Wendy Woolfson

The First Step

Let’s talk about the thing I never talk about, at least not on public forums like this; my personal experience of poor mental health and trauma. I’ve talked about it in different ways with friends, family, colleagues, in workshops, people I’ve supported, but I’ve never got into it here before. It’s such a huge subject to cover and I get exhausted merely thinking of writing about it but not as exhausted as I used to get, so that’s why I’ll talk about it now. I’ve decided now is the time to start writing about it, to draw a line under it, so to speak, and let the past go. Enough time has passed and enough healing been done to support me to open up. I have good boundaries, and I also want to share because I hope my story might help someone else. This is just a small piece and I may or may not write more as this will be a processing experience for me as well.

It took until I was forty-six years old to pluck up the courage to ask for help. By the time I did I was feeling suicidal every day. I was self-harming in a variety of ways and I could feel no emotions, I only felt numb. I was walking through my days like a zombie, crying when no-one was looking, drinking too much, and doing zero to look after myself. I had started to make plans for killing myself and I had no idea how to break the cycle and ask for help; except that I did, but asking for help felt like it wasn’t an option. It made me feel too vulnerable, something I was not prepared  to feel. If I asked for help then someone would ask me what I needed help with, and what was wrong, and that question was so huge I had no idea how to answer it. If just one small brick were to be taken out of the wall I had so meticulously built over the years, well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen. But each day had become so painful. I felt I was dragging my feet through clay, and the cracks were beginning to show.

I was driving towards home one night and I was approaching the counselling centre which I passed regularly on various commutes, I knew I had to pull in. I had been building up to this for a number of weeks. The thought had been drifting around in my head, nagging away at me like a mini counsellor sitting on their chair with a notebook saying, ‘Wendy, you know if you were talking to someone who told you they were feeling this way you would suggest it would be helpful for them to talk to someone and seek out some therapy.’ So, I parked the car and walked through the front door towards the lift, being careful not to catch anyone’s eye and get drawn into any awkward conversations or questions. I got out at the second floor, walked up to the unstaffed desk, and waited. Eventually, someone arrived and I heard myself asking if I could please refer myself for some counselling. They put me on their waiting list and I walked out of there with a small sense of achievement and, if I admitted it, a small weight lifted. I knew the waiting list was long but I also knew I had done an important thing and tethered myself to a piece of hope. I still stopped at Tesco though and  bought a bottle of red wine for when I got home.

Walking into that counselling centre was a key moment because it probably saved my life. Even just knowing that I was on a waiting list was enough to give me reason to live; the thought that I might soon have an outlet to share some of the terrible thoughts in my head. Don’t let a waiting list put you off, ever. The tricky thing then was managing life while I was waiting for a counsellor and it took all my strength to carry on. Never underestimate how hard someone with mental health problems is working just to function in everyday life. At that time, I had worked in and around mental health for about seven years, and I’d studied a broad range of models and methods of support and worked in various settings. That’s how I knew that I was going to be the only person to save me. I was drowning and nobody else knew it because I was brilliant at hiding it. Every day I put on my mask and presented myself to the world and every night I fell apart. I’m one of those people who, when they cry, their face recovers really quickly and doesn’t stay blotchy and red for more than a minute. So, I could silently cry in the toilet or in my car and emerge fresh faced with no-one knowing the difference. I buried myself in my work and started journaling every day. I carried a notebook and pen with me everywhere I went and wrote whatever I needed. I had a separate book by my bedside and at night I filled it with all the darkest thoughts I knew I couldn’t share with anyone: it was my silent counsellor.

It’s strange when you’re the person supporting others with their mental health problems and all the while you’re falling apart yourself. Fortunately, my story has a happy ending which is not something I would have predicted back then, and I hope by sharing pieces of it here it will provide hope for those who are struggling and insight for those who need it.

Please don’t struggle with your mental health on your own. Reach out to a friend or family member if you can, or sometimes talking to a stranger is easier. Below are a few numbers you can call for good, confidential support.

Breathing Space

https://breathingspace.scot/

0800 83 85 87

Samaritans

https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/

116 123

Childline

https://www.childline.org.uk/

0800 1111