Giving Mental Illness A Voice

Stories of Hope: An Interview with Sam Edwards

This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health advocate and psychotherapist Samantha Edwards about her history of mental health challenges and about some of her current advocacy efforts. Trigger warning: thoughts and behaviors related to suicide are discussed. Here’s our interview:

DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?

SD: During the summer of 2014, I was diagnosed with depression. It was the first time I had ever fallen ill mentally and every day since then has not only been a battle, but a bittersweet journey. I had got to the stage in my life where everyone around me knew something was wrong with me. Even I knew I was losing my mind, but I had no idea how or why and I certainly was not ready to admit I needed help.

It is really hard to describe the feeling of depression, it’s not simply ‘being sad’ nor is it a case of being ‘lazy.’ I could not get to sleep at night and was suffering from violent dreams during the rare moments where sleep came. My eating habits were non-existent and I lost weight fast. My body ached constantly and my head pumped with pain on a daily basis. Physically I was unable to do very much at all, getting out of bed was like running a marathon and the concept of leaving the house was impossible.

Very soon I started ignoring calls from loved ones and ignored the doorbell. I was isolating myself from everyone and everything but I didn’t care. My partner and I would argue daily and rows would often end up with me packing a bag and wanting to run far away. I was convinced he and the rest of the world would be better off without me–truly convinced I should be dead.

I felt nothingness. Empty. Alone. Lost with no hope. My hair became a mess, my clothes didn’t fit, music gave no joy, God was absent, family were a chore and my greatest desire was to stay awake all night and sleep all day. I knew something was wrong, but I had convinced myself that the issue was environmental.

I was sad because of my relationship, or work, or friends, maybe it was just stress, or maybe a virus. I came up with a hundred reasons as to why I was not feeling myself. To think that I was suffering from a mental illness was not an option for me. I was the mental health professional; it couldn’t happen to me.

DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?

SD: I had got to the point where alcohol became my only escape. I would drink wine, sometimes a few glasses, sometimes a bottle. As I became drunk, I became angry and tearful. I would do everything in my power to push loved ones away and often became aggressive and impossible to live with. My self-destruct button had been pressed and I was intent on hurting myself and everyone who loved me.

The final straw came after yet another drunken argument with my partner. One moment I was sitting down quite happily watching TV, and the next I had engaged in a blazing argument. Screaming and pushing him away, I started throwing clothes into a suitcase. Screaming at him that I was better off dead, he slumped on the floor and cried, but I didn’t care.

He looked at me and quietly said, “Look in the mirror, you are a monster.” I looked; my hair was a mess and my face was red. My makeup was smeared down my face and I looked like a terribly angry person. I didn’t recognise myself. I ran into the bathroom and took a razor blade to my arm. The sharp pain and blood shocked me into uncontrollable hysteria. I finally broke.

Sitting on the bathroom floor in floods of tears, I prayed as hard as I possibly could; ‘God, I beg of you to take me away, let me go to sleep and never wake up.’ I sat on that floor and begged for my life to be over. Every natural survival instinct had gone and I wanted to die. I planned to die, in fact I made many plans, different methods, possible risks. I wrote notes to loved ones and made sure my affairs were in order and I felt peaceful, and THAT is what scared me the most.

My partner eventually forced me to go to the doctor. My 10-minute booking with the doctor turned into over an hour as I sat there and broke down. I had reached the point of no return and begged and pleaded for help. It was obvious to her what was wrong with me, yet there I sat crying and shaking, begging her to tell me I hadn’t lost my mind. I had no idea what was wrong with me and I was convinced nothing could save me.

She took my hand and gave me a tissue and said to me, ‘I think you have depression and we need to get you help immediately.’ I broke down again. How did I miss this? How did I not see this coming? I left the surgery with a white bag of pills and a leaflet about depression and drove home to tell my partner that I was broken. And that day I took my first pill.

DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?

SD: The first drugs of choice which made my life hellish for a long time were several of the antidepressant medications. By day 2 of taking these pills, I was experiencing every side effect in the book. My insomnia grew to the point of seeing creepy crawlies out of the corner of my eye on a daily basis. I was suffering from constant nausea and vomiting as well as restless legs and increased suicidal thoughts. I became angry and confused and experienced moments of no emotion at all.

Within 5 weeks, my mood had started to lift out of depression and into nothingness. No despair, no anger, no joy, nothing. On top of this, I had the additional battle of trying to get my loved ones to understand what was happening. The ‘D’ word scared most of them away to the point I stopped telling people.

In the space of 4 months, my medication was increased more and more as the depression started to win. With every increase, the side effects got worse to the point where I felt worse off than before. I went through a week of staying in bed and only eating when forced, washing only when needed and alienating loved ones again.

The final straw came while driving down the expressway at about 70 mph listening to music and basking in the sunlight. Then out of nowhere I started crying uncontrollably. I could barely see the road ahead and realised how pathetic and worthless I had become. My partner should leave me, my parents should disown me, even my bloody cat hates me, I am nothing.

And then it came to me. What if I just put my foot down and drive as fast as possible into a wall? I sped the car up, I took deep breaths and looked ahead at the traffic, lots of traffic, lots of poor individuals who have no idea what I want to do. The thought of causing so much damage on that road scared me into sense and lo and behold I found myself back at the doctors shaking and crying and in need of help.

More and more drugs were given to me in the hope that something would work long-term, and eventually I was introduced to one antidepressant that worked best for me although the side effects were bad. After a very long fight, the medication started to work and the side effects wore off. It took a long time, and I had to try many different types of medication to find one that worked for me.

This was the most frustrating part for me, I assumed that taking a small pill would make everything better immediately but the truth is, it takes time, and lots of adjustment, not just with dosage, but also with the types of antidepressant. It’s very much a case of “try this one for a few weeks and if it doesn’t work, try another.”

DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?

SD: Although there were struggles finding the right combination of therapy and medication, in the end the tunnel did get brighter. I did start to feel normal, I started to “feel.” It’s been one hell of a ride and I am now off all medication and coming out the other end much wiser and maybe a little bit stronger too.

I know it might come back, that big fat black cloud might show up again and try to take my life away from me, but I like to think I’ll be ready, I’ll see it coming and will know what to do on that day. But for now, I stare at the sunshine and smell the flowers and smile at the small things. For now, I take in as much happiness as possible and hold on to it tightly.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to give myself a break now and again. If I feel very tired, or if I don’t feel like being around people, I allow myself one day to just be lazy and enjoy my own company. I allow myself a break from the hustle and bustle of the world and recharge. I have to be aware of my mood changes and talk to family members when I start to feel down. Communication is key for me. If my loved ones know how I am feeling, they are better able to support me and help me recognise signs of relapse.

DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.

SD: One of the largest barriers to seeking help sooner for me, was the belief that I couldn’t possibly have a mental health issue because I was a professional. This belief stopped me from seeking help sooner and I recognise that belief across the professional industry. Too many people excuse it as simply feeling slightly stressed and leave themselves at risk.

Initially, I started blogging and speaking at public events to help educate other professionals of the dangers of not seeking support early on. However, I soon found myself being stigmatised by other professionals who deemed my openness about my personal journey to be inappropriate. I was often told, “You can’t talk about that! You are meant to be the professional!” I realised that, if I was being treated this way, then many others will be going through the same thing.

It was then that I decided to tackle the stigma head on, to educate others and speak openly and frankly about every aspect of my illness so that those around me would feel better able to understand, and perhaps feel less intimidated by the subject. Social media blew up and soon I realised that not only was I challenging peoples perceptions of mental illness, but I was also giving a voice to those who had lost theirs.

Advocacy is no longer a job for me but an obsession. My desire to help those in need, give a voice to those who are not heard, and change the way mental illness is discussed and treated is now at the forefront of my aspirations. I believe that speaking candidly and openly is the first step to breaking down barriers, reducing fear and giving mental illness a voice.

DS: Your perspective is unique in that you’ve been both a mental health provider and a person affected by mental health issues. How have your own challenges affected your perspective as a carer for others?

SD: Given my professional background, I was actually very lucky when it came to seeking help. My understanding of mental illness and my ability to communicate my feelings to doctors and other health professionals enabled me to receive the care I needed. I would be so bold as to say the doctors probably listened to me more because of my own expertise. This allowed me to have much more control over medication choices and dosage recommendations.

There was a feeling of mutual respect between myself and the doctors and because I had an understanding of medicine, I was immediately listened to if I said something wasn’t working for me. Most people do not have that luxury, and I think that has definitely altered the way I provide care today. A lot of my work now is around educating clients so that they are better able to communicate their needs to other professionals.

DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?

SD: The first thing that is worth noting is that, although today I am well, tomorrow may be different and with that in mind I believe it is important to take each day as it comes. Recovery is a long process and it can take time to adjust. My message to those in need is this: Find someone to talk to, you are not on your own. It can feel incredibly scary to seek help, but please don’t suffer in silence. Mental illness really can and does affect everyone, you truly aren’t alone on your journey. Communicate your needs to others, take each day as it comes and please don’t ever feel like the world would be better off without you. You can and will get through this, one step at a time.

About Sam

Samantha Edwards grew up in a house where every day was a violent one due to a stepfather with alcoholism and paranoid schizophrenia. Years later, after gaining an MSc in Psychology, Sam realised that not all those suffering from mental health problems are dangerous. Sam became a mental health advocate and spent eight years campaigning for the basic, fundamental rights of those who were being stigmatised. Then one day her raison d’être was taken from her. Sam was made redundant. With her job loss, her identity dissolved too. Within months, Sam changed from being a confident outspoken woman to a hurting mess. The mental health professional had become the client. Sam will share her journey to show people that having a breakdown, having depression, or any other form of illness is not the end of the road. People can get through a day. Sam uses poetry and humour to tell her journey to get people shifting their perspective. Sam is now a qualified psychotherapist and works with individuals suffering from mental health issues. She also has expertise in addiction, abuse, relationships, poverty, homelessness, behavioural psychology and domestic violence. Sam is a public speaker and has recently spoken at a North Wales TEDx event. You can follow Sam on Twitter and read her blog

Thanks so much to Sam for her inspiring story of hope!

Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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