The bread of butter of my job is supporting staff within various organisations. And one question I get asked a lot, particularly by managers is:
‘How do you get people to open up about how they are feeling if they normally don’t admit they need any help?’
And my answer is always the same: You go first.
It isn’t easy to be open and honest about how we feel, particularly if that honesty involves taking our most raw vulnerabilities and holding them out for the world to scrutinise.
But if we can do that, we give other people permission to meet us in their own vulnerability, and that is where meaningful connection happens.
So, there I am giving out this advice, but how often do I start the conversation around mental health in relation to me and how I feel? Probably not very often. And if we are going to make meaningful change, we must be prepared to practice what we preach.
This is my part 1.
A few years ago, I started having weird, dizzy spells at work. They would come on suddenly; if I was standing up it would make me flop into my seat. And then I would find it hard to concentrate on what was around, or even form sentences.
The hospital treated me for a TIA – a mini stroke, until a consultant in the hospital plonked me in front of a computer and asked me to read what he had pulled up on the internet:
A syndrome whereby the brain, being alerted to stress will act to shut itself down somewhat and dissociate from the perceived threat.
I have been living with dissociative syndrome ever since. It comes and goes according to the rhythms of stress in my life, and I have learned to spot the warning signs, but it still catches me out.
One of the worst places to be if I am prone to dissociation is the supermarket. The sounds, colours and general busyness is not conducive to being able to control it very well, as I re-discovered this past weekend.
My husband, baby son and I were in an Asda supermarket and discovered we only had one mask, so I took Kit in his pram and we walked through the doors.
I knew I wasn’t quite alright when I couldn’t figure out if the Scan and Go feature would be okay for me to use but unfortunately, I did not have my husband there to spot the early warning signs and take me back out again.
As I walked around with Kit in his pram, the familiar sensations started to appear; my head felt like it was filling up with sand, my vision was taking a second to catch up with my movements and I could not remember, for the life of me, what I was in there for or where I could find what I needed.
I had gone into the supermarket to get a new little jacket for my son. I came out with:
Some eye drops (I don’t need eye drops)
Fishless fish fingers
Some crisps made from black eyed peas
A bottle of coke (that I scanned and paid for twice)
I then made it out of the shop, approached the ATM and stared at it for 3 or 4 minutes before my husband got out of the car and expertly steered me back to it.
I then slept for a couple of hours, woke up feeling fine and spent the next ten minutes questioning my rather specific shopping choices.
Dissociative Syndrome is one way my body reacts to stress or over-stimulation. And when I share this with other people, there is usually at least one other person who can understand as they get it too.
You know what never happens, though? Nobody ever calls me weak for sharing.
Nobody finds it awkward and sits in silence not knowing what to say.
Nobody treats me any differently.
Nobody thinks any less of me.
What does happen is people open up. Either about dissociation or another way in which stress affects them. We trade stories, we laugh, cry maybe, and connect on a vulnerable level.
Because it is in our vulnerabilities, we find our strength. And that is where the growth happens.