Saturday 20 December 2014

World Mental Health Day: Schizophrenia suffer Nicola Hynes on breaking down the stigma

Nicola Hynds

Published 20/05/2014 | 02:30

Nicola Hynds
Nicola Hynds pictured near her home in Dungarvan Co. Waterford. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Nicola Hynds pictured as a child.

MY life is the same as anyone else's in their mid-20s. I work in the beauty industry as a make-up artist at a cosmetic counter, I live with my boyfriend of six years and I'm busy planning our wedding, which is taking place next year where we live in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

A lot of things have fallen into place for me in the last year after a life-long battle with psychosis. My symptoms started very early in my life and, to be honest, I don't really remember a time before I heard voices and experienced delusions.

When I was a little girl, as young as four, at my grandparents' house I would walk up and down the hall looking at all the pictures and paintings. They used to move around and I was always scared that one day they would jump out and grab me. I started seeing shadows walking around at night.

And I had a constant noise in my head, people talking, whispering, singing and shouting, even arguing with each other. I didn't tell anyone, they couldn't know because I thought I was a freak. As time went on, I felt sad all the time. I was paranoid about people being able to read my mind and I felt like there was someone standing over my shoulder all the time constantly watching me.

My parents brought me to various professionals. They knew I just wasn't right. I couldn't tell them what was going on though, out of fear of something bad happening.

One child psychologist told my mother to take me home as trying to treat me was a waste of time, "like talking to a brick wall". She persisted though and just before entering my teens I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and some slowed cognitive functioning.

I got through the teenage years but with great difficulty, I struggled in school and self harmed on a daily basis. I cut myself with razors, scissors, safety pins and sometimes knives. In my late teens I tried to end my life. I took an overdose of sleeping tablets.

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It is far from something I am proud of. When I woke up in hospital I was naturally bombarded with questions as to why. I tried to pull medical equipment out of my arms, I tried to leave but I ended up being put in the psychiatric ward.

 tried to explain what had been happening to me but so much had built up, I was so tired and I couldn't get the words out right. They came out all mixed up.

I was discharged after just a couple of days and sent home. The next few months saw me start my current relationship, scrape through the Leaving Cert and head off to a College of Further Education.

I lost a lot of friends through what I did to myself with the overdose. They didn't understand and were angry with me. The years went on and I tried to get on with my life.

I found this very hard. I tried to go back to the doctor and explain how I was feeling and he put me on anti-depressant. I got worse and worse. The voices never ceased, not even for a second. I felt like there were people watching me, I couldn't see them but I could feel their presence at all times.

I was convinced people could dip in and out of my mind whenever they felt like it and listen to my thoughts. I believed they were all conspiring against me, laughing at me and trying to harm me.

I was withdrawn completely at times, suspicious of everyone. I was failing to get a grasp on the real world. I would feel so sad and lost, everything seemed empty and I felt so alone.

Then I would suddenly become happy, euphoric, and ecstatic with everything in my life, I would get loads of ideas and feel like taking on the whole world. My mind would race with thoughts I couldn't quite keep up with. And then I'd crash and feel horribly depressed again.

Little quirks of mine developed into obsessive compulsive habits. I had to touch a certain object a certain amount of times, tap my fingers off each other continuously or make noises or twitch a little.

I'd get sudden urges to do dangerous things, like jump from a great height. But at the same time I was really anxious and nervous about going into a shop to buy milk or making a phone call.

I found speaking a struggle as my speech was disorganised and I would stutter and stumble over my words.

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No matter how I was feeling I found it hard to stay still or concentrate on anything.

I went through phases of binge drinking, eating too much or too little. I felt physically sick most days, had great trouble sleeping and smoked constantly.

In my 20s I finally had a breakdown and ended up in A&E followed by a private clinic and then a psychiatric hospital.

I told them everything. They let me take my time and asked lots of straightforward questions which made it easier for me to get it all out.

They told me that as hard as it was to hear, they knew I was suffering from a mental illness and they suspected it to be schizoaffective disorder, a combination of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

I started an in-patient treatment programme for psychosis.

I was given daily medication of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, anti-anxieties and a dose of other drugs. The side effects were horrific.

They caused me to rapidly gain weight, have vivid nightmares and feel faint and dizzy. I had stiff pains which were agonising. I would go through phases of feeling chronically tired or suffer from insomnia. I felt nauseous and my speech was very slurred.

My eyes had trouble focusing and my peripheral vision was gone.

My hands shook and I was extremely restless. I couldn't even manage a minute of sitting still and eventually developed Restless Leg Syndrome, which caused my legs to move uncontrollably.

My treatment included programmes involving group discussions, cognitive behavioural therapy and mental health education.

As time went on I learned how to cope better and was discharged as a patient and went home. Getting back to the ordinary world was a struggle, I was institutionalised and had missed so much back home over the summer but I had a chance to finally get better, my problems were no longer a secret and I felt relieved that I finally had an explanation.

I made great friends while in hospital and still miss them but the real world was calling. My medication was reduced enough that I could drive my car again; drink a little bit of alcohol and my eventual diagnosis was Schizophrenia on its own. My psychosis continued but I was better equipped to deal with it.

I have had many setbacks in the last few years, lost countless friends and felt many times like I couldn't go on. I have got through it, sometimes by the skin of my teeth but I'm still here. I have been discriminated against and treated like I chose this life.

Most people do not understand illnesses like schizophrenia and some probably never will. Mental illnesses like mine are portrayed badly in the media, on television and in the film industry.

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There is a huge stigma surrounding mental illness and the mental health system is for the most part, a joke.

People are dying through suicide; at times because others are uneducated about illnesses that affect such a large number of the population.

I hope this can change and that my story can give someone an insight into the world of psychosis and show that we're not monsters, unpredictable and dangerous, we are just a little sick.

My journey is not over; I wake up every morning and hear the same static sounds and voices. They have never stopped, not even for a second. I don't know what it is like to experience silence or feel truly alone in a room.

If my psychosis were to stop even briefly, I would probably find it stranger than having a mind full of other people talking. I still get all the other symptoms such as delusions but I can now find the line between what is real and what is not real.

I spent a lifetime stuck in silence with a fear of coming out and telling people my experiences. Stigma is really a horrible thing and the people who encourage this stigma around mental health are just judging something they know nothing about; but for every one of these people, there are even more people who are more than willing to accept and understand.

That is why I am happy to be an ambassador for See Change, the national mental health stigma reduction partnership.

See Change does not believe that a person needs to be an expert to talk about mental health, anyone can do it.

Starting a conversation about mental health on social media, at home, over coffee with a friend or just about anywhere is the way forward.

Every time we talk about it, we get closer to a time when mental health is no longer a taboo subject.

Every time we have a conversation it gets us that bit closer to wiping out stigma. Right now, in the month of May, the Green Ribbon Campaign is under way, the green ribbons are being distributed free of charge to encourage conversations about mental health.

You can collect your green ribbon at any major Irish Rail Station or Citizens Information Centres. The ribbons are a symbol for changing attitudes and reducing stigma surrounding mental health.

Since starting medication and treatment for Schizophrenia, I have got better, then worse, then better again and so on.

There is no quick fix when it comes to mental health issues but there are many things that can be done to help.

Everyone is different but talking about your problems with a loved one or even a stranger helps. There are many support groups, and information is always available online. There is no shame in calling a helpline, that's what they are there for.

And never hesitate to call emergency services if you or someone you know is showing signs of harming themselves.

Don't give up. Keep going until you find what works for you. I am not saying that it is going to be easy and you can expect to meet quite a few obstacles on your way.

You may find some people just will not understand or refuse to accept you for your struggles.

They are not the people that matter, it is what it is and once those people walk out of your life, you get to see the people who love you regardless of anything. Talking about my problems has never been easy but I'll take it any day over staying trapped in my own mind.

Nicola is an ambassador for the Green Ribbon Campaign which runs throughout the month of May to encourage a national conversation about mental health and to end stigma www.greenribbon.ie.

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