.Recently I have watched Emmerdale on the television and seen how the character Belle is hearing voices. An old friend used to experience this and is one of the most impressive people I know because he used that experience to go on to help others in a kind and caring way. Today I am sharing Molly’s story where she shares generously and openly about what it feels like when you are hearing voices together with who has supported her over the years and how she now runs Exhale to help other people with mental health difficulties.
Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years
Whenever I think of my childhood I have very conflicting emotions. I was a very lucky child in many ways. I had a very loving family and extended family, I didn’t go without, I got a good education and I had friends.
My mum and dad divorced when I was four. I spent the weekdays with my mum and my 2 older brothers, and the weekends with my dad. When I was little I was worried about house fires, burglary, black holes, carbon monoxide, cancer, my mum leaving and not coming back. I also had voices in my head who were being really mean to me. It took over my life.
At this stage, my relationship with my mum wasn’t very good. I spent most of my childhood angry at my mum for divorcing my dad and leaving him alone. I was angry at her for not spending time with me and for always working. She would be working instead of picking me up from school like the other mums were, she didn’t come to plays or sports days. So I didn’t speak to her about what was going on in my mind because I was adamant she didn’t care. I was too young to understand that she was depressed and only working all those hours to provide for us.
Despite having friends and family, I didn’t tell anyone about how scared of the voices I was or how bad my anxiety was and so it really did start to eat at me and wear me down.
When I look back at my childhood all I really remember is being scared 24/7 and having a voice in my head (I called him Winston) telling me that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough.
Once I hit thirteen, I think things took a real turn for the worse for me.
I was lying and faking illness to get out of school because I was suffering really badly with paranoia. I really believed that people were talking about me in school and I could always hear them whispering. The voice in my head said it was always about me and it terrified me.
I would fake tonsilitis to get out of school. My attendance at middle school was 24%, shockingly low. I never told anyone because I thought they’d be angry at me for lying about being ill, or my friends would laugh at me or tell me that I was being dramatic. I didn’t eat much, I could go for a week or two just eating flapjack or smoothies because the voice in my head made me worry about throwing it up or not being able to swallow.
I felt very alone as a teenager. Despite having good friends and a close family, I felt so alone. I had panic attacks regularly over my health, I’d pull my hair and pick my skin, I barely slept. I had to sleep with my mum a lot just to get a half decent sleep. I felt like I needed to be defined by what people thought of me so if a guy didn’t think I was pretty or someone called me stupid, it really knocked me back.
I didn’t have an ounce of confidence: my nose was too big, my hair was too thin, my boobs were too small, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t funny enough.
I hated school. I never wanted to be there, but nobody ever found out because I had really learnt how to pretend that everything was okay and that I was ‘normal’.
Many people say that they’d love to go back to being a child or a teenager, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it for a million pounds.
How have your mental health issues affected your life?
I’ve struggled predominantly with health anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, depression and general anxiety. This has all really had an impact on my education, my relationships and my self-confidence. It has really impacted who I am and how I talk to people. I also have endometriosis, which increases my anxiety quite substantially.
Who supports you?
My family are very good and both my mum and dad have suffered from their own fair share of mental health issues. My dad has panic attacks and worries about his health while my mum suffered from depression and anxiety, so they know and understand how it is. My mum is my safety net, mother and best friend all in one. We’ve gone from having a very poor relationship to being as thick as thieves. She has sat with me through so many panic attacks, listened to me ramble on as I have worried about yet another cancer, and she always answers the phone even if it’s 2 am in the morning. My mum is my rock.
At school, however, I had Ms Duggan. She was the only person who really knew how bad things were for me at 13. She took me under her wing. If the paranoia was too bad, I’d do my work in her office. She’d listen to me every time. She gave me a safe space to go to. I honestly think Ms Duggan is part of the reason why I am still here.
I also have my boyfriend who I met three years ago. He’s my anti-depressant. He drops anything and everything the moment I start to breathe funny. He knows a panic attack is coming before I do or that I’m anxious before I do. Countless nights he has held me as I shake violently from a panic attack. I can cry, scream, throw up, kick and shake so hard that even he is being thrown around, but he stays calm, holds me and does what he knows helps me. He picks up the phone each time and listens to me even if he should be working. Whenever I’m low and refusing to get out of bed, the first thing he says is, “What do you need?”
He has become my safe place. Now, if I’m anxious, I just need to look at him and it helps because I know whatever I’m anxious/panicking about can’t hurt me if he is there. He’ll moan at me for being so cheesy.
Tell us about moving away from home
I studied journalism at London Metropolitan University. It wasn’t easy. I went to a London university to throw me out of my comfort zone. I knew if I stayed in Stoke then I’d never deal with my mental health because I’d always have my safety nets. So I went to London, where I had absolutely no safety net.
It was hard. There were times when, after I had come home for a visit, my mum would have to force me to get on the train as I cried my eyes out. A large problem was when I got to university I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was someone with no confidence and anxiety, but I didn’t know who I was, what I believed in or who I wanted to be. I was very naive. But, I met a bunch of women who were like no women I’d ever met before.
The girls on my university course were ballsy, fierce, opinionated, strong, independent, loud, demanding career women. If they didn’t agree with something, they’d stand right up and say it. They weren’t afraid to argue their point or say what they thought. They weren’t afraid to tell someone when they were wrong. They stood up for themselves. They weren’t afraid to brag about how awesome they were because they knew they were. They weren’t letting themselves be defined by their money, looks, men or what people thought of them. What defined them was their intelligence, their confidence, their sassiness and this sisterhood they had formed with one another.
I remember thinking that’s the type of person I want to be. I didn’t want to be the anxious and paranoid little girl who was too scared to share her opinion and too frightened to stand up for herself. I wanted to be like these girls.
After time, these girls, who are now award nominated journalists or starting their own businesses and using their voices for the greater good, made me realise that I was a lot more like them than I thought and that I didn’t have to be scared to tell the voice in my head to shut up. They reminded me of how brave and strong and empowered I was.
So university, despite being a challenge, was where I found who I was and that helped me immensely when it came to dealing with my mental health.
Have you ever considered suicide?
Suicide is something I only started to talk about recently.
At 14 I was suicidal. I was so tired of being me. I didn’t want to be anymore because it wasn’t fun and I was hurting so much. So I Googled the nicest way to die. I was sure I was doing the right thing, I thought everyone would be better off without me and that I was a hindrance more than I was benefiting anyone.
I made a plan and I was going through with it. I went all the way with my plan and as I started to go through with it the voice in my head told me, and I remember hearing it clear as day, “If you go through with this, your dad will find you and he will never be able to live with it. Just hold on a little bit longer.” It was a shock. Firstly, because it was right and secondly because the voice that had been tormenting me for so long had saved me.
I realised that if I did that to myself then I’d basically be ending my dad’s life too. I didn’t want to do that. I threw myself to the floor and threw up. I was so sad and scared. Stupidly, I pulled on my PJs and went downstairs to my dad with no intention of telling him. He probably wouldn’t believe me, I thought. I should have told him exactly what I was about to do, what I wanted to do and why I stopped. That would have been the smart thing to do.
Instead, I just sat next to him and watched the rest of the film he was watching. I never said a word to anyone about it until six years later. I held on to it. I really wish I hadn’t because I needed help, but I was too scared and embarrassed to ask for it.
What do you think triggered your mental health issues?
I think my mum and dad divorcing really had an impact on me.
I was a really lonely child and spent a lot of time in my own head. I also didn’t know who I was. I was always wanting to know what my purpose was and I didn’t.
I realised at a young age that I wasn’t a partier, a sporty person, a socializing person, an academic person, I wasn’t musical or political. I didn’t know who I was at all.
But, and I think this goes for a lot of young people who are suffering from their mental health issues, the divorce might have triggered the anxiety but not talking about it or getting help for it was like pouring petrol onto a flame. The more I hid it, the more things helped the fire grow and nothing was being done to put it out before it was too late and it had spread throughout my entire life.
How is your life now?
Things are better now than they have ever been before. I’m not cured and I don’t for one second ever think I will be cured of it, but I am happier than ever.
I still have panic attacks, I’m still anxious, but I’m not embarrassed about it. In fact, I will talk about it to anyone. I don’t care anymore. I have been through and dealt with a lot and I no longer look at that as me being weak. In fact, I think I’m pretty f***ing strong!
I will talk about mental health and my experiences to anyone because I don’t want another young kid to grow up hiding their struggles and fears to the point where they also see no other option than suicide.
I was lucky that I stopped. Not every person in the same situation does. I don’t want a young person to commit suicide because they’re too scared to talk to their parents or embarrassed that kids at school will take the mick because they’re struggling with their mental health. Not having that fear has helped me grow and get more confident in my own mind.
I started hanging around with people who had a positive impact on me. I started standing up for myself. I cut out all the things that I knew were bad for me (alcohol, caffeine, people) and I started working on things that are good for me. I still have my days where I don’t want to get out of bed or eat. I still call my mum in a panic attack because I think I have cancer. I still shout for my boyfriend when I am having a panic attack, I still can’t get on a bus without freaking out but that’s okay. I’m working on it. I’m working on myself and each day I get a little further.
I’m not an anxious person, I’m a person with anxiety.
Describe your work with Exhale
So I started Exhale to help others who might be or have gone through similar things.
I hate how all these charities are saying, ‘We need to talk about mental health!’ abd ‘we need to feel comfortable talking about mental health like we do physical health”. Yes, we do, but it’s not just enough to say it. People aren’t going to talk about mental health without being given a comfortable and safe place to do so. For most people, talking about their mental health isn’t going to happen overnight. We need to build up their confidence first and get rid of that sense of loneliness. It’s not a switch that we can easily flick on and off whenever we want to. We’re not going to talk so openly about mental health when there still isn’t a viable environment to do so. That’s like saying, ‘We all need to go plastic free!”. Yes, we do, but nobody will go plastic-free if they aren’t given viable plastic-free options to do so.
Exhale was formed to do that. I run completely free day events dedicated to mental health in all forms. They’re family-friendly and accessible to everyone.
Our slogan is ‘shattering stigma” | building communities’. We encourage people to listen to as many talks as possible. We invite them to talk to one another and make friends. We encourage them to get talking, even if it is to a stranger. At our events, when someone says ‘I understand what you’re going through’ they truly do mean it. Our attendees have got such sad back stories and yet they’re all determined to help other people first. So Exhale brings them together in one space to help one another and it works.
At our last event, one woman said she had never said ‘I am depressed’ to anyone before, but she said it to a stranger that day. She didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t need to. She had taken the step to talking about mental health and that’s fantastic.
Charities, GPs, therapists are helping to shatter the stigma and helping people cope with their mental health, but I truly believe that when all is said and done, the best help will come from the communities who have been through it and are fighting their anxiety, depression, eating disorder, PTSD, OCD, paranoia, BPD, pack attacks, BDD, schizophrenia on a daily basis.
You see it already, there are large communities on Twitter of people who are dealing with all sorts of mental health issues helping one another. One of them might Tweet, “I’m feeling really anxious today, don’t want to get out of bed.” And they’ll get a quick response of, “You can do it. You’ve done it before. I do this when I feel like you do…” It’s amazing. It’s strangers coming together and building support networks.
What would you do if Exhale had funding?
If Exhale had more funding our events would be bigger and we’d move around the country running them. We want to be huge and most of all, we want it to stay free. Nobody. should pay to talk about mental health.
What would you say to a woman who has a spark of an idea but lacks confidence?
If you believe in something so much, do something about it. We’ve all got the power to make a difference. Whether you do something little or you go all out and do something huge, do something.
What book would you recommend to another woman?
Huge thanks to Molly for sharing her story so courageously and telling it as it is. This young woman will move mountains one baby step at a time and I look forward to following her journey.