It’s OK To Say campaign: ‘I’m not just a survivor, but the heroine of my own story’

Natalie Herd and Stacey Turner of It's OK To Say...

Natalie Herd and Stacey Turner of It's OK To Say... - Credit: Archant

In a remarkably brave and honest article, St Albans resident Natalie Herd opens up to Stacey Turner about her personal experiences with mental ill health as part of our ongoing It’s OK To Say campaign.

The day I learnt it was OK not to be OK came shortly after I stopped caring about what other people thought.

Sometimes all you need is to hit rock bottom. There is no lower you can go. Luckily for me, I was about to discover that I’m not just a survivor but the heroine of my own story.

The best piece of advice I was given during my worst hours was that you only get out of recovery what you put in. I apply this to every one of my relationships in life: my daughter, my partner, my family, my friends - anyone in my orbit until they don’t deserve it anymore.

In March 2015, I woke up after of a decade of battling with my brain. My body was shot and my emotions were uncontrollable. I sat looking across the room at what I can only describe as the most beautiful child I had ever seen.

The child in question was my two year old daughter.

I am fully aware that once this goes to print I can’t take back a word and I will be leaving details out to protect her.

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I think, as a child, witnessing your mother crack up and have a full mental breakdown is a deeply traumatic experience and even to this day I still find it hard to forgive myself for letting her see my emotions or behaviour.

Don’t get me wrong, my mother and her father kept her shielded as much as possible and she was always safe.

My in-laws have also always been there showering her in love and affection I don’t know where we’d be without their help at times.

I just knew that my battle from my early teens with anxiety was now unmanageable - my depression was deep and I no longer wanted to exist on this earth.

I’d been trying so hard to keep up this front. This appearance. I think in a town as affluent as St Albans there can be a huge judgement on standards and the pressure was becoming immense. How my daughter looked, what I was serving her for dinner, what activities we were doing together, how I looked, how clean the house was, how often I walked the bloody dog. It was just too much pressure.

The panic attacks were coming daily, the emptiness was ever-present and my self-worth was on the floor. Drinking to stay calm was becoming a bit of a habit. The anxiety was making my body absorb the alcohol so rapidly no-one would know I’d had a drink.

Eventually I made some calls to a dear friend, to my daughter’s father and to my mother. I told them that we needed to find a safe family for my daughter to live with as I no longer felt worthy to be her mother.

I sobbed and sobbed and couldn’t stop until I made the decision to leave her downstairs with my brother who was worried out of his wits. I looked at her and I just felt so helpless. I kissed her gently on the forehead and told her I was doing this because I loved her.

I quickly scurried upstairs and started popping tablets out of packets not giving a care as to what they were. I just needed closure. I needed to have a day with no more anxiety and that meant ending my life.

Some may read this and think me selfish but at the time I truly felt I was doing the most selfless thing I could.

I was crying uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe. At that moment I could hear my partner rushing into the house in panic and charging up the stairs. The bathroom door burst open and he came in and grabbed me. I lay in his arms, lifeless. I had no fight left in me.

They called for help and an ambulance and a member of the Crisis assessment team arrived. Then followed social services.

It was then that I truly understood the horror of the situation. I was completely petrified. I became hysterical. ‘No! No way you can take my child away from me - you’d have to kill me first’. The irony is not lost on me.

My thoughts weren’t logical - they were raw, visceral. The thought of someone taking away my child was like a knife going through my heart. I started hyperventilating and had to be carried out of the room...

The outcome of my breakdown was for me to undergo some intense treatment at Albany Lodge in St Albans and at home.

I was a very sick young lady and I desperately needed to get better. It was a very slow recovery - I spent a month at my mum’s in the same white dressing gown and black tracksuit. I never left the room without my Marlboro Lights.

I went on to some short-term medication and started to work on looking after myself. It took me over a month to leave the house. I’d become agoraphobic - a prisoner in my mother’s home.

I’d not contacted my friends or family members in weeks. I locked myself away. I needed time to heal. I’d been through some traumatic experiences some of which I was to blame for and some I definitely wasn’t. I’d been diagnosed with delayed PTSD and untreated borderline personality disorder.

For so long I had dealt with this not realising I needed professional help, it’s no wonder I broke in the end. But now I knew what I was dealing with and gradually I was repairing.

My daughter loves to swim and my first trip out alone with her was to Westminster Lodge - somewhere we knew very well.

I was very nervous, it took all my energy to get there but we did, trembling as I drove, I felt sick, my heart racing like it was going to leap out of my chest, my palms sweaty, my breathing irregular. The swim was great and our bond was coming back fast. She giggled and splashed and for the first time in years I knew we were going be OK. I whispered in her ear “Mummy’s home”. The storm was passing. I knew there would be hard work ahead but I was ready.

I was assigned to 18 months art therapy and got a fantastic part-time job in a boutique in town. This was great for my self-confidence as I’d always thought I was stupid and now I was discovering that even though I wasn’t as academic as I wanted to be, I had other great attributes: I was artistic, I was creative, I was colourful.

I don’t let labels define me, I don’t let what I went through define me and I don’t let it be who I am. I certainly don’t care about what people think. I am me and I have worked my butt off to be here.

I’m a good mum, I have a great partner, supportive family and brilliant friends. My daughter is my world and I’m so grateful. We survived together and I hold her hand and kiss it every night.

People say I’m lucky. I guess I am. But I earned this smile, I earned this love and I earned this life. I wake up looking forward to the day now. I live, I breathe, I exist in a new world.

Today, I’m free of all my medication. I rarely drink, I eat well, I sleep well, I exercise when I can, and most of all I’m happy!

When I’m having an off day, I remind myself that it’s OK not to be OK.

Statistically, at some point in our lives, we will all know someone with a mental illness.

It may be you. It was me. Is me. And it made me everything I am today: a loving mother, a caring daughter, a supportive partner, an understanding friend.

It’s nice to know the world is slowly accepting mental health issues.

Talking is key. You never know - it may lead to laughter.

Never give up on you.

If this article helps just one person feel less alone then writing this has been worth it.