Author and Illustrator
LET'S TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH
"The more you talk about it, the more other people will then open up; when I started telling people I had the problem, other people would come forward with their own stories. It invites other people to be honest about it."
By Isabella Ford, Editor-in-Chief
10th October 2017
Why, we'd love to. If you have a story to share, about your career or how you've balanced your career with a mental health condition, then share your wisdom with us and the world!
English Teacher (as foreign language)
Legal Secretary in the film industry
Author & Illustrator
A-Levels: French, Art & English
Degree: Modern Languages & Communication Studies, Nottingham Trent University
So, you have a book that’s now available to buy that you wrote in recovery from depression?
Yes! It’s called May The Thoughts Be With You and it’s a book of positive thoughts.
What sort of target audience were you writing it for - was it for children, adults or anybody who was going through a difficult time?
At the time I was writing the thoughts, I didn’t know I was actually writing a book, I was just writing to help me get through my depression. Now the book is out there, the main age group that buy it are women between their twenties and forties. But my youngest customer is six and my oldest is ninety-six, some are men and some are women, so I have a really wide audience that seem to like it. I guess because it’s a gift book really, to cheer you up, so there isn’t a particular audience.
You obviously went from TV production and working as a legal secretary to now starting your own career as a self-employed author and illustrator – that’s quite a journey.
Yes, I was always a bit useless at doing jobs for other people as I used to always get things wrong. Now I’m doing my own thing and that takes the pressure off, I don’t have to please anyone. I work a lot better as my own boss.
Going back a bit now to when you received your depression diagnosis: when did you realise that you weren't well?
So I was thirty when it happened; around that time, I had an operation and I didn’t recover very well from the drugs used to anaesthetise me during it. I don’t think the drugs caused the depression but I already had a fragile mental state as I had a history with eating disorders and OCD. I think I was susceptible to anything chemical tipping me over the edge. I was on opiates in the operation, so the pain relief made me incredibly high, but then as they wore off it was like the comedown never really went away. That’s how it all started and I struggled with it for about two years.
Was there a defining moment that led you to see a GP?
I was suffering very badly with panic attacks and I had a lot of physical symptoms of depression as well: I had headaches and this strange feeling of water rushing through my head. I also couldn’t see properly, everything looked like I was looking through a tunnel. It was very scary and I knew there was something very much wrong with me. I had a very high level of anxiety with thoughts that I wanted to kill myself. I knew I desperately needed help. It was only a few days after the operation that I was back at the doctors saying, ‘Please, what the hell is going on? I don’t feel right.’
Initially, how did you respond to the news? Was it a feeling of relief that you had been given a diagnosis or a feeling of anger or grief?
I was in such a different altered mental state that nothing really made sense. There was no feeling of anger, only ‘Dear God, take this feeling away from me because I can’t live like this’. There was no rational thinking attached to it, there was just this feeling of impending doom that I was dying. Imagine you were being chased by an axe murderer, the kind of anxiety you would have - it’s that fear, that feeling, there all of the time. I almost couldn’t even hear what the doctor was saying, I felt in a completely different world. It was spinning. I suppose there was nothing I could do really apart from accept it because it wasn’t just going to go away. It was something that just happened that I would now have to deal with.
Can you recall a particular moment or period of time that you began to feel better?
To be honest, I couldn’t pinpoint one because it was a very gradual, very slow journey back to just feeling okay again. I decided not to take anti-depressants even though the doctor offered them to me quite a few times, I knew it wasn’t the route I wanted to go down. Not because I have anything against them, I just felt that if they made me better, I’d potentially be on them for the rest of my life. So it very slowly just faded away and after two years I was mostly back to normal, but there wasn't a day that I woke up like, ‘Oooh I feel loads better today!’ It just gradually faded out.
Yes you’re right, it’s always a journey. So outside of any therapy you’ve had, what self-care have you found really helps?
The first thing I did was I went to this place called the Brain Bio Centre and they tested me for all the vitamins and minerals I might be lacking that could lead to mental instabilities. They treat a lot of different conditions, from schizophrenia to psychosis, by trying to get to the root cause of why that person has gone into an altered state. I also started having weekly acupuncture; that was really helpful as the acupuncturist used to listen to me talking for an hour every session and she made me feel like there was nothing actually wrong with me. She'd say, ‘It’s all okay, it’s going to be fine, you’re just going through a transition and this is an experience that you’ll look back on and be almost glad it happened because it’ll be teaching you something’. She mainly made me feel like I wasn’t some sort of weirdo. That was really helpful. I went to see a nutritionist about my diet because I was living off crappy microwave meals and sandwiches before. That got me into cooking healthy meals. Also, exercising everyday. I had a few very close family members and friends that I could actually talk to about how I was feeling. Finally, writing my little positive thoughts every morning, which is what turned into the book. It was an all-round holistic programme that I went through to try and gradually get back to a better state of mind.
Moving the focus back to your professional life now, how have you managed to balance your mental health with your career?
At first, I was already off work when the depression started because I was still signed off work from the operation. After about three weeks, I went back to work and I actually found that it was a bit of a help because I had to be so focused. It was eight hours a day that I had to try and get on with things and put a brave face on. And being around people helped; being on your own when you’re not in a good place is terrible. I told one person at work how I was feeling, just so somebody knew what was going on, but I didn’t want to tell anyone else because I was a bit ashamed of it. Looking back now, I wish I had told people because then they would have understood.
Unfortunately, it was about a year later that I developed repetitive strain injury from my office job and all the typing, so I actually got signed off work for this physical condition. I was in a lot of pain and I realised I could never go back to a desk-based job, so that’s when I actually resigned from the corporate world. By the time I was doing my book, the depression had kind of gone; I still have stressful days obviously, but I’m able to cope with them way better than I ever would have been able to when I had the depression.
What do you think readers of this interview can do to improve attitudes towards mental health?
Before I had depression, I didn’t get it. I thought, ‘Oh, they should just cheer themselves up and go outside and exercise’. Now I’ve had it, I’ve realised it’s actually an imbalance in the brain and it’s not just feeling a bit down or a bit sad, they’re actually not producing the serotonin they need. That’s quite a serious condition. It’s a persistent feeling that will never go away unless treated in a specific way, so I think it’s about having awareness and realising that just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I know everyone always says this but if you saw someone with a broken leg, you’d be sympathetic because you can actually see the problem, whereas with depression, you can’t see anything. It’s about having compassion.
That's true - compassion and empathy are extremely important with mental health recovery. What would you say to a woman who thinks she might be suffering from depression or a mental health condition, but is maybe too anxious to do anything about it?
Oooh I’d say it’s really important to get some kind of help or tell somebody because it’s not something that you can tackle on your own. You need to have people on your side and you need to have people understanding what you’re going through. And don’t be ashamed of it – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a mental instability, it will happen to one in four adults which is a huge amount. The more you talk about it, the more other people will then open up; when I started telling people I had the problem, other people would come forward with their own stories. It invites other people to be honest about it. So I would just let them know that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about and to get some help, because it’s too difficult to tackle on your own, it really is.
Was there a particular quote or story that kept you motivated when you were recovering?
There wasn’t anything in particular, but I did used to read stories about people who have had it and got better. I also used to really like the fact that some celebrities have come out about it: Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry, for example. That’s why I like sharing my story because I want people to know they can get through too and to remain hopeful, because that’s what kept me going.
If you could go back in time and met yourself when you felt at your worst, what would you say to thirty-year-old Charlotte?
That this experience is actually going to be the making of you. Although it feels like the worst thing that’s ever happened to you - and it is - it’s also going to turn out to be the best thing. If I hadn’t have gone through it, I wouldn’t have gotten the material to write my book and all of the lovely things that have come from it. I want those people to know like I do now that they can produce something positive from this at the end. So that’s what I would have said to myself: just keep going because you will get through this and it’ll all be okay in the end.
You can visit Charlotte's website, and order her book, here.
We were introduced to Charlotte by Time to Change, a great initiative looking to end mental health discrimination - read more stories here.