Getting A Diagnosis – The Mental Illness Edition

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but it’s such a big topic that I was very daunted by just how much I needed to include. I’d open a word document, stare at it for ten minutes, and then switch to something else. You’ll see what I mean. Getting a diagnosis is a complicated and emotional process that is so different for everyone but I had no idea how difficult it would be when we started pursuing it. So I thought I’d write out my experience just to put out into the world one version of the story. Maybe yours is similar, maybe it’s different. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it either way. And if you’re trying to get one, maybe this will give you some idea of the hurdles. I don’t want to scare anyone off; it was a brutal experience but it was absolutely life changing and life saving, both for my mental health and for who I am as a person.

I’m going to split this into two posts because although they’re linked, the processes for getting the mental health diagnoses and getting the ASD diagnosis were very different for me. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone. This post will be about getting the mental health diagnoses.

My mental health problems became very acute when I failed an exam at sixth form in March 2013. I was eighteen and it was the first time that had happened. There’s a lot of stuff behind why that was the breaking point but I’ll talk about that in a different post. Otherwise we’ll be here forever; I’m already splitting this post in half. I hadn’t been oblivious to my mental health up until that point but I hadn’t recognised the signs for what they were; my knowledge of mental health had been pretty limited. But I’d always felt like there was something wrong with me (I now know that it’s different rather than wrong but that’s how it felt and sometimes still does feel) and I know that my depression and anxiety had been building up to that moment, that critical incident.

After that, I started seeing a psychiatrist that a family member had recommended (my GP had been unhelpful at best and distressing at worse). He diagnosed me with Clinical Depression and gave me an anti-depressant called Paroxetine to try. I don’t have enough experience to judge whether he was a good psychiatrist or not but I don’t remember feeling particularly supported by him. I only saw him a few times before I switched to a psychiatrist closer to where I lived. The Paroxetine made me incredibly sleepy; it was like they put me into a waking sleep that I still don’t feel I’ve really woken up from. I switched to Sertraline but that was even worse: I felt like a zombie and that was so upsetting that I (unwisely) stopped taking it cold turkey. That was a Bad Move, such a bad one that I still capitalise the first letter of each word. For a while I was very dissociated and then my anxiety came back, even stronger than it had been before. So I was a bit put off by medication but the diagnosis was helpful and I started going to CBT.

That ended up not being the right thing for me and the energy it took was just too much so I quit, not forever necessarily but I needed a break and we wanted to explore some of the other options. I tried several other things over the next year before deciding to try medication again. Both that first psychiatrist and the CBT consultant had been private but I couldn’t get the NHS to help me. I have to say here that I have so much (SO MUCH) respect for the NHS. It has saved the lives of several of my friends and I will defend it to the death but I don’t feel it has yet got it right when it comes to mental health. In my case, my anxiety was so bad that I found it incredibly difficult to talk to people I didn’t know. My Mum would explain the situation but we were repeatedly told that if I wouldn’t talk they couldn’t help. That was very distressing. Logistically I understand that it’s more difficult to communicate if a person can’t talk but that’s not an excuse to refuse care. The not talking was a result of my anxiety, which falls under their job description. They should’ve helped me. They should’ve at least tried. But they didn’t and I was struggling so much that we were forced to go private. I am endlessly, endlessly grateful that my family have been able to make that possible. It has, without a doubt, saved my life.

We found a new psychiatrist in the summer of 2014 and after such a horrible year, I was determined to make it work. I walked into his office, sat down, and started talking. I still don’t know how I did that. I was just as anxious as I had been before but I guess that’s desperation for you. Maybe it was my survival instinct. Anyway. My psychiatrist has since told me that he couldn’t believe I had such bad social anxiety because I had been so articulate and direct. Again, I’m putting that down to desperation (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to mimic ‘normal’ behaviour – something that many girls with autism have learnt to do – came into play here too). But as I told him more, he started to understand where I was coming from and what I was dealing with. He put me on Phenelzine, which made a massive difference (I’ve written more about that here) and we continued our sessions so that he could get as much information as possible.

I wanted him to give me a diagnosis. I wanted a name for the thing (or things) that had so much power over me. I wanted to know what was really me and what was this indistinct, suffocating black shadow. I thought he’d have me do a load of diagnostic tests and questionnaires and then give me his findings but it felt more like therapy, but with a focus on my past experiences (rather than strategies to move forward). He didn’t seem in a hurry to find the answers and I didn’t know how to fast track the process. Eventually we got the deadline I wanted: my university said they couldn’t help me until they had an official diagnosis. But again, it wasn’t how I’d expected it to be and again, it was incredibly slow. Throw in that I’d just started university (which came with new people, new classes, and commuting into London) and I was under a lot of stress, as you can probably imagine. How I didn’t have more autistic meltdowns, I have no idea.

I couldn’t just do nothing. I spent hours searching the internet, looking for anything that might explain my experience. I examined diagnostic criteria and read medical papers; I scrolled through forums and took diagnostic tests. I’ve read a lot about the back and forth on self diagnosis (something I definitely want to discuss in more depth at some point) but for me, I needed a professional diagnosis, both to get the help I needed and to validate how much I’d struggled. Grouping my symptoms together and trying the strategies advised for whatever label fitted that group wasn’t going to be enough. So I used those test results as a starting point. Eventually I came across Borderline Personality Disorder and more specifically, the ‘quiet’ presentation of BPD. This means that they have many of the same symptoms (including mood swings, problems with self worth, unstable identity, and difficulties with relationships) but rather than ‘acting out’, they ‘act in’: they direct their negative emotions inwards, hiding them rather than projecting them onto others. Many struggle with issues around self hatred and self harm. If they lie or manipulate, it’s to protect themselves from perceived abandonment and they may avoid or distance themselves in relationships because they don’t want to be abandoned or because they feel they don’t deserve those connections. The ‘quiet’ presentation made a lot of sense to me because while I struggled with many of the problems associated with BPD, I rarely lash out so this felt like something to explore.

So, buoyed by momentum that discovery had given me, I took it to my psychiatrist. And he shut me down straight away. He said that I didn’t fit the criteria and moved on to something else. I didn’t understand: I was struggling with so many symptoms associated with BPD, almost all of them when you factor in the ‘quiet’ presentation. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t worth, at the very least, a little bit more discussion. And at the end of the session, he said that he thought we’d done all we could do. I was devastated. And incredulous: we hadn’t achieved anything. If that was it, I was back to square one. Or minus one after everything the process had taken from me.

That session sent me into the worst place I’d been and after a particularly horrific meltdown, I spent several days in a fragile, barely responsive state. But once I recovered from that a bit, I got to work. I went back through my research and symptom by symptom, anecdote by anecdote, I wrote down everything I related to, everything I’d experienced, anything that could be relevant. It wasn’t that I was certain it was BPD, it was that I was certain it was something. This seemed as good an explanation as any and my psychiatrist wasn’t offering anything better.

When I was done, the document was seventeen pages. I’m pretty sure it was longer than my dissertation for university. And then we went back. I presented him with all my research and something very surprising happened. I’d hoped he’d accept it as something to explore and not only did he do that, he admitted he’d been wrong and apologised for dismissing it. Even now, that feels like a very important moment. In my experience, medical professionals aren’t naturally inclined to apologising, let alone admitting to being in the wrong. And I’d been ignored for a long time. When it came to my health, physical and mental, doctors had always looked at the most obvious option and then, when that didn’t fit, they’d just shrugged their shoulders and brushed me off. So this was a big deal.

And at the end of that session, I had my diagnosis. Or more accurately, my diagnoses. He pulled together everything he’d learned about me and diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Depression, and OCD. It was a very strange experience. Momentous and anti-climactic at the same time. I felt light enough to float away but so exhausted and heavy that I wasn’t sure I could get out of my chair. I felt like I might burst into tears at any moment but I had this weird, hysterical urge to laugh. I felt invincible and incredibly fragile at the same time. Very strange.

Finally getting names for the monsters I’d been struggling with was incredibly validating. It was real. I wasn’t ‘crazy’ or ‘over dramatic’ or ‘too sensitive.’ It also made it real to everyone else. And although part of me was steadfast that something was wrong, I had started to doubt myself, having been dismissed by so many people. I was constantly fighting against falling into a well of despair, of fear that this was just going to be how life was for me. But the diagnosis confirmed that they were problems and most problems have solutions of some sort.

The diagnosis enabled me to get the support I needed at university and gave us some idea of what kind of talking therapy might help. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is recommended for people with BPD and that’s what I’m still doing, about three years later.

(I have no relevant photos for this post so here are a couple from around that time.)

One Woman With Autism

Ask anyone about Autism and they’ll most likely describe the stereotype: difficulty socializing, a ‘lack of empathy’, specific and focused interests. But, as with everything, it’s so much more complex than that, especially for girls and women with Autism. While there are various statistics on the ratio of boys to girls, it’s clear that there are many more girls and women with Autism than was originally thought. And because the diagnosis of Autism has always been based on the male presentation of Autism, it can be really difficult for girls and women to get diagnoses and support. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience but I can speak to mine.

I was a shy kid. I was so shy, and so anxious, that I couldn’t be left at after-school clubs or activities. I was petrified and cried until my Mum would take me home. I was constantly told I was too sensitive, that I took things too personally, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And that really upset me – but then I was being too sensitive, wasn’t I?

These issues continued through my childhood and into my teenage years. I was always anxious and strived for perfection in everything. I was a vigilant rule follower; I couldn’t, and still can’t, break a rule for anything. I was terrified of turning in homework late, convinced it was an unforgivable act. The one time I did forget a piece of homework (because I’d taken it out of my bag to check I’d packed it and then forgotten it in a panic about being late – another constant anxiety), I cried in a corridor and my hands shook when I told my teacher. It was fine, of course, but it didn’t help my anxiety. I was so scared of doing something wrong, of getting into trouble.

In addition to that, I never felt like I quite fitted in. Anywhere. I felt like I was stuck behind glass, separated from everyone else and unable to break through it. Everything seemed so much easier for everyone else; everything they seemed to do effortlessly took all of my energy, leaving me exhausted. I couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t cope as well as everyone around me. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t function as well as everyone else and that made me feel like I was broken. Despite all of this, no one clocked that there was a problem, not a doctor, not my family, not me.

What had always just been a feeling of not coping started to take over other areas of my life. I’d always done well as school, despite missing more than eighteen months when I struggled with an unidentified illness that caused debilitating fatigue. My lowest grade at GCSE was an A (although I was disappointed with not having achieved more A*s). I got to Sixth Form and everything changed. Suddenly every class, every test was a struggle. Learning and applying knowledge had always been something that had come easily to me, something I’d enjoyed, and all of a sudden, it had become so difficult and that was incredibly distressing. My anxiety got higher and higher and depression started to creep in. I was constantly exhausted and just getting through the day started to feel like an impossible task.

The turning point came when I failed an exam. I locked myself in a toilet stall and scratched at my arms over and over with a broken paper clip, desperate to feel anything other than this howling feeling of failure that came from somewhere deeper than I’d ever experienced. I don’t know how long I sat there and I don’t remember much of that day, but that was when my family and I started to realise that there was something really wrong.

A lot went into getting my diagnosis. I’ve lost count of all the doctors I’ve seen, the amount of times we left without any answers, the amount of books we read. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple mental health problems and tried a lot of different medications. I tried various therapies like CBT and EMDR. Nothing helped. But due to my Mum’s never ending commitment, I ended up at the Brighton and Hove Neurobehavioural Service and after several hours answering questions, I walked out with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. To start with, I was too exhausted by getting to that point to take it all in but slowly, everything started to make sense. All these disconnected pieces of my life and my personality began to click into place.

I’ve always felt emotions strongly. If something goes well, I feel like I’m bulletproof. If something goes badly, I can end up in a meltdown: crying, shaking, screaming, and often self-harming. Either that, or I go into shutdown where I retreat to my room and lie in the dark, unable to think or talk properly. Sometimes a meltdown leads to a shutdown and it can last for days, or even weeks.

I’m extremely sensitive. To a lot of things. A change of plan, loud noises, bright lights, unfamiliar people and places, all of those things increase my anxiety, making it difficult for me to function, to make decisions, to interact with people or the environment around me. Processing that information takes a lot of energy and I’m easily exhausted and overloaded. Too much sensory information, too many demands placed on me, the closer I get to a meltdown. It’s a fragile existence, like walking on a tightrope.

I’ve never had trouble with empathy, with ‘stepping into another’s shoes’. Or more accurately, I’ve never found that difficult to do. My struggles tend to be with the other extreme: I’ve been told I’m too empathetic. I frequently experience other people’s emotions as if they’re mine and with such strength that I feel completely overwhelmed. It’s strange and upsetting to, for example, feel grief for someone I didn’t know. It can feel like I’m intruding even though all I ever want to do is help because I know how strong those emotions can be. It’s incredibly difficult for me to see someone upset and not be able to do anything. It can also be very difficult to do something as simple as walk down the street. I just feel overwhelmed by how big everyone’s lives are, how much makes up a person: memories, favourite colours, foods they hate, things they want to happen, things they don’t want to happen, phone numbers they’ve forgotten, songs stuck in their heads. I could go on forever. And when I’m surrounded by people, I feel all of that pressing in on me. It makes it hard to breathe.

Socialising is difficult. Again, processing all the information around me takes a lot of energy: a person’s words, body language, tone, how other people are reacting, everything going on in the background. It’s hard work. It feels like everyone else has a rulebook that I never received and so I’ve had to learn how to be social. Where everyone else processes all this information automatically, I have to actively process it, which takes a lot of energy. So it’s not hard to imagine why I’m tired out very quickly by social situations. Of course many people don’t notice this and have no idea that I’m autistic. Even the visible signs go unnoticed, like my difficulty with eye contact. Aside from the fact that I have no idea how long you’re supposed to hold eye contact for or which eye you’re supposed to look at it, I also feel very vulnerable when someone is looking into my eyes, like they can tell what I’m thinking and feeling.

I do have my own specific interest: writing, in all forms, but my favourite is songwriting. I’ve read a bit about these focussed interests and apparently the interests in the female presentation of Autism tend to go under the radar because they can be similar to a neurotypical girl’s interests, like animals, TV shows, books, particular singers or music groups. It’s the intensity that’s different. I’ve never simply liked something; once I’m interested in something, nothing else matters. When I’m writing, I lose all sense of time. I recently spent ten hours working on a particular piece and only stopped because I noticed my hands shaking. When I looked up, it was dark and I realised that a whole day had passed and I hadn’t eaten. Writing, and writing songs, is everything to me. It’s the only thing I want to do, the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s hard though, because there’s a big part of me that feels like my life isn’t worth living if I’m not doing that one thing, if I’m not doing songwriting. The music industry is tough as hell so it’s terrifying to think like that. But that’s the truth.

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Of course there are other symptoms and this is just one presentation of Autism. As the specialist that diagnosed me said, we are the experts of our own Autism. But, in my experience, it’s really hard. And it’s made harder when there’s so little understanding around the way Autism affects girls and women. Life post-diagnosis is difficult but at least I know what I’m struggling with. I’m learning what helps and what doesn’t. Not knowing was awful. I felt like I was drowning, like I couldn’t even find the surface. And the years of asking for help and being turned away made it worse. The lack of awareness and understanding about how Autism affects girls and women has real consequences. The time it takes to get a diagnosis and the repeated invalidation causes problems of their own. The people supporting me now think that that was part of the reason I developed Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental health problem that involves instability of mood, behaviour, and self image. And I will never forget one particular doctor’s opinion, that maybe that’s just how life was going to be for me. That remains one of the most upsetting experiences of my life and years later, I’m still struggling to believe that I will ever be happy.

I am so lucky to have found the people who are supporting me now and I feel it because I know that without them, there’s a very real chance that I wouldn’t be here now. But there are so many people without this support. There needs to be more information, more awareness, more understanding of Autism in women. Too often it goes unidentified and the effects of that can be worse than the struggles caused by the Autism itself.

Farewell Phenelzine

It’s time for a change.

I’ve been taking Phenelzine, also known as Nardil, for almost three years now and while it’s been a great help to me, I need to try something else. The last few months have been very difficult and to cut a long story short, I’ve been diagnosed (for the second time) with Clinical Depression. I’ve been finding it really hard to take my medication, knowing the effects it will have on me. It might sound strange but, when I take the Phenelzine, my mood lifts and feeling the way I do at the moment, I’m really struggling with that. I find it really hard to try and feel ‘okay’ when everything is ‘not okay’. To me, this makes complete sense but I can also recognise that I’m waiting to feel better while avoiding things that actually might help.

I think my problem with Phenelzine is how familiar I am with how it affects me. Having taken it for so long, I know exactly how it changes my mood. That used to be a good thing but now… Now, the ‘happiness’ it makes me feel just feels fake because I know it’s caused by the Phenelzine. I think it’s important to point out here that, objectively, I know that there is no difference between ‘real’ happiness and happiness caused by medication, and that I have always been a real advocate for taking medication (if you need it and it’s recommended). That belief hasn’t changed. But my familiarity with this medication is now making it difficult for me to take it so I need a new approach. It’s time to try a different one. Hopefully not knowing whether it’s the medication affecting my mood or the world around me will make it easier to take and therefore help myself feel better.

So I thought I’d do a little review of Phenelzine as a goodbye.

I started taking Phenelzine in the summer of 2014, after meeting my current psychiatrist. I’d taken various medications before (I’ll write about those at some point), all of which I’d had bad experiences with. So my Psychiatrist suggested Phenelzine, a drug not commonly used (in the UK at least) because of the dietary restrictions but one used when the other options haven’t worked. I’d never tried an MAOI (a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, one type of antidepressant) so I was optimistic that I would react differently than I had to SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, another type of antidepressant). And I really did.

Almost straight away, I felt completely different. I had previously been almost unable to get out of bed, let alone do anything else, and suddenly I had more energy than I knew what to do with. My thoughts were like fireworks going off one after another after another after another. It’s the closest to mania I’ve ever experienced and my family were genuinely worried about me. I could barely sit still and I couldn’t shut up. I’m not kidding, I couldn’t stop talking and that was pretty embarrassing as I was just starting university. It was a bit scary but at the same time, I was absolutely ecstatic to be feeling so much better.

It took a bit of messing around with the dose (with my Psychiatrist’s supervision) but that did calm down. After a couple of months, I felt a bit more normal: I had more energy, I could concentrate and complete tasks, and my anxiety wasn’t as overwhelming as it had been. On a lower dose, I wasn’t so manic but I could still function a lot better than I could before. My almost perfect attendance in my first semester at uni is a testament to how much it helped.

Since then, with the exception of the last few months, it’s been a massive help to me. I’ve managed to complete my degree and graduate with a First, while commuting up and down to London. I mean, it was freaking exhausting but it would have been impossible without the Phenelzine. As I said, before I started taking it, I could barely get out of bed. The exhaustion that I experience with Depression is awful and I didn’t have the energy to walk my dog around the block. So Phenelzine was a godsend.

Side effects wise, there was only one that I struggled with (although I was initially a bit light headed and nauseous but that passed pretty quickly). My main battle was with the insomnia the Phenelzine caused. It’s has an alerting affect so it’s not that surprising that I had trouble sleeping. I struggled to get to sleep and when I finally did, I never slept more than four hours a night. It was exhausting. On multiple occasions, I fell asleep on the sofas at uni during my breaks and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep during a lesson once or twice: I have a very vivid memory of ‘blinking’ and finding the white board covered in writing…

This has been an ongoing difficulty. I ended up going back to the psychiatrist and left with a prescription for Quetiapine. I still have to take it every night to get to sleep and while I’m definitely grateful for that sleep, it also has it’s own downsides. It’s incredibly difficult to wake up; it feels like my eyes are glued shut, like I’m swimming through deep, dark water with no idea where the surface is and it can take hours to shake off the drowsiness. And it’s scary to feel like you will not sleep without it. I’m hopeful that, when I stop taking the Phenelzine, the insomnia will disappear and so I can stop taking the Quetiapine. That’s both exciting and scary. I haven’t slept unaided in almost three years; I’m going to have to learn how to do that again.

It’s going to take a little while to wean myself off Phenelzine and I have no idea how the new medication will affect me. So the next few weeks are going to be interesting.

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Introductions + A Brief History

This post has been hard to write. I’ve been writing various pieces to post for several months now but this is the one I keep avoiding. As much as I love writing, writing about myself – introducing myself with only a select number of words – is something I’ve always found difficult. Usually I find that words open everything up and make the world bigger but sometimes I think people are the exception to that. How do you fit something as big and intangible as a human being into something as small as a series of words? It’s kind of like when you take a photo of someone and even though it is them, it doesn’t look like them. But this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so I’m going to try.

My name is Lauren Alex Hooper and I’m twenty-two years old. I’ve just finished my songwriting degree in London and am working towards my first release as a singersongwriter. Songwriting is my favourite thing in the world and the only time I feel truly calm is when I’ve finished a song. That’s one half of my life. The other half of my life is my struggle with my mental health. Of course, this does often overwhelm the other half. It often overwhelms everything. At this point in time, I have been diagnosed with Depression, Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. These are still fairly recent (two years in the case of the ASD) but I’ve been living with the symptoms of them for a very long time. I’ve tried a lot of things to help with said symptoms. Some have helped, some haven’t. Currently I’m taking medication for the anxiety and going to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, the best combination I’ve found so far. I hope to talk about all of this in more detail in future posts. If I start to write about it all now, we’ll be at ten thousand words in no time and while I don’t know much about blogging, I’m pretty sure that that’s not the way to start…

I’ve been writing about my experiences with mental illness for a long time but it’s only ever been for me. It’s only ever been a method of coping. But I can’t help thinking about how much it would’ve helped me to know other people felt the same way, had had similar experiences. For such a long time, I couldn’t understand why everyone functioned so much better than me, why I seemed to struggle so much more than everyone else and it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I heard someone talk about experiences that matched mine (it was Stephen Fry – but that’s another story). And that changed everything. I finally felt able to talk to my Mum because I had some context for what I was feeling and ever since that moment, we’ve been looking for answers and support. So I started to think about putting some of this writing (and there’s quite a bit of it) out into the world. Maybe it will help you, maybe it will help me. Here begins a new adventure.