My name is Claire Johnson and I’m Head of Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs at the Centre for Trials Research Cardiff University. I am also the lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity for the Centre. I am married with two 7 year old boys, one of which was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3. He is currently non-verbal and communicates using symbols and a communication software on an ipad. He struggles when out of routine and can become very anxious which result in the display of behaviours that can be very challenging and upsetting. This blog is about my mental health journey……….. so far.
I’ve pondered about writing this blog for a few weeks wondering whether it’s right for me to write about something so personal in a work context, but mental health awareness day feels like a celebration for me this year so I’ve bitten the bullet.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety and growing up I had high expectations of myself in school and in later years, work. I avoided social activities and events in school and at University alcohol helped me to relax and socialise. I would over plan for situations and events, and constantly worried about things that hadn’t happened.
Having a child with a disability ramped up my levels of anxiety enormously. From starting the process of diagnosis for my autistic son at the age of 2, to when he reached 6 years old I completely separated my home and work life. I was two different people, only thinking about my home life at home, and work at work. This strategy worked for a while but eventually caught up with me. My thoughts about the future for my son were all consuming and it was making me ill, physically as well as mentally. I picked up every bug going and found it really difficult to get back on my feet. I couldn’t talk about my son without getting upset and I constantly worried about how we would cope when he gets older and bigger. At the age of 6 he was non-verbal and displaying challenging behaviours, self-harm and also getting physical with us. How would we cope when he reached the teenage years? My thoughts were all consumed with the fear that my son would be take away from us. My heart was breaking every day.
The turning point came, when we had our first visit from our social worker. We had finally taken the plunge to arrange for some support in the form of a personal assistant for my son and the social worker came out to do an assessment as part of the application for funding from the council. She immediately picked up on the fact that I was struggling with my mental health. Probably not too difficult a task at the time since I was teary most days. She suggested that I should visit my GP. I’m not sure why, but hearing this from her was the push that I needed to face up to the realisation that I needed help. The GP prescribed antidepressants. It wasn’t an immediate fix, but over time I noticed a real difference. I could focus, and plan and prioritise again. My head I was clearer and the tears stopped.
At the start of this year I received news that a friend, a mum of a boy with autism who had started school with my son, had passed away. This really shook me and gave me the push to look at my own health. I was grossly overweight and very unfit, a bi-product of my depression over the last 5 years. I started slimming world and began to lose weight. I started walking around the park in my lunch hour and parking further away from the office so that I had some time to reflect walking into and from work. After a couple of months (and a couple of stone) I decided to give running a go and started the couch to 5k app. It was hard, really hard at first, but got easier. I completed the app in July and felt a real sense of achievement. I now run three times a week and have lost almost 5 stone. I feel better than I have done in years.
This is not the end of my journey though. My son has autism, this is not going away and I’m sure as he gets older there will be more challenges ahead. His anxiety is a prevalent part of his autism and his mental health can deteriorate quickly and unpredictably. I hope that by coming to terms with my mental health and talking about it, I am in a better place to face the challenges ahead.
Proud moment of 2018 – My wife and I after completing the CRUK Pretty Muddy 5k in September 2018