from, and my passion for reducing stigma and educating others about mental ill health.
The thought of moving away from home was difficult. With such a small family, and a tight net group of friends from school, I worried what my life would be like. I was so anxious about moving away, starting my life over, leaving everything behind. I had the fear that everyone would forget about me, my relationship would end due to the distance, and I would be all alone.
My immediate family is quite small. Me, my mum and my dad. My parents separated when I was 4 years old, and I grew up living with my mum. I always had a great relationship with my dad, visiting on holidays and occasions. Despite living in different countries, I always felt so close to him. When it came to moving into university, my dad made the trip to come help me move in. I think it was more so to stop my mum from crying at her little hen flying the coup, but nonetheless he was there.
The first year of my university chapter was not a usual one. I have never been one for going out, getting drunk and dancing badly in a nightclub. Despite my happy and outgoing exterior, I am more than content with just sitting in the house with a movie and some junk food. I was isolating myself - without realising it. I feared that if I was having a great time, I'd feel guilty for enjoying my time, when my family and friends are missing me at home.
I got caught up in an unhealthy relationship between 2015 and 2017. I was in love, or at least that's what I told myself. It didn't matter what anyone else said, I was right. He was perfect; caring, loving, just perfect. I was delusional. Really he'd been emotionally abusing me, sponging off all of my money, controlling me. But you don't see this when you are in love.
I didn't come to my senses until October of 2017, when I was given a reality check for how I should be treated, and how I deserved to feel.
It was mid-term break of my second year of university, and I had travelled to see my dad. He was always so excited to see me, and hear about how I was getting on at university. 'The first in my bloodline to go to university' he'd always say. Little did I know that this trip would be one of the most memorable in my life - unfortunately not in a good way.
He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer - life expectancy was only 1 year (without chemo). My world shattered into a million pieces. My dad was my rock.
The next few months were I began to notice a difference in myself. I couldn't concentrate on anything. I couldn't sleep or eat. Every waking moment was spent wondering how he was feeling, was he ok? Every phone call that I would get from my mum, I would wonder 'Is this it?' before answering the phone. I began using the university counselling services to help me manage my worries and fears, control my workload and speak out about how I was feeling. I just felt so closed off from the world and I couldn't talk to my mum about it as she was going through enough as it was. She gave up her job, moved countries, put everything on hold to become my dad's full-time carer. I will never be able to thank her enough. Everyone knew what I was going through and I was sick of hearing "I am sorry to hear what you are going through, If you need anything I am here." It's meant to be comforting and reassuring, but it just became so repetitive, that I was always served with a constant reminder of what was happening in my life and how shit I felt. Counselling, whilst it didn't help my recovery long term, it was the best part of my week. I came out of my sessions with a big weight off my shoulders, and knowing that someone cared.
I decided to put my third year on hold to spend time with my dad, and return to my studies when I was ready.
Things were getting worse. Dad had been in and out of hospital with sepsis, chemo hadn't worked, and his body was deteriorating. He turned 50 on the 23rd March 2018. He died 5 days later.
I remember getting the phone call from my mum on the Sunday before. I had just arrived at my boyfriend's grandparents house. I met my boyfriend in January 2018 - Tinder of all places. He is everything I had been missing in life; compassion, thoughtful, dedicated and caring. My mum phoned me and said that I'd better come down the road and visit dad. I had had plans the next day, but mum had said that 'No. You need to come down'. Over the next 2 days, I spent almost all hours in the hospice. He couldn't speak and was bed bound, but I know he could hear me. Mum and I were always by his side. Mum didn't want him to ever be alone so we spent the nights at the hospice. Wednesday morning came around - it was very rare that mum would leave his bedside, but someone came to visit, and I was happy to sit with him. I never really knew what to say to him up until that point. I had never been alone with him. I remember sitting next to his bedside, holding his hand. I told him:
'It's ok. Mum and I - we'll be ok. You can let go if you want to. I love you.'
A few hours later, we both sat in his room together as a family, as he took his final breaths.
There is not a day goes by that I am without him. He lives on in me. We got his ashes turned to glass, so I have can have him close to me heart every day!
The next year was the hardest. In June 2018, I turned 21. This, alongside my university graduation and wedding, were the milestones that I hoped dad would have gotten to.
I tried to distract myself and threw myself into work, sport, any distraction that would stop the self-pity. It's strange to think back on now. I had, and still have, two extremes.
I'd get angry and upset about the fact that I was angry and upset at the world. I was grieving. Everyone knows that grieving is just a natural part of life, but I put so much pressure on myself to be strong, for myself and my family, that when I inevitably wasn't able to do that, I felt empty. I'd sit on the sofa, balled up, just staring into the abyss. No thoughts, no feelings, just numb. The only way for me to break out of it was to go to sleep, if I could get to sleep.
I'd feel guilty for not thinking about him, for not grieving him. I felt like a horrible daughter for 'forgetting' him. Of course I wasn't, but if I had even just a single day where my world felt normal, and it could have been a great day, at the end of the night it would all come crashing down. I'd melt down, break down, scream, shout, cry, throw things around to express myself before returning back to some state of calm, suffering in silence.
For anyone who knows me, netball has always been a passion of mine. It allows me the opportunity to get on the court and put my emotions into the game and let it all out. Whether that be a strong aggressive pass, or just running round in circles to burn off some energy, netball has always been my form of release.
In July 2019, I was lucky enough to attend the Vitality Netball World Cup opening weekend, Scotland vs England. Whilst sitting waiting for the game to start, I heard a song:
"Cause I'm a warrior, I fight for my life. Like a soldier all through the night And I won't give up, I will survive, I'm a warrior. And I'm stronger, that's why I'm alive. I will conquer, time after time. I'll never falter, I will survive, I'm a warrior."
I can not describe how much these words resonated with me. They have stuck with me every where I go. I never really knew how much of an impact music could have until I really sat and listened to the words of this song. I am a warrior and I will never give up my fight.
That doesn't mean that I wont have bad days, in fact I get them quite often, but what helps to ground me is going for a shower, blasting this song and singing my heart out.
As I sing, it helps me to really believe the lyrics of the song whilst watching all of my problems wash away with the soap and water.
I find this the right time to tell my story. Every single thing that I have been through, up until this point, has led me on this journey and gotten me to where I am now - ready to take on the world, helping to educate and de-stigmatise mental health. 2021 is going to be my year, so watch this space!
- Lauren Matthews