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30-day-challenge8Day 8:  What age you were diagnosed at?  At what age do you think your symptoms began? (You can make a timeline)

I have to be honest here and admit that today’s question/topic is one which really got me thinking.

Which, since my brain recently seems totally incapable of shutting or slowing down and letting me rest, started late yesterday evening and continued into the early hours of this morning.

One of my biggest difficulties with this particular question (as with a lot of things it seems) is that my memory just doesn’t seem to function properly.  Whilst I might – if I am particularly fortunate – remember events and key or important happenings or experiences in my life, actually putting a date or time frame on them can be much more problematic.

As a result of this I spent several hours creating a timeline in respect of my mental health using key events as memory joggers or point plotters.  Even so, in the interest of objectivity and fair play I have to admit (and add the disclaimer) that whilst the timings are, to the best of my recollection correct, I may be slightly off here and there.

So that having been said the question does call for an interesting comparison between when I actually received a diagnosis and when I believe my symptoms first began.  And for me, and I know from my involvement with the Mental Health Writers Guild as well as from conversations with other bloggers. that I am not alone in this.  I had been aware of my symptoms years before gaining a diagnosis.

Actually, in all honesty, I had been aware of my symptoms – albeit that I hadn’t at first recognized them or thought of them as ‘symptoms of actual mental illness’ – in my childhood.  Certainly as early as my mid childhood and possibly even before.  (Another facet of my memory problems is that I do not remember my early childhood other than one or two specific events).

In fact it wasn’t until my early teenage years before I started to formulate an understanding that what I had initially simply considered as me being ‘different’ might just be indications of mental illness.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, realizing as a child that you were somehow ‘different’ and that others seemed to react (often negatively) to those differences, generated a response of trying to hide those differences.  And this – coupled with a fear of actually being labelled as ‘mentally ill’ and all that this could possibly result in – led me to hide my mental health for a great many years.

It is also worth noting that this was many years ago now and our understanding of mental illness and mental health was not as good as it is now.  It is funny but as I re-read some of my old school reports and knowing what I know about my mental illness (and which of course they did not know at the time) I see the comments of my teachers and understand the reasons behind them.

School Report Excerpt1972-1School Report Excerpt1972-2School Report Excerpt1972-3School Report Excerpt1972-4The first three images are teacher’s comments and the fourth the Head Master’s comments from 1972 when I was 10.  The next (and fifth) image is the Head Master’s comment from the following year. and the others from 1973.

School Report Excerpt1973Continual lapses in concentration where simply seen as ‘day dreaming’ or just that – un-investigated lapses in concentration.  No one seemed to ever expect that they may be resultant from the dialogues going on in my head or from poor mental health and no one seemed to ever consider that the ‘clever retorts’ mentioned in the Head Master’s overall comment (image four) might indicate something deeper than a ‘smart-arsed’ or rebellious kid.  And I (and my backside) can personally assure you that my father only saw such behavior at school as ‘bad’ or ‘rebellious’ behavior.

No, as far as I can recall, the status of my mental health and indeed the possibility of any mental illness did not seem to be discussed (at least not in my presence) or considered throughout my early to mid childhood.  I had hidden my ‘differences’ and I had hidden them well.

My teenage years were a slightly different story however.  Although even then I was able to get away with hiding most of my symptoms.

TW SIGNWhilst unable to put a two or three significant events on the timeline that I have created – due to my not remembering exactly when they took place.  I do remember my self-harming starting at some point in my early teens.  I also remember a number of close calls and unsuccessful attempts to end my life.  Most of which happened outside the family home, but one – which I remember vividly happening within the family home when my older sister found me with a carving knife by my wrists.

Strangely, whilst I have a crystal clear (as if I could replay the dvd in  my mind) recollection of my sitting in a complete state in our kitchen, with a wet flannel on my forehead and my big sister hovering over me and making sure I was alright and calming me down. I have no memory or how my parents reacted to the episode.

However, I do also have a specific and vivid memory, although my mother doesn’t recall this and is therefore unable to help with the dating of the event, being taken to see a psychiatrist at some point in my early to early to mid teenage years.

I remember vividly our attending a local health center and being shown into a room and my sitting opposite this strange man sat across a desk from me.  I remember with crystal recollection the feeling of unease and mistrust which I felt concerning both him (the psychiatrist) and the younger man who was stood behind him.

I remember the fact that he (the psychiatrist – for the younger man simply observed and was probably just a student) asked me a series of questions whilst at the same time (in intervals of but a few minutes) rolling pencils (which were lined up flat on the desk and sideways on to me) across the desk, towards me, and onto the floor.

I remember deliberately avoiding answering the psychiatrist’s questions truthfully and deliberately not reacting to his rolling the pencils towards me.  I also remember studying the younger man stood behind him and noting that his shirt collar was dirty and his shirt in desperate need of an iron.

I also remember having a great deal of personal satisfaction when he announced to my parent(s) that whilst I had ‘issues’ my responses to his questions did not indicate any clear mental illness.  I remember distinctly the sense of pride I felt that I had out-smarted him.  Which given my unease and mistrust concerning him was understandable.

But other than the aforementioned specific incident any concerns about my mental health – which whilst I am sure must have been considered and discussed behind my parent’s closed bedroom door and at times when we kids were not around – was never really raised or discussed.

I have learned to, and to all intents and purposes had been successful in hiding my mental illnesses and this continued throughout my life until around the period 1994/5-1998.

The years between my early to mid teenage and this point had been ones full of stress, secrecy, self medication, a bout of street homelessness, a period of self-medication through illegal drugs, reckless acts, manic or reckless spending, lots of hiding and even more secrecy and a great deal of avoiding and running from the potential fall out of things I had done previously.

I had renewed the faith which I had had all through my childhood and which I had discarded not as a result of any doubting the existence of God.  But simply as a result of the deep seated conviction that no-one (who really knew me – and after all God knows everything) ever being able to want me.  I had gotten married, had a wonderful son, started some wonderful relationships and friendships and was in full time Christian ministry.

But I was living a double life.  On the outside I was successful and very respected and yet inside I was a wreck.  I knew the truth, I knew I was living a double life and was on borrowed time.  And most of all I knew the fragility of my mental health and my past and I knew that past would soon catch up with me.

My ministry and client group brought me in regular contact with the local mental health team and mental health practitioners and I also had a family doctor who was also a friend and a member of the same church as me.  I began to open up with him about my mental health and he agreed to see me privately and to help me work through some of the issues.  It was only at this point did I ever truly receive any external indication of possible diagnoses concerning my mental health.

Sadly however, it was also at this point when the fall-out from my previous life caught up with me.  Unbeknownst to my wife and son (my son being but 4 years old at the time, I was a financial wreck as a result of my previous drug use, financial mismanagement and extremely reckless spending even prior to that.  The wolves were not only at the door, they were out for blood.  I could run, hide and avoid this no longer.  My marriage, my ministry, my family and even my freedom was at very real risk.  With the help of two wonderful friends from my church – who out of desperation I had finally opened up to and gone to for help, and by the grace of God (and trust me it had to be an act of God) I managed to avoid prison, begin to address my financial mess and most important of all I told my wife the full story of my financial mess.

And I have to say that my wife was wonderful about it all.   Despite all the lies and secrecy going back some thirteen years of our being together (seven of them as a married couple) she stood by me and helped me to rebuild my and thus our finances.

But even at that time I could not bring myself to open up about my mental illnesses and poor mental health.  I was frightened it would be one lie, one secrecy, one deception too much.  Additionally I was frightened that (if it got out) I would lose my employment and ministry and on top of that (if I am truly honest) there was my pride at stake.

But the fact is that once my financial state was out in the open and I was no longer able to hide it or from it or to avoid it, it did indeed begin to take a toll on my mental health.  Other circumstance also came into play and my employment and ministry ended and another began.

Part of my avoidance of detection of my mental health and part of my avoidance of the fall out from my previous financial recklessness had been our moving across country from our hometown.  But I decided that, since I no longer needed to run from my financial problems, we could move back to our hometown.  So having secured employment there, and in response to some health needs within my wife’s family we did just that.

But the truth is that I really wasn’t as well as I thought I was mentally and at the same time my physical health had for some time now also suffered.  Likewise, whilst the fact that my financial difficulties were out in the open did remove a great deal of stress we still had a lot of financial pressures.

All through my working life I had used my work as a way of limiting the amount of time I would have to spend with any one person and thus limiting the chances of anyone detecting my mental illnesses.  Additionally, my almost life-long sense of being ‘damaged’ and ‘not fitting in’ drove me away from enjoying intimate or close relationships.  Something which must have truly hurt my wife and family and friends and for which I am truly sorry, but just couldn’t express or reveal.

This in turn led to my taking on increase work loads and with the death of both my father in law – in 1997 and my own father in early 1999.  Both of which having tremendous impacts on me emotionally and mentally for varying and different reasons.  The inevitable happened and in late 1999 I suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown.

It was only as a result of this and my inability to avoid or hide my mental illnesses any more that I was referred to the local mental health team and only then (at the age of 37 when I actually got my first official diagnoses.

So why am I sharing all this with you?

I am acutely aware that this post (like a lot of mine it seems LOL) has been very long.  And I just hope it hasn’t been too boring or confused for you.  But I truly believe that it is so very important – when we consider mental illness – that we understand just some of the complex issues that can be associated even with gaining a diagnosis.  And indeed with a person who experiences mental illness even admitting his or her illness.

It is my fervent hope and prayer that by my sharing this others will be encouraged – or at least not feel so alone in their struggles.  And that those who do not personally suffer from mental illness or poor mental health but are reading this will be able to understand it’s effects a little better.

It is also my fervent prayer that we look more deeply and more compassionately and objectively at some of the behaviors which can be presented in childhood and without leaping to any conclusions or rushing to (potentially harmfully) label a child, will consider that perhaps his or her behavior is not just a lack of discipline, or attention, or effort, and not just ‘bad’ or ‘inappropriate’ behavior or ‘rebelliousness.

I also want to acknowledge and thank all those who have loved and supported me throughout all of the above and to acknowledge that I do so very clearly recognize God’s grace in it all.

To the person who came up with this challenge (and you know who you are) I want to truly thank you for this question and the idea of creating a ‘timeline‘.  As I said above I have done just that and it has truly helped me.  And for those who are interested a pdf file of this can be viewed here.