My Story (Part I)

When you’re growing up, you never imagine that your life can take a sharp turn and everything you hoped for and dreamed of, could be swept away in a second.

I had lived a charmed life. Growing up I could not have been more loved and secure. I had incredible parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. Not to mention my younger tribe of 10 cousins. Life was sweet. I was gifted, talented and popular. I dreamed of an education and a business career. I didn’t ever dream of a white wedding and babies; but instead a successful career where my intelligence and personality would propel me to the top.

I had always suffered with anxiety. I had terrible separation anxiety and found sleep time very difficult until around the age of 10. But my parents managed it as well as they could. As soon as a new day started then my anxiety was no where to be seen. I was confident and sociable and nothing phased me.

I loved all academics, sports, reading, art and music.

Throughout my years growing into a teenager I was happy. I was often ridiculed for my looks; with big afro hair and buck teeth I was not your normal class of cute or beautiful. But again, it didn’t phase me. I would laugh at myself and I would use my personal armour of intelligence and wit to see me through.

I did well in all my final exams and moved to high school.

High school was some of the best years of my life. I excelled in all areas and never felt belittled. I had lots of friends and I enjoyed every second.

Sixth Form college was the same. But a new group of people and I made friends easily. I had no idea at this point what my future career would be. I had ideals of business but other than that I didn’t have a set direction. I planned on university and getting my degree.

In my final summer of sixth form college I lost my beloved nan. She had been very unwell following a stroke. But I was assured she would make it through. My nan was my hero. She was my other mother and had had an important part in moulding my young life and who I was. I spent most weekends with her and my pap. Every Christmas they moved in to share the joy of the year. Every New Year’s Eve we were at her house for a party. Bringing in the new year with the strike of midnight. Every holiday I stayed with her. She was smart, elegant, classy and strong. She was everything I wanted to be.

I had planned a holiday with the girls. Nan was still in hospital. I visited her and she assured me that she had no intention of going anywhere and that I should go on the holiday. I kissed her goodbye, left her with all my love and got on the plane.

I rang home two days later and my nan had passed during the night.

To say my heart broke is an understatement. I was 18. I was away from home and wanted to be with my family. But I could not get home and they all insisted that I should not worry. So I tried not to. I missed the family grieving process and being together to mourn this incredible loss. I missed the funeral too. By the time I got home, the grieving was really over. So apart from crying with my family, life moved on.

I was due start university in another city in the autumn. I had been so excited by this, but something had changed. I didn’t know at the time what it was. I packed up all my belongings and off I went. Away from my home, my family and my security.

I enrolled on a business degree. But I didn’t have any interest in the course, or in making new friends or a new life. I just wasn’t ‘myself’. I tried for months to get into it. I could not understand what was wrong. I was so homesick. I pined for my home life and the security of my family and friends. With a heavy heart I eventually made the decision to quit and came home.

Looking back I don’t think I fully understood how this would make me feel. All my plans had gone wrong. I couldn’t understand why. I toyed with the idea of studying close to home but it wasn’t long and I decided that I would work for a while and leave studying for a year or two.

I got a job in a well known merchant bank in the city. I did very well and made lots of new friends. I also got a job in a local pub behind the bar a few nights a week and spent the rest of my time going out drinking, dancing and generally living it up with friends and family, as most teenagers do.

In the new year I started to notice I couldn’t concentrate. I wasn’t sleeping well either. I kept having strange thoughts as I rode the bus home from work. Often I would be with friends, chatting in the usual way, and I would just feel disconnected. Like I was outside looking in. I didn’t know there was anything wrong and I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I just kind of ignored it and carried on. So for a whole year I lived like this.

Two years after my last holiday, I had booked to go on a summer holiday with my girlfriends to Gran Canaria. I remember just a few nights before I was going, that I felt completely exhausted. I felt like my mind was spinning and I hadn’t slept properly in months. So I thought a holiday was exactly what I needed.

For the first few days I really enjoyed being on holiday with the girls. Until one day at the poolside I had this overwhelming urge to burst into tears. I felt like I could not listen to what my friends were talking about. I couldn’t stand another minute of their conversation, like I had to get away. All of a sudden I felt like I could hear voices in my head. I ran back to the apartment. Sat on the stairs and just burst into tears. I was afraid. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was shaking, sweating, and felt unbelievably alone. I was on a lovely holiday with my best friends, everything in my life was rosy, but all I wanted to do was cry. I felt a desperate need to go home. I had never been so afraid.

When my friends and cousin came back from the pool, they found me in tears. I couldn’t explain what was wrong only that I felt as though I was going ‘crazy’. Over the next few days I couldn’t eat as the food would just stick in my throat. I couldn’t sleep as my mind raced. I didn’t want to socialise. I remember reading all the girly magazines we had and flicking straight to the problem page. I wanted only misery. I did not want to be around happiness. Happiness just left me cold and feeling like I was on the outside looking in. I just kept thinking ‘just stop this chaos in my head’.

Days passed and my cousin was my saviour. She watched over me, cared for me and made me feel as safe as she possibly could. She slept next to me and didn’t sleep unless I did. Which I didn’t. I called home every day, crying to my mum, desperate for her. But I couldnt get home. Knowing I had another week of this torture scared me to death. Crying and being in such an emotional state was completely alien to me. I had never experienced anything like it. I had always been so ‘together’. So I knew that It was a sure sign that something was seriously wrong. But no matter what I did, the feelings and thoughts would not go away.

My friends tried hard to care for me. But they were really scared too. They had never seen me like this. Or anyone else for that matter. Kate, who had always been so in control was literally falling apart before their eyes.

By the time the day came to go home I had lost over 2 stone in weight. My eyes were black holes and the thoughts in my mind were becoming more and more dark and strange. I was having horrendous panic attacks, one after the other, as I had no idea what was happening to me. Every nerve in my body was shaking. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t breathe properly. I had waves where I was completely petrified of my own thoughts and feelings. I had never experienced anything like it. I truly believed that I had gone mad and that by the time they got me home I would go straight to the mental hospital. My attempts to stop the madness were futile. I was lost.

I arrived back at the airport to a full reception. My parents and friends who had not been on the holiday with me. My mum just cried with me, she was horrified by what she saw. The daughter who had left her less than 2 weeks earlier was a complete shell of herself. I remember talking with one of my friends as I walked out of the airport to the car, “I’m just going to kill myself”. That was how desperate I felt. Any rational thought had completely left me. I was a complete nervous wreck.

My parents took me home and I visited the family GP the next day. Dr. Mac was her name and she was incredible. She understood what was happening. Depression and anxiety. She put me on Seroxat anti-depressant and a beta blocker for the anxiety. But she felt she did not have a full understanding of the thoughts that I was having. She suggested that I see a psychiatrist. This was like the last straw for me. I could not be crazy!! Kate Jennings, the girl who had everything going for her and had so many dreams, could not be crazy. I cried with my mum all the way home.I was exhausted and beaten. I remember vividly saying to my mum, that if I had to stop the crazy in my head, then I simply couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the strength. But she assured me that I would not have to do anything and that with the right medication and help I would get through. Having been given a few sleeping tablets I finally slept all night for the first time in months. My mum lay next to me as she had always done when I was a child.

The next two weeks were a bit of a blur. The side effects of the medication soon started to take effect. I slept a lot, my eyes were wide, and I was completely spaced out. But within two weeks, I noticed a small change. My mind was not quite so frantic, my body calmer, my thoughts less fierce. I remember during this time, just watching my mum and dad. I could see the fear and sadness in their eyes. But there was nothing I could do. I was lost. They just cared for me with all the love they had and got me through each day.

My little sister was hit very hard. She was only 15.

I eventually had an appointment with the Psychiatrist. I went to a private hospital as I had health insurance through my employer. We walked into his office, my mum and I, and all I remember thinking was, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s so handsome!’ which immediately lightened the mood.

I went through everything with with him. And as with Dr. Mac, he was unbelievable. He immediately set me at ease and considering I had dreaded seeing this ‘psychiatrist’ it was, and remains to this day, the best thing I ever did. He told me I was ‘garden variety’. “Don’t worry Kate” he said. “You have clinical depression and severe anxiety. Your thoughts are completely normal for this state of mind. It is very common. You do not need to be afraid. You will get better”.

These words were priceless to me. I felt a hope for the first time in so long. He made it very clear that depression and anxiety can happen to anyone and it has nothing to do with feeling a bit sad. He explained that the brain was exactly the same as any other organ in the human body. That my brain was like a battery and due to stress, grief or a genetic predisposition, my battery was empty and couldn’t fill itself back up. That’s where the medication came in. He explained that diabetes, blood pressure or any other chronic disease needed medicating in order to maintain a quality of life. My brain was no different to my heart or my pancreas. So I therefore needed the medication to start feeling more like my old self. For the first time I had some understanding, and it made sense. This knowledge alone had given me some logical answers and hope to hold onto.

The psychiatrist kept me on the same medication and I had regular check ups with him.  But as time passed I could feel myself slowly coming back. At first I would notice calm and quiet in my mind and body for only 10 minutes. Then this became half an hour. As days and weeks passed the ‘good’ moments increased, from hours, to days, to weeks. I was coming back. I felt lighter, not so petrified and I had hope again.

My 21st birthday was coming up. At one point I didn’t imagine that I would make it, but thankfully a couple of months into treatment, I was starting to feel like myself again. I planned drinks with family and friends and had a wonderful night. It really was such a stark difference to what had been only months before.

I had resigned from my job in the bank. I just didn’t feel I could go back. I took a few months to myself and bit by bit my strength returned.

My mum had always explained my illness in very practical terms. My grandmother too. They too had suffered similar throughout their lives. This brought me immeasurable comfort knowing that these incredible, strong, loving and caring women had been through the darkest of times, and still came back. They assured me of my strength and that my illness was not a flaw. It was an illness. They encouraged me to be proud of myself and my strength and this has never left me.

So as time went by, my mother helped me gauge my symptoms daily and together we watched as I became strong again.

During this first episode I did not go through therapy. I didn’t have counselling or CBT. The medication together with my doctors, lots of rest and recuperation and my wonderful family, got me back to where I had been.

I had worked in travel whilst studying at sixth form and made some contacts. I was offered a job as a co-ordinator of sports tours in the Celtic regions of Scotland and Ireland. I took the job and returned to life. I excelled in the role and enjoyed every second. I was travelling a lot, spending time with friends and my then boyfriend. I continued with my medication and life was good again.

I was made redundant after two years. I was still doing really well and decided that I wanted to attain my degree. I still didn’t really know in what, but I knew that my dreams still had a chance of becoming a reality if I took the plunge and went back to study. So I enrolled in a University about 10 miles from home. I decided to study law.

As a mature student of 24, it had been my intention to just commute and study. I didn’t intend to live the student life. But the universe had different plans. I met some of the most amazing people on my course who became life long friends. We partied and studied and life was wonderful. I got a job working as a legal secretary in the city and worked part time whilst studying.

Three years later I graduated from college with my honours degree and friends for life.

I had decided that I did not want to practice law at that point as it would mean further study and further financing. So I got a job working for a national nurses union. I started in the post room as a temp, but gradually worked my way up through the ranks and did every job on offer; publications officer to events coordinator, to PA to the director, HR officer, Membership consultant, and eventually an Employment Relations Adviser.

Life was good and I felt strong and happy.

Part II