My Journey so far. By Ali McDowall.
I was one of the lucky ones. I probably first uttered the words ‘mental health’ halfway through my twenties. Before that, I'd never given it much thought. Those times seem so strange to me now since creating The Positive Planner with Finn and becoming a mental health advocate - nowadays I think about mental health EVERY SINGLE DAY. My work and life are so entwined in it that I can hardly believe I didn’t have a connection to it before.
My first period of low mental health
Although I've always been emotionally very intelligent and in tune with myself, I somehow only faced my first period of low mental health when I became a parent.
I was 26 when my son was born. I was totally underprepared and had completely underestimated the baby bit. There I was standing in my flat in Peckham, a little baby boy on my arm after a horrendous week in hospital and the sudden realisation hit me like a train. We were responsible for something other than ourselves. This was one of those moments in life you never forget. Anxiety came knocking at my door. It was my first encounter with my own Mental Health.
As the weeks progressed and reality kicked in, the breastfeeding I had thought would be easy, was absolutely not. The baby I assumed would sleep at least a few hours a night would absolutely not. I imagined my life would be unchanged. It absolutely was. Things would never be the same again.
I learnt to live with the impending sense of doom as smiles and gurgling brought me new feelings of joy and I gained confidence in the ability to keep him alive. Then, when my son was just 9 months old, I found out I was pregnant again. The pregnancy that would follow was full of anxiety and so many questions… How would I cope? How could I have 2 under 2? How did this happen? Cue the intrusive thoughts.
When my daughter was born, the first few weeks were fairly easy, but at my 6-week check I remember saying to my doctor that I would sometimes just cry for no reason, I felt a bit empty, I was lonely, I was trapped by my own routine with feeding and changing and the sense of panic that my toddler would run away and ‘something bad would happen’. As my anxiety around risks grew, so did my agitation, the running lists, the numbness and that sense of being on the ceiling watching your own life from afar. I was so tired I couldn’t find the words to explain how I was feeling. I felt a deep shame that I wasn’t coping. All I wanted to do was slip out of the back door. No one would notice. Just quietly leave it all behind.
Learning to help myself
At this point, I didn’t recognise myself. There was no joy. Disassociation had begun. I was 6 months in with 2 under 2 and I was utterly broken. Knowing I needed help, I did the only thing I knew how. I consulted Google. First of all, I tried to find out the one thing that everyone that goes to therapy does - what was wrong with me. I couldn’t afford therapy at the time, but with the words ‘postnatal depression’ ringing through my head, what I needed to do hit me. Journaling.
I have always been a creative person, I went to art college and had been a freelance costume and set designer for nearly a decade, I realised I had lost my creativity, my work and in turn had completely and utterly lost myself.
I decided I needed an action plan, so I started teaching sewing and craft tutorials at a local creative hub, I started going to baby groups (even though I felt like a ghost) and went on the hunt for my people! All along the way writing and keeping a notebook of all the things I had done, the things I had achieved and the things that I was grateful for. It was the start of something positive and my proactive self-care plan started a shift in me.
I went on a personal mission to find myself. But not in a ‘travelling halfway across the world’ sort of way. In a slow, quiet and reflective way. Day by day with the help of my family, medication and a bit of craftiness I came back to me. Our business helped me build confidence and gave me purpose. My children started sleeping and going to school which literally made me feel like I had got my head above water. And gradually things started to look up.
I use my mental health as a guide now, It’s integral in how I operate in the world I live in. My health is a holistic, never-ending circle of mind, body and soul. A permanent way of life that I use to navigate me. I listen in. I take note. It’s my mission to keep myself happy and healthy!
Don’t get me wrong, I have had my setbacks, a relapse most recently in lockdown meant needing my antidepressants again. But that’s no bad thing. I'm proud of how my vulnerability gives me strength, the ability to be empathic and inspires me every day on our mission to grow our business and help others find themselves again.
And if I’m really honest, the foggy days just make the good days seem so much brighter.