Mental Health – From the Heart.
This is my story, my journey and how it all began…
At the beginning of last year I was asked if I would mind being interviewed by Kelly Gaston, founder of Aspirational Living for her column ‘Living Proof’. In Kelly’s words,
‘Living Proof is a feature that showcases all types of women and men and showcase how they’re living a life of purpose and passion – their way!’
I want to thank Kelly for providing me with this opportunity to share with people, my story, the person I have become and the journey that I have taken to get to where I am today.
People may ask why I agreed to do this interview, inevitably it would highlight some of my childhood vulnerabilities and the difficulties that then manifested over the following years to come. My rationale is this; ‘no matter how tough life can be at times, with courage and determination you can get there’.
I want to be able to demonstrate to others that life is often not how it may seem. For many life can be a challenge, especially the adolescent years, I am hoping that by sharing a little piece of me, I might be able to inspire others to recognise that you can make those changes and with the correct help and support, you can achieve your goal.
Living Proof interview with Catherine Burrell (May 2017)
In this interview Catherine shares the difficulties she has had to face during her life and she does this in a very open, honest and vulnerable way. Catherine talks to us about bullying and how this affected her relationships around her and the feelings she had about herself for years afterwards. She shares this emotional story with us and talks to us about her diagnosis of dyslexia, narcolepsy but, most of all shows us how she has used her personal experience to drive her forward to retrain and learn more about how to help others with mental illness, confidence and self-esteem issues.
Her own experiences have spurred her on to make a difference in the world to others and help those vulnerable to social, emotional and mental health issues. Catherine has recently set up her own private clinic as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and offers a range of therapeutic services to help children, young people and adults as well as other professionals.
Living Proof is a feature that showcases all types of women and men and showcase how they’re living a life of purpose and passion – their way!
It could be freedom entrepreneurs, business men or women and/or even a stay at home parents and anything in between, there really are no limitations. You see, the way one person chooses to live their life is different to another and that’s the real beauty of it. We’re all made differently and we all have our own purpose and passion that we’d like to follow in this life and that’s just fine.
This feature will highlight those who are ‘Living Proof’ of living a life they love and we’ll follow their journey together through interviews and photographs of their life, their family and passions.
What were you like growing up Catherine?
I have very few memories of my childhood but the happiest ones are of time spent with my family. Being 1 of 4 siblings and having 4 cousins living 5 doors away, there were always a lot of people around. If you asked my parents what I was like as a child, they would say that they rarely had to tell me off and that I was well mannered, sensitive and sensible.
My family are Catholic so growing up attending weekly mass was routine and very much the norm for me. My parents had friends in the Parish who had children of similar ages so we have all grown up together. I remember days out, summer holidays camping and in the caravan in France, weekends in Holy Island, they were all generally good fun.
I have always enjoyed music, playing the Clarinet and Piano, I sang and played in the church youth music group, later going onto play the organ within Mass too.
When I began Sixth Form College, I became a member of what was then known as Cleveland Youth Choir and was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel on a number of occasions with the choir to Europe. I had some good friends in the choir and it was something I truly enjoyed being part of, I felt my happiest when I was around music and singing.
From other people’s perspective, I was a chatterbox and a daydreamer, something I would agree with, frequently being referred to as talkative by teachers in school. I actually had a conversation with someone recently who went to my school, I was rather shocked by their description of me, someone they deemed to be popular and always seemed happy.
This surprised me greatly as inside I always felt very different about things so in reality, it was a very different story. Growing up I was always very eager to please and looking back I know my friendships weren’t great and I flitted from one group of friends to another.
Looking back there was one girl in particular who bullied me throughout my school years. I dreaded school, on the morning bus ride, I vividly remember the saying, ‘A pinch and a punch for the first of the month. I also remember the actions that followed this, only if the 1st had fallen on the weekend these were twice as hard. I’d try to joke and act like I was not bothered but, inside I was both confused and terrified, one day she was a friend and the next day silence.
I have always been tall and thin built and bruising easily, ‘a pinch and a punch’ along with sly kicks under the table in lessons, did not make school life the greatest. 23 years on, it is something that I can still clearly recall about school.
They say actions speak louder than words, for me I would say both can impact equally. Slyly turning others against me making our friends choose her over me, she would refuse to go to places like parties if we were both invited. So of course, I’d bow out and just say I couldn’t make it, it was awful, inside I wanted to scream, I was so angry and felt helpless.
These very actions along with others, impacted on not only my confidence and self-esteem but my friendship groups. I found it hard to truly trust others and make genuine friends.
In my final year at school I started to have episodes of low mood and anxiety. I used to come home crying every day from school feeling worthless, stupid and like I didn’t fit in anywhere. These thoughts and beliefs became like an internal bully taking over and often spiralling out of control, I found myself starting to always worry what other people might be thinking of me. Not just peers but teachers too.
Did this continue in college?
College was very different initially, in comparison to school I loved it, I felt like I could be me and no one would make judgements. Putting it down to being young and I guess not really understanding what was happening, it was hard at times to take control of negative thoughts and opinions I had about myself.
I made new friends at college and luckily for me, the bully from school didn’t attend this college so that was a way of escaping that problem. Only, I did find that the problems I had experienced at school followed me to college, as it seemed difficult to make real friends. I had friends in different circles and again would flit from one group to another.
I remember when I took my driving test, passing first time, I was so pleased I rushed back to college to tell my friends. Their remarks were, ‘Well, if Catherine can pass then anyone can’. I know they were only joking but, it always felt that I was not good enough, frequently made to feel ditsy, blonde and stupid.
Inevitably, there were times over my teenage years both at Secondary School and Sixth Form College when I hung out with people that were doing things I didn’t really want to be involved in, because I wanted to fit in, I guess I just did it anyway. As you can imagine this was hard as a young girl to take but, I desperately wanted to feel like I was part of something real. I would laugh things off but what people could not see was I was beginning to struggle, at times I was vulnerable and naive.
It was at college I realised just how challenging the academic work was, I did not get it, it seemed like everyone else did just not me! Whilst I wanted to learn, I was passionate and recognised the need to succeed, I struggling with the amount of work. It was so hard to keep up, I would find myself daydreaming then falling asleep, I could not concentrate. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t stupid but I just couldn’t understand what was happening to me and why things were not making sense to me. Confiding in a friend about my anxieties, she encouraged me to make an appointment to see my GP and I was referred for counselling.
‘Why is this happening to me? It’s just not fair, Why me?’
I changed course after a year from A Levels to GNVQ Level 3 Health and Social Care, this also meant that whilst my friendship groups moved on to start University life I had to stay back at Sixth Form for an additional year.
Did you always know what you wanted to be growing up?
I knew I always wanted to work with children and I think that was because of the caring aspect, maybe a primary school teacher like my Aunty or a Children’s Nurse. I would babysit for friends and family when I could and through the college holidays I helped look after a family of cousins with a child minder and I knew then I loved working with children.
I have always wanted to do something to help and look after others, and perhaps this was as a result of my experiences. At Sixth Form College, I changed courses as I knew then for sure that being a nurse seemed the best route in order to help others.
Did you go onto University?
Yes, I went to St Martin’s College, Carlisle and I studied a Diploma in Health Education specialising in Children’s Nursing. I loved University life especially living in Halls of Residence and I shared a flat with 4 other students. Unfortunately, my problems with falling asleep and keeping up with the academic studying continued and towards the end of first 18 months’ anxiety increased and my mood dropped. Finding it increasingly difficult, I started to become quite introvert and found myself slowly isolating myself from friends again.
Living away from home I had not seen my parents for a couple of months however, in returning home to join my parents at an evening wedding reception I remember walking into the hotel to meet my parents and the look of shock on my Dad’s face when he saw me. It was at this point I believe my parents realised how much of a problem I was experiencing, struggling physically and emotionally.
They could see how unwell I’d become and because of this, one of the hardest decisions I had to make was to take a year out of university to get myself physically and emotionally well again. This situation evoked the same similar negative thoughts and feelings I’d experienced again, feelings of being a failure and being incompetent, ‘a let-down,’ but, I now know this was not true and my parents supported me every step of the way.
Reflecting on this time of my life was a very challenging time, but, it was one of the best choices I ever made. Over the years, having met with various counsellors and therapists, each have tried to help me overcome my issues with anxiety, confidence and feelings of low self-esteem. Some have been really helpful, helping me develop new ways of thinking and strategies to use, whilst others visibly clock watched as 60 minutes passed, more than often this caused me to disengage.
The internal bully taught me that people did not listen, they were not interested or believed what I had to say. I was adamant that they would view me as attention seeking, not recognising that inside I was struggling significantly. My parents however encouraged me in finding the correct help and support this time, I finally started to feel like someone was listening to me.
It was within this time frame that I was diagnosed with Dyslexia. Whilst chatting to a student friend I began to share my concerns with him about my continuing struggle both understanding the academic work, alongside the amount of time it would take for me to work at assignments. This would often lead to my frustration at often just scraping a pass and it was at this point he suggested I could be Dyslexic. At first, I laughed it off as I have struggled for years within both school and college, surely if I was, it would have been recognised before; wouldn’t it?!
I thought it was a long shot but College arranged for an assessment to be carried out by a private Educational Psychologist. The results indicated that I had a reading age of an 11-year-old and spelling age of a 12-year-old, I was 21! I couldn’t believe it, after all these years, the reason I had struggled so long wasn’t because I was thick or stupid (like I once thought) I was Dyslexic! The EP assessment also showed I had an IQ of 109 and that gave me the confirmation to know that I was capable, very capable.
I returned to College, joining new classes which meant a fresh start with a new group of students who were not aware of my previous difficulties. This time getting the academic support I needed and my results began to soar.
This was another hurdle overcome and whilst this helped my confidence to grow, it seemed at every opportunity I still would continue to fall asleep and this happened more so in class. There were times where I struggled to get up on mornings and could return home from University and easily sleep through until the next morning, waking after many hours of sleep and still not feel refreshed.
It was at this point my GP referred me to the Neurology Department at the RVI Hospital Newcastle. I got the train and spent a full day each month undergoing a series of tests and investigations to find out what was causing me to fall asleep. After a year of tests my results kept coming back as normal, I was told I had a lack of endorphin’s and needed to do more exercise. On the contrary, I was a keen runner at the time so not really feeling like I was any further to understanding what was going on nevertheless, I kept studying and working extra hard to keep up with things.
What happened next?
I graduated College as a Children’s Nurse in 2003, coming back home to live with my parents I began working on a Medical Children’s Ward in one of the local hospitals. I loved this job and I’d worked so hard studying to get the qualifications I needed.
Whilst working on the Children’s Ward for 2 years I met a lot of children and young people who presented with mental health problems, young people who self-harmed or presenting with eating disorders and I recognised that I could not sit and listen or support as much as I wanted on the ward, it was then I realised that my time was limited on the ward. I wanted to also understand more about the impact of mental health and young people and most importantly help.
Another job opportunity arose and I took it, I left the Children’s Ward and I began working in a Community Child Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) Team as a Community Mental Health Nurse.
Around the same time, I was referred back to the Neurology Department, this time at James Cook University Hospital as falling asleep was starting to have a detrimental impact on not only my studies but, my ability to function properly at work. I was under the care of one of the Specialists and diagnosed with Narcolepsy shortly afterwards in November 2005.
I couldn’t believe it after all this time, 10 years on since the days when I started falling asleep in college I was diagnosed and I finally found out why I kept falling asleep.
I’m sure you were relieved after your diagnosis so what happened next?
Being prescribed medication to control my condition, I continued with my full-time role working 37 hour weeks. It was difficult to adjust to the medication but, I felt so much better knowing what it was. Of course, there were days that were challenging, but, as always, I continued to dedicate all my energy and efforts into the young people and families I worked with.
I worked for 11 years in CAMHS and during this time my role developed from a Community Mental Health Nurse to a Primary Mental Health Worker and finally a CAMHS Clinician. Developing my role and skill base meant that I was able to build a good working rapport and therapeutic relationships with the families I worked with. I was able to confidently assess and deliver therapy for a range of social, emotional and mental health disorders including Anxiety, Depression, OCD, ADHD and ASD.
Alongside work, I complete a BSc Hons in Practice Development, CAMHS. Then in 2014 my Post Graduate Diploma in Evidence Based Psychological Therapies ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ in 2014.
I found a way to give back to others and a way to make a difference to young people’s lives; I helped them overcome issues and challenges and helped them to go onto live happier lives.
How did you meet Christopher, your now husband?
I met Christopher through a good friend Caroline, who was also a Children’s Nurse I worked with on the ward. Caroline and Christopher when to school together and unlike myself they were part of a large group of friends who had grew up together throughout school and since leaving school 8 years prior, they had remained friends.
The first time we met was on Christmas day 2003, Caroline invited me out with her friends on the night, what was special about this evening was seeing how close a group they all were even after so long, something I was not used to.
We became friends and began dating in 2005. Chris proposed on the 7th November 2008 and we got married 7 months later on 7th June 2009.
It was the happiest day of my life because not only had I met someone whom I trusted and loved, he was my best friend and most of all loved me too – just the way I was!
In 2011 we had Tom, now aged 6, he looks a lot like his Daddy with curly hair though I would say he gets his sensitive nature from me. In 2014, Harry was born, now 2 years old, Harry looks like my side of the family but, has a confident little personality and is so boisterous and into everything. Loving motherhood, whilst I find it challenging at times, it’s interesting to see as our boys grow, how different they are from one another.
During my maternity leave with Harry I began to find that the medication I took for my narcolepsy had begun to slowly stop working. Increasing my medication to the maximum dosage with still no effect resulted in my driving licence being revoked and being unable to drive. I felt so isolated and not being able to drive it was difficult to see people.
Prior to returning back to work, I raised concerns with regards to my medication not working, feeling constantly tired, and furthermore not being able to drive. All these factors beginning to have an impact again on my social and emotional health. I had to take an extended period of time off following my maternity leave in order for different medication to be trialled until I was on the correct medication.
Eventually, I got the right medication and I went from taking 6 tablets a day to 17 and I still continue to take this many now. Since the deterioration in my diagnosis, I now know how to treat it and I have to build in times during the day when I can sleep and this means relying heavily on my parents to help out with the children.
It’s been a huge adjustment for us as a family but, I couldn’t have got through any of this without the loving, kindness and support of my family. They mean the world to me and I feel very lucky to have them around me.
I ended up having 20 months off in total and whilst I had numerous meetings with regards to reintegrating back into work, this also meant reducing my working week from full time to 16 hr weeks, it was disappointing to realise that the support discussed had not been put in place. Disheartened by the response I received when I tried to address this, I handed in my notice in on 17th March 2016.
I had no idea how it would work out, but I knew I had to try something different, something that worked for not only myself but, my family too and it does. I left the NHS in May last year, setting up my own private practice, ‘Sunflower Cognitive Therapies Limited’, since then, I have never looked back. I was brave and courageous and just took the leap of faith and hoped it would all work out for the best and it did!
I offer Private CBT to clients of all ages and also work with children and young people within schools. Over the last year, I have developed close working relationships with numerous schools and professionals in the area, something that I never truly imagined would have happened so quickly. I have so far designed and am having published, three training programmes, these are delivered to teaching staff. I have also provided teaching sessions and presentations to classes and whole year groups.
I’ve had a roller coaster of a ride so far in life but, every challenge and every set back has helped me to become the person I am today. I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been and I’m doing something I love every day, making a difference to others and there’s nothing better than that.
You certainly have had a roller coaster of a ride so what lies ahead for you now Catherine?
Working for myself is amazing and I love it but, I need to adopt a better work/life balance and that’s still work in progress! I love what I do so it doesn’t seem like work but, I am aware I do have a chronic physical condition, narcolepsy so I need to look after my health. There currently is no cure for my condition so I just need to be mindful of my limitations and physical warning signs that tell me to slow down.
I’m not driven by money and I never have been it’s always been about making a difference, because of this the last two Christmas’s I organised two appeals collecting for local charities in the area. I am currently planning a Summer Charity Ball at Wynyard Hall in aid of the JPC Community Farm and I am very excited to see what else the future brings.
Whilst expanding my business, my biggest motivator being giving back to others, I too want to spend as much time as I can with my family. Children are not children for long and I would like to create so many wonderful memories with them.
What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learnt so far?
It’s the small steps we take that help us achieve our long-term goals. This is my motto, it has helped me hugely and I now share it with my clients because no matter where you are now, you start from that point and take one step at a time.
I also know the importance personally of having self-belief and it’s something I’m going to try and instil into my children too. I’ve learnt the importance of accepting things for the way they are right now and how important it is to not look back and regret what has happened but, to look back and learn from it. Even though there have been times in my life that have been upsetting and difficult to deal with I’ve learnt so much and I know that’s made me the person I am today.
I am ‘Living Proof’ that you can use your personal experience to the benefit of others and that’s what I try to do every single day – Make a difference and help others be the best they can by having confidence and self-belief.
If you would like to find out more information about the work that Kelly does including the help and support she provides to others please take a look at her website www.aspirationalliving.co.uk
Thank you for taking the time out to read my journey. I hope that if anything it may inspire you or someone you know that what may seem unachievable can in fact be achievable!
Best Wishes Catherine