Conversations With… Rebecca Browne (Subject: Fibromyalgia, Mental Health and Body Image)

Social media allows us to connect with people in a way that we would never get the chance to. I can find out what celebrities have for breakfast and where people I admire go on holiday. Social media has made the world and everyone in it seem closer. Because of this, I was able to connect with Rebecca, or @returnofreb as she is known online, the person who gave me the confidence to talk about my sexual assault and who inspires me every day with her uplifting content and inspirational attitude.

Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, Rebecca lives with her partner Tom and their adorable dogs. Despite her health problems that have left her with limited mobility and using a wheelchair, Rebecca uses her platform to connect with other people with Fibromyalgia and chronic pain as well raise awareness of mental health conditions. Not one to accept her health struggles and give up, Rebecca works fearlessly and passionately to help improve her life and the life of others. She has founded the mental health event the Black Dog Event and is a passionate public speaker. Even with reduced mobility, she pushes herself out into the world, going swimming daily and using her wheelchair to get around. Her Fibromyalgia has caused her to gain weight so she speak about body positivity and body acceptance, inspiring countless others to love themselves.

Rebecca doesn’t float through life, she grabs it by both hands and makes it her own. How can you not be in awe of someone who does that?

In your own words, can you describe your mental health back story?

I was a studious kid and a people pleaser who had to be the best at everything she did. I know now that this behaviour was me trying to compensate for the sexual abuse I had experienced as a child, but back then being perfect drove my life. I worked hard, got good grades and was an accomplished violinist – I even won an award when I was about sixteen for being one of the five best musicians of Northern Ireland. Whilst that sounds great, I hated it. I loved playing and I was good at it, but I had undiagnosed, crippling anxiety. I was told the nerves would get better but they never did.

Gradually my momentum slowed. I began to become apathetic and I went from the highest mark in my history a level in my penultimate exam to a D in my last exam because I couldn’t bring myself to study. This was the first real indicator that I had depression, but it would be another two years before I would seek the help I so desperately needed. Even though I started taking medication for depression whilst at university, I still had so many issues and needed intensive therapy, something I wouldn’t receive for another two years. I didn’t know at the time but all of these experiences with mental illness would shape who I would become and what career I want to pursue.

In my last year of uni, circumstances meant I had to move back home, get a house, a full time job, finish my degree and take in my 17 year old sister. She was a tyrant and doing everything she shouldn’t. It was one of the hardest and loneliest times of my life but it also taught me how to be happy alone and that I was worth more than the relationships I was accepting.

During that time, my dog Rascal was my everything. He was my reason for getting up in the morning. Initially I struggled to get a job and when I did land one the start date was two months away. I had no friends or family that I felt comfortable confiding in. I was so lonely and Rascal was all the company I had. He allowed me to make conversation when we walked and was a way of connecting with people.

I became strong because I had to. My home life was hard, I had unhealthy coping mechanisms and did things I regretted but it was worth it because my sister finally got she did well and started taking responsibility for her life. I arranged the Black Dog Event, a mental health event designed to bring people and dogs together to show their benefit to our mental health. The dogs provided an ice breaker for the anxious crowd and everyone started opening up to each other. Walking around and hearing those conversations proved the success of the joining of the two. I’m running my next one on World Mental Health Day in October.

I also became a ‘born again’ virgin and decided not to have sex until I saw potential. This lasted for six months and was brought to an end by Tom, my partner and soulmate. Before I met him, my experiences moulded me into a headstrong, self loving babe who knew her worth so I was already strong when we met, but my confidence only grew with Tom. Never had someone doted on me like that, been thoughtful, open and honest and made me feel like a goddess. More than that, Tom pushed me to be my best self. I still feel very lucky to this day.

I’ve gone from not being able to make a phone call because I was so anxious to giving a speech at an event that I organised in aid of breaking the stigma of mental health. All this has made me want to guide others through these illnesses and obstacles and help them achieve their life goals.

What a journey you have gone on to get to where you are today! You talk openly about mental health and encourage others to do so. What are the benefits of open discussions about mental health?

First of all, human connection helps – talking to someone makes a difference, especially when an illness can make you isolated because of things like not being able to get out as much. Feeling that companionship is important. When people understand what you are going through, it’s almost validation. Talking breaks isolation, which always reminds me of in Harry Potter when Harry is trying to defeat Voldemort and Luna says that Voldemort would want him to feel isolated because on his own he isn’t as much of a threat. I think when we speak about our struggles, our voice and that of the people that listen become louder than the one in our head.

That Harry Potter reference is the perfect analogy and you do so much to make sure that anyone struggling with mental health doesn’t feel alone, but it isn’t just mental health that you open up about but Fibromyalgia too. Can you describe your journey to your diagnosis of Fibromyalgia?

My journey has been a long one that’s taken a lot of conviction and strength. I’ve always been a researcher so I knew early on I had it, but more symptoms added before I was certain and I suggested it to the doctors. I was made feel like I was lying for drugs. They tried to decrease my medication, saying I would become addicted otherwise, but gave no other form of pain relief. I was made to feel like I was seeking a diagnosis, with one doctor saying she was afraid I was going down a road I would not come back from. The doubt was plentiful and painful.

Having to fight to be believed was soul destroying, especially because I’ve struggled with that since a child due to my experience of sexual abuse. I don’t know if it’s my past and inherently feeling like I was a liar because of my secret but I hated people thinking anything of me that wasn’t true.

Now I am studying to be a personal development coach to start my own online business and also getting qualified to hopefully help those with mental and chronic issues in Northern Ireland get through them and learn tools to help them cope for life.

How has having a chronic illness like Fibromyalgia impacted your life?

More than I can probably put into words. I’ve had pain in my legs for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, I suffered with what I thought were growing pains, but they got progressively worse and I passed the age for growing pains. The pain would keep me up at night and I would miss university in the morning. That and my mental illness robbed me of a lot of my uni experience, which is something I’ll always yearn for.

Toward the end of university with all the added stress of my life, my symptoms became worse. I crashed hard. I was taking a lot of time off work and I couldn’t be consistent. I used to be able to go out for the day, walk a lot and pay for it later, but I’m now wheelchair bound and 100 pounds heavier. My quality of life has been diminished in that every day activities are difficult but I’ve also gained an appreciation of life that I before took for granted. I was always seeking to be more able instead of enjoying the moment and living life to the fullest. I think that I would have been very career focused before, but when I became ill I wanted to help others which is why Return of Reb was created.

It sounds like Fibromyalgia has affected your life in many ways, even though you choose to face it so positively. Have you ever received backlash from people because your condition isn’t ‘visible’?

A lot of my family didn’t take it seriously. Because people can’t see it, they assume it can’t be that bad. I had someone liken my situation to Stephen Hawkins, that if he can so all he has, why can’t I? I’ve had people question the validity of my illness because they saw me do a normal activity one day and be bed bound the next.

I began to realise that this was their ignorance not a personal attack, although sometimes it definitely was. With some people, I stopped talking to them about it. I tried to make them understand until I was blue in the face but some people are closed minded and will remain that way.

Often when I interview women about health problems, they talk about not being listened to and this feeling of not being heard is only increased if the person is bigger than a size 10 – they often report being told to loose weight as if that fixes everything. What has been your experience of health professionals taking time to understand your condition and your specific symptoms?

I remember being a size 12 and the doctor telling me losing weight would solve my pain and thinking what bollocks that was. As I got bigger and bigger it was blamed on my weight more and more. Last week and now wheelchair bound, I was told I have general back pain, to lose weight, keep up physio and wait a year for the pain clinic.

With chronic pain conditions, the lack of mobility, support and additional medications leads to many of us putting on weight. The meds and their apathy make us bigger, yet they penalise us when this happens.

You are always honest about your struggles with your condition, your mental health and weight. Why is it important for you to share information like this with the world?

I wanted to be the role model I needed but didn’t have growing up. Being a plus size girl, I wish I had a role model like me when I was on the cusp of anorexia to tell her that it’s possible to love yourself. I wish someone had told me that no matter how thin I get it won’t make me like myself more, that I need to look within to find my worth and that being fat is not the worst thing I could be.

I grew up in a town where things were swept under the carpet. It made me angry because the culture was leading to crippling loneliness and the highest suicide in the UK and Europe. I found that when I read someone’s experiences, it made me feel connected and validated so I thought if I did that and offered to be there for others I could take it that step further. Sharing could prevent someone else suffering like I have and make people feel less alone. I want to make a difference in people’s lives – it’s how I feel fulfilled.

What difference has finding an online community of people who talk about mental health, chronic illnesses and body positivity made to you?

I can’t sing the praises of the online community enough. Often the only ‘real life’ interaction I get is with my partner. Having a place to talk to people has been amazing. I was extremely lonely and meeting people made a difference, but also finding a place that had open conversations about issues was refreshing given the stigma I encountered my whole life.

I’ve learnt so much. The advice of people has led to relief of symptoms, ways to help myself and a growth in my confidence. I think directly lead to the Black Dog Event I ran in February.

The body positive community changed my whole perspective of myself. I went from a slim person who hated herself to a woman who was able to love her body even when it was failing her – that progress is due to the influence of the body positive community.

It is brilliant that you have learnt so much from and grown so much in the online community. Using everything you have learnt, what things can people do to promote better mental wellbeing?

There are so many and no one size fits all. I keep a rigid sleeping regimen. When I have late night and sleep in on the mornings, my depression gradually spirals so I go to bed at a reasonable hour, get up early and try not to nap. Removing toxic relationships from your life and people who take advantage or hurt you repeatedly can improve your mental health, even if it’s hard at first.

Getting outside is high up my list. It’s imperative that I get out in nature as much as possible. My disability was preventing this which is why I’ve finally gotten a wheelchair. My mood begins numb the longer it’s been since being outside. I always say nature is a natural antidepressant.

If you can exercise, do it!! Exercise was amazing for my mental health. I loved the gym – the physical feeling, the beating my personal best and the endorphins. I can’t do that any more but I walk in the pool every morning. Find what exercise you find fun.

Getting enough nutrition in your diet can lead to lots of energy which means you can be more productive. Speaking of productivity, be realistic with what you can do. Based on your capacities, make a daily list of what you want to achieve that day – ticking them off feels great, boosts your mood and makes you feel like you’ve bossed your day.

I think the biggest thing you can learn to improve your mental well being is becoming self aware: being able to observe your thoughts and differentiate between your logic and your illness. Anxiety, depression and other illnesses can manipulate your thoughts and feelings, so by being able to recognise this you can control how you think and feel, calling the thoughts out for what they are and replacing them with the ones of your choosing. Mental illness doesn’t just go away – it is a life long management programme. Everyone is affected differently and everyone will find something that will work for them so it’s important to recognise not one size fits all when it comes to managing symptoms.
What would you say to someone who was at a point in their life where they were struggling?

If they have good people around them, tell them what’s going on. A lot of these times in my life I’ve needed these kinds of people and I haven’t had that support system which makes the struggle worse, so make use of those around you that want to listen and help. If they don’t understand, share accounts, articles and stories that will help them understand. If alone call a hotline. I’m not ashamed to say I rang Lifeline and I am so glad I did.

Help seems few and far between sometimes but whether it be a good doctor, counsellor, friends, family, the online community, someone, I promise someone, wants to listen and help.

How does it feel to know that your outlook, openness about mental health and your body positivity influences others to love who they are too?

I started my page because I wanted to help people change their lives, be there for them and challenge the status quo, so when I get a message telling me I’ve succeeded in that I get this flood of love and warm fuzziness in my heart. It feels like I have done good, that I’ve fulfilled my life’s purpose. I’ve always known I was supposed to help others and when I created Return of Reb it all became clear. I’m grateful for people taking the time to message and comment about how I’ve helped them and I feeling amazing that I get to have this positive impact.

I’ve turned being a victim of childhood sexual abuse to a survivor who’s posts have helped others come forward and open up. I’ve gone from being a victim of my mental and chronic illness to being a warrior, fighting obstacles and improvising to live my best life. I’ve turned many negatives into positives and used them to help others. For one of the few times in my life, I’m so proud of myself.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

Life can throw me as many punches as it likes, I’m going to dodge and improvise my way around every single one – that’s what warriors do.

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