Author Archives: Ben Jones

  1. It’s too easy to apologise for feeling down, especially during COVID

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    One of the biggest barriers to people seeking help with their mental health is a worry – often ironically – that they are not sick enough. That they need to pull themselves together. They just need to get through the next few days or weeks and all will be back to normal. That counselling or medication is for those who are really sick – those who deserve the help. Not for them. 

    Some of this reluctance is tied up with the complex web of stigma surrounding mental health and worries about what people will think – especially in the workplace or within their families – about admitting (that word says a lot) that something is wrong and they are struggling. Despite the progress of recent years with greater openness in society to talk about mental health and the struggles that many of us (1 in 3 is the statistic that is oft-quoted) experience every day, we are light years away from the healthy place where speaking up and seeking help is the rule, not the exception. 

    Our collective experience of the last year or so has added an extra layer to the stigma of seeking help, driven often by guilt that others are much worse off than me, especially in the face of COVID and the losses of loved ones, livelihoods, financial security, freedoms and confidence that so many have endured. I see it every day and I do it every day – saying sorry for saying we are struggling though COVID because ‘there are so many people worse off than me’.

    This guilt, this talking down our own feelings and experiences, often deeply felt and painful experiences, is damaging our individual and collective mental health. It is making us feel worse not better. It is part of the problem not part of the solution. 

    So many of us – me included – are prefacing our answer to the question ‘how are you?’ with the words ‘first world problems’ and apologising for saying we are struggling through COVID because we are not in ICU with COVID, dead, dying, bereaved, or out of work or homeless. Just think about that for a second. We are saying that we must ignore our feelings of anxiety, depression, loss, grief, fear, isolation and more besides, because it isn’t as bad as someone else’s awful experience. Put in physical health terms, it’s like saying I have broken my leg, but I am fine and don’t need to go the hospital to get it set and put in plaster because my next door neighbour has broken both their legs.

    Like many, I have found this most recent lockdown very hard, the toughest of the three. Like many – probably all – I am hoping this is the last lockdown I experience in my lifetime. I don’t know exactly why this has been the hardest although I have a few theories.

    It’s been long. The weather has been pretty miserable. The cumulative effect of the previous two have added to the negative experience, with me feeling a kind of heavy lockdown fatigue. In Merseyside we had the relative joy – and it really did feel like pure joy – of living under tier two restrictions for part of the end of 2020 which gave us a glimpse of freedom, including being able to work in coffee shops and do something I love the most in the world: going out for weekend breakfasts with the two loves of my life. 

    But like many, I have found it hard to say this without feeling the need to apologise because my struggles during lockdown #3 haven’t been worse or involved greater loss or pain. I have missed my small pleasures. The little things that form part of my daily self care routines that help to keep me well. I have missed the pots of tea to accompany my writing or studying in my four favourite coffee shops. I have missed playing golf with all the wonderful benefits of the fresh air, distraction value and exercise. I have missed bookshops. I have missed the freedom to travel, even small distances. I have missed all my small freedoms.

    I write a mental health journal every day and capture the daily self care things I do. This list has been curtailed during locked #3 as some of my go-to activities were off-limits, even illegal. But whenever I was asked how I was managing through the last three months or so I made the same guilt-ridden apology and talked down the impact of these losses – the reduction in my wellbeing activities and the knock on effect that had on my mental health.

    I said, ‘oh, listen to me with my first world problems. Poor me not being able to play golf or buy a cuppa in a coffee shop. Poor me.’ And yet, I had one of my worse every episodes of depression during this lockdown – something I captured in its raw quality in a previous post – http://www.amjcomms.com/2021/02/28/i-am-in-the-eye-of-the-storm-what-its-like-to-be-in-a-depressive-episode/ – and have found myself emotional and melancholy a fair amount during this time.

    I long to connect with the things I have been denied that give me joy. I have a constant image in my mind of the next time we travel to Ireland, stepping onto the aircraft stairs and then onto Éireann terra firma. I see myself emulating Pope John Paul II kneeling and kissing the ground and giving thanks. It sounds a little silly when I see it written down but it has been a thought that has sustained me over the last few months. It represents for me a return to a place of deep meaning – a place of safety, of happiness, of love. Of purpose.

    It symbolises a return to a place and a time I took for granted. It is 18 months since we were last in Ireland – 18 months that has felt like 18 years. Just as this last lockdown has felt like an eternity.

    I have learnt a lot through this rocky period. The most important thing – which mirrors much of the learning I have encountered on my psychotherapy training – is the importance of hearing and accepting feelings – yours and those you are seeking to help. Minimising how we feel is not the route to health and happiness. Dismissing how you or someone else feels because it appears less serious, less painful, less important than someone else’s experience is a damaging route to take. It is the road to more pain, more suffering, more anguish.

    I have found inspiration and support in a number of places during the last few months, most recently in reading and then rereading Viktor Frankl’s 1946 masterpiece, Man’s Searching For Meaning, which charts his own experience in various Nazi concentration camps and the outlining of his existentialist concept of logotherapy. In the book, Frankl contends that meaning can be found in every moment of living and that life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering. He argues that there are times when suffering cannot be avoided and we have no option but to face it. However, we can choose – we have the free will – to decide how we respond to this suffering, We can find meaning and purpose within it.

    I was moved to tears several times in reading his book and contemplating the immense suffering that he and those around him experienced at the hands of the worse of human behaviour. But I was uplifted too and reminded that all suffering is relative – all pain is our own and that nobody can know how it feels to walk in our shoes and be inside our heads. No-one’s pain is more or less valuable or important than anyone else’s. There is no hierarchy in suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering.

    It’s not a first world problem to struggle during lockdown. It’s just a problem and one I now choose to accept and embrace. I’m done with apologising. Apologising for this has no purpose.

  2. I am now in the eye of the storm: what it’s like to be in a depressive episode

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    With the support of therapists, a kind GP, a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist and a lot of soul-searching, self reflection and painful introspection, I know that I have been living with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. 

    My bed-wetting as a child (which went on for a lot longer than for most children); my quiet days growing up, sitting alone for hours at a time, sometimes in near darkness; my jumpiness at any unexpected noises and constant, nervy fiddling with car radios, windscreen wipers and other buttons and switches on the dashboard (which were the source of much light-hearted derision amongst some of my mates); the periods of feeling sad, lonely, unheard and not understood; and the worrying – the at times, constant, crippling worrying – about being on time, of flying, about my health and the health of others and any impending events. There were fall-outs with friends that were unnecessary but felt the only way of surviving fears of abandonment or rejection – adding further to my isolation and aloneness. These were all signs. Big signs. Signs I missed and nobody ever pointed out to me until many years later. 

    The eventual, unravelling of my mental health followed in my mid thirties – helped, if that’s the right word – by the pressure and stress of work, demanding corporate structures and cultures and complicated by demands of sharing my life with a little person I adore, whilst still trying to make sense of a failing and ultimately failed relationship with my own father. More feelings of abandonment. More rejection. More isolation. More worries.

    Looking back it is easy to see where the seeds of my 2014/15 breakdown were sowed and, in many ways, it feels like a miracle it took that long for the wheels to eventually come off my wellbeing wagon. They were kept on for so long by the love of my amazing wife – who has helped me back on feet many, many times – and by a keep going, head down, don’t talk about it, ignore it, get on with it mentality which so many of us are gifted by our families, our society, our role models and our survival instincts. That approach works for some for the whole of their lives; it works for many for a long time; and for some, like me, it only works until it stops working, with huge consequences. 

    I write of this today – early on a Sunday morning – as despite all of my hard work, self care, healthy life changes, supportive structures and so many blessings that mean I live a very happy, fortunate and comfortable life, I am in the midst of a prolonged (for me) depressive episode. This is a bad one. A long one. We are around three weeks into a dark spell, which has been intense and very painful.

    I am lucky – well, not really lucky – by it is a fact, that my depressive episodes tend to be nasty but short-lived. They are mostly short intense episodes that last for a week, or a few days, in which the darkness lifts often as soon as it arrives and normal service is resumed. In truth it is never fully resumed as every episode chips away at my confidence and leave an indelible mark on my soul, but my life returns to its regular patterns after the clouds clear and the mental health sun comes out again. 

    This time it has been a deeper, longer darkness. I am often asked – I was asked by someone yesterday – how does it feel, what is it like to be feeling depressed? I always give the same answer: I can only tell you how it feels for me, about my experience. And that’s what I do.

    • I feel tired – at times exhausted or drained – low energy, even for things I love like running or golf  
    • I have nausea and at times a headache
    • My teeth and gums ache a little
    • I sweat more than normal 
    • My toilet output changes – sometimes less, sometimes more
    • I don’t sleep well – hard to get off, waking through the night, tossing and turning; all of the above 
    • I have bad dreams – nightmares that wake me and leave me feeling distressed
    • I don’t really want to talk
    • I want to be on my own
    • I seek quietness, calm, safety 
    • I want to be at home
    • I am irritable, tense, edgy
    • I feel alone even when I am with the people I love the most in the world
    • I need to be hugged but then I doubt the love behind those hugs – I feel I don’t deserve them even though I need them
    • I am sad – at times excruciating sad
    • I am emotional – not necessity crying, although they are sometimes tears – but a lump in my throat when hearing some music, seeing something on TV that wouldn’t normally evoke that reaction, thinking about people who are important to me
    • I can’t get going with my work or with things I would normally be able to do happily – especially in the morning (although interestingly I am writing this in the morning and it is coming easily – I know I write better when in pain but also this may be the light at the end of this tunnel and perhaps the bad weather is about to lift)
    • I am less responsive to friends on WhatsApp or on the phone – I often ignore their calls – I don’t have the energy to be ‘normal’
    • I have an overall feeling of heaviness, of everything being a bit darker (like I was wearing sunglasses all the time) 

    It’s raw as I write this. It is sad to put the words on the page. And yet it helps me. It helps to remove the mystic of it, the hidden, unspoken, shameful part of it that colludes with me into silence.

    I have written a lot before about things I do to help me out of these moments and I turn to these for a lifeline. They help. But the biggest help is just time. Time ticking around until the end of this moment. 

    I have been in this hole, covered by these dark clouds, before, and I know I will clamber out soon. Maybe later today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the day after. But I know there will be an end. 

    For the moment, it is tough. It hurts. It drains me of my me-ness. That’s ultimately how it feels, like someone or something has stolen the real me – taken him hostage for a short while. But there is an irony here – something I have realised recently. There is not a kidnapping, nor hostage-taking. This is me. This is the real me and has been since I was a boy. As each day passes, I am learning to accept that, live with that and trying to love that.  One day at a time.

  3. Wellbeing at work box ticking is easy to spot

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    As well as COVID reaching deep into our daily lives and communities, there is another virus infecting parts of UK life. It is proving prevalent in many big organisations, sweeping through corporate entities from boardrooms to shop floors.

    We are experiencing a spate of box-ticking mental health initiative-itis

    In mitigation, let me firstly say that any genuine efforts to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, and any real attempts to help people achieve a healthy and sustainable work-life balance, is to be welcomed. There are lots of leaders and managers who are trying their best to shift organisational cultures to be more focused on people’s health and happiness, whilst continuing to (rightly) try to maximise the performance and success of their business, education provider, charity, government body or other organisation. They should be thanked and applauded and I see positive, well-intentioned work on this front every day.

    But there is also a world of horse has bolted; papering over the cracks of unhealthy culture and business models; mental health band wagon joiners. They have spotted a trend and don’t want to be left behind. They have seen where their followers are heading and they are rushing to lead them.

    These leaders and managers need help, not handshakes and back slaps. 

    This box ticking work is characterised often by its focus on lists of stuff, announcements after announcements, suites of measures, ‘our people are our top priority’ cliches, and the comfort that is taken in the rolling out of mental health first aid, awareness-raising sessions, town hall meetings, reverse mentoring and the like. None of these initiatives are intrinsically bad but too often they are used as reactive measures to treat symptoms of mental ill health at work and work-life balance issues and not the causes. Putting a plaster over a cut knee of a child who has fallen off their bike isn’t itself a bad thing to do, but surely it would better to help the child learnt to ride the bike more safely in the first place. 

    For the avoidance of doubt, I strongly support the provision of reactive services in organisations to help those who are struggling and need support. These services are often a lifeline – sometimes a life saver – but they are necessary, not sufficient. They should be the exception and not the rule. The main focus of organisations who want to support their employees should be on helping them say healthy, well and happy in the first place, not just get them back on their feet – and back to work (which is often their primary goal).  

    The pandemic has forced many organisations – through both necessity and public expectation – to prioritise mental health at work but sadly this has focused on the easy to tackle, easy to see and easy to measure stuff. It is the bandaid to the knee. The sticking plaster. The challenge as I see it for organisations of all shapes and sizes is to be a place that moves from helping people to manage when things go wrong, or to help anticipate challenges that are coming down the road (home schooling, more forced home working, isolation from colleagues etc), to one that ensures that the culture of the organisation supports healthy work  all the time – not just during a crisis like COVID. A culture that values employees switching off at the end of the day; taking proper breaks; not days crammed full of endless, back to back meetings, often that squeeze out anything approaching a lunch break; discouraging emailing outside of the normal working day; respects holidays without interruption; and rewards behaviours that treat everyone in the workplace with dignity, respect and kindness. 

    My own lived experience following my breakdown, which was at least in part influenced by my working life, and my experience of working with individuals and organisations since my breakdown, suggests that the unspoken, unwritten parts of organisational culture are the things that will make a difference in the long run and will be sustainable. It is business models, reward processes and leadership behaviours and recognition (explicitly and implicitly) that are built on pressure and value speed, responsiveness, going the extra mile and being a “can do person” that will sadly drive much of the mental health issues related to the workplace, regardless of all the support and advice that is offered. Regardless of how many mental health first aiders your organisation has on standby to leap into action. 

    Wellbeing at work is on trend at the moment and long may that continue. But I want to see organisations genuinely tackling the root causes or contributory causes of mental health challenges, unhealthy stress, crippling anxiety and other conditions that are – at least in part – driven by corporate cultures that mouth the words of wellbeing but are built on the premise of squeezing ever little bit of productivity –  every bit of life – out of their employees.

    I saw it, experienced it, lived it myself. It nearly ruined my life. And I still see it happening every day.

    When I see an organisation reeling off its list of latest initiatives I am immediately suspicious. Are they really helping their employees or just trying to tick a box to help themselves? You can spot them a mile off. 

  4. Mental health COVID aftershocks will be with us for years

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    Whatever your views on lockdowns (I’ve seen two new pieces of graffiti today saying “lockdowns kill”) and the government’s performance during this crisis, there is one thing I hope we can all agree on: we will be paying the mental health price of COVID long after the vaccination programme is done, the No 10 press conferences are thankfully a distant memory and masks are something worn only at halloween. 

    The impact of the lockdowns, the restrictions and the economic misery brought about by the virus and the response from government, employers and individuals are beyond calculation. The cost – the human cost in tears, fears and pain – will be impossible to measure but it will surely outstrip the catastrophic cost we are already enduring in lost lives, lost livelihoods and lost life chances. 

    Every day we hear ministers, journalists and others talking about the importance of mental health and of us all needing to prioritise this as we enter this third lockdown, as if we hadn’t thought about it, or almost anything else since March. Sadly, for many of us, these words ring very hollow. They smack of virtue signalling, box-ticking and going through the motions. There is a lot of talk and very little action. The same investment in mental health services and support is promised over and over again, old money recycled as if new, and then actions taken that rob people of the very coping mechanisms (including access to gyms, golf, outdoor swimming and the like) that could help them manage a bit better through these terrible times. 

    Like many people studying or working in mental health, I hear the current cacophony of cries for help and see the explosion of demand for support and services – some of which have been themselves hit by COVID sickness rates, scaled back whilst resources are diverted elsewhere (with good intentions but terrible consequences) and getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of desperate requests for help. This demand will naturally increase now in ‘lockdown #3’ but my biggest worry is what happens from the end of this lockdown. What is the long term plan? What is being done now to gear up for the mental health long COVID that will be with us for years? What are doing to get ready for the painful future we have ahead? 

    I am training now to become a psychotherapist – hopefully qualifying in the summer of 2022 – and am constantly thinking about what COVID will mean for my future clients and for my practice. What do I need to be doing now and in the coming months to get ready to help and support people who will be living with the long term mental health effects of COVID and what can the NHS, employers and charities be doing to refocus and resource so much of their mental health offer? 

    It doesn’t take long to draw up a list of the types of issues that will likely dominate mental health demand, including for talking therapies, for years to come. Much of this is not new but will present with a fresh potency and pain, as it will be felt and experienced through this hideous, vicious virus:

    • Loneliness – in part driven by the social distancing, shielding and the forced separation we have endured
    • Relationship breakdown – impacted by the stresses and strains that COVID and the changes to lifestyles/living arrangements that have brought
    • Loss – of our chance to say goodbye to people we love and to some of our pleasures, freedoms and friendships
    • Grief – of people we love and people who love us 
    • Addiction – people turning to or returning to a range of damaging patterns of addiction, including to alcohol, drugs and food
    • Physical health – for some driven by cancelled medical appointments, operations and treatments – and for others who have struggled to get out for exercise or to achieve a healthy work-life balance or healthy diet during these awful months  
    • Fear – of sickness; of infection; of each other 
    • Isolation – from the people and things that previously gave us joy, energy and light 
    • Trauma – not just from the direct suffering from the virus in care homes and hospitals but also including from the horror of domestic violence in homes the length and breadth of the country
    • Death – by suicide but also as a result of crimes committed under the cover of lockdowns

    This list could go on and on and on. Everyone will have their own worries about what COVID could mean for them and their family. I know that for me it has meant significant fear for myself, Dr and Miss J, but mostly for those close to me who are older and more vulnerable to getting this disease and with it being handed a death sentence.

    I am struck too by this list and by the impact that COVID has had on just one group of people across our society; those working in the NHS caring for those struck down and giving everything of themselves and then some to keep those we love alive. Their traumatic experiences are hard to fully comprehend even when we try through our clapping and tears.  

    The light at the end of the tunnel of the virus is the vaccine and I am full of hope about this, especially for those most of risk from its deadly grip. But when this light appears we will face a much longer darkness and be living with the long-term affects of COVID for years to come. The pain has only just begun and we need help to be on hand for every child and every adult across the country to help us all recover – not just our wallets and daily lives but our hearts and souls. 

    I am sick of weasel words and empty promises about the future of mental health services and support. As a country we are already on the back foot as this mental health crisis worsens. We need action. We need a plan. We need to get moving. 

    If the last ten months with its lockdowns and restrictions have been the COVID earthquake, the looming mental health crisis are the long COVID aftershocks and tragically we know that this is often where the most damage is done. 

  5. Work can damage your health – that’s not a mystery.

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    I love a good mystery. I grew up on Inspector Morse, Taggart, Cracker and Prime Suspect. Many of my favourite films or recent streaming or TV series involve the weighing of clues and the elimination of suspects – as well often as gruesome serial killers (lovely!). Over Christmas, I have been marking the passing of the great John Le Carre by getting stuck in again to Smiley and his complex web of secrets, plots and sub-plots. It is escapism but also feels like exercise for the mind. 

    At one time I seriously considered a career as a detective, although I think my TV-influenced view of what it would have been like and the reality on the ground would have been worlds apart. Over Christmas, I have binged on The Ripper on Netflix and revisited old films and episodes from my list of favourites. Incidentally, this trait of returning to familiar pieces of film, TV, literature and music, is something I have become aware of in recent months – it is rooted in a need to feel safe, comfortable and secure, without unwelcome surprises or feeling out of control. This is fascinating to me – something I have shared with some of my fellow counselling and psychotherapy students – as a way of helping me manage my mental health: another small intervention to help me work within safe, agreed boundaries and establish and maintain routines that provide me with a sense of support and reassurance. It explains why I am on at least my 20th rewatching from start to finish of The West Wing (the greatest piece of television ever made).

    I have known for a long time that there is a direct relationship for me between my health and wellbeing – especially my mental health – and my work. To be more specific, it is the culture of the organisation I work within, for, alongside, or as an adviser to, that can have a negative impact on me. Organisations in which poor behaviour is visible and tolerated, for example, passive aggressive emails; long hours culture; presenteeism; bullying (overt or covert); unsupportive senior colleagues; sneaky emailing sent to senior people to undermine others; excessive cc-ing of people to emails, especially senior people, to pressure colleagues; I could go on – really damage me. They undermine my confidence, eat away at my morale, make me feel less than I should, make each day a little harder to manage and to bear, and make me feel sad and low. There is however another dimension to the health impact on me. Rashes.

    Since my breakdown I have been aware that rashes appear on my body – mostly, but not exclusively on my lower legs – when my stress levels, anxiety and depression are heightened. I now know that I suffered signifiant physical symptoms of anxiety and depression in the lead up to my breakdown (sweating, chest pains, headaches, extreme tiredness, more than normal visits to the toilet and the like). At the time they were just part of my daily life and I didn’t stop to question why they were happening – I was too wrapped up in getting through the day and climbing the corporate ladder. 

    Some of these symptoms reappear from time to time when I am not firing on all cylinders – especially if I am in the midst of a depressive episode. I understand my body better now and because of all the small things I do now to try to stay well (but not always succeeding) they are the exception in my life now and not the rule. The exception to the exception is the leg rash. That old favourite is constantly around and will turn up the itchiness when it wants to warn me that all is not good. It is actually a helpful (albeit unpleasant) canary in the coal mile to keep me alive to the negative impacts I may be feeling. 

    Anyway, back to my amateur sleuthing and a recent personal mystery.

    Over the first and second lockdown, I had an unwelcome spread of the rashes – to my armpits (nice) and even nicer, my backside. Alongside this, I was experiencing some – I will choose my words carefully to protect the squeamish – interesting visits to the toilet each week. The rashes were eventually cleared up with some cream from the doctors – I was concerned that my daily runs and addiction to my Nike John Barnes-style leggings were part of the problem – thankfully they are not! But the toilet issues continued. Then a breakthrough. Rather like the moment in the second hour of Morse when the minor Oxford character suddenly starts to take on a more prominent role and moves on the list of suspects, the penny dropped.

    The toilet issues started on Monday mornings (sometimes Sunday nights). They lasted until at least the middle of the week. They cleared up in time for the weekend. And the pattern repeated. Again and again. You got it yet? It took me a while. It took until I was leaving my most recent job, which was full-time and at times overly demanding and unhappy for me (see previous post: http://www.amjcomms.com/2020/09/02/its-time-to-make-a-change/) that things changed. The pattern ended. The problem stopped. Suddenly, and now it has gone. 

    It was another physical manifestation for me of the stress and unhappiness I was experiencing by working in a role that didn’t suit me – that was impacting on my health – that was making it hard for me to stay well. There is not rocket science or a great mystery behind this. We spend a lot of time at work. It can be a source of enormous support, friendship, intellectual and physical stimulation. It can be a really happy part of our lives. But it can also damage us if we are working in place or in a way that doesn’t suits us. 

    In 2021, I will be working for myself again and making different choices about who I work with and the working cultures that I expose myself to. As I move towards the next stage of my career and seek to help others more formally with issues they are facing in their lives, I will continue to be focused on the impact that work can have on health and wellbeing.  I am passionate about this. I really want to help people to understand the workplace factors in their lives which can enhance or damage them and ensure that work – and their approach to work – doesn’t become their itchy rash or unpleasant toilet routine. 

    Talking and writing about these things can be embarrassing. It can make others cringe or wish things were left unwritten or unsaid. But I know from experience the importance of being open and of sharing. It can really help. It can make us feel less alone. Less like the only person going through it. Less like a freak. 

    If we are to learn one of the big lessons of 2020, it must surely be that life is too short to be unhappy. Solving the happiness mystery cannot be left to others but is to be owned by each of us. I plan to make 2021 a year in which my work never again impact on my health, unless it’s in a positive way. The pandemic and all the carnage it has brought with it has made work very challenging for lots of people and presented us with pressures and stresses we could have barely anticipated, let alone easily handled, but we are now heading into a new year.

    2021. A chance to start the year as we mean to go on. To make 2021 a year of positivity. That’s my plan. To enjoy the year. To put work in its rightful place. And to spend less time itching my legs or on the toilet. 

  6. Training to become a psychotherapist: no pain, no gain

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    Despite the daily, drip, drip, drip of dire news on the COVID front and the seemingly inevitable impending doom of tier four restrictions reaching us here in Merseyside (perhaps as part of a full national lockdown in January), I am enjoying my Christmas/end of year break. 

    Like many people – although not all as there are plenty of folk working hard at the moment to keep us safe, healthy and stocked with food and the like – I am taking a few days off from work. This process is much easier to navigate when you are working for yourself and there isn’t a holiday rota to accommodate or the annual game of musical chairs of “who is working over new year?” to face. This year is also a formal break from studying for me: a break from classes as part of my masters in counselling and psychotherapy. 

    This break came at a good time: just after my first assignment (and my first essay in over twenty one years!) was due – and at the end of an intense term in which the studying hasn’t just been of books and ideas but of me. 

    This self study, this deep looking at what makes me tick, is incredibly important on the journey to becoming a counsellor/therapist. I have learnt that it is perhaps the most important aspect of the learning that you would apply in practice, including how to spot whether your clients’ material (their issues, problems, stories and discussions) are pushing some buttons for you; bringing up things from your life; reminding you of people or experiences that have shaped who you are. Understanding this is so important to ensure that you are staying with your client and their frame of reference – their life – and not drifting into your own.

    These acts of self reflection come naturally to me as someone who has spent and continues to spend a lot of his life thinking and reflecting on what he has done and why – helped by extensive experience of therapy from different parts of my life. I have returned now to therapy partly as a requirement of the course – you need to undertake some therapy during the first two years – but also as I have been aware of issues that have come up for me as I have been studying the books and the deeper recesses of myself over the last fourteen week or so. 

    This is a good thing. It would be strange I think to be on this course and not to be thinking afresh about parts of my story; parts of my personality; parts of me and what makes me who I am. I am enjoying this aspect of my experience but it is not easy. It is painful. It has at times been sad. At times deeply, deeply sad. Too sad even for tears. 

    There is very little (I would have said nothing fourteen weeks ago) of my story that I hadn’t explored and tried to understand (within therapy and outside over the last fifteen years or so) and I was confident that I had a good grasp on me and my material. The last few months have shown that only to be partially true. The big stuff was on the table and I knew a lot, but not enough. The depth that I am now going to with my own reflections, thinking and exploring are so much deeper than before and reflect the power of building up some greater knowledge of therapy and more importantly of myself. The constant gentle challenge (and support) you are presented with on a course like this to ask yourself why did you feel like that/what was going on for you in that moment/why did you react like that, allows you to dig a little deeper and understand a lot more. 

    Working on my practical therapy skills each week – as I have be doing with my fellow students – wearing the hat of a therapist (albeit a trainee therapist) whilst one of your classmates talks to you about things that are going on for them and opening the door into their feelings, some of them raw, painful and upsetting, is an incredibly humbling thing. It is a huge privilege. It is a massive responsibility and it is an opportunity – one I am trying to seize – to reflect on the parts of my own story that I may have placed in the box marked ‘tackled’ but that probably deserve a further airing.

    Revisiting parts of my life as I have been doing, with this new-found developing knowledge and skillset, has been illuminating. It is not all about the darker moments (the bullying, the breakdown; the boy becoming a man before his time; the brutal feelings of loss and loneliness), it is also about the partner and parent you have become and the positive ways in which you are trying to play your role in the world: the ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that Robert Kennedy spoke about in June 1966. 

    I am already knowing myself a little better and understanding the things that have influenced me and the choices I have now about how I respond to things and people. I am becoming less judgmental, including about myself, and kinder to others and importantly to myself. If the course was a marathon, I feel like I passed the first big milestone. The first three miles or so are done but there is still a long way to go and although my legs feel fresh now, I know there are some hard yards ahead.   

    With muscles, they say more you work them, the more you get out of them. The more I have been working my mind, the more it seems to be responding and the more I am learning and understanding. But I guess like all exercise, there are times when the muscles are strained and soreness sets in. I have felt some of this pain over the last few months – some of it deep and raw – but I have received so much more gain as a result. 

    Dr J is probably suffering the most; hearing, as she does, my daily penny drop moments as something in my story suddenly makes more sense to me than it had ever done before. It is worth some pain for this gain (I hope for both of us!), but as I have been learning, it is also important to hear the pain, to listen to the cries and the sadness and to accept and not fight it or ignore it.

    I plan to continue to enjoy this break from the classroom but to keep an open mind about what I can learn every day about myself. After all, every day is a school day. 

  7. Unpopular view of the year: 2020 hasn’t been a bad year for me and my mental health

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    2020 will go down in history as the worse year in living memory. It’s not hard to see why. A global, deadly, cruel pandemic, decimating families and communities and leading to unprecedented (the word of 2020) economic, social and health misery on an unimaginable scale.

    Lives lost. Lives put at risk. Lives thrown into despair (including those trapped at home with hateful, violent partners). Lives changed forever. 

    Victoria Wood once wrote: “I only know a little latin; just enough to buy a paper”, but I think she would know the phrase ‘annus horribilis’. The horrible year of 1992 for the House of Windsor was nothing compared to 2020 and that’s even before we mention The Crown! We’ve clearly had a collective horrible year. A year of darkness and sadness. A year to forget. 

    But that’s not the full story. It’s not my story.   

    For me, 2020 has brought with it awful sadness and fear but more besides. I have been lucky that – so far – nobody close to me has been lost to this vicious virus and those I care about who’ve had it have recovered and are safe and well. Dr J and I are so grateful to have jobs that have continued to be secure – if anything even more secure – during this year of all years. We did our home schooling in the first lockdown – and it was challenging and stressful whilst working full time – but Miss J has spent most of the year in school, receiving a full education and enormous love and support from her teachers and schoolmates. We have the space and the jobs to be able to work at home and have, so far, sidestepped the worse effects of the pandemic. 

    Of course, we have missed seeing family and friends – especially those across the Irish Sea for whom a walk together in the local park is not possible. We have also missed things that matter to us, including for me the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people who share a love and a passion to celebrate the end of a thirty year title drought at Anfield and the golden sky that came at the end of the storm. But these are small sacrifices and losses in a year when lives, jobs, homes and more have gone. In the final analysis, this personal good fortune – the avoidance of the worse impacts of the pandemic – is not why 2020 has been ok for me and my mental health. There is more.

    In 2020:

    • I have been at home (my place of safety, security, happiness and contentment) more than ever.
    • I have seen more of my extraordinary wife than at any time since we met.
    • I have spend more time with my darling daughter than any time since she was born – and have had lots of 121 time with her, building a deeper connection and relationship that moves me to tears even as I write this. 
    • I’ve had time to think about the things that matter to me/help me to stay well and build them into my life more consistently than at any time – certainly since my breakdown – including running every day, reading books and listening to podcasts. 
    • I have reconnected and stayed connected – virtually – with friends, with whom in normal times, things slip.
    • I’ve had the time and perspective to make big decisions about my working future and am in the final days of working my notice at LJMU and moving to a new phase of my life – part time work/part time study – with a future in mental health and a chance to do something I care so much about. It feels like a calling and a vocation rather than a job. 
    • I am enjoying my masters course more than I could have imagined – feeling humbled that people on my course have shared with me some of their most private thoughts and feelings and seeing a glimpse of what my working future could be like.
    • I have started my training to become a psychotherapist and have for the first time in my working life found something to do that doesn’t feel like work, even though it is stretching all of my intellectual, emotional and philosophical bandwidth. 
    • I have reconnected with my personal therapy and therapist and have been talking through some of the toughest parts of my story – at a depth and with emotions that I hadn’t reached before. This has brought – and continues to bring – tears and pain but also a feeling of a great progress, understanding and acceptance.
    • I have learnt so much already on my course about myself (as well as the start of what it takes to be an effective counsellor/therapist) and am seeing changes in how I see people and life – less quick to judge, more accepting of others, more thoughtful and reflective. 
    • I have played more golf this year and enjoyed it more than at any time since I was a child – appreciating the joy of the game and not preoccupied with score. 
    • I have worried about those close to me and their risk of catching the virus and dying but I have worried less about stuff in general and been less anxious in my day to day life (and have stopped taking my daily anti-depressant). 
    • I now worry less about leadership in the world with full, rounded, compassionate President and Vice-Presidents elect in the US. 
    • I have met some amazing, inspiring people – virtually – in 2020 and am full of hope of what 2021 will bring. 

    Over the last few years, I have learnt that not everything is what it appears at first look. I was the smiling, contented, successful guy with a dream life and a career to envy. Inside, I was falling apart and screaming for help. Screams that not even I could hear.

    And so 2020 can seem like a shocker for everyone but for some it can be full of joy. For me, it’s been my best year for some time, even though I mourn and grieve with those who have suffered. This reflection – my reality of 2020 and that of my own mental health this year – is how I feel about life now. No longer black and white and immediately clear but full of grey. And at times, grey can be a beautiful colour. 

  8. Talking about your own mental health is a man’s job

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    As I know from my own experiences in the corporate world, academia, media, politics, working with the medical profession and working with senior leaderships teams across all sectors of the UK economy – as well as being a keen observer of sport, literature and public life – every day is men’s day. 

    Every day, men – frequently less-qualified and less able than the women who outnumber them – dominate key positions, the best opportunities and the organisations and meetings in which they are involved. It has always been galling to see my wife – as just one example amongst so many – face daily sexism and discrimination at work and in her life – and to have to deal with outdated, ugly, corrosive and dangerous stereotypes of gender roles. 

    It has always been a man’s world and, despite improvements across society, it still is. Even in 2020. This is something I think about every day as I watch my daughter growing up, bombarded with messages and expectations from a world that is still geared to maintaining the status quo, whilst at home we push back against that nonsense and talk about ‘yes you can’. 

    But I also think about my fellow men. I think about the pressures and expectations on men to continue to conform to the stereotypes and traditional roles that are too often imposed on them with horrendous consequences.

    We are talking more and more – and about time – about the notion of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the emotional damage that is being done to boys and men across the country and the world of being bullied into behaving as men are too often expected to behave. No crying. No showing emotion. Get up if you fall over and don’t show any pain. Any weakness. Any vulnerability. And whatever you do, don’t talk about your mental health. Don’t admit you are struggling. Don’t show someone inside your carefully constructed emotional armour. Don’t give in to the the temptation of sharing. Sharing is not caring. Sharing is weakness. Be strong. Be a man. Man up.

    Yesterday was International Men’s Day. A chance to publicly discuss issues that affect boys and men’s health and wellbeing. A great opportunity to talk about men’s mental health. Depression. Anxiety. Body image. Resilience. Grief. Self harm. Shame. Identity. And much more besides. An important moment to talk about the number of lives we lose every hour, every day, to suicide in the UK and beyond. 

    I made a short video for the university’s students’ union  – I am now a new (old!) postgraduate student, studying counselling and psychotherapy, with a view to adding this knowledge, skill and experience to my lived experience of living with depression and a breakdown from 2014/15 to try to help others. I talked in this short video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PX74q67j6qM – about my mental health and the approaches I take to try to stay well. 

    The key thing that arose yesterday again for me was that the positive response I got was not on the detail of what I said but simply because I was speaking out – being a man talking about his own mental health. Being open. Being honest. Showing some vulnerability. This is something I have been doing for several years and at times probably take it for granted as it is part of my daily life (writing, speaking, teaching, sharing on social media etc), but it is so important to acknowledge that it is still seen as a novelty – as something unusual – to see someone who looks like me (beard and all) being open about his mental health.

    It shows once again how far we still have to travel on the road to normalising men talking about their mental health and having conversations rather than suffering in silence which can lead to life-shattering, life-ending consequences.

    Every day may be men’s day when it comes to power, influence, employment rights, opportunities, earnings, profile and status, but not yet a day when men are talking enough about their mental health. To themselves. To each other. Out-loud. To anyone.

    The stigma is still real for lots of men. The barriers still feel too high. The pressure to stay quiet are hardwired. There is much work to do – a day at a time. Today. Tomorrow. And every day.

  9. My mental health weather forecast for the coming week: unsettled.

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    As someone who lives with depression, I am used to the feeling of dark clouds looming towards me from the horizon. That feeling – sometimes arriving as suddenly as a thunderbolt or as gradually as a slow dripping tap – of an episode of depression hitting me. Like someone has switched off the lights, slapped a pair a sunglasses on my face and made me swim The Channel fully clothed. The heaviness of a ten ton weight pushing down on all parts of my body, mind and soul. The loss of confidence and hope is like being hit by a bus. 

    I recognise these sensations and the abject awfulness of the experience and so I spend every day – in truth, every hour of every day – working hard to keep that particular wolf from my door. 

    • I run every day.
    • I play golf at least twice a week (weather permitting – I am not a fair weather golfer but I am certainly not an any weather golfer!).
    • I read for news (including the two best newspapers in the world: the FT and The New York Times) and for escapism.
    • I try to write at least one meaningful and important thing a day – it can be as simple as a well-crafted, thoughtful email.
    • I spend as much time as possible with my darling daughter and wonderful wife who fill my world with love, light and laughs.
    • I listen to music and podcasts throughout the day – I am writing this with the help of the unplugged Tony Bennet.
    • I don’t drink alcohol (26 months and counting).
    • I drink good tea – the best that Yorkshire and Fortnum and Mason has to offer.
    • I give a big piece of my heart every day to Liverpool Football Club and the Boston Red Sox.
    • I believe in politics and political leaders (some of them) as a force for good and try to be positive about the ability of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world – because it’s the only thing that ever has (thank you to Margaret Mead and Aaron Sorkin for the reminder).
    • I watch the West Wing. A lot.
    • I pray every night with my daughter at bedtime, including at the moment for an election of a president in the US who treats people as people.
    • I bet on Irish horse racing and follow the Irish rugby team.
    • I cook every day.
    • I think about how I can play a small role in making the world around me a little bit better.
    • I plan ahead.
    • I try to keep learning.
    • I make lists.
    • I give myself things to look forward to.
    • I try hard – although rarely succeeding – to live in the moment and not look too far ahead.
    • I listen to the radio.
    • I avoid people and situations that make me unhappy, doubt myself or love life a little less.
    • I make time for breakfast during the week and for special breakfast with my girls at the weekends.
    • I remember that work is nowhere near as important at being at home and not working.
    • I try to be kind to myself. 

    These are some of the tools in my mental health and wellbeing toolkit – the stuff I rely on to try to make the good moments last longer and keep the bad moments from turning into catastrophic ones. I need a combination of some of these tools every day, even in the best times, but with new clouds racing across the sky at me, I need all of them even more than ever. The mental health weather forecast for the next few days looks pretty unsettled. So many things that I care about, worry about and think about are at stake………..

    A new England-wide COVID lockdown is about to start with restrictions that will hit hard, including on my wellbeing-important golf. The lockdown was announced by a prime minister in whom I have zero faith and even less respect. The US election is two sleeps away with the prospect (receding but still real) of four more years of corruption, a total disregard for any human life that doesn’t come with the name Trump and a selfishness that makes 1980’s Britain look like Attlee’s new Jerusalem. Liverpool are playing away at Manchester City without the best player in the world. The Red Sox roster is in disarray. The dark nights are kicking in and the actual weather seemingly getting worse by the day. It’s no wonder my head is starting to feel cloudy and under siege. 

    But I know, from bitter experience, that there is no trick, silver bullet, magic spell or miracle cure (although I’ve tried taking tablets as well), that can make the bad weather disappear. There is just hard work, commitment, faith (that it will pass) and the love and hope that my various tools and interventions can give me.

    The next few days and weeks may be tough but I know that I have the tools for the job. I just need to be prepared to use them all and do whatever it takes to get through it. As someone once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. It’s time for me to dress for the occasion.

  10. World Mental Health Day 2020

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    To mark World Mental Health Day 2020, I was delighted to be interviewed by colleagues at The British Medical Association (BMA) as they launched their new Mental Health Network. We had a great conversion about mental health and the workplace. It is fantastic to see this initiative which will make a big difference to so many people who do so much to support us all.

    I was also really proud to take part in a four-way discussion hosted by SilverCloud Health, alongside Dan Burningham, Mental Health Programme Director at City and Hackney CCG and Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health. It was hosted by SilverCloud’s Head of Europe, Lloyd Humphreys.

    The theme of the podcast mirrored theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day: “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access. Everyone, everywhere”

    I spoke about my own perspectives on the relationship between the workplace and mental health and some of my own personal experiences.

    https://www.silvercloudhealth.com/uk/blog/world-mental-health-day-2020

  11. I raise a cuppa and a big smile to not drinking

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    IIt remains the most difficult conversation that I regularly have. It almost guarantees tons of tumbleweed and awkwardness. It prompts social embarrassment. It leads to looks of confusion. Dismay. Bafflement. Astonishment. 

    No, not the interaction that follows from the revelation that I once had a breakdown and spent – and occasionally still spend – time curled up in a ball on the floor crying. Not, the announcement that I’ve never been to a gig that didn’t involve Paul McCartney or Tony Bennett taking to the stage. Not even the news that I once ran for parliament as a conservative, although that does provoke very strong reactions (horror, anger, pity, acts of violence etc), especially in my beloved Liverpool.

    I write instead about the discomfort that I create when I say that I don’t drink. I’m teetotal. I’m alcohol- abstemious. I’m sober. 

    Today marks the second anniversary of my last drink: the last time alcohol passed my lips. Two years sober. Twenty-four months. 730 days. Over 17,500 hours. 420,000+ minutes.

    In keeping with the assumptions, prejudices and general suspicions of tee-totallers, I feel I have to now justify and explain myself. I’m not an alcoholic. I didn’t have a drink problem. I am not in recovery.

    Well, technically, aside from not being an alcoholic, that’s not entirely true. I did have a problem. It was a mixing drink with depression problem. And I am in recovery – constant, daily and ongoing recovery from my 2014/15 breakdown, in which drink played a very small role.

    I feel I have to get these denials in early because I am now so used to judgments being rushed to when I say that I don’t drink. I can see the mental cogs turning. The scrutiny of my possible shaking hands. The examination of my face for Brian Clough-esque signs of heavy boozing. The thoughts that flash through the head of my fellow conversationalists that I must have been a big drinker who kept falling over, blacking out or staggering from Birkdale bar to bar.

    I never was a big drinker. I took a drink. I liked a drink. I enjoyed the craic that went with drink and like many people of my age, background and heritage, drink played a significant part in my social life. But I drank moderately. Sometimes a glass of wine with dinner. A few beers watching the match. A glass or two of prosecco with Dr J to toast the weekend. My problem was not too much drink but too much anxiety and darkness that followed the drink. 

    It got to the point for me that even one beer could leave me edgy, tense and worried for two or three days afterwards. It was for me the effect that drink had on my already fragile mental health and the impact it had on my confidence, levels of calm and my sense of myself that hit me hard. It made my anxiety and depression worse. It left me feeling rubbish. It left me regretting ever having raise a glass and said slainte in the first place.

    So I gave it up. Two years ago. I just stopped and haven’t looked back. That I know is much easier to do when you don’t have an addiction or a predisposition to addiction. I did have a few wobbles at the start but in truth it has been easy to do and the early temptations passed fairly quickly. Not because I have such great will power or self control but because I noticed the positive results straight away.

    Gone went the fear. The guilt. The nervousness. The extra layer of worry. The turbo boost to my dark moods. The helping hand to my depression. 

    The purpose of this post is not to pat myself on the back for my sobriety – as I have said, it wasn’t too difficult to achieve – but to float the idea that those who have anxiety and/or depression should give giving up some thought. I’m not saying that everyone who has any form of anxiety and/or depression should take the pledge and give up the demon drink. I’m not saying it solved all my problems and that it will solve yours. But I am saying that is has been a big help to me; with my mental health; for my wellbeing. 

    I encounter so many people with similar stories to mine who know that drink is something that doesn’t help them. It brings with it further depressive tendencies. It’s takes them lower. It makes life harder not easier. For me, it did all of this and acted as something of a false medication from the stresses and pressures of my work and a hindrance to my efforts to achieve the work-life balance I needed. It hid from me the truth of how I was feeling, cruelly kidding me that I was enjoying life because I was happy when in drink after a stressful day or busy week.

    I know from personal experience and from talking to many, many people who are prone to anxiety, depression, self esteem issues, grief and a wide range of mental health issues from the mild to the major, that a) there are no solutions to those issues found at the bottom of a glass or bottle and, more importantly, b) the days(s) after drink very rarely do anything but make their original issues feel much worse. It’s not just the hangover but the stimulation that alcohol provides to your darkest concerns and issues – the edginess; the paranoia; the regret; the memory loss; the self consciousness; the nervousness; the downer; the physical damage and the knock on effect it has on your state of mind. Put simply, drink is a mood changer and, more often than not, a mood killer. It is a depressant. 

    I am not preaching; I am not judging; I am not telling people what to do. I am simply saying this: I am yet to meet someone, myself included, who experiences a positive difference from alcohol in their attempt to get on top of depression or anxiety. I am yet to see what good it does beyond a short term high or hit. I am yet to see the benefit from taking a drink as much as I benefit from not taking it. I am calmer now; I sleep better; I feel sharper; I have more energy; my skin is clearer; I can run further and faster; I weigh less; I like myself more; I am me all the time, not me wearing a mask; I never wake regretting what I drank, said or did the night before through drink; I never lose a day at the weekend because I am too rough to move.

    I have reflected on this before and some of my words above I wrote when eight months sober. I went back over them to compare the feelings I had then with now to see whether I had changed my mind, or to see if my view had shifted or softened. If anything, it has hardened. I am more certain now that giving up alcohol has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I don’t regret it for a second and I have no intentions of going back. I recommend it. Highly.

    I feel I should end by explaining one other part of my story that also leads to confusion and despair. I can confirm that I gave up another bad habit a while ago. I stopped being a Tory. They haven’t received my vote since long before I stopped drinking. And again, I have no intention of going back. There is no u-turn in sight. No prospect of a polling day conversion. No chance of me voting blue. I’d have to be pretty drunk to think that was a good idea.

  12. It’s time to make a change

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    When I lecture or blog on mental health and the workplace, I regularly say that managing your own mental health is about making the right choices for you. No matter how good your employer, your boss, or your organisation, there are moments when only you can affect your health and happiness and only you can make a change that will improve your life.

    In these moments, often when things are not going to plan, you are not happy in your work, or you have ambitions that are not being realised, waiting for others to act rarely works. You must take ownership of your position and be the change you want to see. 

    I recently reached such a moment.

    I’ve had two fascinating years as Head of Communications at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), achieved a lot and been given some fantastic opportunities to make a difference. The chance to work with a range of hugely passionate, committed and talented colleagues on issues related to mental health and wellbeing of students and staff has been one highlight amongst many. But I haven’t been happy for some time. 

    As I start my masters in counselling and psychotherapy this month, a new chapter in my life opens and with it new possibilities. Upon completion of my course and (hopefully) qualification as a therapist, I plan to combine practising, teaching, speaking, writing and helping organisations with their health and wellbeing strategies and work.

    I am deeply passionate about mental health and the workplace and through my work at LJMU have also seen up close the unique issues that students face at university and in the transitions between the various stages of life around their time at university. 

    It was always my plan to focus on these issues in the coming years but I had intended to stay in my current role until my masters was done. That has now changed. 

    It has changed partly due to COVID and the extra pressure that it has placed on me in my current role; pressure which is hard to avoid and even harder for me to enjoy. It is also due to some of the challenges, in built within all academic institutions, of trying to bring a sense of the corporate – a organisational view on something like communications – to a group of people and teams whose lives and careers have been often built on individualism, being challenging and ploughing their own furrow. The daily battles to inch forward on some key agendas in the face of overt, or sometimes covert, push-back and resistance is exhausting and has made the job much harder than it needed to be.

    Communications people reading this know that much of the unseen, out of hours, work we do is under-appreciated, but that is the territory – it is what we do – and isn’t ground for complaint. But being the subject of regular unfair criticism for just doing your job is. 

    I have enough experience of the workplace after over twenty years working in dozens of UK and international organisations in the public, private, third and now academic sectors, and the self-awareness, to know that my feelings towards my role are not temporary or easily addressed. I am not someone who can ignore stuff and pretend it is not happening and I am not a 90% or 95% person. The role and the university deserves someone who can throw themselves fully into the job (at times over seven days a weeks) and face into all the demands it places upon them. It also needs someone who has, and is prepared to use, the rhinoceros skin that at times is required. That is not me.

    When push comes to shove, I am not happy enough in my work. If I learnt one thing from my breakdown it was to look out for signs of trouble and act, not ignore them and hope things will just get better. 

    I have decided that when I leave LJMU I will work part time for the foreseeable future and throw myself into my training to become a therapist. In the short term, I am open to doing consultancy/advisory/interim work in mental health and/or communications and will hopefully continue to teach a little at LJMU on issues related to resilience and mental health.

    The mission and work of LJMU is inspiring and I am proud to have worked for a university that really cares about people and the community. I am proud too of the values that many LJMU leaders embody. I am extremely grateful to a number of colleagues for their support and positivity over the last two years and for the wonderful opportunities that working at LJMU in my current role has given me. 

    It has not been all a bed of roses but nor is any job. I have learnt a lot at LJMU and have a renewed understanding of the impact – positive and at times negative – that workplaces (and study places) can have on individuals and their mental health. 

    I argue passionately that work-life balance and achieving good mental health at work is about choices. It’s about you deciding what is important to you and being true to that. This for me was a moment to take my own advice and make a change. The three weeks I recently had away from work on holiday reassured me I was making the right decision, as is the excitement and motivation I am getting from the reading for my course and the various recent conversations I’ve been having with people about mental health and the workplace, especially in the light of the impact of COVID.

    As we enter the home strait in the US presidential election, I am reminded of a famous slogan from a previous campaign that talked of ‘a time for choosing’. I have reached my time for choosing and made my choice. It’s time to turn the page on that next chapter. It’s time make a change. It’s time to move on. 

  13. Healthy workplaces: leaders need to set an example

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    Workplaces around the world are currently rightly focused on making sure they are COVID-safe, ensuing that every precaution is taken to rid their environments of dangerous bacteria, droplets of deadly virus and dodgy work surfaces. It’s all about masks, sanitiser and wipes. It’s all about social distancing. It’s all about the one-way system.

    Of course, this is the right thing to do; it is vital work; but although it’s necessary, it is not sufficient. It will help deal with the current virus and provide some assurance to the millions of people being encouraged (and in some egregious cases, forced) back into offices, shops, factories and other workplaces up and down the country, but it will take a lot more effort, more focus, more leadership, more courage to deal with the most damaging, dangerous and deadly virus that afflicts the workplace. A disease that also takes lives; drains away self confidence; damages millions’ mental health; induces bouts of self loathing; destroys relationships and eats away at the health, wealth and wellbeing of the nations of the world.

    I write of toxic, unhealthy, unkind and uncompassionate workplace cultures that have been bad for our health long before many of us had heard of Wuhan and started measuring two metres from each other and tutting when people entered our local corner shop without a mask. 

    I have spent over twenty years working for, and within, dozens of organisations throughout the UK and around the world, including some of the biggest, best-known and best-loved household names. I’ve worked in the private, public, third and academic sectors, with organisations of all shapes and sizes. I have directly managed teams from one to one hundred, worked for a wide range of bosses with diverse backgrounds, philosophies and approaches and been part of workplaces at the forefront of their industries. I have been coached and coached many people. I have seen a fair bit in the workplace, including some inspirational leaders and examples of brilliant practice, but sadly much of what I’ve seen and experienced has been disappointing. Bitterly disappointing. 

    Much has left me cold. Some of it played a part – a small part – in my own breakdown in which my relationship with work and the culture of my workplace contributed to my loss of confidence, energy and health. This experience – the trauma of my breakdown and the related issues it exposed – are part of my story and part of my everyday life, even now, years later. I don’t blame my issues, or even a large part of them, for my fall but they are part of my story in the same way they are part of the story of people I meet and talk to every day.

    One of the most uplifting and humbling things that has happened to me in recent years is the number of people who reach out after reading my blog, hearing me speak or meeting me and finding something in my story that speaks to them. They disclose their experiences. They tell me about their relationship with their workplace. They talk about their struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance, their desire to change their lives and how hard that is to do.

    Every individual story is just that: their own experience, their unique journey and their own personal thing. But every story that I’ve heard has the same undercurrent, the same underlying issue. They all face – to a greater or lesser extent (the former being the most common) – the same barrier to making healthy changes; the same challenge; the same problem. Their boss.

    This is not an attack on managers, heads of teams, directors, chief executives, COOs or chairs of boards. These people often reflecting a workplace culture that they themselves are victim too and sometimes trapped within. But – and it is a big but – they also present the single biggest opportunity to change culture and help people improve their lives and in some cases to save lives.

    I cannot overstate the importance of leaders and leadership in building or dismantling unhealthy workplace cultures. The boss – whether of the small team you work within or as the FTSE 100 managing director of the 100,000 person wheel you are small cog within – sets the tone for others to follow. The boss determines how others are expected to behave. The boss leads by example (whether they mean to or not). The boss sets the culture.

    To have a workplace that is toxic culture-safe as well as COVID-safe the boss must do three things:

    • Treat people with respect – this includes saying please and thank you; offering more than instructions and direction but also feedback (positive and constructive); be explicit with their team members, asking them what they want to achieve and their goals and aspirations and regularly talking about how you can help them to achieve them; never, ever threatening them or raising their voice; never, ever commenting on their appearance or how tired they look;
    • Respect boundaries – this includes no out of hours emails and calls/messages unless absolutely necessary; agreeing clear expectations on working hours and work patterns (including presence in the workplace) in advance of working together – this includes their own hours and patterns and checking in regularly on these if they change/need to change; remembering that work is just that – it’s work – not personal/home and they should limit their discussions of these things, unless invited, to pleasantries; keep it professional at all times, this includes drawing inference about their work/performance on previous information about their health – respecting boundaries is also about not making assumptions/thinking they think is happening in someone’s life – if it’s relevant and they need to know, then they should ask!
    • Share the credit, take the blame – being a leader means everything that goes wrong in their team/in the name of their team is their fault and everything that goes well should be credited to the team and a team effort – that’s the leadership deal – that’s why the boss is paid more/have the office/the status/the car parking space/the extra autonomy etc. Standing in front of your team provides them with a feeling of safety, security and trust; it helps them to challenge; to be creative and to take risks; and more importantly it takes away one of the biggest worries in the workplace – that at the first sign of a problem you will be blamed, disciplined or sacked. The prevalence of a blame culture is one of the ugliness aspects of toxic working environments and is sadly something I have seen far too often – driven so, so often by the boss and their insecurities and personal survival at all costs mentality. As the boss, the buck stops with you – for everything.

    In short, the boss must set an example. They must be a role model. They must be a leader. Of course the employee needs to play their part and – as I have written many times before – make the right choices for them – but the biggest workplace barrier to making changes are the restrictions placed on you by your boss, often on behalf of the organisation. This is not about human resources policies but in being a human resource and treating those around you in the way you would want to be treated. And it is not enough just to be kind and sensitive towards the needs of your team – you must also demonstrate positive culture is how you treat yourself. Respecting the boundaries of others is great but not if you are working 24/7 and sending a message that the only way to become the boss is to work in a way that would stretch your emotional elastic band to breaking point and beyond.

    Their failure to do this doesn’t just hit the bottom line or the hitting of KPIs or government targets – in some cases it won’t even impact on these things – but it can ruin lives. Being a leader in an organisation is as much about the mental health and wellbeing of your teams than the health of the balance sheet.

    The impact you can have – positively and negatively – as someone’s boss is huge. It really matters that you think about the people you manage and talk to them about what they want out of their role; how they work best; what you can do to help them; and then remember they are not machines to be fed more and more work but human beings who need to rest, time and space to recharge and need and deserve respect.

    Tragically COVID is killing people now around the world and until we get a vaccine it will continue to kill people and destroy families. The same is true of toxic working cultures and the link with premature death, stress-related illness and suicide. The different here is that the ability to vaccinate against it lies in large part with the boss. S(he) can make all the difference. By setting an example. By being kind and compassionate. By being a real leader. By giving people space and time to make different choices when work has become or is becoming too big a part of their lives. By being a person.

  14. Giving it 100% comes at a price

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    I am a proud member of the 100% club. That band of women and men who are determined to be the best versions of themselves, every day, in every interaction, in each moment. People who want to leave it all on the field; who want to go the extra mile; who will keep going back to the well. 

    At work, this doesn’t mean running at 100 mph all the time but on trying to produce the best possible work, exert the maximum possible influence, make the biggest possible difference you can in the time available. It is not about working 24/7, or living and breathing your work (an unhealthily approach – we all need the oxygen of rest, replenishing and recuperation), but it does mean earning your wages; trying your best; doing the greatest good for the greater number.

    I have met some perfectionists in my time – I live with one (a particularly wonderful one) – and that is not me. I am not trying my best for the perfect solution or outcome – I am trying to get the best result possible in the circumstances and within healthy boundaries. I am pragmatic; I am able and willing to compromise standards in one battle to try to win the war; but I see every day not just as school day but as an opportunity to make improvements – sometimes marginal, incremental improvements – that will move the organisation, the team, the people I work with a few inches forward. This has always been my approach to work – before my breakdown and after it. This is part of who I am – part of my integrity, my genuine commitment to try to do the right thing and repay the trust that people have put in me.

    This is not a self-appreciation society post or a smug pat on the back – it is a warning – a mental health, wellbeing and resilience warning.

    This approach – the one I have followed throughout my life – can come at a cost. It can have a price tag. It can hurt. As dear Irish friends of ours are fond of saying, sometimes “shit is your thanks”. Not everyone will see what you are doing; appreciate it; care about it; or care about you. This approach is not a guarantee of respect, support or affection. It can – in some cases led to contempt – as it is said familiarity is prone to do – and can just lead to expectations that you will keep giving your all regardless of the results or the personal costs. Some people will see you going the extra mile and let you do it as it saves them from going just a few yards. Being helpful, perhaps even indispensable, can lead to more and more being piled on your plate without thanks. It can lead to you being overstretched and to mistakes – mistakes that are not excused and shrugged off but used against you and have the standards you have set thrown back in your face – standards you are expected to meet day after day after day regardless of the cost.

    So here’s the warning. If you are in the 100% club, do it for you. Do it because it matters to you. Do it because it is you. If you are doing it for others, you may end up disappointed. Feeling undervalued. Feeling that life is too short to give so much for so little in return. Giving it 100% doesn’t always get 100% back. Remember, you don’t give to receive, not even for a thank you. You do it because it is the right thing to do. You do it for your peace of mind.

    I have spent over twenty years in many workplaces, successfully delivering consistently good results for organisations and people across all sectors of the economy and parts of the world. My best experiences at work have been when I have been proud of my work and I know it has made a difference but it has also been when those around me have appreciated it; thanked me; respected me; treated me properly.

    Lazy, cliche-obsessed sports people often talk of giving it 110%; the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent judges talk about giving ‘a million percent yes’ to some contestants; the wonderful ‘Thick Of It” writers talk about whether you are an “ameri-can” or an “ameri-can’t”. These labels don’t really matter (or make sense!). The only thing that really matters is you being true to your self; your values; your integrity.

    Like all things related to the workplace and your wellbeing/mental health you have to make choices that work for you. Either find a workplace culture that fits with your values or be prepared to ignore the noise and remind yourself that you are doing it for you, not for them. This can be hard. It can be painful. It can leave you feeling empty at times. It can force you to make difficult decisions. But it is the cost of being in the 100% club.

    In the end, regardless of the costs I wouldn’t want it any other way. This is who I am and I am proud of it.

  15. It only takes one email or comment

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    Like so many of us during the last few months, I have grown closer and closer to my Netflix and Prime Video accounts. It is filling a huge hole left by the absence of live sport and, alongside great writing, is providing me with an escape route out of the worry and distress of coronavirus and its ugly accompanying lowdown. It is transporting me to a different time and place. To a different world.

    I have binged on great TV series, like Looming Tower, and even greater films, like The Big Short. I have also rewatched some of my all-time favourite programmes and films, including Spotlight, the story of the extraordinary investigative work done by a team at The Boston Globe to expose child sexual abuse by catholic priests in Boston. There’s a moment in that film when one of the reporters turns to another and says: “It may take a village to raise a child but it also takes a village to abuse one”. His powerful point was that there are always people who know; always people who look away; always people who turn the other cheek; always people who could and should speak out and stop awful things happening. Always others involved.

    My twenty-plus years’ experience of work and workplaces in the UK and around the world reinforces that view when it comes to workplace culture and the impact that it can have on mental health and wellbeing. It is rarely, if ever, the fault of one colleague, rogue manager, CEO, board member or leader who creates or perpetuates a toxic working culture. It is rarely, if ever, one incident that pushes a colleague into a place where they no longer want to go to work. It is rarely, if ever, one person that makes a workplace uncomfortable or unhappy. It takes more. It takes a village. 

    From small acorns grow big trees. From one mean-spirited, nasty, passive aggressive or bullying comment or email at work, grows the cancer of corrosive corporate cultures. Those of us who work or have worked in all types of organisations in all sectors of the economy; of all shapes and sizes; in all roles; at all levels, will I am sure recognise when they see workplace behaviours they know are wrong. Behaviours that make them feel uncomfortable, aimed at them or others. Yet, how often do we call it out? How often do we feel we can, without feeling that we ourselves will become the next victim?

    How often too do we really think about the impact that this behaviour – whether a micro-aggression or something more obvious and tangible – can have on others? How often do we look beyond the incident in front of us and think about how it will make the person on the receiving end feel? How often do we look at our own behaviour at work and reflect on its impact – intended or otherwise? How often does this behaviour contribute to someone feeling low, down, anxious, upset, nervous or distressed? How often does it damage their mental health?

    There is a danger that we do what many people do when it comes to mental health more generally and say things like “just ignore it” or “try not to let it bother you” or treat it “like water off a duck’s back”. If I had a pound for every time someone – with good intentions – over the last five years or so have offered me that advice – some of it from my closest friends and family – as a way of trying to help me as I work through my breakdown and depression, I would have been able to invest in ‘the big short’. It was always done with good intentions – with kindness and love. But actions speak louder than words.

    Standing up to poor behaviour in the workplace may be uncomfortable at first but it can stop it in its tracks. A supportive email to a colleague who is upset; a kind word on the phone; a text message to check in and show you care; a follow up with those who have caused the upset (perhaps without intention or malice) to provide feedback and gently, constructively call it out can make such a big difference. It does make a difference. It can help stop things getting more serious and impacting on a colleagues’ health and wellbeing. I can vouch for that.

    It only takes one email. One comment. One blind eye turned. It also takes it toil. If left unchecked it can ruin careers. It can ruin lives. And yet it can be stopped but it takes a village to stop it.

  16. I really miss my daughter – and she’s only been at school a few hours

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    IMy daughter went back to school today and I am at a loss. Sad. Anxious. Lonely. Missing her. Miss J has gone back to school and taken a little piece of my heart with her. 

    I have been reading and writing about coronavirus – at work and on my blog and on social media – for weeks. Thinking about its impacts. Working through its implications. Talking about how it is changing everything around us. Then one big impact hit me right between the eyes this morning.

    The virus – with all its nasty, unfair, unkind, ugliness – has brought one positive, one golden opportunity for me: the chance to spend the last nine weeks – all day, every day – with my little girl. With my mini Dr J. With the person who has brought such light, joy and delight into our lives.

    Miss J is six and so has been in school for two years and before that was in nursery and pre-school. We have done the first day at school thing at least twice before and have dealt with the separation anxiety and the cutting of apron strings things when your little person takes a few tentative independent steps in their life. But this has been different. Partly, it is because she has just – today – started a new school which brings a whole set of new things for her and us – that’s for another blog. Partly it has been very personal for me this time.

    When Miss J started nursery, pre-school and her reception year at school, I was there. Involved. Often on the school run but I hadn’t spent every day of the first three and a half years of her life with her, as Dr J had done. I am very proud to have played a full, active, co-parenting role in her life and been present on her little journey so far. But it is not the same as Dr J’s early years involvement. When I went back to work – two weeks after my paternity leave started in 2014, Dr J was at home. Full-time parenting. Full-time care giver. Full-time mum. Over the next few years – partly helped – if that is the right word (!!) by my breakdown, I was at home – working at home a fair bit – but I wasn’t the key figure in getting washed, dressed, fed, exercised, entertained, educated and enjoyed all day, every day. I got my fix each day but I was busy earning the pennies.

    As our reset lives have developed – very happily and by design – Dr J is the one with the big job and the pressured diary and I am the one who is the school runner, the chef, the hair washer and drier, the entertainer. It is a lovely thing to be able to share that role which Dr J made her own in those first 42 months – she set the bar impossibly high. I will never reach that bar, but there again, she will never be able to sing as badly as me; make as many funny noises or talk in so many strange voices as me – all in the name of entertainment. We are a wonderful team and I am lucky to be able to play the role in Miss J’s life that makes me happy. A role I could never have played if I had stayed on the toxic corporate conveyer belt on which I had envisaged spending the rest of my working life.

    These last nine weeks together have been blown in by a very ill wind but have been a blessing. It has been very tough balancing work (it has not been quiet at work following the pandemic outbreak) with parenting and managing my mental health but it has been worth it. I have loved it. I am lucky to have had it. All the daily walks in the park during full lockdown; the project Mc2 lunches (it’s a Netflix programme about four girls who are scientists and secret agents, obvs); afternoon games in the garden; trips to the shops as we count the number of dogs we spot – and try to scheme to convince Dr J to let us have one (without success); quiet time to talk, to listen, just to be together.

    As I watched her go up the steps today and into her new school playground I felt a tinge of sadness. A gulp. I was closing a chapter which we will never reopen. Yes, we have the summer holidays coming up but it won’t be the same. This was a unique few weeks; once in a lifetime circumstances; a one-off moment. I waited – out of sight – for as long as I could this morning to assure myself that she was ok before walking back to the car. A lump in my throat and one tear fighting to get out of my left eye.

    As I have written before, part of my story is my separation anxiety and attachment disorder which means I fear losing those closest to me – fear being abandoned by those I love. Meet any child whose parents divorced when they were very young and spent years working out how to process multiple parents and they will likely have a version of this story.  

    Dr J and I are pleased that Miss J is back to school – six months without any schooling at her age would have not be great for her. We know that others have different views and I hope we can all agree to respect each other on that one. But as happy as I am to see her back in the school saddle today, a little bit of me has died today. I am here at my desk at home, working in peace and quiet; no giggly distractions; no fun ideas to take me away from my emails; no-one hiding under my desk whilst I’m on a call, tickling my feet and making animal noises to make my laugh; no-one appearing behind me to see my colleagues on Teams or Zoom.

    It’s all so quiet today, apart from a little ache I can hear inside. Thankfully, I am picking her up at 15:15. It can’t come soon enough to mend my slightly broken heart. 

  17. My body, mind and the Two Ronnies

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    It is one of those questions you get asked from time to time. Alongside the fantasy lottery win and how you would spend it (happily!); the imaginary famous person dinner party (dead or alive); and your one desired super power. This question gets regularly rolled out. In cringing ice breakers at corporate away days. In team bonding sessions. The question is popped: who would play you in a film?

    There is no right answer of course. Only answers that reveal how you see yourself; how high is your opinion of yourself; how much do you fancy yourself. Some go down the jokey route (but really they want to say Brad Pitt); others aim high and genuinely say Brad Bitt; and some go higher still and all serious and plump for national treasures or multiple Oscar winners (Harris, De Niro, Al Pacino).

    It’s a question and a conversation that – aside from making us squirm in front of others – gets to the heart of a subject that is normally hard to broach. It causes us embarrassment; discomfort; awkwardness. It is the question of how we feel we look, how others see us, how flatteringly we want to be viewed. Those of us who have spent time working with therapists may be well-practised – or should be – at doing a little self analysis; some self reflection; building up some self awareness. My experience of this process – and as someone who has reasonably high emotional intelligence – something I discovered and explored formally with tests, scores and coaching during my career in corporate London – is not that I found some huge revelations about myself that had lay undiscovered throughout my life, but that my understanding of them, what informed them and how they influenced my choices and behaviour, greatly increased. I left my three separate periods of therapy with a shaper, more rounded view of what made me tick and why.

    One of the things I developed was my understanding that what mattered most to me in how others views me is not physical, ascetic or presentational, but more whether I was viewed as someone who acted openly, with integrity and with fairness. I have never had a problem being unpopular – which is just as well as someone who’s had some scrapes at work in very challenging organisations and situations; managed hundreds of people; faced bullying at school and work; has held leaderships roles that take you into tough, rough, painful decisions; and have been the holder of occasionally unpopular, minority social and political views (I ran for parliament after all!).

    I would consider myself to be less concerned with material or superficial stuff. I don’t care about money, cars, houses and holidays (except to feel safe and secure). I have, alongside Dr J, held well-paid jobs – some super well paid but I know that there was not a positive automatic relationship between the size of the payslip and the size of my happiness or the quality of my mental health – if anything it was an direct, inverse relationship. I now earn the least I have earned since I was in my mid-twenties (I am now 42) and have never been happier at work. I have never worried about getting older (hitting 30, 40 etc), losing my hair (just as well again!) or about whether people liked how I looked or what I wore. But in truth that is only partly true. I do care how I feel about those things. I care about how I look for me and especially my weight and related levels of health and fitness. The opinion that matters most to me about these things is mine.

    When I first started to put together the presentation that I use in many of my lectures on resilience, work-life balance and mental health at work, I pulled out photos that helped to chart my own journey into my breakdown and then back out. A picture is worth a thousand words after all and these photos vividly chart the demise of someone who is fading in front of you. Greyer – in hair and skin. Trolleys of luggage under the eyes. More tired in every shot. Sparkle drained from smile and eyes. Weight increasing month by month. 

    In the midst of my breakdown I found comfort in running and took six months off alcohol and started to eat a little better – when I felt like eating. I lost weight and felt the benefit of it. But it was temporary. I went back to using drink as a stress relief and an easy hiding place. I rediscovered my sweet tooth. I lost motivation to regularly exercise. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t dramatic, huge weight gain but it was unhealthy. I am five foot six and I hit twelve and a half stone. My initial recovery helped to arrest that but as I started to take antidepressants I found – some find the opposite – that it made me hungry. I ate more.

    I am now over twenty months sober – I never had a drinking problem but even in very small doses it left me anxious and unhappy for days – and two months since taking a little white tablet. For the first time in a long time I have found consistent motivation to exercise and a desire to lose weight and get back to a level of fitness I had before and want again. I’ve said goodbye to most of my bread and my sweet treats; hello to daily runs; and thanks to the lockdown easing can play golf again after two months – although in the previous six months I was hardly on the course, struggling to get my head in the right place to try to concentrate for four hours. I have lost over half a stone in the last two weeks and am well on the way to my fighting weight – I want to get to ten stone four/five – a weight I haven’t seen for the guts (pardon the pun) of twenty years. I started this recent effort tipping the scales at twelve stone.

    I am doing all of that for me. For my long term physical health. For my wellbeing. For my peace of mind. For my mental health.

    One of the many, many desperate things that has emerged from this coronavirus lockdown is the impact that being overweight has on your chances of being hitting harder by the silent killer in our midst. That has been an added wake-up call. I have no excuse now. I have found some inner peace, have developed routines at home that support my lifestyle choices (time to run, times to cook healthier stuff, time make nice pots of real tea) and have the best chance for years to achieve the health goals I have set. I am trying to seize that opportunity with both hands. One of the great kickers of depression and other mental issues is that it eats away at your confidence and your motivation to do things you really want – things that will actually help fight the dark monster away.

    I am not shut of the monster but at the moment he is resting – he will wake again – and with possibly little notice – so I want to ready when he does.

    In case you were wondering, it’s Ronnie Corbett. Similar height. Both comic geniuses, obviously. Both golf mad. Both owners of Lyle and Scot knitwear. If only he wasn’t so busy attending my favourite dead comedian double act dinner party with the even greater Ronnie Barker.

  18. Being there when the laughing stops

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    I was reminded today of a moment that deserved to win the internet. A moment, so funny, so priceless, that it warrants its own category of viral. At least one clip of it has closed up 22 million views on YouTube with many other versions doing the rounds. I write of course about “Fenton!”.

    The runaway labrador chasing a herd of red deer around Richmond Park, followed by a horrified owner mumbling and then shouting “Jesus Christ!”. All of which is caught on camera by a passer-by just minding their own business and admiring the wildlife. It is a clip that never gets old. It is a clip that always makes me smile. 

    When it appeared again today – someone had reminded Twitter of its genius – it raised a smile and prompted me to show it (once again) to Dr J. It was like popping on an old, comfy sweater or a comfortable pair of soft shoes. But neither a belly laugh nor a roaring out loud snorter did this time it provoke. And that got me thinking. Not about Fenton, but about me and my propensity to laugh these days; my reaction when good stuff, funny stuff happens.

    There is little doubt – now that I have spent a run thinking about it – I couldn’t get it out of my mind whilst plodding around the windswept streets of Birkdale this afternoon – that I don’t laugh like I used to; don’t find the Fentons of the world or indeed much else as funny as I once did. It is not hard to discern the exactly moment that this change occurred. There is pre-breakdown and post-breakdown laughing.

    There is a blissful, ignorant time of my life, when, ironically life felt easier (it wasn’t and it was pushing me to a horrid cliff edge) and my enlightened self; the me of today. The me of breakdown; recovery; therapy; anti-depressants; more therapy; ongoing, day to day hard work on my wellbeing; no alcohol; better routines; quieter life; calmer; happier and settled. It is a further irony that I am now much happier than I have been  – still living with the awfulness of depression but now understanding who I am and what drives me and helps me – and yet I smile and laugh less than I did. A lot less. As someone ominously once said of one of the UK’s great comedians, I wouldn’t want to be there when the laughing stops.

    There is one exception. The laughing I do with my extraordinary wife. Bent over double. Tears rolling down our faces. Can’t breath laughing. This is a regular thing for us and is mostly triggered by the silliest, smallest things. Last week it was my attempts to cut Dr J’s hair. Now. there’s a whole blog in itself!

    Without sounding too pompous or pious, I realised today that a bi-product of having a greater grasp on my emotions – both good and bad – having a more settled outlook on life and being less frantic, active, always on – means that I find life a bit more serious and less funny. I have been through too much heartache over the last few years to take anything for granted and although I work hard to live in the moment, I am more conscious than ever to try to keep my ship on an even keel; reducing the lows and as a result, although not deliberately, the highs.

    I have written before about the effect my fifteen months on anti-depressants had on my overall levels of anxiety and mood. They were a great settler and took the edge off, but not just of darker, more anxious moments, but off the great highs, big laughs and joys of life. In the end, that was why I took the decision – over two months ago now – to cut the cord and go it alone. Although, of course never alone. With my hand constantly held on one side by my wonderful wife – who knows and sees it all – and on the other by my darling daughter – who just sees her daddy and doesn’t know there is any other option but to love him.

    As my run ended and the endorphins were kicking in I realised something else. The reason that I can continue to laugh like the pre-breakdown me with Aileen is because I am more comfortable, safe and happy with her than with anyone else in the world. Her support and love has created the warmest, tightest comfort blanket around me and given me the space and the confidence to let go of fears, worries and emotions. She has seen it all; my lowest points; my darkest moments.

    It is the fact that she saw me curled in a ball in the kitchen sobbing; crying at the merest incident at work (maybe even just an un-replied to email); lost from myself and the world; on the phone crying, asking her to come home from work to pick me off the floor; unable to get in the car in the morning to go to work or take Miss J to school; tossing and turning in bed; up early; restless; in pain; in aguish. The fact is, that nothing is off limits. Nothing too sad or too funny for us. Nothing at all.

    Fenton is still funny, really funny and I can still smile and laugh. But nothing would even be worth the smallest smirk or smile without my wife. My light. My love. My laughter. And for that I thank “Jesus Christ!”.

  19. I wish I’d been more mental heath aware before I hit the wall.

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    I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, what was staring me in the face or indeed what was at the end of my nose. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Not even a few leaves from the forest. 

    I was oblivious. Some would accuse me of denial, but I can honestly say that I just didn’t see what was happening to me. When I look back it is so clear, but at the time – in the moment – I didn’t see it coming; didn’t feel it until it hit me in the chops. Even when the tears in the office started. Or when my heart was beating out of my chest every day, accompanied by the sweats that meant my shirt was soaked through to my skin. Or even when I was so down and low on energy that I was exhausted just going to work. I missed all the warning signs. I missed all the alarms bells. I just missed it.

    I was working so hard. Permanently attached to my phone. Dreaming about meetings and emails. Living from one unnecessary and unreasonable demand and deadline to another. Obsessed with my targets; my diary; my inbox; my career plan; my next promotion; my ascent up the greasy, corporate pole. Sleeping badly. Waking at 5am. Working at home before leaving for work. First in the office. Breakfast on the fly. Hot. Sweaty. Tense. Rushing. Trying to do it all my own way – bucking the corporate culture (without a tie in the office for a start – something that was commented on at least once a day by someone more senior) by trying to do radical things like getting home every day to put Miss J to bed or to have dinner with my wife. Trying to succeed at work and at home and only really succeeding at feeling under back-breaking pressure at both. Eating ok but not well. Drinking to relax. Chipping away each day at my self worth; my boundaries between home and work, holiday and work, weekends and work, day and night; my hobbies, interests and passions. Finding every noise too loud; every unknown number a source of acute stress; every email an unexploded bomb. Living on the edge of my nerves all day, every day.

    The penny only finally dropped when – after several trips to see him – my GP asked me “do you think you could be depressed?”. Good question, doc. Long pause. Gulp. Felt a tear appearing in my eye. Then relief. Yes, I think I could be depressed. That could be it. That might explain some stuff alright.

    That was over two months after I was hospitalised with pneumonia and a few weeks after trying to gradually go back to work – half a day at a time and finding the whole experience so awful that I needed to stay away from work full time for several months. Too awful that I would fight back tears on the 25 minute train journey home. Off to see a therapist. Off to piece together what on earth had happened to me. Off to make sense of it all.

    I spent two months or so recovering – physically – from a week in hospital – that was after a week at home with a fever and the slow packing up of my organs as I lie in bed in pools and pools of sweat and soon to be replaced soaking clothes. When I got to hospital my eyes were so yellow they thought I had a serious liver complaint. Christmas was thrown in the middle of all that – a festive period to this day that I only remember through the photos and the memories of others, even though we had twelve family members staying with us from Ireland.

    The emotional and mental recovery only really started when I started that conversation with my GP and then my therapist. Only then did I start to put the jigsaw pieces on the floor and then slowly, gradually back together.

    It is a great irony – and yes I am aware of the irony of misusing the word ‘irony’ as so many do now – that I consider myself to be a progressive, well-informed and savy colleague and manager who had worked with a number of people with mental health issues – from the severe: having to call the police once to the office as someone had a psychotic episode – to supporting many, many co-workers who struggled with anxiety and depression. One of my best friends had been sectioned and Dr J and I had visited with him on a night release from hospital where he was being treated as an impatient. I knew what signs to look for in others. I knew the right questions to ask. I was mental health aware.

    But sadly, tragically, not when it came to my own mental health. I talk about my own story when giving lectures and running seminars and talks on work-life balance, resilience, mental health at work and related topics. I tell the story above in graphic, at times shocking (even for me now after clocking up dozens of tellings) detail. As I walk through the stages of my decline (I use photos from the period) and the car crash of my breakdown I am always struck but how I missed it coming. How I didn’t see what was happening until it was too late – and only then with a little help from the professionals and then my life saver, Dr J.

    I talk now about the importance of being vigilant – of looking out for the signs of stress, anxiety, mood swings, weight shifts and behavioural changes. I talk about the importance of spotting when you stop doing the things you love doing and need to do to stay fit, healthy and happy; playing sport, reading books, listening to music, spending time with those you love. Being present. In mind as well as body. I ask people to think about how they replenish themselves and recharge their batteries so they can be the best version of themselves. I ask them to be vigilant about how much time they are spending on themselves – on replenishing – on rebuilding their energy and mood levels not just on how much time they spend working.

    Mental Health Awareness Week is a great opportunity to raise issues of mental health and invite people to share their stories and to see help and support from others. But, for me, the key to mental health awareness is being self aware. Looking in the mirror. Not forgetting about you. Not being a great friend to others whilst your own health is going down the toilet. 

    This year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is kindness – a perfect fit for the times in which we live. Social media is full this week of advice on how to be kind to others, which I of course support. But this week, I suggest that we also ask something different of ourselves. Let’s practice a bit of selfishness. Let’s look beyond the end of our noses. Let’s look up to the tree tops. Let’s be kind to ourselves. It may be the one thing that makes the biggest difference to you and those who love you.

  20. My birthday; my lockdown; my life after anti-depressants

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    I am 42 tomorrow; 42 days after the UK was put into lockdown by the Government. I’m sure you’d agreed that nothing says birthday celebration more than a one hour, state-authorised walk and then spending the remaining 23 hours of the day inside your house, trying to work full-time, look after your six year old daughter, whilst teaching her to read, write and count. Happy birthday!

    As many of us have been repeating each day like a mythical mantra; ‘it is what it is’ and we need to just ‘get on with it’. There is no doubt it could be a lot worse for me and mine. We are all COVID-free (as far as we know) and despite one or two family and friends having a brush with the cruel corona killer, all have recovered and we have avoided the worse the virus has handed out. By that important measure, we’ve had a good lockdown so far. All are present and correct. All of us remain pretty well, if a little fed-up and gripped by occasional waves of cabin fever.

    The lockdown has also handed us a mirror to reflect on so many areas of our lives; perhaps many things that we took for granted. It has provided us here with an insight – a slightly unhappy insight – into Miss J’s experience at school which has prompted us to make a change. A welcome and necessary change but one that this time at home has facilitated.

    The lockdown has provided me with further evidence – if I needed it – that there are many, many worse things in life than being imprisoned in our house with my two favourite people in the world. I feel so lucky – so blessed – that my idea of pure happiness in normal times, is to be at home with Dr and Miss J. So this is more than grand. The lockdown has been a reminder of my supreme good fortune and has also reminded me that others are not so lucky. The rise in child abuse, domestic violence and the inevitable up tick in post-lockdown divorces, serves to remind me how much fortune I have in the bank and how grotesque is the hand dealt to others.

    As I have written on these pages previously, my lockdown has not been without its challenges. Anyone with mental health conditions will know that the pressures of lockdown and the inability or limitations to call upon your usual handling and managing techniques has been tricky. At times, terrible. I have also be struck with an annoying and painful infection in my elbow which I am currently treating with antibiotics and it (the infection) is treating me to period of great tiredness, pain and weakness. As I have been saying to Dr J – quoting the great Jim Royle when he was truck down with a nasty bout of heart burn – “I’m as weak as a kitten (Barb)”.

    So back to my birthday. I am not someone who cares for birthdays and certainly not one as insignificant as number forty-two. Two years ago I did originally organise a party for my 40th only to realise as the day approached, like a destructive out of control express train, that the stress and anxiety of a party was the last thing my fairly fragile mental health needed. We cancelled and I heaved a huge sigh of relief. This was just before I became fully teatotal – that will be two years at the start of September – another change I have made to help me manage my depression and wellbeing. I don’t care about birthdays but I do care about milestones and making progress to achieve goals. As we hit the 42-day mark for the lockdown, I am also passing an important milestone point – the 52-day mark since giving up anti-depressants.

    I am passionate about the importance of openness in the struggle against mental health challenges. I have tried to talk about my experiences as clearly and as directly as possible – avoiding euphemisms – trying to call it as it is. This makes for candour but also some discomfort, especially amongst those who feel that you are making fuss, washing dirty linen in public or drawing attention to yourself. Take a look at 99% of the social media comments that mental health campaigners/ambassadors get and it is wonderfully positive and supportive – often grateful for breaking down a taboo or reducing a stigma. There is always a small percentage – probably even less than 1% – which is negative, nasty and knocking. We all know that the 1% doesn’t matter and should be ignored but life is not that simple.

    I am lucky to receive so much positivity in person and through social media, emails and messages whenever I blog, tweet or speak about mental health. But the one topic that gives me the most satisfaction is the response I get when I address the experience of anti-depressants. This is still the dirty secret of mental health – and too often is the taboo that has not been smashed.

    As I have written before, I spent over 15 months taking a daily anti-depressant after eventually feeling like I needed extra help – another tool in my toolkit. My experience on anti-depressants was very positive and something I am more than glad that I did. The extra help really helped me. It gave me a sense of comfort; a feeling of being settled; a bubble or an body armour around me that felt like it shielded me from some of the day to day noise, doubts and challenges that my depression brought. I was less tetchy; more relaxed; calmer; harder to rattle/upset and definitely easier to be around. It did not – nor did I ever expect it to – stop the episodes of depression and I am not sure it reduced either their frequency or their duration – two things I was hoping for. But, it helped me go about my daily business. It was a source of support.

    When I decided to come off them earlier this year, I was nervous. The online world is full of bad news and horror stories on this subject and that did put me off for a month or two. But I was determined to try life without them. Partly because – despite their obvious help – they hadn’t achieved their main goal for me and because I really missed the good bits of me that they suppressed. As well as smoothing out the downward daily bumps and anxieties, they took away those delicious moments of raw joy and emotion. I hadn’t cried in all the time I had taken them – whereas previous I blubbed at the drop of a hat; the singing of YNWA or that moment in The West Wing when Leo says to Josh; “as long as I have a job here, you have a job here.”

    The first four weeks were a bit messy; headaches; dizziness; nausea; wind (lovely!); some really extreme emotional reactions to stuff (including the early return of tears) and a general feeling of imbalance. But this all passed. Now I feel good. Feel fully like me. The good, the bad and the ugly. I have – I hope – learnt a lot during the last fifteen months to supplement all that I have learnt about myself, my brain and how I am wired since my breakdown (2014/15). I feel like a much better version of myself – not because I have changed my personality but because I now know mostly how to manage my way through life to refresh and replenish myself; to avoid the things that take me down; and the things that help me to side step the depressive landmines that wait around every corner.

    This is not a fairytale; I still have bad days; really bad days; and the episodes remain a big part of my life; I cannot avoid all the things that bring me down (including tricky periods at work – it is a job not volunteering); sometimes I miss the warning signs until it is too late or not at all; or I just don’t sleep well enough and that leaves me under-powered to handle something that gets thrown at me. But I have learnt and am still learning.

    I often get asked what is the biggest difference now that I am off the tablets. What has changed? How does it feel? The answer is that there isn’t one big things but there is some small stuff:

    • I cry more
    • I am a bit easier to annoy
    • I am a bit more often a little annoying
    • I sleep better
    • I had less vivid dreams – and, so far, fewer nightmares
    • I go to the toilet a little less
    • I am less hungry/eat less
    • I can hear music better – it is less muffled – purer to my ear
    • I am a little less settled and more prone to feel it if something goes wrong
    • I get angrier/rattled by stuff that frustrates me – mostly at the radio and TV and very often involving the rubbish talked about sport and/or politics!
    • I appear to get a little more tired
    • I find myself wanting to send that quick, snappy email in response to an irritating incoming email

    Overall, I still feel like me. Perhaps a slightly better – more honest/true – version of me but still me. A version of me that feels all the ups and downs – all the potholes in the road. A version of me that feels those rawer emotions – I am swearing more again and definitely getting more upset or animated by the things I see in the world – and there is plenty of sadness but also inspiration to choose from currently. A version of me that feels like the fifteen months of medication helped and gave me some space to work on myself and my capacity to be patient and to unwind. A version of me that is proud to have come to this point but a version of me that knows how hard I have to work every day to stay well – to keep the water below my head.

    And as of tomorrow, a version of me that is a little older.