When Maria Bevan was eventually diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder it came as something of a relief.
“It helped explain the extremes of my behaviour,” says Maria, now 49, from Doncaster.
She had spent her teenage years, and early 20s, battling the eating disorders, anorexia and bulimia, which left her infertile. Her agony intensified when she lost unborn twins conceived through IVF, before giving birth to a healthy son, Taylor, now 20.
“I often wonder what came first,” says Maria. “Was the anorexia part of my personality disorder? Or did the disorder develop in reaction to the grief and guilt I felt at losing my twins. I blamed myself for it.
“The disorder meant my behaviour could be excessive, whether through starving myself, reckless with money, withdrawn or over the top. I met comedian Ruby Wax at an awards do once and we recognised a lot of ourselves in each other.
“I realised I was no good at relationships but never lost my ambition to work, I realised that was what drove me, gave me focus and purpose.”
Now Maria uses the experience and insight of living with a mental health condition to help others as a health co-ordinator for public services provider A4e, delivering the Government’s Work Programme across South Yorkshire.
But it hasn’t been an easy path. She has decided to talk about her experiences as part of Mental Health Awareness Week which focuses on anxiety. A survey released yesterday shows that one in five women in the UK feel anxious nearly all of the time.
Anxiety can develop into a serious condition, causing panic, phobias and obsessive behaviours which can be debilitating to work life, home, relationships, well-being and physical health.
Maria admits that she pushed herself to the limit, at one point undertaking a degree in employment and social policy, a full-time job and being a single mum. At the same time, her father had a stroke and she spent her weekends caring for her parents. Something had to give and she started to suffer up to 20 paralysing panic attacks a day.
“The first time, I went to A&E. I thought I was going to die. It felt like I couldn’t draw a breath, my chest was so tight I would be gasping for air. I would start to feel faint and was terrified of passing out. The terror grew, my thoughts ran out of control, my heart would be pounding and I felt as though my arms were going into spasm.
“I tried to hide it as I talked myself down. I was terrified of looking like an idiot but I would tell myself, ‘You’re not going to faint and if you do, someone will pick you up’.”
They continued after she left university and went to work at a local council, especially when she had to deal with customers or, more worryingly, when she was driving. They stopped after a doctor prescribed beta blockers and antidepressants.
“I’ve learned to live with my condition and even embrace it,” she says. “Now I work with other people who have had their lives blighted and severely limited by their conditions. I used to think I would die a death giving a talk. Now I am able to stand in front of them and say, ‘My name’s Maria and I have a borderline personality disorder.’
“I think it helps them hugely to know I truly understand, and to see me up there gives them motivation and hope. It is too easy to stay at home and say, ‘I can’t do this or that’. People with mental health problems make a safe world for themselves because change and uncertainty are terrifying prospects.
“But it’s not healthy to hide away, you just focus on your condition and your limitations, you get insular, isolated, more depressed and anxious.”
Maria recently joined A4e’s team of regional Health Co-ordinators, overseeing their network of ‘capacity and resilience’ advisers, who work with people who have health conditions, disabilities and substance misuse problems.
As a provider of the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship Work Programme, A4e has helped almost 17,000 people with a recorded health condition into work, many of whom have been out of work for long periods of time. A third of all Work Programme customers have one or more disabilities, more than half of them related to mental health issues.
“I have worked for employers before who have not understood my condition and it has made me very ill,” says Maria, who is based in Sheffield but also covers Leeds and South Yorkshire. “When you have a condition like mine, you find it hard to work out whether it’s your own fault and your own weird behaviour. After being badly treated at one company, I became a virtual recluse for three months. It can happen so easily. So I also understand people who have been unemployed because of a terrible experience. We need to educate employers as well as preparing people with mental health issues for the right kind of work.”
She says the key to her job is making people feel safe, no matter how long that takes.
“When I train staff they sometimes say they are finding it difficult to get some customers to engage. I tell them these people are afraid, this is really big for them. You have to get rid of that fear for them. Once they start to feel safe coming to A4e, we can help expand their world, one step at a time, adapting the coping mechanism they have at home.
“The change you see in people is so gratifying. It’s my purpose in life to help people free themselves from the chains of mental illness.”
For more on Mental Health Awareness Week (May 12 -18) visit www.mentalhealth.org.uk