Like many of my generation, I thought people suffering from depression, anxiety and similar mental health related conditions simply needed to "pull themselves together". I suspected most people claiming such illnesses were malingerers; using it as an excuse because they struggled to cope with the realities of life.
That was until 2007 when it happened to me.
It has become a tradition that Steve and I go on holiday immediately after the May elections, and he has often collected me from the count with our packed bags in the car. After two months of 14 hours days, I am ready for a break and Steve is ready to regain a partner who had spent more time with his candidates than with him.
And so it was in 2007. I had just completed the all-out district elections. I was responsible for two boroughs and almost 100 candidates. Expectations were high; mid term in what we hoped to be Labour's last government. Although we were strongly placed and in control of both authorities, we had to make gains over what had been a strong performance in 2003. Any sign of slippage would have stopped the bandwagon rolling towards our hoped-for victory in 2009 or 2010 in the three marginal Medway Towns-based constituencies. In the end our results exceeded our own expectations.
Almost as soon as I had stepped foot on our boat for a holiday on the Thames, the symptoms started. I felt my chest was constricted and that I couldn't inhale sufficient breath. I could 'hear' each breath and the more I focussed on it, the worse it got. I began to fear bed as I knew lying quietly in the dark with nothing to distract me, the sound of my breathing and my inability to breath as deeply as I needed, would magnify. I was convinced that, like my mother and grandmother before her, I had lung cancer.
By the time we reached Abingdon I was so distraught I had to seek an emergency visit to a GP. I cannot remember the name of the doctor who I saw, but I shall never forget his kindness. I suspect GPs dislike the additional work caused by visiting patients, but he gave me 40 minutes of his time. He talked me through my lifestyle, the pressures of my job and my general health. After a thorough examination he told me that he could detect no evidence of a physical condition, but everything I had said, along with high blood pressure and the symptoms I had reported, led him to believe I was suffering from anxiety. He then patiently took me through medical text books showing me the symptoms, cause and effects, and in the end I was prepared to acknowledge that he was right.
My first question was "how can I have anxiety? I have just lived through two months of hell with no symptoms or signs of distress, produced fantastic results and I am now relaxing on holiday without a care in the world." "And that's your problem", said the doctor. "Your anxiety is caused by the fact you have nothing to do. You have allowed yourself to become so driven by your goals that now they have been taken away and you are no longer consumed by your task, you are struggling to cope." I had always believed that stress and anxiety were caused by inability to cope with pressure, in my case it was inability to cope without it.
The greatest service my Abingdon doctor did was to encourage me to acknowledge to myself the cause of the problem. Realising I probably didn't have cancer was an enormous relief, though accepting that I had a mental health issue was a very difficult thing for someone as proud as me to accept. But acceptance was the first step to recovery. I declined his offer of prescription medication, preferring, as a first step, self-help. He recommended several books about dealing with stress and anxiety which I bought the following day when we stopped at Oxford. Slowly over the following weeks I brought it under control.
A year later however it manifested itself again. The latest issue followed my usual winter cough and cold. The cold went away but I was left with a cough which developed over several weeks into a lump in my throat. To me, the lump was very real and I was conscious of it all the time. Once again, I convinced myself that it was something worse. My local GP was dismissive and brusque, he simply referred me to a ENT Specialist and I was told I could wait up to three months for an appointment. The thought of waiting three months thinking I had throat cancer was unbearable, so I asked for a second opinion from another GP in the same practice. Fortunately, once again I was seen by someone who had the time, consideration and kindness to listen to my story and explain what was probably happening. After examining my throat, she assured me that there was no obvious obstruction, and that she believed I had Globus Hystericus, an anxiety-related issue often reported by those who had previously suffered from hyperventilation. Having been on a similar journey a year earlier, I was open and willing to acknowledge her diagnosis and seeking a solution. I again declined medication and sought to deal with the illness through self help and relaxation.
This all happened 5+ years ago. How am I now? Well, I am fine, though I actually believe that people who have suffered from anxiety and similar conditions are probably never fully "cured". What I have learnt to do is recognise the early signs and make changes to head them off. Knowledge is power, and knowing and accepting that I am prone to anxiety has been the single biggest tool in my armoury in overcoming it.
Writing this blogpost has caused the return of some of the symptoms, as I suspected it would when I started to write. But rather than allowing them to develop and dominate me, I can control them. By focussing on my breathing and not allowing fear of the unknown to control me, the symptoms will pass. In my job I still work as hard as I ever did and continue to set tough goals; I have not allowed it to affect me or change who I am or what I do. I have learned over the years to control it, I will not allow it to control me. In that I am fortunate, but I also accept that one day I might need professional help again.
I have thought long and hard about publishing this blog post. In fact, I have written it a dozen times but never had the courage to press "send". My wonderful partner, Steve, whose unquestioned love, care and support helped me through these problems, was concerned that I might be giving people a stick to beat me with. I understand his concerns and he might be right, though if anyone does try and use it to attack me or undermine what I do, I genuinely believe it will reflect badly on them, not me. Two of the MPs I work for, Greg Clark and Tracey Crouch, have both spoken on mental health issues and done much to raise public awareness. I discussed this with both of them recently, as I was concerned that attacks on me might affect them. I am hugely grateful for their support and encouragement in writing my story.
The real reason I am publishing this, however, is to offer hope and support to others. There has been huge progress made in recent years in the way society deals with mental health. Recent speeches in Parliament by Charles Walker MP and Kevan Jones MP, during which they spoke of their own battles with OCD and depression, were met with the sympathy and support they deserved. It was a courageous thing for them to do, and I admire them greatly.
Despite this progress, talking about mental health is still a taboo for many, and for some an issue of ignorance and dismissal. As it was for me before it happed to me. If by telling my story provides help, support or encouragement to others, in however small a way, then I will have achieved my goal.