"It’s so important to keep telling your story"

Recovery College Student

The fact that I can combine work with my mental health and not have to cover it up feels amazing. I can be authentic, I don’t need to put a force field up.

I’ve spent the last 30 years in and out of mental health services.

When I was 21, I had a really good job in the city, I had a flat, I had a car. But I was desperately unhappy and didn’t know how to cope with my mental health. As a result I had a mental breakdown.

It was a situation where I couldn’t get any support, I couldn’t tell anyone. I would never have been able to tell my employer. And it was that pressure of keeping it all in that led me to crash and burn.

At that time there was no recovery. I would spend all day at a day centre in Brixton, drinking tea and being medicated. It was about containing people and herding them off the streets. It felt like being abandoned – left on the scrapheap to stagnate.

Those experiences put me off asking for help. I tried to manage my mental health on my own, and it was a nightmare.

It was only seven years ago that I got a bipolar diagnosis. It was a turning point. It was wonderful to be able to finally understand and then learn how to deal with it, because you can’t learn about something if you don’t know what it is.

But although I knew what it was, I didn’t make any changes to help recover so I continued to be ill.

Two years ago I was hospitalised for the first time, and it suddenly made me realise I had to change my life to recover and get better. If I hadn’t gone to hospital and been forced to confront it, nothing would have changed. It was rock bottom for me.

I changed everything. Prioritising sleep, diet, and exercise. I gave up alcohol which is a real trigger. I used to stay up late partying - I was self-medicating.

Mental health is coming out of the shadows and services have improved so much. I feel lucky. I could still be in that state now otherwise.

My mental health challenges have always made life much much scarier. It’s been a question of having a toolkit of skills I’ve learnt, like meditation and breathing techniques, to manage and support myself.

I first heard about Brighton and Hove Recovery College from my psychiatrist. He really recommended Southdown’s Mental Health Recovery Services and said I’d find their services incredibly useful. It was like a prescription really.

I started coming to the Recovery College as a student about a year ago. I also volunteer and sit on the Recovery Services Steering Group for Southdown and I’m a Service User Representative at Sussex Partnership Trust.

The college is very intimate which I like. There’s a very calm atmosphere. All the staff are very welcoming and I know I’d be able to talk to them if I needed to.

On my first day at the college, I immediately felt at ease. As soon as I walked into the ‘Living with Bipolar Disorder’ course I could see I was with like-minded people.

I’d never encountered co-production before. I’d been on a lot of courses run by mental health professionals where I felt like they didn’t understand my experiences. With co-production, however, someone with lived experience is also teaching the course. They know the reality, not just the theory.

Once the Peer Trainer had told her story, we all felt safe to tell ours.

I’ve definitely increased in confidence. Before I went to the Recovery College, I would have had trouble sitting in a room with people I don’t know - the anxiety would have been too intense.

Learning has also made me more alert, improved my memory, and made me more interested in things in general.

I used to think I couldn’t do things because I was scared, but seeing a Peer Trainer at the front of the class made me realise you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. That I could get involved and get confidence whilst doing it.

It’s made me much more willing to try new things. I started swimming lessons because now I know that fear doesn’t have to stop me. You get that bit stronger.

I volunteer because I’ve been so helped by the Recovery College and Preston Park Recovery Centre that I want to give something back; but I also get so much out of volunteering, like meeting people and getting out there. It’s lead to other things.

I always felt very insecure and lacked confidence due to my experiences - I always thought I had no skills. But mental health services are pretty much my specialist subject!

I feel I’ve become more employable since attending the Recovery College courses and getting more involved. I like this field so much that I’m looking into working in it now.

As a volunteer I’ll be receiving supervision sessions and I’ll be attending training courses at Southdown’s head office soon which is amazing because I’ll be doing it with staff. It’s like a stepping stone to work.

My favourite thing is sitting on interview panels. That I adore! I represent the client experience. What I love is that I’m given an equal say in planning the interviews and in reviewing the candidates. It’s not tokenism, it’s real influence. And I love it.

The fact that I can combine work with my mental health and not have to cover it up feels amazing. I can be authentic, I don’t need to put a force field up.

It’s so important to keep telling your story. And if you tell your story to people who have difficulty hearing it, it becomes even more valuable.

 

Delivered as a partnership with the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, the Brighton and Hove Recovery College uses education in a supportive learning environment to help people with mental health challenges become experts in their own self-care and recovery. The College provides a wide range of courses which are co-produced and co-delivered by people with lived experience of mental health challenges and are delivered in community and educational venues across Brighton and Hove.