Aisha’s story

I have been married for ten years to an abusive man. When I first met him he was warm, friendly and approachable. He was also an illegal immigrant, uneducated and illiterate. I saw signs of an angry person but I chose to ignore it. Over the years my husband has verbally abused me on a massive scale. It is the most horrendous language I have heard in my life. I was brought up to be polite, honest, respectful and hard working. My husband would put me down, criticise me, scold me like I was a child, patronize me and threaten me with violence.

I felt nervous and anxious around him and home life was uncomfortable. It took me 8 years to finally build up the courage and strength to leave him, with our three year old son. After six months I returned to the family home as I couldn’t afford to live out. I was paying the mortgage, bills, council tax, service charge and child minder costs all by myself – and paying the rent when I moved out. Emotionally I was a mess but I remember holding it together really well. I had a full time job as a teacher, so I had to be strong. Altogether I moved out and in four times over the ten year marriage. Each time I moved out I thought it would be the last. My husband was physically violent and emotionally abusive. I felt suicidal. My family are not here and friends have their own problems, so I was on my own.

Luckily I am a ruthlessly independent person otherwise I wouldn’t have survived. I soon got police and social services involved and of course, my GP. I took out an injunction, but he broke the conditions. I was in fear of my life, but more in fear of being hospitalised. There are so many incidents that have happened over the years. I am not sure how I am still sane. I wanted to admit myself to a mental hospital as I felt it was the only way to shut myself out of real life. I guess I held it together for my son. My husband started to see other women even whilst we were living together. I stopped sleeping with him from the first time I moved out I 2008. I knew I was so unhappy but didn’t know how to get out. My husband refuses to this day to sell our flat – just so he can control me and my situation. I am still paying the mortgage even though the property is in our joint name.

If you are feeling low, depressed and unable to concentrate, please go to your GP. Be very brave. Over the years I got so fed up of feeling so depressed with how I was being treated and spoken to by my husband that I almost wanted him to do real damage to me – just so I could become so angry and have no choice but to call the police and ambulance for help. I needed help and yet I felt embarrassed that this was my life. An Asian woman, on her own with a child.

I have had counselling sessions recently which have changed my life. These sessions saved my life because I had someone to go out and meet and talk to. A non-judgemental, professional person who I could off-load to. I realised that you must ask for help. You must know that you are not alone. I learnt that everyone needs help at some point in their lives. If you are a victim of domestic abuse and your partner is showing most signs of being abusive – make a decision and stick to it. Don’t look back. But get police involvement. Call them and call them and get your voice heard. Your self-respect will come. Being a shy, quiet person is difficult. I wish I had a sister by my side, or a small set of good friends, but I don’t. Asking for help is a sign of strength. Trust your instincts when you feel something in your relationship is ‘wrong’.

 

‘I was feeling low and couldn’t continue suffering in silence’

I have been suffering from depression and anxiety attacks for some time now. I have also been on medication for these conditions. I was feeling low and couldn’t continue suffering in silence. My past experience such as domestic violence, child abuse, negligence, isolation and loneliness has taking a huge toll on me, luckily I have a very warm and understanding GP. She referred me to Brent IAPT (I was very apprehensive to begin with, I have been to other counsellors and used other services) when I started seeing my therapist at the Brent IAPT for my CBT weekly sessions it has been a life changing experience for me. I now know about distortions, such as mental filtering, over-generalizing, mind- reading, personalizing and catastrophizing.  Now, I am able to change my negative thoughts into positive, I am able to go out and do pleasurable activities, I am able to take advantage of other opportunities that has been signposted out there for me. Most of all, I am able to come out of my shell, to be patient and kind with myself. Above all to appreciate myself and regain back my self- confidence.

 

‘I now feel back to my old self, and more able to cope with challenges life throws at me’

I accessed the service when I was having a difficult time, I’d just been made redundant and my relationship had recently ended. I was getting to the point of being so anxious that I couldn’t calm down on my own and my normal coping strategies didn’t seem to be working. I went to my GP for help, perhaps a bit reluctantly if I’m honest but they were great. They were really supportive and suggested that looking at some of my ways of thinking could be helpful and referred me to the Westminster Talking Therapies Service.

I didn’t really know what this would involve, but was open to the idea and was surprised by how quickly I was seen. Within a month I had had my first session with my therapist, choosing to have these over the phone for convenience. The sessions were useful and the therapist was very supportive, although challenged me at times. I remember being told that if I’d broken my leg I wouldn’t expect to run straight away, and mental health is much the same. We reflected on my progress and I was able to appreciate the small steps as I was making, becoming more aware of my negative thoughts and how they were making me feel. I was able to change some of these thoughts and learnt more coping mechanisms. I also attended an Assertiveness Workshop, which was a useful compliment to the individual sessions.

I now feel back to my old self, and more able to cope with challenges life throws at me, I feel I’ve now got more tools to fall back on if things do get tough. It’s even helped me to talk more openly with friends and understand a little more of how they might be feeling.  I’d recommend the service to others, just go into it with an open mind and take your time, you’ll get back running in the end.

 

‘The group sessions had a huge impact on my wellbeing’

I have lived with anxiety all my life, but this was only made apparent to me after a breakdown in 2013.  Breaking up with my girlfriend triggered a downward spiral which I didn’t feel I could escape from.  I would find myself breaking down at work & having to hide in the toilets, and although I tried to socialise and be with friends or family as often as I could I was detached from conversations and just couldn’t raise the courage to discuss my problems.

It took a while for me to make an appointment with my GP to discuss how I was feeling, and when I did he suggested I self refer to the Talking Therapy Service in Westminster.  I did this via email and an appointment was made within a few weeks.  My initial assessment confirmed to me the impact that my problems were having – my emotions poured out and I struggled to compose my thoughts.

My assessor diagnosed that I was suffering from anxiety and recommended that I attend a group session of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  When CBT was described to me it sounded exactly what I needed, but I was very reluctant to have therapy in a group and preferred one-to-one sessions instead.  In the end the longer waiting time for the individual sessions meant I opted for the group sessions – I think my first session was only a few weeks after my assessment, which was great as I felt I had some momentum in terms of improving my health.

The first group session was daunting, but I needn’t have worried, the group was made up of people from all backgrounds who were all nervous like me, but we quickly got to grips with the format and I now believe that attending group sessions helped my improvement much more than one to one sessions would have done.

The more the sessions went on, the more I realised that so many of the things I had struggled with throughout my life – shyness, worry, procrastination – were at least in part related to my anxiety.  This realisation was very powerful and even emotional at first, but it became inspiring as the sessions provided more and more tools to help with managing and improving my condition.  Some of the techniques worked for me better than others, but by the end I felt very aware of the steps I could take to control my anxiety and the group sessions had a huge impact on my wellbeing.

Since the sessions have finished I have moved to a new job and progressed into a management role – something I had always doubted i would be able to do.  This is completely due to the reduction in my worry and anxiety, and I credit the sessions for this.  I still have my darker moments, but these are much fewer than before and I am now able to identify the reasons for these quickly and actively work to limit their impact and get on with life.

 

‘I am now much better equipped…to be aware of anxiety and put it into real context’

As long as I can remember, I’ve had high anxiety interspersed with depression. Anything could set it off. I came to realise my contentment demanded a clear horizon. Any appointment, social or otherwise, became a dark object on that horizon that I would fixate upon. In this state of anxiety, the rest of my life would be put on hold until the appointment was complete. The tenseness was never justified. Most appointments came and went without consequence and, ironic surprise, many turned out to be enjoyable. All regular doctor and dentist appointments were met with almost crippling phobia. Like Woody Allen in ‘Hannah and her Sisters’ every ailment was terminal cancer. In 2011 I’d finally had enough of being worn down by anxiety and the accompanying depression.

The first time I sought help from my GP, they referred me to the Talking Therapies Service in Westminster. They were very helpful and booked me 10 hour-long sessions with a therapist. My therapist recommended I try mindfulness and the Mental Health Foundation’s online course. The online course and the support materials were excellent. I practiced mindfulness meditation and learned more from Youtube videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). Practicing mindfulness helped me see my anxiety in context of a much larger sense of self. This didn’t eliminate anxiety rather helped me welcome it in as a small part of a much broader sense of self.

I continued self-management of anxiety until 2015 when I experienced a series of intense panic attacks that debilitated me for a week. I felt at wits end and went back to my GP desperate for medication and any other counseling that might help. I was prescribed Citalopram and once more referred to the Talking Therapies Service in Westminster who were again very helpful. They booked me for an assessment and after that I was seen by a new therapist for 10 weekly sessions. After a thorough analysis of my condition, the therapist advised we try cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) techniques. With careful guidance and perceptive resourcefulness, I learned different methods to deal with specific types of worry and anxiety. The therapist also signposted other areas for me to explore and that led to my attending a free confidence workshop run by the service.

Once more, I learned that anxiety and fears may never completely disappear. Their origins are likely deeply seated in childhood. CBT is less why you are constantly prone to anxiety and more about simply how to deal with it in the present moment. I am now much better equipped and trained, through mindfulness and CBT, to be aware of anxiety and put it into real context. I’ve had many opportunities to practice! Recently I went to the GP about an unusual shaped mole on my arm. I was filled with panic when the GP said “we need to get this seen to URGENTLY.” But then I practiced CBT and put it into context. “Urgently” in the NHS doesn’t mean life or death. It’s simply an internal code word to make sure you get processed through the system and not on a waiting list.

In the dermatology waiting room, I practiced meditation and noticing and naming things in the room (a CBT technique). I remained in the present moment when being checked over by the Dermatologist. Not once did they mention I had terminal cancer! I have to go back to have the mole surgically removed as an easy preventative measure. I’m sure I’ll find something else healthwise to obsess on. However, the point is, previously the knowledge of a forthcoming hospital appointment would have been a massive dark object on my horizon that would cause me to think of nothing else except impending calamity. The old me would have been in a tailspin towards a panic attack. The new, CBT-trained me, simply notices those nagging thoughts and lets them pass through like osmosis. Not only that, thanks to the support I received from the NHS Mental Health Team, I’m now off the Citalopram.

 

‘I had no motivation, no interest, no confidence’

It’s a few years now since a series of events over a period of time, including failed relationships, fertility problems, leaving a career and learning my dad had cancer, led to an accumulation of stress and sadness that I was unable to continue to manage on my own.

When it got to the stage where I burst into tears in a restaurant with my friend for the second evening a row, a friend who worked in mental health gently suggested it might be time for me to visit the doctor… and I already knew she was right.

I felt tired all the time and teary for what seemed like no reason.  I felt isolated and distant and preferred to be in on my own. I had no motivation, no interest, no confidence. And this was all very unlike the usually sociable, confident me. At the same time, I felt guilty.  I knew I was ‘lucky’, I had a lovely home and family and a close knit group of friends. I was financially secure and had choices in life,  so I didn’t ‘deserve’ to be depressed. There were physical symptoms too. I became uninterested in food, had heart palpitations that I used to call sparrow heart, and had trouble breathing properly.

When I got to the Doctors and was crying before I made it through the door, he immediately wrote me a prescription for antidepressants but also referred me to the Westminster Talking Therapies Service. Within a couple of weeks I started my talking therapy with my therapist and was encouraged by the CBT approach. I knew what my issues,  background, and patterns of behaviour were but I couldn’t fix them. CBT appealed to me and ultimately worked for me, as it it aims to change behaviours and ways of thinking. I could finally do something productive. Learning to practice mindfulness was very much part of the treatment and I still recall and use some of the little exercises the therapist taught me.

I felt very comfortable with my therapist from the beginning. She was non-judgmental, ‘normal’ and friendly but professional. And importantly for me as I was moving a lot between two countries, very flexible and would conduct sessions by telephone if I was away. I wasn’t happy with the idea of group therapy and while she suggested it, the therapist didn’t push me into it which I appreciated .

After just a few months I came off the medication which I had been reluctant to take in the first place but continued a little longer to finish the course of CBT.  Of course life continues to throw us curveballs so it wasn’t all happily ever after from then on, but I did have a more effective collections of tools to help me deal with things. Probably the three main things that I took away from the CBT were:

  1. To not be so black and white in my thinking  – it’s not helpful and actually there’s a lot of grey space in-between
  2. To recognise it’s ok to feel sad/down/lonely – acknowledge it, let it happen, but don’t be over harsh on myself. Try to imagine what would I say if it was my friend in the same position and try do small, nice, manageable things for myself
  3. To understand it’s not all about me – more often than not, things other people think, say or do is a result of whatever else is going on in their own lives rather than my fault or in criticism of me.

In the years since the CBT, I have overcome 5 failed cycles of IVF, accepted I won’t have my own children and cared for my father through aggressive cancer, before he recently passed away. Despite some horribly sad times, and definite periods of hibernation, I have been relieved that I have never gone back to that dark place and think the treatment I had helped to arm me to cope with these circumstances.

 

Talking Therapies Workshops in the workplace

I attended a workshop in December and found it to be very informative and varied (e.g. it wasn’t just talking – we got involved in putting the theory into practice!) The presenters explained things in a simple manner and explored a variety of techniques to ease stress and anxiety which I regularly use.

Having shared my experience with members of my team, I invited the team to run another workshop for our Wellbeing Day in January. It turned out to be the most popular event of our day and we had very positive feedback. From speaking to others, I have found that having stress and anxiety is a lot more common than I realised. With that in mind, the workshops were great for getting people to open about their experiences and break down the stigma which surrounds mental health.

I would like to extend my thanks to the members of the Westminster Talking Therapies team for all their efforts.