A little over three years ago, I hit the bottom. I seriously wondered what worth my life had, felt lost and alone, and was struggling with my mental health. I felt unable to speak about how much I was suffering because I thought it would be a sign of weakness and because I still believed the trauma I had experienced was partly my fault.
Even though I had been a journalist for many years, and had been working in journalism safety for a long time, I still could not find the words to ask for help.
I went to the doctors many times, with physical symptoms – with sleeplessness, with thyroid issues, with stomach and skin problems. I believe these were my body’s way and my brain’s way of telling me they were suffering. But medicine often doesn’t see the link between mental and physical health and I kept getting fobbed off. Nobody made the time and space for me to ask me how I really was and, somehow, I managed to weave a web of deceit that diminished my symptoms.
I was drinking too much, exercising too hard, had massive mood swings, taking in too much caffeine, eating excessive sugar and too little of everything else. I was angry and agitated. I felt disconnected. I slept poorly and had nightmares. I avoided things that triggered trauma memories, some of them so commonplace that I missed out on significant moments in my kids’ lives. I wore a mask and a superhero cape to my cost.
I was reeling from the legacy of abuse experienced during a long ago relationship that began because of my media work. I was remembering traumas from trips I had taken as a journalist where I had survived and others hadn’t.
I was struggling with the relentless secondary trauma of running a journalism safety charity where every week we heard about the horrific deaths of our colleagues, killed for doing their jobs. As the #MeToo movement gained traction, I was hearing the tales of friends and strangers who had been assaulted by people who abused their positions of power, often facilitating panels with them to share their stories, and yet I could not share my own experiences of sexual assault.
I was falling deeper and deeper into a black hole and I felt like I would never again see the light. I felt like I had no right to see it, no right to be happy. I had suicidal thoughts. I was surrounded by people who loved me, people close to me who I pushed away, who I was mad at, people who I punished because I could not protect them or myself. Even then I hid the extent of my suffering from them, and even more so from my friends and colleagues, terrified that the superwoman cloak would slip.
This week marks World Mental Health Day and this week I am proud that I have found the words to share my experiences, that I sought help, and that with the support of others, I am well.
Last year, we moved back to the area where I was raised, settling in a small village in Yorkshire, a place where I can find space and sanctuary in nature within seconds. Shortly before then I spoke for the first time about my post traumatic stress, in this piece for Poynter.
It was tough to write, but I wanted to offer others hope and try to breakdown some of the barriers that still exist in our industry to admissions of vulnerability. Since then, I have tried to move forwards and speak as often as I can about my experiences, while also ensuring I look after my own mental health. Not every day is sunshine, but I now know to carry an umbrella or to pause and watch the clouds gather and what to do when the bad weather arrives.
Six months ago, I quit my job and took a leap into the unknown. As the family breadwinner, it was a scary step, but I had to follow my head and heart. I decided to focus on being a media consultant, working with newsrooms and our journalism industry to open up conversations around mental health and wellbeing. I set up a company called Headlines Network and together with my colleague John Crowley, we are providing free mental health workshops for UK journalism colleagues with the support of Google, and are now working with the mental health charity Mind on this project.
By being freelance, I was also giving myself time to write as well, knowing how beneficial writing has been for my wellbeing, something I am now passing on through workshops.
I wanted to use my lived experience, passion and professional expertise to try to support others who might be suffering too. I know how isolating mental illness can be and how ashamed I felt to admit I was struggling. Even writing this now, there’s a part of me that worries that people might think less of me for doing so.
But I have no regrets. I am fortunate to have found the words, the help, the world I need to allow me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I am grateful to be able to share my story and I am proud of how far I have come.