In the tenth edition of our ‘Just Checking In’ series and our final article of 2018, we spoke to long-time mental health advocate, author and writer Lucy Nichol. Check out our conversation below.
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
Funnily enough, a few weeks ago I was sitting on my sofa prodding my neck and panicking about a lump I think I found (I’ve already been told by a medical professional that it’s always been there and is part of my body!). However, I’m not as pre-occupied with it as I might have been in the past.
So, overall, my mental health isn’t perfect but it’s not in a bad place at all.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
As somebody who has lived with health anxiety for many years, it’s hard to pinpoint.
I think the first time I realised that what I had experienced wasn’t a physical ailment was when I was 15. I thought I had DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) because I had a red mark on my arm. I think it was because of all the contraceptive pill scares at the time. As a result, this frightening thought planted itself in my mind waiting for the perfect moment to pounce and finding the little red mark was seemingly the perfect moment.
I had a major panic attack; blurred vision, hyperventilating, retching, the lot. Even after my mum calmed my thoughts down by explaining that you can’t see DVT as a little red mark in the skin, my physical anxiety symptoms were still going strong.
That’s also when I first realised that mental health problems can cause physical symptoms.
What mental health conditions do you have (if any) and how long have you lived with them for?
I’ve always considered myself to have health anxiety, although during Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in 2016, my therapist pointed out that my negative thought patterns went beyond health.
I have to agree as looking back, I was panicking about getting on certain buses or being in a hot country or whether my husband would make it home alive after driving down the A1.
It’s probably a more generalised anxiety disorder, with some obsessions in there too for good measure.
If you had to describe how your mental health conditions affect you in your day-to-day life, what would you say?
Currently, other than the odd negative thought that compels me to check for lumps, bumps or rashes, my anxiety isn’t affecting me too much.
Although I have little things I do to check for illness or disease, they’re not stopping me from living my life – they’re just rather annoying. However, I have been taking anti-depressants for the last three years so it’s hard to know how things would be without them.
One thing I would say, however, is that my anxiety can come out as anger, which affects my relationships, particularly at home. I sometimes felt like I was the wicked stepmother from Cinderella!
However, since being on the medication, my anger has been relative so that doesn’t feel like a problem these days either.
You’ve been a mental health writer for a few years now. When did you realise you first wanted to write about mental health professionally?
I have always been interested in writing and I remember taking a distance learning creative writing course a few years ago.
However, I didn’t put mental health and writing together until I was working in the supported housing sector. As a marketing professional, I was speaking to people who accessed our services for mental health support and was asking them to share their story for ‘Time to Talk Day’.
It suddenly struck me that I’d never spoken really openly about my own experiences of anxiety, so I decided it was time to speak out.
What topics on the mental health spectrum do you cover?
My big passion is tackling mental health stigma, which is probably for a few reasons – firstly I’ve experienced stigma and discrimination.
Secondly, I work in PR and media, so portrayals of mental health problems and the impacts that they can have is of great interest to me.
What effect does writing have on you?
It depends how I am writing, really. For example, if I am writing a reflective piece, I find it fun and a great creative outlet. I can spend more time crafting the words rather than doing it for mental health reasons. However, if I am writing in the moment it can be incredibly cathartic.
I remember once being unable to sleep due to racing anxious thoughts and so I went downstairs and fired up the laptop and blogged away. Writing my thoughts down allowed me to come to more rational conclusions which gave me perspective and calmed the rising panic. I slept well after writing that blog.
What has been the reaction to your writing within your own community?
The reaction is generally positive. I think if you are honest and accessible in how you write, people are able to relate and it can stop people feeling ashamed or alone. However, closer friends and family do sometimes worry about the impact that all this focus on talking about mental health can have on my own mental health. In fairness, they’re right to – it’s good not to get wholly consumed by it all and take a break.
You published your latest book ‘A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes’ earlier this year. Why were you inspired to write it?
The book was a bit of a natural progression from my blog. I realised I was writing prolifically – I almost couldn’t stop. So naturally, I thought I had a story to tell and a point to make. With fighting stigma being my passion, it formed the basis for my book.
It’s all about shining a light on the reality of living with mental health issues and kicking mental health stereotypes into touch.
I have tried to write it with humour and nostalgia, so people can laugh at it, at me and where appropriate, chuckle at themselves too.
Mainly, it’s about giving stigma a good kicking and laughing at how absolute ridiculous these stereotypes are when you put them in context.
What reaction did you receive from it and has it inspired you to write more books?
I’ve been lucky to have some great reviews from influential people and I would say Denise Welch has been especially supportive. She even mentioned my book in her favourite books piece in the Express this year!
However, some of the most impactful feedback has come from people who’ve got in touch to tell me how reading passages from my book helps them during a panic attack or how it has given them renewed confidence.
I don’t think that’s because I’m special or anything, though – it’s simply because I’m telling the truth and because Trigger Publishing gave me the platform to do that and reach more people.
You mention your family a lot on social media. Have you started to teach your children about mental health or let them know you have issues yourself?
My step-son speaks openly about his experience of depression and anxiety and I absolutely love how open his generation is about mental health. Millennials are far from the snowflakes that people like Piers Morgan label them. They’re compassionate, open and driven and they speak out in support of each other. That’s a great strength in my eyes.
How has your husband supported you with your mental health and vice-versa?
My husband has experienced panic attacks himself, so he’s great if panic decides to kick me awake in the night. He doesn’t belittle it, he acknowledges how scary it is but reminds me that it will pass and then distracts me with chatter or funny videos of cats on YouTube and it helps to bring me round.
What tools and methods do you find useful in helping you manage your mental health or mental health issues?
I’ll be honest, I don’t always practice what I preach and sometimes I need my husband to remind me to get out into the fresh air or cut back on the caffeine.
However, in general, I try to speak openly when I feel panic coming on, as it diffuses it somehow. I also like to spend time outdoors and we have a lush country walk on our doorstep so that’s always good for the soul.
I also use some of the CBT tools I learnt through therapy when I can – I find these are particularly useful when I am catastrophising – for example, writing down all the various reasons I might have a muscle twitch so I don’t automatically resign myself to the fact I have a fatal illness.
If you could say, what do you think have been your lowest and highest points in your mental health journey so far?
Highest point – definitely having a book published and making so many wonderful friends in the mental health community.
The lowest point definitely has to be experiencing bullying and discrimination in the workplace.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, in what way?
Yes – but there’s still more to do. I still see tweets from people suggesting that anyone who states they have a mental health problem on social media is an attention seeker, for example. Can you imagine saying that to someone who speaks about cancer or diabetes or heart disease? However generally, it has improved dramatically over the years – and especially so since the national Time to Change campaign launched.
What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone, but especially men and boys who have mental health issues get the support they need?
I’m going to come at this from a media point of view as, even though so many journalists and programmes are far more responsible, there are still some out there that shirk responsibility in my view.
For example, I want broadcasters to take more responsibility for the way their presenters act and editors to take more responsibility for their columnists. It feels like ‘free speech’ is sometimes used as an excuse.
Some comments can be incredibly damaging to people who feel that they can’t speak out and therefore get help. The whole ‘man up’ nonsense that we still hear on social media and, very often, on Good Morning Britain, is especially damaging in my view.
You can read more ‘Just Checking In’ conversations here.