Rachel Kelly is a writer, journalist and mental health campaigner who discusses her struggles with anxiety and depression (triggered after the birth of her second child) and how she went from not being able to do a single school-run for a year, to becoming a writer (best-seller Black Rainbow is about her depression) and mental health activist. Rachel is a married mother of five. Today, she is sharing her story - a valuable lesson about why we must recognise that what we do is enough. Rachel has also worked closely with mental health and wellbeing platform Head Talks, see a glimpse of her video and their innovative work below.
Depression first struck me out of the blue more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was working in the newsroom of The Times. I was taking my two small sons – a six-month old baby and a toddler – upstairs for bathtime. I lay them on their towels kissing their rounded tummies in our normal routine when my heart started racing.
That night I was gripped by insomnia. I thought I was having a heart attack, my heart was beating so wildly. I paced the house all night, checking and re-checking the children.
When I lay in bed unable to sleep, my worries went round and round, the anxiety worsening like a skater who carves ever deeper patterns on a frozen lake.
How would I be able to go back to work; would I be able to cope? Could I still be a good mother working long hours? Yet could I contemplate giving up a job I loved?
I was bursting with an active sense of dread that disaster was about to strike.
Something terrible was going to happen and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
That first night led to my first major depressive episode, and a spell in hospital. I was ill for six months, recovered, only to fall ill again a few years later. This time I was ill for two years.
It was only after this second breakdown that I realised I had to change. Such is the stigma that surrounds mental illness that I had denied this to myself even in the face of my own suffering. But my unceasing battle with depression meant that the time had come to radically reassess what I understood by success. I had to face the uncomfortable truth that trying to ‘have it all’ had led to ‘having a breakdown’ – twice.
My descent into depression is a cautionary tale for all of us who are trying to juggle the multiple demands of work, family, our own need for status and approval above our own emotional wellbeing and health. Those with an underlying tendency to depression – thought to be one in four of us – need to tread warily amid the demands of modern life and the pressures we put on ourselves.
My own disposition to anxiety – I was an over-sensitive child who went to bed for three days after watching the film of Tarka the Otter – combined with the acute societal pressure I felt to be good at everything – wife, career girl, mother – in the end overwhelmed me.
Over the last ten years I have tried to change the way I think, and, on good days, I believe it is working. I’ve had to challenge my own and society’s expectations. I watch out for my relentless perfectionism, and have tried to be less judgmental of myself and others. I now live by the mantra that I am good enough – as a mother, and as a writer and journalist.
On the good days, it seems I’ve learnt a lot: in the words of the poet George Herbert, ‘My shrivelled heart/ Has recovered greenness’. My Black Dog is on a tight leash. On other less good days, the old fears of failure or inadequacy in the face of my high-achieving contemporaries still surface. But for me, I’ve had to learn that unrealistic parenting expectations, not to mention other pressures I can pile upon myself, can have serious, even life-threatening consequences.
And they are not worth it. Unless I look after myself, I am unable to look after anybody else, my precious children included.
As it says on a plane, I need to put on my oxygen mask before I put on anyone else's.
I am lucky. I have now recovered from depression, and I have learnt to cherish my improved health and to avoid the kind of reckless perfectionism that drove me to disaster. And if writing and talking about my experience helps one other mum to go easy on herself, and to realise that being a good mum means being a mum who looks after herself first, then it will be worth it.
Introducing Head Talks
With the UK in the midst of a mental health awakening and a quarter of the population struggling with related illnesses, Head Talks is not just a resource for those experiencing mental health issues, but anyone interested in the mind and how it affects wellbeing.
Head Talks is a digital platform hosting a series of short talks, podcasts and blog posts aimed at informing, inspiring and empowering those struggling with a range of conditions including anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, body image issues, substance abuse, loneliness and suicidal thoughts. It features individuals speaking from the heart about their own experiences in frank, accessible language, with the overarching aim of normalising these kinds of honest conversations and breaking down the stigma around mental illness.
Below is a short preview of Rachel Kelly's Head Talk, for access to the full video please click here.