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A Nottingham Mindfulness Teacher Talks About Her Mental Health Journey

26 May 21 words: Kerry Munro
photos: Magda Kuczmik

Sometimes it can feel like our brains are working against us - thoughts whirl around and clamour for our attention uninvited, and can throw us off our path or distract us from what it is we want to focus on. Kerry Munro, a Nottingham-based registered Occupational Therapist and mindfulness practitioner from Minds First, writes about her mental health journey, and how mindfulness helped

I grew up in Bleasby in Nottinghamshire, in a wooden house in the middle of nowhere, sandwiched between the River Trent and a beautiful lake. We had our own place to swim wild and a little wooden rowing boat, fields to roam and plenty of fresh air to breathe. It’s fair to say it was a pretty idyllic upbringing, but that didn’t stop me coming down with depression. For me, the biggest misconception about depression is that you have to have something to be depressed about. Whilst major life events can of course cause a person to become clinically depressed, for many there is no significant trigger. 

Often depression and anxiety can come about no matter how good our external life circumstances might be, our own minds can just go on the attack, and when we don’t have an awareness of how to manage the negative thoughts that follow, that can send us in a downward spiral. My depressive episodes started when I was fourteen years old. I vividly remember when it struck, without any real warning. I was at school, sat in the canteen with my close friend as I attempted to eat my lunch, but I had no desire to - my appetite had disappeared. I became tearful for no obvious reason and felt extremely low. Over the coming days, I started to feel very anxious and uncomfortable around others and just wanted to go home and be by myself.

I became extremely tired, but I couldn’t sleep through the night. Instead, I lay there, my thoughts racing, worrying, constant, until I would hear the birds and see the light through my curtains, realising that I had been awake the entire night. By morning, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. I rapidly lost my appetite and felt sick to the stomach most of the time, struggling to force down the small bits of food that my Mum tried to tempt me with.

By recognising that life isn’t always supposed to be a joy-ride of endless fun and pleasure, we can begin to cope with it’s trials and torments, and live in the moment

An overwhelming feeling of sadness had taken hold on me and I felt scared, guilty, alone, and like my mind had been taken over and I was no longer the Kerry that I once knew. It only made it all seem worse that I had no good reason to feel this way, and that my life should have been great on the face of it. I was given medication but sadly due to long waiting lists and the cyclical nature of my episodes of depression, I never managed to access therapy until my adult life. Looking back, I can see how valuable it would have been to have learnt about my mind, thoughts and patterns of declining mental health in my earlier years.

As an adult I was offered CBT therapy, which I found helpful and insightful into the power of our thoughts. However, I also found it exhausting to try and ‘reframe’ every negative or self-critical thought that popped into my mind and at this point in my life, with little reserves of self-compassion, it also leant itself to making me further believe my thoughts were ‘wrong’ or I was ‘defective’ in some way. There also continued to be a focus on medication, which sadly still didn’t stop my episodes. In any case, I tended to ignore my mental health as a teen, wishing it away and trying to brush it off as a blip whenever I had any respite. As an adult, I’ve learnt that my mental health is something I continually have to stay aware of, and regularly take care of, if I want to stay well. 

When I left school I went to university in Sheffield for a year, and typically of most freshers I spent more time hungover than engaging with my chosen course - one that I wasn’t enjoying at all. After another relapse, I decided to move back home and re-evaluate. Unsure of where to go next, I spotted an advert in a local newspaper for a healthcare assistant job at an adult psychiatric hospital. I got the job, and it was here that it became clear that my passion in life was to help others. Soon after finding out what an Occupational Therapist was, I decided to pursue a degree in it at Brunel University in London, and things started to look more positive.

In 2013 I was working in another mental health hospital when things started to slip again. Work was difficult, I was struggling to keep up, and I fell into being really self-critical - I soon slumped into another major relapse. The hectic pace of working in (and commuting to) a busy London hospital got too much, my mind-chatter went into overdrive, and I had to take some time off work. This followed similar episodes at school and university - was I going to be stuck in this cycle?

It was at that time that I was introduced to mindfulness by a therapist I was seeing, and I began applying it both to my own mental health management and later my work. Having a strong pull and good gut feeling about it, it felt like something more innate and human - a good way to connect people to both themselves and the moment. At first I only used mindfulness as a sort of panic button myself - it was a way to try and calm myself when feelings of hopelessness or anxiety were taking over. But I don’t think I fully took it on board in my everyday life until a few years later and in time, it’s proved transformative for me. After a total of sixteen years on antidepressants I think mindfulness, and treatments such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) - the eight-week course prescribed by the NHS for recurrent depression like mine - has been a really vital tool in managing my mental health. 

I lasted six years in London, attempting to keep up with the busyness and fast paced life of the capital. But I missed my roots and the natural surroundings of my youth, I missed my family and friends who’d stayed local, so I headed back to live in Nottingham. Over time I’ve realised that I need to take life quite slow. I’m not one for taking life too seriously - which never chimed well with the non-stop success quest that seems to be the aspiration in London. One of the things I love about Nottingham is admittedly the less vigorous pace of living, the more nuanced approach to work, and a more laid-back outlook.

That’s not to say that mindfulness encourages us to stop everything we’re doing and give up on hard work, nor is it about burying our pain or getting rid of it - quite the opposite. It’s about noticing our stresses, anxieties, all of our feelings, but making a shift in how we approach our relationship to those thoughts and feelings. By recognising that life isn’t always supposed to be a joy-ride of endless fun and pleasure, we can begin to cope with it’s trials and torments, and live in the moment.

For those of us who are more vulnerable to negative thoughts, self-criticism, and overwhelm, mindfulness offers us tools to be able to sit with our feelings, and learn not to let them rule us. Our thoughts and feelings can ultimately be disentangled from our moods, if we work at it. I can’t say that mindfulness has stopped my self-critical thoughts or not being sensitive to stress, it just stops me from letting those feelings drag me down. I can catch them at the moment at which they emerge, and put them in their place before they cause me too much damage.

Through my own suffering, I’ve grown stronger as I’ve developed my own toolkit for being more at ease with myself

Another thing I love about Nottingham is that it’s so much closer to nature, and I can properly break away from the city. Having grown up around nature, I think mindfulness, and being in nature, really takes me back to my roots and helps me feel grounded on a personal level. We’ve got so many great nature reserves, as well as the likes of Sherwood Forest, right on our doorstep, and a favourite thing to do now that I'm back is going to the Peak District, which is only a short drive away. 

As I move forward, my own mindfulness journey is very much taking me down this more natural and nature-based path. Of course, not everyone’s lucky enough to have easy access to nature or to have grown up with it like I did, but once we get accustomed to its rhythm, wherever we’re coming from, it’s proven to be a great way to escape the noise for a moment and access a bit of breathing room. Through my own mindfulness in nature workshops at Sherwood Glade we’ve had some really good feedback - people seem to be able to let go and sit with themselves that much easier when they’re surrounded by trees and the occasional tweet of birdsong. By connecting with nature and mindfulness practice more, things have gotten easier for me personally - it’s been a couple of years now since I last had a major episode, and I’ve been able to stop a few in their tracks over that time.

Whilst these episodes of depression have proved the most challenging experiences of my life, they have also provided me with a passion and interest in mental health, which in turn has led to a rewarding and fulfilling career, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Going through my own difficulties has given me great insight into the complexity of mental illness and the mind, which gives me the empathy I need in my job. Through my own suffering, I’ve grown stronger as I’ve developed my own toolkit for being more at ease with myself.

I never take the good times for granted - I’m very much still on my own mental health journey, and working at it all as I go, but I can honestly say that the thought of using my experience to help others puts a smile on my face. 

If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, get in touch with Kerry at Minds First via her website 

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