November 4th 2019:
As usual that morning I had a drawn out battle with myself. My mind was telling me to turn around as I walked into work; to run away. But my body, as well trained as it now was, chose to ignore those thoughts and whistled a nonsense tune, auto-piloted me through the door, punched in the codes and meandered through the corridors towards my office, smiling and chattering as I went. Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to work I go; the place where my insides were now riddled with self-destruction, but my external, cheery grin kept any concern or second thought at bay.
I am writing this blog for several reasons; awareness, self-reflection and to try and lead the way for others to feel ok about not being ok. When I say others, I am of course inclusive of everybody, but truthfully, my main target is men. Yes you. The bloke reading this who might have difficult days but is unsure why, or you feel terribly worried about something you can’t quite put your finger on, or you’re overly agitated and stressed and unsure what order to do those 50 things you need to do, or you have no energy or interest in anything and the thought of talking to people makes you want to turn the lights off and crawl under your duvet. Or you, who thinks there is no way out.
4th November 2019:
Like most Monday mornings I had meetings scheduled from 9am. The first, with one of my warm, assuring and all round amazing colleagues to discuss sustainability – let’s call her H. H and I had worked relatively closely for a couple of years by this point, we were in slightly different areas of work and I was very much a junior to H’s more senior role, but we crossed paths quite frequently and had what I would call a great working relationship. So, H kicks off the meeting with one of the most difficult questions I’ve ever had to answer; how are you doing?
You see, looking back I can see I wasn’t totally comfortable and firing on all cylinders for a long time. I’d struggled badly with self-doubt, over-thinking and anxiety since my teenage years. These spells would come in waves of around 3 weeks or so, but with some extra effort around exercising, eating a bit better, lowering drink consumption and opening up (if I could) to my dad, sister or whoever my manager was at the time, the waves would fizzle out and I’d be back on top form soon enough. It was an ever turning cycle and as soon as I owned it, it got a little easier to cope with.
I would always carry around these little demons in my head though; I’d over think conversations, fret over meetings or presentations at work, be ultra sensitive in private after harmless banter from friends, be hyper critical of my performance following even simple hobbies – never mind work, panic over whether people thought I was a good guy or not and then if that wasn’t enough, there were of course the old trusty intrusive thoughts where my mind could take me anywhere from fantasising unwillingly about suicide, worrying myself sick about death or illness in my family, something bad happening to my son etc etc.
Sleep was always an issue, I guess all those thoughts whirling around my mind were difficult to ignore and switch off. I would boil with frustration in my late teens/early twenties and it wasn’t until a conversation with my dad which taught me to accept sleeplessness for what it was, and if I couldn’t sleep, to be grateful of relaxing there in bed with my eyes closed, being mindful of my body. I managed on broken sleep for years and years based on this one concept.
But around 2017 the waves of low mood and anxiety started getting longer and more intense. I had some pretty huge life events occur over this next period of my life; new job with greater responsibility, I graduated university, I became a father to my wonderful son, I got married to my beautiful wife and of course I wrote and self-published my first novel. So life was pretty hectic, perfect on the outside, but deep inside my mind was growing ever darker and more frantic. A thick, opaque cloud had descended around me and the sunshine struggled to break through for any sustained period of time.
4th November 2019:
I’d been asked that one question thousands of times; how are you doing?
- Not bad thanks, you?
- Ticking along, cheers!
- I’m good ta, how are you?
- All good, mate. All good.
But not today. Today felt different, a huge surge of emotion came over me as I went to respond. No words would come out. My voice quivered and then the floods of tears burst through the dam. What followed was an outpouring of the last few years, jumping from one worry to the next, perhaps not making much sense, but my message was received loud and clear; I needed help. H was absolutely wonderful, a god send. She didn’t try to fix me; she listened like friend, advised like a supportive boss and showed a kind of balanced empathy which I will never forget. H was flabbergasted by my disclosure and told me I put on a good front, something I’d learned to do so well; I’d learned to wear it well. She encouraged me to go home and reassured me that everything was going to be ok.
Go home, see the doctor, we will take care of things here.
I grabbed my coat, my laptop and with my eyes fixed to the floor, I scurried back through the very same corridors I had lit up only 45 minutes earlier with my mask and fraudulent positivity. As I reached beyond the car park to where my car was, I burst out crying again.
So there began my journey to find myself again, to accept that I could no longer deal with my inner-self by myself, to deal with my mental health, my stress, my insecurities, my anxiety and my low mood.
I went to the doctors the very next day and – you guessed it – burst out crying again. It was like the release of a decade of pretending, of flapping so hard under the lake, yet keeping up the charade of my swan like grace above the surface, of inner critique, of people pleasing, of intrusive thoughts, of perfectionism… by speaking out, I was allowed to take off the mask.
I never had any trouble saying I was a bit stressed, anxious or worried about stuff (just ask my manager!) – the difficulty was crossing that line and saying I’m worried/stressed/anxious and I can’t cope with it.
The doctor diagnosed me with depression and anxiety disorder and prescribed me with some antidepressants. This was my choice. And a choice I was happy with. This was not a case of the doctor fobbing me off. I had coping strategies; exercise, walking, talking, writing, music, spending time with family etc. They had worked for years, but they were no longer enough. My dad had been telling me to go to the doctors for 2 years, but I had persisted with community based self-help strategies. But it was clear that now, I needed to take the next step and I have no shame in that.
Having initially been reluctant, I also agreed to counselling. My first response was; I don’t need it, there’s nothing to unpick from my past. Ha! How naive of me to restrict counselling to only be a response to trauma. After a few weeks off work, my head cleared a little and the idea of counselling grew on me – of course there were things to unpick; why do I think the way I think? Why to I stress about what I stress about? Just two of the questions I found myself asking. 3 sessions in, I’m finding myself enjoying the reflective process and the psycho education element (learning about why my body/brain responds in the way it does to certain triggers).
I am extremely fortunate to have a supportive employer, who has backed me 100% on this journey, has signposted me to where I needed to go, authorised time off in conjunction with the doctor – with no pressure whatsoever to rush back.
Initially, I felt guilty for being off work. Guilty I was leaving my colleagues in the shit. Guilty that I was spending some priceless time with my son whilst other dads were at work, potentially dealing with the same inter turmoil as I was. Guilty that I was not having to worry about work – so that made me worry! But I eased into it, I listened to the advice of the doctor and those around me and I focussed on me. I stayed active and purposeful with my days; exercise, walking, writing, playing with my son, without whom I haven’t the foggiest idea where this illness would have taken me, but I imagine I wouldn’t be sat here writing this, after my first week back at work, feeling almost back to my old self.
I wonder if my old self will in fact ever return. Or will it be a new version of me? A version that accepts my experiences and uses them to enable me to become stronger, more empathetic and arguably a more present and in-the-moment father, husband, friend and colleague.
I don’t know where this journey is going to take me next, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time I blog about this topic. To anyone out there who is experiencing anything like this; well done, you’ve made it this far, you’re a fucking superhero. Now take a deep breath, be brave, and speak to somebody. Trust me. Anybody; a parent/carer, friend, employer, colleague, a doctor, a neighbour, Desmond from the chippy, Auntie Susie… what you’re feeling is so common, don’t keep it trapped inside to fester, unleash the beast, stand up tall and own that mother fucking mindset… this is only ever temporary, this is not forever. You can get better, you will get better.
Yours with faith,