Let me first start by saying that this is from my own experience. I do not claim to be an expert or have all the answers.
I am really pleased to see that there has been such an effort made in recent years to promote awareness of mental health to foster understanding, support and hopefully bring down the stigma associated with it.
I was diagnosed with a type of epilepsy in my early teens (there are around 40 different types of seizure). It is like experiencing a short term general anesthetic, a mini blackout or like turning a monitor off and on. Whilst I would not compare this directly to depression, there can be a certain stigma related to it. People tend to have preconceived ideas of what epilepsy is. When I was younger the banter from my peers got a little too near the knuckle. I personally witnessed an employer binning a job application simply because the applicant disclosed they had epilepsy. I personally coped by ignoring the “condition” and keeping my mouth shut (not wise from a health and safety point of view).
When we use the term “mental health” it is very easy to immediately think of clinical depression or PTSD. However, I see mental health simply as part of a whole – body, mind and spirit. Just like having a healthy diet, is important to maintain good mental and emotional health.
After largely being under control for several years, I began experiencing both “deep” or “shallow” seizures once more (albeit minor compared to what I experienced in the early years). However, these became very frequent and after several tests I was diagnosed with having non-epileptic seizures too. Unfortunately, there is currently no medication for this.
Initially, I was rocked sideways with this. It felt like I was battling something “out of control”, that I was being robbed. It seemed although I started doing all the right things, it made no difference. It is particularly gutting as prolonged use of computer screens is a major trigger. This does, of course, have huge implications for work for obvious reasons (you try working without a computer).
Prior to working for Cambridge Assessment, I was in the photographic industry working as both a lecturer and a freelance photographer and re-toucher (i.e. Photoshop). One of the theories is that the sustained levels of stress, minimal sleep and long hours had taken their toll. I didn’t feel stressed or depressed, I simply just kept going. Ironically, it was when I left such an environment that it actually got worse.
Consequently, I simply cannot use a computer with the intensity I used to and I no longer photograph as my brain can’t handle the post-production required. This was particularly gutting, as rather than being a job, photography has been more of a (arguably very cool) lifestyle; almost an identity.
This is where Wellbeing techniques have really helped me deal with both the emotional effects and the physical manifestation of the seizures. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation has helped me to relax. Specifically becoming aware of my surroundings by using sight, smell and touch help me “stay in the room”. Actually sleeping, eating regularly and a realistic workload (all act as triggers) have helped my body to rest. Gone is the booze and caffeine! And…I get to wear funky green glasses too!
This is still very much a journey for me and whilst these techniques have not stopped the condition, they have helped me manage it better, to “ride the storm”.
Finally, focussing on what I have and what I am able to do encourages me to remain positive. I know this is easy to say and harder to do. However, the proverb “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed” rings true to me. I am aware how a downward spiral can start. I recognise feelings for what they are and not ignore them, using the strategies I am learning to process them.
So, I continue to express my creativity, just in a different form. I have started drawing, model making, painting and playing the guitar once more.
I may not be able to shoot for the time being, but I am able to collaborate or direct others. I decided to work on an audio visual experience with friends, ex-students and colleagues from the photographic industry, as well as Cambridge Assessment. This was inspired by what it is to be “out of control”. Still and moving images accompanied by music composed on the theme were performed live at St Peter’s Church in March and November.
This was a free event but we were so pleased to be able to raise £155 in donations which went to the charity FND Action.
Thank you to everyone who came along and it was filmed, so a copy will be available shortly.