In keeping with its all round genius, the West Wing often provides nuggets of wisdom from history disguised as the views of its brilliantly-developed characters. In The Shadow of Gunmen (after the President is shot) Toby is heard to advise someone that “because it’s the easiest thing to remember, tell the truth.“ He was channelling Mark Twain who wrote that “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
That is how I feel about my mental health. I try to tell it how it is. I am open about how I am feeling and what I have been through. I try to always tell the truth. To tell my story, unvarnished. Honesty is, for me, the best policy.
I didn’t start doing that as anything other than a selfish act. I did it because it helped me. It still helps me. It helps me to get things off my chest; to remove one layer of stress and anxiety from my life – the anxiety of hiding something I fear that will be judged and that will come to define me. I do it to help me and it appears that in doing it I can also help others. A problem shared and all that. I don’t however judge anyone who decides to keep their experiences to themselves – this is a no-judging zone, except, sadly, when it combines to judging myself!
Around this time last year, I took a break from blogging – something I have done regularly since 2008 and something I was doing daily as a writing and sharing experiment in the previous eight months or so. I took a break just before Christmas because it was becoming a source of stress – a pressure to write that wasn’t helping me. That hurt because I love writing but I was falling out of love and making myself sick in the process – including the return of rashes on my legs (a long-recurring issue). In truth, I had a difficult Christmas and early 2018 with levels of anxiety and depression that were more prolonged and more debilitating than I had experienced for some time. The sweating; the regular, sometimes constant, feelings of nausea; the sensation that something wasn’t right but not being quite sure what; the edginess; the hyper-sensitivity to noises and people; the restless sleep; the rashes; the frequent trips to the toilet (sorry but honesty is the best policy don’t forget!); the irritability and reduced patience; the dark over-hanging cloud that just won’t shift. The feeling of being a failure, useless or at its worst, worthless to those that matter most to me.
I worked with a therapist – a counsellor – in January and February this year which really helped. That is the third time I’ve sought that sort of help in the last fourteen years and the third time that the help has really helped me.
For me, like so many people who find themselves in the hole marked “anxiety” or “depression” or “both”, there are sometimes clear triggers; concerns about your health or the health or people you care about; stress at work; in fact any sort of increased level of stress; too much alcohol (even in relatively small quantities); too little exercise; poor sleep; not making time for yourself; being too hard on yourself and judging yourself; not spotting the signs of things getting too much before its too late; not saying “no” enough; being exposed to new experiences or uncomfortable social situations; the judgments of others, including on social media; feelings of loneliness; the drag of travelling; being away from home; overthinking.
Of course, it is also true that sometimes the hole just opens up and you find yourself stuck in there before you spot the triggers, or even when there are no clear triggers at all. It can just be one of those things. I know that as someone who lives with anxiety and depression, sometimes it will just hit me, despite all my hard work and efforts.
I work hard every day with a series of approaches and interventions that usually work for me (in no order of importance); running; reading physical books (not kindles or iPad kindles); no phone and iPad after 9pm; low levels of caffeine; no alcohol; lots of golf and fresh air; plenty of time with people who make me happy (my wonderful wife and darling daughter in particular); not wasting time on people who bring me down (which can be even harder when some of those people of people you should be able to rely on but cannot); being picky about what I say yes and no to; listening to music that inspires me (thank you Mozart, Bach, Puccini, The Three Tenors, Tony Bennett, The Beatles and many others); trying meditation (although I am still struggling to get this to work for me – I hope that perseverance will eventually pay off); being kind to myself; watching Liverpool FC, the Red Sox or the latest Aidan O’Brien wonder horse; lowering expectations of what I should be doing – not putting myself under so much pressure to be perfect; making time to rest and do nothing (I find this the hardest having spent nearly 41 years on this planet being active and busy); making time to just be me and not always me the great dad, husband, colleague, boss, friend, brother or son that I want to be (to correct the injustices I’ve seen or experienced in others). Just being me and being still and present – not getting ahead of myself; not planning ahead; not living every minute by the clock and by what is next.
I had a painful reminder of this over the last few days with my worst episode for some time – probably since my 2015 breakdown. There is very little I have experienced that has left me so shocked, so empty as the feeling of vulnerability I feel when I’ve had a bad episode. It’s not the panic attacks – not the four or five I’ve had this year – which is the lowest point – although they are horrific – it is the feeling that you think you are winning at life with all going well and then suddenly, unexpectedly you are losing. Heavily. Not 1-0 with a late deflected goal, but on the end of a 5-0 drumming, at home, against ten men. These feelings pass for me – sometimes quickly – sometimes they take longer – as with this weekend, when I had three very tough days. Three days of doubts, tears and dark, heavy clouds. Clouds that seem set to last. Clouds that look like they are not for shifting. But, they passed. They passed with the help of the love of my wonderful family and the support of some great friends who reached out to show they care. They passed for me this time as they do every time but in the moment, when you are on the floor – literally for me on Friday – as tears roll down my face and the world is coming in around you – you don’t believe they will pass. But pass they do.
The task for me now is to work hard at accepting what happened and not being too hard on myself; not judging the person who made his wife and mum cry too – heartbroken to see him broken in those tough moments. That is partly why, for me, talking and sharing helps. It helps me to hear the voices of support, love and reason not the voice inside my head who can be quick to judge.
Let’s end where we started – in the world of Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing and that hole I mentioned earlier. In the aftermath of President Bartlet’s shooting, Josh is diagnosed with PTSD. He is given amazing support from his boss, Leo, who has himself been in some dark places. Leo tells this story………
“This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Talking and sharing helps me. It helped Josh. It may help you. Either way, it is great to know that you are not alone as you try to walk around the hole – sometimes balancing uneasily on the edge – or as you climb out after falling in.
The photo is taken from The Herald website as Celtic fans show their support for Leigh Griffiths who is suffering from mental health problems: https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/17297372.its-ok-not-to-be-okceltic-fans-pay-tribute-to-star-striker-leigh-griffiths/