Lifelong strategies for managing mental health - Ruth's story

Ruth has experienced periods of depression and anxiety for over five decades, though she didn’t always use these terms. She tells us how she learned to recognise her triggers and manage her mental health, and how those lessons helped during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It began when I was 12, after a traumatic assault.

This was an incredibly difficult time in my life, because I was also dealing with the pain of my older brother dying. We’d always been close. He was my protector and even taught me the alphabet and counting when I was younger.

I can trace my love of cats to this time – getting the comfort and cuddles I needed. My actual memories are thin though, because I repressed them to protect myself. It wasn’t until ten years ago, when I passed through the town where the assault occurred, that a memory resurfaced.

Portrait of Ruth

A turning point

It was like a switch, and more memories came back. But I still didn’t have the full picture.

I didn’t get help either. For the next six months, I got more and more depressed. My husband and I went on a holiday to New Zealand, but I was still really sad. I'm normally a positive person and I kept asking myself, “Why am I having such a horrible time?”

When I came back, I went to the doctor. She must have asked the right question because she recommended a psychologist, who helped me work through my trauma. The psychologist identified how this trauma linked to my anxiety and panic attacks.

With her help, the memories returned. They started as pictures. Snapshots. After 18 months, the pictures came together in a film and it all flooded back.

But reliving it was too much, and I had a breakdown. I couldn’t believe how much this affected me. I’d always thought, “Oh, you can get over depression. All you need to do is work on it and change your way of thinking.”

I refused to take any medication either, but I just couldn't function. I didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to go out. After crying at work for the first time in my life, I knew I needed a break from everything.

Taking a breath

The first few weeks, I visited the psychologist, did jigsaw puzzles and that’s about it. Everything else was a fog. After that, I began putting my life back together.

Medication was a crucial part of it, but I also learned how to manage my anxiety during stressful situations. A big one was teaching myself to stop and breathe. At the same time, you’re repetitively talking to your body, telling it: “You’re safe, you’re safe. It’s okay. You're okay.” And thanking it: “Thank You. Thank you for being aware of this situation, but you are safe.”

The breathing helps control the adrenaline and calm you down. It took me a long time to believe it, but it works. It's almost instantaneous now, and I think the more you do it – and the more you understand it – the better it gets.

Breathing doesn’t work for everyone though, so it's also about finding good mindfulness tools. I use the Smiling Mind app. Mindfulness is about acknowledging what is happening to my body. That I’m safe, and the feelings will pass.

Stunning sunset over pier


Life in a pandemic

These tools have been particularly helpful during COVID-19. The first few times I went shopping in the pandemic, I came out in a cold sweat. About the fourth time, I just couldn't move. I was totally incapacitated.

But I relied on what I’d learned. “You're having a panic attack. Just breathe.”

I walked around the store, breathing, until I got back to where I was and could start shopping again. I’m always trying to be more aware of my body, so I can move into my coping strategies faster.

Some of these strategies are harder during the pandemic. I’m not getting as much exercise or getting out as often as I’d like, and I miss hugging my friends. My husband and I went out recently with our nature photography group and we couldn't hug one another. It was terrible.

Thankfully we live in a quiet suburb in Logan, just south of Brisbane. We’ve got this lovely corridor out the back and walking down it we’re immediately surrounded by nature. I love animals and birds and it’s calming to be out there among them.

Some good things have come from this experience too. I have one brother in a nursing home and my other brother didn’t used to see him much, but now we all get together regularly using Skype. And when I see those international orchestras on Zoom – people playing violin in their kitchen or garden – I think, “It’s a whole new world”.

I hope we all remember this time and take the good from it. So we can move forward together.

Ruth and her husband walking hand in hand down amid Australian scenery

Images courtesy of Ruth, who is also a photographer.

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