Dr Ebony Escalona is a veterinary surgeon who has worked as a Equine Vet for many years. She is also an educator and entrepreneur and previously worked in music television. Within these varied roles she developed a number of transferable skills that opened up a number of non-veterinary enterprises and collaborations. Ebony is passionate about building confidence in others and is a huge advocate of the ‘portfolio career’, simply put, doing the things you love and loving the things you do.
Sometimes I have to laugh at the voice in my head. Like, where have you come from? Who invited you? I can’t find you on my guest list…. That voice dishes out words that you would never dare utter and certainly NEVER give as advice to a friend so why do we listen to it?
Because unfortunately (or fortunately) it’s part of me. Just like the rest of my body. When it’s working and healthy it’s ace. But, when it’s broken it needs help getting fixed. Just like a broken leg needs rest and realignment so does my brain.
Believe it or not, I used to think depressed people had too much time on their hands.
“I won’t get like that – got too much to do”
Can. You. Believe. It?! No wonder there is still stigma surrounding it!
The lava lows of depression
Approximately eight years ago, I experienced my first bout of mental health issues that stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea what was happening to me or why it had turned up on my doorstep. Anxiety and panic left me physically and mentally drained and eventually I could not leave my bed. My gorgeous dog was the only thing I would leave the house for. Thank God for dogs! I experienced what can only be described as eruptions of frequent pain and profound sadness. I had turned into a human volcano of dark and negative thoughts. They consumed me and left me scared to sleep as I could not bear to be left alone with my thoughts. The TV or radio had to be on continually. In fact, I still find the dulcet tones of Radio 4 soothing in the middle of the night, much to the annoyance of my fiancé.
If I look back, it was not something that came from nowhere. In fact, the lava of depression started to bubble up when trying to shortcut my care and please everyone around me. I was feeling incredibly lonely and inadequate in one of the busiest cities in the world. As a PhD student at Imperial College, my department was filled with genius and I felt like the odd one out, an imposter trying to keep face. I reached out to student services and had some incredibly helpful counselling sessions but they soon ran out and they unearthed some painful memories that made coping impossible. I retracted from all social events, stopped attending university, didn’t answer my phone, I even stopped brushing my teeth. Thankfully I was living in a flat above my incredible step-mum (or “other-mother” as she gets called) and without judgement she scooped me up, held my hand and offered to take me down to my GPs.
Postcode lottery of care. I feel very lucky
I am eternally grateful to the two GP practices and one mental health unit who have supported me on and off over the years in North London. I am aware that not everyone has access to swift and sustained mental health care. I struggled to accept help to begin with, I didn’t want to burden anyone. I had created stories and rules for living such as “It’s best for me to do it myself” and “I have to help others before looking after myself.” When you say them out loud they sound absurd but this was my pattern of thinking and subsequent behaviour. Thankfully the tides began to turn with medication and CBT. The problem was I started to get a little “too well”, high even or experienced numbness. It was hard to get the medication doses right and I spent too much time feeling like a bland biscuit. I decided to take myself off my meds. Was a part of me enjoying the emotional rollercoaster? I certainly felt more me as a “Party Ring” than as a “Digestive Biscuit”.
Since my initial bout of depression I did pretty well: I completed a PhD, found love again, cared for a sick family member and landed a dream job working for an international NGO. But, latterly I found myself falling into cycles of destructive but often personally enjoyable highs followed by equal and opposite lows. A diagnosis of hypomanic bipolar wasn’t much of a surprise, especially when we pieced together my behaviour and response to treatment. The diagnosis although useful for management left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Oscillating between these states is now my norm. Admitting it though was tough. What will people think of me? Will I be employable? Will someone be able to love me? Will people look at me differently? I didn’t actually tell anyone about it for months and in fact my employers were the first to know. This only came about due to the potentially risky nature of development work overseas and insurance. I desperately wanted to keep it a secret.
Riding the highs and learning the triggers
Mental health stories aren’t all doom and gloom though, quite the opposite in my case. The highs are filled with liberating disinhibition, euphoria, racing and creative thoughts, wild and wondrous nights out and watching the fruits bloom from some of the ambitious projects I kicked off when feeling high.
But these manic thoughts and behaviours are unsustainable and lead to overexertion and falling back into the volcano. All of a sudden there are voices saying; “what have I done, what was I thinking?” Self-sabotage starts all over again. This is exactly what happened around VSGD LIVE! and it nearly ended my relationship. I had become almost impossible to live with. I had a complete loss of insight as to the effect my behaviour was having on others. Drink became my go-to and I was seeking out busyness to drown out the voices again. I had become volatile even at work and found myself being encouraged to have time off from my very supportive employers. Crying uncontrollably and ashamedly to my GP on the phone, the cycle started again.
I am now a freelancer so I feel even more responsible for my conduct and self-care. Over the past year I have worked alongside an incredible psychologist and psychiatrist duo to help identify my potential causes and triggers and devise practical ways to manage my moods. My fiancé has also joined me for some of these sessions as he struggles to understand this part of me. This is ok, one person cannot be the Swiss army knife to all my needs. The F word has also been raised (family), but if I am honest I am scared that if I cannot look after myself, how can I look after someone else? What if I pass on this pain? This conversation is a work in progress.
Wounded healers need help too
As healthcare professionals I think this voice has an added dimension. We feel that as the care-givers and healers we cannot afford to be sick. Having attended the NHS Wounded Healer Summit, this phenomenon happens in all caregivers. The doctor turned comedian and author Adam Kay summed it up nicely: “We have failed to acknowledge that we are human. Doctors are humans who make mistakes, get sick and get sad. This needs to change.” Many echoed this sentiment but also challenged the stigma that we as professionals also might bring into the room. I certainly can vouch for the stigma that I will have undoubtedly created in the past, albeit unknowingly.
“Before we are doctors we are people. We bring in our prejudice and stigma. Mental health is our last taboo. We need to look at our views and beliefs too. We have failed to acknowledge that we are human. Doctors are humans who make mistakes, get sick and get sad. This needs to change,” delegate at Wounded Healer Summit.
At times I feel fortunate to experience what I do in my mind. Some of the rainbows after the rain as I like to call them. By feeling and experiencing what I have, my empathy for others has grown. The manic highs can often be part of great things such as founding Vets Stay Go Diversify. They remind me that I’m beautifully human and I’m not a robot and that big mental health moments have acted as important pivot points for me to reevaluate what I want to do and why. Be them in the phases of my hypomania or my depression.
I lost a tooth somewhere between the highs and the lows and now every day I notice the gap between my teeth. A constant reminder that self-care comes first. Not long ago I had my last session with my psychologist. I didn’t want our session to end and held back my tears as I thanked her. Could I really cope without her unwavering professional support? With her kind eyes welling a little too, she said, “You’ve got this” and do you know what? I think for now I have.