In the second half of 2015 I was on top of the world. I was flying high at PwC – on track to become a partner (a goal I had set myself a year before). I was living in a lovely house in Surrey at the foot of Epsom Downs Racecourse with my amazing wife and perfect nine-month-old daughter. We were always in and out of London for shopping, wining and dining. We were living the dream. Life was good. I was invincible.
At that time, I thought I knew about mental health. I was a very experienced manager of people and teams in large, global organisations. I’d had lots of experience of working with people who’d suffered with mental health issues, including a close colleague and friend who self harmed and had been through episodes of severe depression and had at least one brush with suicide. I’d seen close up how anxiety could grab hold of someone close and take their confidence away and deeply affect them. I thought I was also alive to the risks that my busy life presented to me and was dealing with them well. I was in control. I was winning.
But in reality, I was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to go off. And go off I did.
Like many people who suffer a breakdown there wasn’t one big dramatic incident – one rock bottom moment for me – but a gradual build up – a drip, drip, drip – that eventually left me on the canvas. I woke one Sunday in excruciating pain, with a fever and a complete lack of energy and strength in my 37 year old body. Nearly a week in bed passed- with two home visits from reluctant GPs – it took me nearly 15 minutes to get out of bed and down the stairs to see them – before I was sent to hospital. What we thought of as the flu turned out not to be the flu. A diagnosis of pneumonia and exhaustion followed, as did an awful week in a bulging, pre-Christmas, chaotic NHS hospital. Amongst other things, I was moved in the middle of the night twice and attacked with a bottle by a fellow patient. This was before getting home and the realisation of what had happened to me began to hit.
I spent the next three months or so coming to terms with the fact that I was in the midst of a breakdown. It took a little while for the penny to drop. I wasn’t in denial I just didn’t realise what was happening. I didn’t know that I had been ticking for years – stretching the elastic band time and time again – more pressure, more work, more line management, more responsibility, more stress, more of everything without making allowances and changes that would allow me to accommodate them.
I took it all on without noticing the toll it was having on me. The daily sweats. The rashes all over my legs. The dreams. The heavy weight pressing down on my chest. The nausea. The racing heart. The need to leave the office in the middle of the day and walk around the block to catch my breath. Once or twice the tears welling up in a meeting. The unhealthy working patterns (up at 5am often to work at home before Miss J woke or I had a shower to go to work; in the office before anyone else; permanently attached to my Blackberry and mobile phone – and I mean permanently attached; checking emails at weekends and on holiday; responding to emails as quickly as possible – ideally within 60 seconds; always contactable; always answering my phone; always thinking about work; working every evening at home; laptop on knee on the sofa watching TV; working every weekend – stolen hours here and there).
All of which I accepted as the price worth paying for the salaries I was earning and to be home each day before 6pm to see my wife and to be involved in baby bedtime. I was making sacrifices for my ambitions and my career; “they don’t pay you that sort of money for nothing” my Nan was fond of saying. But I didn’t realise that the price wasn’t just my salary but also my health.
To coin a phrase, I was present but not involved at home. In truth I wasn’t present at all and I wasn’t really involved; I was just there, in body but not in mind or spirit. I was barely surviving. I was running on empty for years and I allowed the ‘me time’ to get more and more squeezed each time the elastic band was stretched a little further. I stopped playing golf, five-a-side football, running and making time for music and reading.
Once the elastic band did eventually snap – not helped by the extraordinarily, brutal, soulless, toxic corporate culture I was working within, but not caused by it – there were some very dark days. There still are from time to time. Lots of tears. Lots of guilt. Lots of shame. How could I put myself in that position? How could I fall into those traps? How could I end up in that mess? The blame. The loss of confidence. The feelings of worthlessness. The episodes of depression and anxiety I suffered at that time and since. The panic attacks. The heavy dark cloud hanging over me.
From my new, broken elastic band vantage point – and with the benefit of time away from work and a bout of hugely helpful counselling – I was able to see that I had been suffering with bouts of depression and anxiety for years. I was likely born with it – or at least with a predisposition to it. This led me to make some very different choices – choices I was able to make because I had a much better understanding of who I was, what made me tick, what harmed me and what I would I do to myself if I didn’t step in.
This increased awareness of my personality and the things that had shaped me – from my childhood, through my youth and into my adult life. The family trauma; school bullies; the loneliness of being a bit different – more interested in the politics and the world around me than drinking, partying and being one of boys; a constant worry about being abandoned, or even worse, letting people down; a life lived looking over my shoulder; rushing around; uneasy and unsettled; getting through it all but it all taking a huge effort. Understanding this and how I had been living helped me make some big changes. Changes that helped me not just repair the elastic band but also to understand how to avoid stretching it too far again.
I have written before on my blog (http://www.amjcomms.com/what-we-think-bens-blog/) about my five principles of achieving and maintaining the right work life balance for you and that you must start by being honest with yourself; honest about your goals and ambitions; honest about what success really is for you. This was the first step for me in turning my life around. I define success now very differently from before. I remain ambitious to achieve stuff at work and still set high standards and try every day to make a contribution but I have drawn proper boundaries around my life and between home and work.
The key to achieving anything in life is having clear, honest goals; targets and objectives that can then drive your behaviour, actions and interactions. Alastair Campbell has written extensively about mental health and his experience of success in his brilliant book “Winners”. He talks about the need for a simple summary of your OST – your objective, strategy and tactics. This is a model I use now.
My objective is being happy and staying well. My strategy is about maintaining the perfect life-work balance for me. My tactics are based around doing the things set out below; things that help me to deliver my strategy and meet my objective. Drawing up a list like this – the things that help keep you well – may be worth thinking about. It has helped me a lot – writing stuff down somehow makes it real for me.
- I have a job I enjoy, doing work I am good at
- I prioritise time with my family and time at home over everything – I say no to evening events and early starts that would get in the way of my school run days or my time at home with my girls
- I avoid staying away from home alone
- I avoid late nights – good, consistent sleep is really important for me (seven hours a night)
- I don’t drink any alcohol (nearly nine months and counting!)
- I exercise every day (walking, running or playing golf)
- I write something meaningful every day – I love writing – this could be an important email, a blog post, a report, a paper or even a thoughtful tweet.
- I make time for the passions in my life; LFC; Boston Red Sox; golf and Irish horse racing
- I continue to be interested in news, current affairs and politics but don’t play an active role any more – certainly not attending boring meetings that take me away from home at night!
- I listen to music every day – as often as I can – especially music that helps transport me to another place; thank you Puccini!
- I listen to podcasts
- I read for pleasure – especially physical books and newspapers that showcase the best writing and journalism; I’m never too far from the New York Times, the FT and The Times.
- I don’t use my iPad/iPhone after 9pm – unless there is a work or home emergency
- I try to be kind to myself; not judging myself if I don’t feel great; doing something nice for myself every day (could just be a walk to the park; a 15 minute walk around an art gallery or a scone in Cuthbert’s!)
- I spend time with people who make me happy; I don’t spend time with people who stress me out or bring me down
- I try to meditate – although often I fall asleep – and I’m about to start yoga
- I also take an anti-depressant every day – citalopram – which I started in January and has certainly helped me
I am not smug or complacent about my life now. I work hard every day on my mental health, my physical health and my wellbeing. I know I am in a lifelong battle to stay well; to be the best version of myself; to be me. My depression is unlikely ever to go; we are stuck with each other for the rest of time. But how I live and feel today is a different country to my old life. Black and white. Day and night. Leave or remain.
Quoting US Presidents, especially those who had a questionable relationship with the truth is a risky business, but it doesn’t mean that they haven’t said something worth listening to from time to time. In his resignation address to White House staff in 1974 as he prepared to leave the presidency – something he had worked obsessively to achieve for over 40 years – President Nixon said that: “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain”.
I don’t plan to climb any mountains any time soon; my goal is much simpler; to stay well; to be happy; to keep my elastic band in one piece.