Something inside so strong

To mark World Mental Health Day, we’re delighted to host a guest blog from our Peer Support Officer Kate Thomas. Kate’s courage is self-evident and the hope she gives to so many from sharing her experiences so candidly is clear to see.

When I was asked to write a blog, I was asked to reflect on my story and how I became the Peer Officer at Second Step. The answer isn’t straight forward.

At the age of 26, my whole life changed very suddenly. I’d just finished my master’s degree and had my first job in HR. I had no idea what had changed or how – all I knew was that everything became very difficult. Looking back, I realise that this was my brain malfunctioning. On a cognitive level, my brain was unable to perform its normal thought process. Thoughts were crowding my brain, so much so that it was unable to cope with the chaos. Shut down was the only option.

It was very nearly Christmas, 2010. I remember it all so clearly. The detail is painful. It was a skiing holiday I never went on, a Christmas interrupted. It was the panic of my parents as they tried to make sense of what was happening. It was life being changed for all of us. But you would probably understand it as a nervous breakdown.

I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. I had absolutely no idea what was happening or where I was. I was put in a van. On arrival, my arms were pushed behind my back, my head pushed downwards as I was restrained by an enormous man. I will never forget the feeling. A few days later, the same man told me that God would look after me. At that time, it was all the comfort I had.

My most pressing memories of the hospital are of a man with seven balls of wool woven into his long beard and the feeling I would never get out.

Nothing really captures what my first episode of mania was like. I still remember my colleague crying with laughter as I talked at a million miles an hour about neuro-linguistic programming or NLP. I had discovered a new world, new possibilities, and a feeling that I could achieve anything I wanted.

Bipolar disorder ran deep to the core of who I was, there was no longer a ‘me’ that was separate from it. And it took every semblance of a recognisable life. I lost my home, my job and friends but really, these were only the physical things. I also lost every sense of who I was, and I could no longer relate to the person I had been. It became very clear, at age 26, that I would never be that person again.

On leaving hospital I had nowhere to go. I found myself in the assessment process for Supported Housing. I remember being assessed by Second Step staff. It was difficult telling them about what had happened to me – I hadn’t even worked it out myself.

I lived in a Second Step property for six months. I was determined that this time wouldn’t be wasted, so I spent time working on my living skills and joined a choir:

While I was living at Molitor House, I was told about the peer support training with Second Step. I loved the idea of using my own experience to help others.

I started working at one of Second Step’s high support projects, Toll House Court where I became a peer support assistant and then a peer worker. I then became a tutor and trainer at Bristol Wellbeing College, and now I’m the organisation’s peer officer. I work with all our 12 Peer Workers, providing supervisions, training and becoming involved at various stages of their employment.

Working with clients and colleagues has given me the skills to understand my difficulties – something I would never been able to do had I not worked in mental health. I am truly thankful for the amazing teams I’ve worked in and the feeling that I am safe here.

I love songs, and particularly song writing. You may know the song (Something Inside) So Strong– a song written and recorded by British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre. The song was inspired by a television documentary on Apartheid South Africa. Released as a single in 1987, it was one of the biggest successes of his career, and made number four on the UK Singles Chart. The song moves me every time, not only because of its original purpose, but because it reminds me of the power inside every single one of us, and particularly the power I have drawn on through my most difficult times.

Mental illness brings disconnection. Isolation. The feeling that you will never be the same. But it also brings the opportunity to grow beyond yourself. It forces you to face yourself and your life and to really give your attention to becoming who you truly are.

Even in difficult times, we have power. Like Labi Siffre says, we have something inside so strong – the power of our own commitment to ourselves – the power to learn and to become. Because really, the concept which everyone loves in training – post traumatic growth – is just another way of saying, ‘I am more than I was.’

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