I share a lot in my parenting classes and workshops, lots of anecdotes about my parenting journey but that's usually where it ends. Recently I was reminded of the importance of what I do and how my story has the power to help others. As difficult as it can be to put myself 'out there' if I want to make a change to how we view Mental Health and Emotional Development in this country then I need to be braver; I need to share more of 'me'. So over the coming weeks I will be doing exactly that, sharing more of me and my story in the hope that it will somehow resonate with others and give you an understanding of why what I do is so incredibly important to me - let's begin with a bit about my health journey and what led me to creating 'Bridge the Gap'.
I was the happiest I had ever been: I had just welcomed a much longed for second child into my marriage and I was enjoying watching my daughter grow and the relationship between my son and daughter evolve. Then, before my daughter’s first birthday, I was struck down with crippling abdominal pains and bloating which hospitalised me for days at a time. I was eventually diagnosed with a chronic bowel condition, which refused to go away, but I managed to continue with my life whilst learning how to work round my health issues.
When my son was 10 and my daughter was three years old I then started to experience incredibly heavy and painful periods that would last for three weeks at a time. My moods were erratic, and the constant pain and sickness dragged me down. After many trips to the doctors I was told that heavy periods are an ‘unfortunate draw of the short straw’ and although I was given medication to help reduce my pain and flow I felt pretty much alone.
Over the years I accepted that this was my fate. I tried my upmost to keep going and put on a brave face. I had surgery to remove a large, cystadenoma which was growing from a stalk off one of my ovaries, but even then, it didn’t ease my long-term pain.
In fact, the cystadenoma had become twisted and was causing excruciating pain so initially I did experience a better quality of life and I was hopeful that the surgery would ease my symptoms long-term, but unfortunately it soon became apparent that this was not the case.
All of this was having a huge impact on my bowel health and I would struggle to go to the toilet for up to 3 weeks at a time, I would be hospitalised for impactions and I had never felt so ill. The guilt I felt for not being at home with my husband and children was intense and my mood dipped massively. It reached the point where I couldn’t remember what it was like to not feel poorly.
After years of struggling my condition took a huge decline, I had somehow managed to work part-time through all this (heat pads were my friend), but this was getting harder and harder to manage.
I decided that enough was enough. I discussed with my husband and then my consultant the dreaded ‘H’ word - a Hysterectomy.
At first my consultant said that he couldn’t perform this surgery on a 35-year-old without knowing that it would make me feel better. Apart from the cystadenoma I had no signs of endometriosis or anything like it, but I knew I couldn’t carry on living like this. Fortunately, I was heard and after a 6-month course of treatment to put me into artificial menopause we all agreed it was the best shot I had at a better quality of life. I was booked in for a total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. Once the surgery was booked in I started to feel more hopeful but in the final weeks before the surgery my condition worsened once more.
My uterus swelled. Really swelled! I looked like I was at least 7 months pregnant. On top of which my face and limbs were swollen and puffy and I suffered from constant sickness. The pains in my hips, back, stomach and thighs were unbearable, plus my bowel condition was impossible to manage. One day, two weeks before my surgery was due, it took me nearly 30 minutes to walk the 7-minute walk to work. And, when I got there, I just stood in the middle of the room when I arrived and sobbed and sobbed. The proper ugly wailing type! My wonderful, kind, supportive workmates looked after me. They got me home and straight to bed which is where I stayed until my surgery 2 weeks later.
When I came around after surgery the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t feel sick anymore. The registrar who had been in the surgery said they could visibly see my tummy reduce as soon as my uterus left my body; she used the word ‘mushy’ to describe it.
I had been suffering from a condition called ‘Adenomyosis’. Adenomyosis is a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus (the endometrium) breaks through the muscle wall of the uterus (the myometrium). Adenomyosis can cause menstrual cramps, lower abdominal pressure, and bloating before menstrual periods and can result in exceptionally heavy periods. In its later stages it also causes chronic fatigue, sickness, back and musculoskeletal pain. The only indication I ever had was on a CT scan for my bowel condition when I was told I had a ‘bulky uterus’, but as nothing was made of it, and with me being so unwell at the time of the scan, it was forgotten about.
The scan was performed by my gastro doctors, maybe if I had the scan under Gynae I would have known sooner, but who knows. It is what it is, and because of the operation, I have now been granted a much better quality of life than before. The aftermath of the operation hasn’t come without new challenges: surgical menopause has been a huge challenge for me. I would describe those early weeks post-surgery like feeling like I’d been told everyone I loved in the world had died.
Then, a couple of years post-surgery, I started to develop virus infection after virus infection. I spent weeks at a time bedridden again. My immune system was severely weakened, and, as a result of this, I ended up making the difficult decision to leave my job as an Early Years Practitioner, It was my passion. It was what I was trained for, I had worked so hard to be the best I could be. I loved my job looking after and mentoring the children but at the end of the day those lovely little people I enjoyed being with so much were carriers of lots of things that were making me unwell. It was time to move on, and that’s what I did. The old saying ‘as one door closes another one opens’ springs to mind. Sorry though I was to leave the job I loved, I began to view it as an opportunity for a fresh start.
So that’s what I did.
I experienced such intense emotions during these years, I felt guilty for complaining, guilty for feeling depressed and anxious, guilty for not being a good enough wife or mother, guilty for feeling this way when people experience far worse - the guilt was overwhelming. I felt so scared at times that I even wrote letters to my children and put them away in a box for them to read if I wasn't around to be there for them any longer. Learning to tune into those emotions, processing them and not fighting against them has been a huge part of my emotional recovery and has definitely helped me in my ongoing recovery and management of my bowel condition and the M.E. and Fibromyalgia I was diagnosed with post surgery.
Emotional Literacy was something I had become passionate about through working with children, and leaving work gave me the opportunity to explore it in greater depth than ever before. I came to realise that I had been using Emotional Literacy strategies myself to help protect my mental health and overall well-being throughout my health woes. I had both the professional and personal tangible experience needed to understand the significance of using Emotional Literacy with children in order to help their long term mental health,
That’s when I decided to set up ‘Bridge the Gap’. I wanted to share the importance of emotional development in children and young people with parents and all those involved in child education or care. I began running parent workshops and developing training suitable for professionals working in schools and other settings. The more I researched and discovered the more I knew that this was such an important thing to talk about and raise awareness of.
I now run Bridge the Gap full-time from my dining room table alongside being a mother to my now 17- and 11-year old children and wife to my husband Richard; a secondary school teacher who is my rock. The business continues to evolve and develop.
I learn something new every day and as mental health is such an important topic to discuss in 2018 it’s something I never want to stop learning about. We can’t compartmentalise our health like we have done for so long - our physical and mental health are so intrinsically linked that they impact and support each other. I couldn’t have got through what I have without Emotional Literacy strategies, and now my aim is for emotional development to be at the top of every school’s agenda, helping to build connections and support children and young people’s well-being. It’s a big challenge, but everywhere I have been I have been listened to, and the value of what I am focusing on has been recognised.
I feel fortunate to have the ability to share both my story and the importance of Emotional Literacy. Connections are what has seen me through the darkest of times, and Emotional Literacy helps to build strong connections - that’s something that deserves to be talked about.