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Ken Skates AM - My Experiences of Mental Health Problems

written by Ken Skates AM 27/10/2016

It is a matter of public record that I experienced Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and accompanying depression in my late teens and twenties. I'll resist sharing details of the causes, as this would take as long as the three years of counselling that it took to resolve them! However, I will share with you brief details of the trigger (many people have the potential to suffer GAD, depression or other illness, but might never have such conditions triggered by stressful or traumatic events).

The manifestation of GAD was shockingly sudden. It came in the first week of reaching Cambridge (unfamiliar place, unfamiliar people, unexpected challenges) and although I later learnt that first experience was a panic attack, for several years I did not know what was wrong with me. A constant feeling of anxiety, couple with the fear of sharper and sudden attacks of severe fear that would cause disassociation, intense and debilitating bursts of adrenaline bursts, was enough to keep me awake at night for several years. The degree of general anxiety I felt came and went on a regular basis, like the tide, with darker and more intense periods of anxiety often following days of intense creativity and productivity. Rarely was there a happy medium in terms of my emotions and for the most part they were unregulated in a space occupied by fear and pessimism of the future.

During that period at university I convinced myself that whatever it was I was dealing with would pass upon leaving Cambridge and returning home to North Wales. Believing there was a better future waiting for me was part of my coping strategy. Drink and avoiding being alone were others. I found being alone and allowing myself to think about my emotions only stirred anxiety, whilst alcohol would blunt the spears of fear yet cause even worse sensations when I woke.

So, at university I was enduring life, not living it. I tried to seek assurance I wasn't going mad, but this was before self diagnosis was possible through the Internet and when I did return home to North Wales my GP refused to accept the diagnosis of the college doctor that I had clinical depression caused by a generalised and persistent state of anxiety, due to depleted serotonin and environmental factors.

Ken has previously shared his experiences in the past for Time to Change Wales.

Consequently, for several more years after I left university the darkness followed me. During that time I avoided alcohol, caffeine and every other stimulant expect for tobacco (I'd also started smoking at university as a means of trying to calm my nerves and to be social). Yet if anything the GAD worsened. My job in the media was intense and the working environment unhealthy (fluorescent lighting in a dark office environment should be banned in my view). I steadily and consciously shrank the world I occupied around me, fearing travel in case a panic attack happened due to the possible feeling of lack of security in an unfamiliar place.

The crunch moment came when I moved jobs and went on a short break to Paris, where I experienced what to me felt like a melt down, but which to people around me probably only looked like a minor flush and subsequent tiredness.

Perhaps I should have spoken to people more openly before this moment. And I should certainly have sought medical help.

That crunch moment made me realise that I had a choice to make: deal with it once and for all by finding and overcoming the root causes, or by packing it all in.

Family and friends, as well as a belief that we all have a purpose in life, prevented me from taking action that would have resulted in the latter option. Instead, I went to my new GP and was prescribed a new anti depressant that was proving very effective in treating GAD, sertraline. In addition I sought help from a councillor.

I can't recall why, but I approached a practice in Chester and filled in an extensive form for them to decide which therapist would best match my needs. Over the next three years - and in combination with the sertraline - I took the emotional responses to my past to pieces. Therapy is like taking a cluttered box of jigsaw pieces, examining each one carefully and then fixing them together in the right places.

With the help of an exceptional councellor I put the pieces of my mind and my emotions together correctly and finally came to peace with GAD. Yes, I might experience it again at some point in the future, but I no longer fear it - and the fear of mental illness is its most debilitating weapon.

I'm now a big believer in therapy and counselling and of combined therapy (talking therapy and medicine) in the treatment of mental illness, as well as techniques such as Mindfulness and meditation in preventing illness.

Nobody should ever feel ashamed of talking about their experience of mental illness and the more we share experiences, the less stigma will be attached to it. J K Rowling, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Alastair Campbell shared their experiences publicly, which helped me realise that being successful doesn't necessarily require being emotionally cold. C S Lewis once observed 'we read so that we know we are not alone.' We often talk to one another for the same reason.

So take a boxer's stance - take the punches without getting knocked over - and remember that you can't control what other people do or say, but you've every control over how it impacts on you. Talk to someone about how you feel, even if it's a pet cat or dog, or online to empathetic people.

And if you're inclined to be self critical then remember sometimes enough really is good enough.

If you would like to write a blog post about your experiences of stigma or related issues, email info@timetochangewales.org.uk

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