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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”.
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.
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.
As astute politicians and commentators often tell us, Twitter is not the country. What happens on social media doesn’t always – or perhaps ever – accurately fully reflect the real mood and feelings across the four parts of this kingdom. Those who post on various social platforms are often writing fiction or, as some may say, fake news. Much of that critique rings true but there is something that I do currently see across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that mirrors the times we are living through: people are searching for comfort; familiarities; advice; support and feel-good moments.
Many are desperate to find a way of making sense of the confusing world around us – a worlds that fills us with fear, dread and alarm. We are seeking reassurance that it will all be ok. We want to believe that we are in the middle of a blip – a nasty blip but a blip nonetheless – and that normal service will be resumed again soon. We may want to believe that, but I fear we need to arise from our slumber and smell the caffeinated beverage.
Life is changing fundamentally – around us and to us – and working life will never be the same again. My social media feeds are full of nostalgia and warm feelings of past glories – whether in sport, culture, or across all aspects of life – but we must now start to look forward and adjust. Looking back will not help. Longing for halcyon days of old will not work. Wishing we could turn back the clock is a forlorn hope. In the oft-quoted words of the great W B Yeats, all is changed, changed utterly.
There is already a rush to tell the story of this pandemic and an irritating stampede to get to the public inquiry stage and the lessons learnt. That will of course come, but not for some time. Not until we are through this staggering storm, when in truth, we have only just put up our umbrella. We are many, many months, possibly years, from reaching a point where we have sufficient clarity and perspective on how we got here, what we got right and what we got wrong. The foolish amongst us – including sadly many in the media – are already seeking to make a name for themselves as those who skewered this minister or that; who found someone to blame; who put the best ‘gotcha’ question live on air; who facilitated the brutalist argument or conflict. This is tedious. This is not helping. This is letting us down.
In my view, we need instead to try to live in the moment; learn what we can about how to best protect ourselves, those we love and those we share this planet with, now and in the future. That is both practically important and vital for our collective mental health and wellbeing.
I have spent much of this lockdown wrestling with myself – working hard to keep my head above water with bouts of depression, anxiety and general lowness. It has not been – or continue to be – easy. Being at home is something that has helped me but so has working fairly through to the end of the five stages of grief, as set out in the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am reconciled now to the fact that life as we have known it is over. We are not going back to normal. We will have to find, embrace and then enjoy a new normal.
I am not writing just about the next few months in which we will continue to socially distance but in what I see as fundamental shifts. I believe we will see attitudes towards work; our places of work; our work-life-balance; our approaches to resilience and wellbeing; our relationships, communities, neighbourhoods and each other change beyond recognition. I believe that the patterns of behaviour we have been pushed into following, which include shopping locally; taking daily walks with loved ones; leaving our cars at home; reducing our destruction of the planet through air and other travel will not just spring back to the way they worked before. Nor do I believe that exams will automatically be the chosen form of assessment for schools, or that organisations will – one the vaccine is in place – tread the same path as before. This is a moment – a dreadfully, enforced, illest of wind moment – that provides us an opportunity for national and personal renewal. To challenge what we do and how we do it. Especially at work.
Nothing will ever make up for the horrendous loss of life, suffering and despair that COVID has inflicted upon us. Nothing will ever make this pain worthwhile. But, as the saying goes, you should never waste a crisis. We need to take some good from this darkness. Surely we have learnt over the last terrible weeks that life is too short, too precious. Surely we have learnt that at a time when we cannot even attend funerals to say goodbye to those we love or hold their hand as they take their last breath, we are not going to again put work before home; to prioritise work over life.
In 2000, I was part of one of the first nationwide, large-scale home and flexible working pilots in a major UK business when I worked at Andersen Consulting. I was an immediate convert to working somewhere other than the office; work is something I do, not somewhere I go. I have continued to work at home – and very flexibly – throughout my career – using this flexibility as a major part of my approach to staying well and keeping the pressures of work from the door and helping to avoid falling back into the bad habits that left me in hospital and in the midst of a breakdown in 2014/15. For me, this can include flexing my hours of work so that I start and finish early, spending an hour during the day working in a book shop, local coffee shop or just a quieter part of the office/building. It can be small stuff but stuff that helps me to feel settled and feel less pressured by my work, the people around me or just a slightly noisy atmosphere.
I believe that many millions of people, who have been able to work at home, will not want to return to five days a week of commuting, sitting in the same place, away from loved ones and loved things, running around the hamster’s wheel of office and corporate life. I believe that many of us who had fallen into bad working habits before this crisis that we should be vigilant for when it lifts. We shouldn’t say we want a better balance at work and home and then repeat the same long hours; always on; email- obsessed; back-to-back meeting packed dairies over and over again looking for a different result.
We are discovering that meetings can be done effectively remotely; that not everything that appeared urgent before requires an immediate response now; that many of our colleagues have lives outside work that now are part of them coming to work: home schooling; shopping for relative/neighbours; health issues; pets to entertain; bread to bake. This crisis has forced us to make different choices about how we spend our time – and where we spend it. That is to be welcomed, despite the circumstances.
When this is over, if we return to a presentism, long hours, meeting and email culture, then we have blown this opportunity. We need to make something positive out of this abyss. To return to that famous Yeats stanza, we should come to terms with the fact that ‘a terrible beauty is born’.
We are not going back. We now live in a different world and the sooner we move through to acceptance the better we will all feel. It continues to be a very tough time for millions but it will be even worse if, in the long run, we return to repeating mistakes of the past. If you can, make work something you do, not somewhere you go; at least not every day.
Harold Wilson’s famous phrase about seven days being an eternity in the world of Westminster was cruelty paraphrased years later by the writer Neil Shand in reference to John (Selwyn) Gummer, when he said: “the weak are a long time in politics”. There can be little no doubt that this has been a very, very long week for me and one in which I have become frustrated with myself and tried – several times – to dig deep for the strength I needed to get through.
In doing that I broke one of my golden rules and equated my difficulties as a battle between strength and weakness, when in fact the true strength is in admitting you are struggling and saying it’s ok to not be ok. That is just as well. This last seven, no ten, days have been amongst the toughest I have faced for some time. But thankfully the true test of strength isn’t about never falling, it’s about getting up again.
It is not unusual – as my Welsh singing namesake once said – to struggle at the moment. After all, governments, health systems, organisations and individuals the world over are struggling to tackle the catastrophic coronavirus crisis. As people, families, communities and workplaces, we are often struggling to adjust to the new normal that we are facing; new ways of working; schooling; shopping; keeping in touch with each other; passing the time; filling our weekends, and dealing with the dispiriting daily dose of death, disease and despair. On top of that, I am struggling with my mental health. At times, really struggling.
For context – thanks again, Tom – that’s not unusual. I have realised over the last ten days that for me to get through each day in “normal times” and to thrive, which I do regularly – don’t fret, this post is not all bad news – I have to expend a huge amount of effort and energy. Sadly, being well; being calm; being present; being the best version of me; being content, settled and confident, does not come naturally any more. It has not for a long time. In truth, probably not ever.
I have to work at it. I have to be watchful for the signs and the triggers that can push me into darkness; sadness; fear; worry; and that version of me that I don’t really like. He was around for parts of this week; my impatient, tense, edgy, snappy alter ego.
Why does this happen and why did it happen this week?
Like so many depressive episodes I’ve had, there isn’t one big trigger or cause. It is mostly a build-up of a number of things – often in themselves very small – that come together to create the perfect breeding ground for negativity, worries and down and low feelings to fester and grow. Often – and in this case too – tiredness is central. Bad sleep, not enough sleep and/or bad dreams leave me starting the day under-powered and I can find it hard to recover. This last week or so my hay fever has been ever-present, none more so than when trying to get to sleep or when waking around 4am; eyes stuck closed; nose stuffed to the gills.
Other things that don’t help me keep the episodes at bay have been around this last week or ten days too, especially a lack of routine. I know that millions are in the same boat, but the whole homeschooling whilst working full-time at home gig is proving more than a little unsettling and stressful. I feel the pressure of my work – despite wonderful colleagues – and the pressure of my own expectations of how I should support my daughter with her education – alongside the extra pressure of her school, with good intentions, asking us to do more and more. Something had to give over the last few days and it was me. I have found normally manageable situations tense or worse; punchy emails from people really unsettling and molehills of mild frustration at home and at work (at home) have become mountains. It’s been tough.
Tough to keep perspective. Tough to catch myself from getting upset or worked up before it has gone too far to stop. Tough to meet my own high expectations of myself as colleague, dad and husband. Tough to enjoy some quiet time as I’ve felt like there is always something else that needs doing. Tough to stay in the present. Tough to stay calm. Tough to unwind. Tough to cut myself some slack. Tough to be kind to myself. Tough to be me. I have been tough to live with too. Too tough. Sorry (again!) Dr J, who is herself dealing with many of the same pressures and working longer hours and under more pressure than me.
These moment pass – helped by having my wonderful wife and darling daughter on hand to remind me of what is important in life – certainly not that shirty email from an academic colleague. But these moments are draining. Tiring. Energy and confidence-sapping. They add to a sense of having to work that extra bit harder to stay on top of myself and my game. My usual effort and work levels to stay well have increased 20% or 30% in the last few weeks, in no some part down to the extra strains and stresses of the current crisis and the knock-on effect it is having on normal life. But – and here is the rub – this crisis isn’t going anywhere, not for a long time, and I don’t want to have week after week of this. So, I have to take some action.
I have prescribed the following: more rest and sleep; more me-time (that is hard with work, schooling, all day childcare and everything else but it must be found); so this means, at the very least, earlier starts to have the first 45 minutes of the day (from 6am) for me and the quietness of the early morning before our bundle of energy awakes and the day begins in earnest; importantly more understanding and patience with myself, accepting that it is ok to struggle at this moment, despite being at home (which I love) and having everything we need on hand – as well as everyone close to me (touch wood) being well and free of this vile virus. More kindness to myself; lower expectations; more celebration in the small successes and not in the smaller failures.
This is on top of all my usual interventions and approaches which rely on lots of time with my girls (our daily walks are helpling this – hence the picture of the wonderful Royal Birkdale taken yesterday); lots of exercise (within the stipulated rules!); lots of music (especially Bach); lots of reading for pleasure (I am a new-ish subscriber to The Atlantic: where have you been all my life?!), including my daily dose of poetry; lots of interaction with those who bring me joy, smiles and love and lots of wide berths for those who do not; lots of time on the things I love (harder when there are no LFC, Bost Red Sox, golf or horse racing to spend disproportionate amounts of emotional energy on); and lots of cooking and cups of tea.
I am continuing to tread this road – sometimes a very lonely road despite all the love and support that I have – without my little white tablet; something I remain committed to despite these recent trials. The fact that I can now cry whenever I see Jurgen Klopp’s face on Twitter is one of the reasons why coming off the tablets has been good for me; I have reconnected with my rawest emotions, even if that means I have to blame my hay fever more than is credible when on social media.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the challenges of the last week or so and on the reasons for my struggles. Yes, COVID-19 has played a part, as have all the unsettling things I’ve mentioned above. But, in the final analysis, the truth is that I suffer from depression. I am a depressive. I get depressed. And every week – every single week – is a long time for me.
If I had a pound for every time I had written the word ‘unprecedented’ or the phrase ‘extraordinary times’ over the last few weeks I would have enough cash to fund my own toilet roll mountain. As individuals and organisations have navigated the COVID crisis, we have asked ourselves and each other to dig deep, to go the extra mile, to pull out all the stops to help deal with the changing world around us. In my work at Liverpool John Moores University, we have made big decision after big decision – all of which needed to communicated to many different, unsettled, and rightly anxious groups.
This period has meant around the clock working, weekends morphing into week days and the usual routine of daily working hours going out of the window for so many of us. Let’s get this in perspective, most of us haven’t been donning life-saving (or at times not life saving) PPE and placing ourselves in harm’s way to help others. But, it has been tough. It has been stressful. It has been draining. I deliberately wrote that in the past tense, not because the crisis is over but because we are now in a different phase of it, with new routines established, technologies deployed to support us and a new normal emerging. The hourly urgent calls to make big decisions has passed and are now in a slightly more settled state. Again, perspective time. That is not the case for those working in the NHS or for other key workers, but it is the case for most of us, including me.
Without trying to channel Churchill or sound too pompous, most of us were only too happy – no, proud – to play a very small part in this huge national effort over the last few weeks as this country and this world has responded to the corona crisis. We didn’t mind burning the candle at both ends for a few days – there were many giving much more than us – and there were important things to do; people to help; jobs to protect; families to support. But all of this has a cost. A personal cost. A cost for those of us with underlying conditions.
Not the sort of underlying conditions that make you more vulnerable to this vicious virus but to the impact of long hours; unsettled working patterns; stressed colleagues; relentless social media noise; emails from 6am to 10pm and sometimes beyond; to poor sleep; to vivid dreams; to waking early and before saying good morning to the person you love, picking up the iPhone to check the latest emails and social feeds. This sort of pressure – this sort of activity – is not ideal for those of us with depression and/or anxiety. If you asked someone who has underlying mental health issues what would create the perfect storm of worries, fears, insecurities and stresses, a global pandemic that puts your life and the lives of those you hold most dear would be near the top of the list.
This has been – and continues to be – a terrible time for those of us who have to work hard in normal times to stay on an even keel. It is like a second full-time job for me to stay well enough to function and be the dad and husband I want to be. I have to be honest, the days of trying to also be a great son, brother, friend and colleague went out of the window some time ago too – not because I don’t care enough but because I simply don’t have the capacity to embrace even that slightly wider world. That failure – and whatever I tell myself, it is a failure – to be the person I felt once, hurts. But I now accept that there is only so much I can do and that if I try to do much more the impact on me will be huge. I’ve been down the road before and it left me with a breakdown, via pneumonia and hospital and many, many tears. Acceptance of my limits now are such a big part of me staying well and not putting myself under too much pressure.
I now keep a diary which helps me to track my mental health and wellbeing. I score each day out of ten, capturing my mood for the day. Ten is perfect (I’ve never scored a ten – or a nine); one or two would be worrying (I’ve never scored a one or two, although I have come close). Six is where I spend most of my time and yet I haven’t felt like a six for quite a few days now.
It isn’t rocket science. In normal times, I can generally cope well with life – I can thrive and be filled with confidence and self assurance. When times get trickier, it is harder. Some things have to give. I say no to more stuff, I retreat a little, I protect myself. This works for me and once I have replenished myself, recharged my mental health batteries, I can go again. But when times are really hard – as they have been over the last few, long, worrying weeks – I have to be super vigilant and take more drastic action. I need more rest; less computer time; more music; more fresh air; more proper family time; more reading of non-work stuff; more peace and quiet; more me time; more time to do stuff, less busyiness, less activity; I need a bit less of life.
If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I hit a wall a couple of days ago and found myself in a dark, depressive episode. I am still in there although it feels a little lighter, the heavy weight pushing down on me a little easier to bear. That is the result of a full day of replenishing and being being kind to myself. A day off work which, added to today and the Easter break, will get me nearly a week off work and away from the ever-present emails and well-meant but constant demands. I found time yesterday to sit in the garden and even wear a sun hat and glasses. As daft as I looked, it felt great. I read big chunks of my latest John Le Carre whilst listening to a full ball-by-ball repeat of the 2019 Headingly Ashes Test on Test Match Special. What a combination! Pure escapism.
Robert Frost, when asked what he thought the secret to life was said: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”
I have learnt that for me to be a success in my life (the definition of success I redefined after my breakdown: http://www.amjcomms.com/2016/04/18/success-at-home-success-at-work-you-must-define-it/), I need to look after myself; I need to try to spot things getting tough before they start to impact and then to take action. This week, I spotted it a little too late, but I did spot it. I have taken action. I am replenishing and recharging and I will be back for more. I am being kind to myself and as a result am being the best version of myself and my best version of dad and husband. My life will go on, unprecedented times or not.
Despite the sunny weather, today has been overcast, dreary and dark. Not here, near the beach in Southport, nestled between the pools of Liver and Black, but inside my head. Inside the head of someone who – like millions of others is adjusting to their new normal – working at home and schooling at home, day punctuated by video calls, news bulletins, social media feeds, death tolls and press conferences. And adjusting to the new normal of living without a daily anti-depressant – now three and a half weeks since the last.
Of the daily routine of work and bad news, it would be easy to say I should follow the lead shown by many others and just switch the radio and TV off, delete Twitter from my phone and live in the moment. That is not me. It is not my life. It is not what I want. Some of this activity is necessitated by my job; the rest by me; by who I am. A news obsessive. A sensitive soul. A worrier. Someone who wants to know what is going on; who takes comfort from being in the know; who cares about how people are writing, speaking and acting about stuff that matters in the world.
I am a republican but watched the Queen’s address on Sunday four times as a study in message, presentation and influence. I did not vote for Boris Johnson’s party at the election, or have anything much but great dislike of him, but I was sickened by the news of him fighting for his life last night. Heartbroken for his family and for those who love him. I have found today moving and angering in equal measure by the support given to him and his family from unlikely sources – and the class shown by people like the First Minister of Scotland in how she spoke of him – and the lack of class of others who see everything as politics.
As well as being the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, is a son, a dad, a brother, a fiancée, a dad to be and most of all just a person. Now, he is a person lying in a hospital bed with his life on the line. His story is not about politics or policies, it is about human beings – about people – and if some cannot bring themselves to wish him and his family well, they lack basic, decent humanity.
The Prime Minister’s health aside, today is like many other days in the last two weeks or so. But today feels a bit different to me. Different from yesterday but not so different that I don’t recognise it. I know exactly what is different and what is going on. I have entered a down; a period of darkness; an unwelcome visit from my depression.
Saying ‘visit’ makes it sound polite and sweet; like it’s popped round for a cup of tea; maybe even a nice, welcome surprise. It is not. It has barged its way in today and set up home inside my head, dimming the lights, placing a great weight on my chest and draining me of energy, joy and confidence. It is like a smack across the face, or as my father-in-law might say ‘a kick in the clinkers’.
I am lucky that as the episode has appeared I am at home with my two favourite people and was able to go for a walk with the smaller of the two at lunchtime today, getting some fresh air (trying to ignore my hay fever) and some gentle exercise – always good for my mood. We also had the bonus of walking past a member of the finest midfield in the history of Liverpool Football Club in the imposing Steve McMahon, which evoked happy memories.
As I have seen this mood movie before, I know some of the things that can help me – hence penning this blog post tonight and listening to Wachet auf un die Stimme on repeat. But no experience, preparation or handling strategy can protect me from the heart-sinking reality that a depressive episode is taking hold and whatever I try there is nothing but time that will eventually send it on its miserable way. This time I don’t have the little white tablet in my corner so it will be interesting to see what, if any, difference that makes. This feels like a test. A test of my ability to manage without it. A test of my resolve. I will let you know the outcome.
In the meantime, I walk this familiar road again with my dark companion alongside me. Trying hard to accept what is happening. Not fighting it. Going with the flow. Remembering that it will pass and that I will feel the sun on my face again soon. I look forward to that day and to the day we can see the Prime Minister again.
I want to feel well again for me and my special people. But most of all I want to say ‘Get well soon, Boris’ for you and yours.
To paraphrase a saying, two weeks is a very a long time, not just in politics, but in a pandemic. During this last fortnight, the UK – alongside over a quarter of the world’s population – has entered a lockdown with tight restrictions on our freedoms and extraordinary emergency powers being given to the government. At the same time, we hurtle towards 1000 deaths on this island at the hands of COVID-19. Deaths that appear now to hit regardless of age and previous health history. The lack of an underlining health condition and/or three score years and ten on the clock, appears now to be no barrier to catching and dying from this awful virus.
During this fortnight, I have set up office at home (along with much of the country and almost all of the university at which I work), started to home school my daughter and stopped taking my anti-depressant medication. As I wrote a week or so ago, the withdrawal from my medication was not without its initial challenges and side effects, but I am glad to say that most of those have gone now, including the nausea, which was deeply miserable. It has been interesting to chart the last four weeks – I started with a fortnight of reduced dosage of anti-depressants – in my diary to see how my mood, state of mind and physical health has changed.
As I moved into the first week of total withdrawal (two weeks ago), I was noticeably less patient, more on edge and a little less nice to be around – that is me saying that but I’m pretty sure Dr J would agree! Happily that phase only last a few days and now I feel pretty settled and recognising myself and my normal feelings and emotions. As I wrote last time, the withdrawal has allowed me to reconnect with the rawer end of my emotions – including shedding a tear this morning – something that had not been possible during these last 15 months whilst on my medication – at the sight and sound of Jurgen Klopp thanking NHS workers for all they are doing for us. Veilen dank to them and to being able to enjoy that moment.
One of the issues I have wrestled with for years – until recently not really understanding it – was the discomfort I felt being away from home and out of a daily routine and pattern. I detested – still detest – being away from home for any period of time, including being on holiday. Home for me has always been where the heart is. The issue wasn’t – and isn’t – being inside a specific four walls, but more what being at home represented to me. Safety. Security. Certainty. Routine.
It is ironic that in the most uncertain and unsettling time I (or most any of us) have known – in the midst of this potentially apocalyptic health crisis – I am feeling ok. But then again, I am spending 23 hours a day at home. Gate locked. World kept out. Surrounded by the people I love the most in the world and the things that keep me on a fairly even keel much of the time.
Working at my own desk on my own MacBook, iPad and big Mac. Listening to Radio 4 much of the day – saving me from catching up with Women’s Hour and The Media Show amongst others – as podcasts. Playing episodes of the West Wing in the background – I have started from series one again – for at least the 20th time. For the record, that is not an exaggeration. Being only eight paces from my desk to the tea making facilities of the kitchen means that my desired regular flow of tea is easy to generate. Having access to the music that I find settling and soothing – with a focus this week on Mozart and Bach. Miss J and I have introduced a poem of the day to our daily home school, something which is giving me a great reason to go through some of my many books of poetry and an excuse to pick one each day to read to Miss J. The lack of live sport on TV and the pause in the seasons for my beloved Liverpool FC and Boston Red Sox has given me more time to read books and enjoy the escapism of great fiction.
The only time that this settled state gets interrupted is when I engage with the news, which given my job and with my passion for news, current affairs and Radio 4, means that happens several times a day. It is a scary time. I am scared – as I know are many millions of people here and around the world. But I am putting my trust in the medical advice we have been given and – alongside Miss and Dr J – are following it to the letter. I am also taking some comfort in the ability to connect with people and organisations across the globe who are providing support, including taking part in virtual Masses, which I found online this week. This has surprised me, as I have given church a wide berth in recent years but it is something about the familiarity of the routine of Mass, the words, the sounds, the Irish accents (I attending Mass mostly in Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Limerick!) and the rituals that I think has brought me some calm.
Sadly, this fortnight looks to be just the start of a hugely testing time. For those of who who suffer with depression and/or anxiety, a global pandemic which appears to be taking lives indiscriminately at an alarmingly increasing rate is far from ideal. However, in true sporting cliche tradition, I am just taking it a day at a time. Trying hard to do the things that I know help me to stay settled. And being very grateful that I am at home. Where my heart is. Where I feel safest. Where I hope we stay; healthy and well.
I feel lucky that I find solace in words. The written word. The spoken word. The sung word. They form a massive part of my life; in good times and bad; when I am happy; when I am sad; when I am anxious; when I am low; when I face uncertainty and fear. It is no surprise therefore that I have tuned to them over the last few tumultuous days as Ireland and the UK join the rest of the world in facing into the looming apocalypse of COVID-19.
If anyone is reading this whose view is that we are all over-reacting, that we need to take a proportionate approach to coronavirus or if they are still talking about this being no worse than our annual flu season, I respectfully suggest you wise up. A lot.
Looking across the Channel and beyond, we can glimpse something of our future and what the next few days and weeks are likely to bring for us. We can see something of the darkness – of the night – that the wonderful Robert Frost wrote about in 1927. He painted a picture of the city all around him – of being somehow separate from it – of being isolated from all he could see.
I have been one acquainted with the night. I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane. I have passed by the watchman on his beat And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet When far away an interrupted cry Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye; And further still at an unearthly height, One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night. *
These stunning words, written in haunting iambic pentameter, are the 14 lines that have been a comfort to me over the last few days. Not just as I – like millions of others – have tried to come to terms with the isolation being forced on us – kept apart from family, friends and the places we love to visit – as this deadly virus creeps up upon us with its deadly potential to change our world forever – but as I have entered my own self-imposed isolation from my anti-depressant medication. Fifteen months after reaching out for their help.
I have written candidly before – and spoken many times publicly – about my decision to take anti-depressants and the positive experience I’ve had with them. I nam ow writing to share my experience, so far, of stopping taking them. I have wondered every day since I started this parting of the ways – from ten days of reduced dosage – to today, day five of no dosage at all – whether they could have been a worse time to try to do this; facing as I am a period of huge anxiety, uncertainty and fear.
So far, I would say – strangely – that COVID-19 has proved to be something of a distraction from my own health worries as it has kept me busy – there’s an understatement – with work at the university as we have sought to support our students and staff. It has given me something to focus on and little time for self reflection and personal angst. That said, the physical symptoms of withdrawal are harder to ignore.
I am experiencing much of the side effects from when I started taking the tablets now I am stopping taking them. My body is clearly adjusting again to my new chemical make-up. Headaches. Dizziness. Sometimes really full-on dizziness. Tiredness. Increased toilet usage – sorry! Nausea. Almost constant nausea. Light-headedness. And the return of something that was mostly lost in the last fifteen months; the return of raw emotion.
Before I started taking my medication I was someone who regularly would get a lump in my throat or a tear in my eye when confronted with something that moved me. Beautiful music. A great speech or use of language. A piece of LFC commentary that evoked a precious memory. A YouTube clip of Dawn Run winning the Gold Cup (“she’s beginning it get up!”). A Red Sox, home run walk off win. One of the many special moments from The West Wing.
Shivers would be sent down my spine. Hairs on the back of my neck. Real, affecting emotion. For the last fifteen months they were seemingly locked away – hidden from view – hidden from me. I wondered whether they were gone forever – and a search for them was one of the reasons I took the decision to come off the tablets. I missed that part of my life – I missed the highs and some of the emotional lows. I missed that feeling of something mattering so much to me that it made my cry. Sometimes tears of joy or pride. I missed that part of me.
Five days in, they are back. The rawness is there. The cupboard door that has stored them has been unlocked and those feelings released. The physical symptoms I could live without – I know they will pass – but I am glad to have the emotional part of me back. My task now is to harness that, with all that I have learnt about my mental health over the last fifteen months, and try to thrive without my tablets.
I know that whether I take medication or not, I will always live now with my depression. I knew the tablet wasn’t a cure, but it was a help. It did help. It has helped me through the last year or so. And now I am going to see what happens without it.
I will always be acquainted with the night, but I now know again that I will also be acquainted with that wonderful sense of something being that important – that special – that it brings a tear to my eye. With everything that is ahead of us in the coming weeks and months, I dare say these won’t be the last tears I will shed.
In my experience, there are two types of doctor. One who enjoys the stimulation of a well-informed patient – someone who has done their research and arrives in the room with Google-sourced print-outs – bringing their own ideas, questions and proposed plans of action to engage in a proper discussion about the diagnosis and the treatment required. The second, rolls his eyes (this type in my experience tend to be men) and struggles to disguise his dismissal of the amateur medic’s theories and ideas, based as they often are on chat room-inspired tall tales of disaster and horror stories. They mouth of the words ‘patient voice’ but are still wedded to a paternalistic model in which the doctor knows best.
Although I prefer the former stethoscope wearer, I have a little sympathy for the latter.
Sadly, the bit of the internet labeled “google your symptoms” or “check out the side effects of drug X,Y or Z” is full of scare stories and bad news. I will be kind and say that it is mostly well-meant and accurate stuff – accurate in the experience of the author – but it unfortunately gets used as the single source of truth of what will happen to every patient in the same or similar situation.
I understand the temptation – which in the best traditions of all great temptations – is virtually impossible to resist – of reaching for the iPad, phone or laptop and open the door into the paranoid patient room. I have spent many an hour in there, finding out how my mild and common symptoms are certain to lead to my imminent, painful death. I know too that in the world of mental health there are fewer more terrifying online rooms to enter than the one with the door marked “how to come off your anti-depressants”.
This is a dark space. I can vouch for there being very few happy endings waiting your arrival and very, very many stories of how your life is about to get a lot worse if you try to do it – possibly the worse it could get. There is nothing more sobering than a depressive (which is a term I happily use for myself) hearing about others in your boat trying something you are contemplating only to take on water, listing and then drowning. This particular room – and some of my inbox and social media accounts over the last few days – is full of warning about the risks and dangers of trying to withdraw from medication. People – with every good intention – try to warn you that things could get worse and that you would be better not rocking the boat (sorry, that metaphor again). I hear the safety first, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it philosophy. I know that it is easier to do nothing – to keep calm and carry on – but I also know myself best and that the time is right for me to make a change. Why?
The last fourteen months – since I started taking my daily anti-depressant – has definitely had its upsides. The medication has helped me to enjoy a less anxious, calmer, slightly more chilled out day to day life. It has played a part in helping me feel more settled most of the time. It has been effective, to a point. But – and it is a big but – it has not reduced the frequency or the duration of my depressive episodes. I’ve had three in the last three months and if anything they are getting worse, or at the very least staying the same, when they do arrive. Treating these bouts of depression was the reason for starting on the medication and why I have stuck with it for the last 14 months despite some downsides.
The short term and initial side effects of aggressive wind (lovely!) and some tricky dreams and headaches passed quickly and I have been left with an overall dulling of my emotions – the bad and, sadly, the good. Highs are not as high, even European Cup wins or 44 match unbeaten runs. I missed the tears when I hear You’ll Never Walk Alone or the lump in my throat when I think back to the day my darling Nan, Mary, died (16 years ago last month) or when I think about all the water that has gone under the bridge of my life since Alan Hansen lifted that shining league championship trophy and I watched with my tearey-eyed Dad from the sixteenth row of the Main Stand thirty years ago this May. A year after we all shed buckets of tears that are yet to dry.
I now miss some of the rawness of my emotions. I miss the edges that have been ironed out. I miss it all, even some of the tougher points. I miss them because I still have my depression. It still appears, a little too often, and stays a little too long for my liking. The medication has not changed me and it has mostly helped me be a calmer version of me but it has not really done the thing it was intended to do. I never expected a magic tablet to take away all my issues but I was hoping for a little more.
I am therefore left with three main options. Stick with my current tablets and appreciate and bank the positives that my daily dose has given me and live with the negatives. Stop taking it completely and try to go without – seeing if a more-informed, better-prepared, more-experienced me will find it easier to deal with day to day stuff and continue to face into the depression when it lands. Or I could switch to something else – a mood enhancer – possibly lithium – and try different, new medication. As is so often the case when you face three options, I have chosen to merge two and create a fourth. I am reducing my current dosage over the next two weeks and then going to see how life feels without any medication. I am going to see how I manage. I am going to work hard at all my normal wellbeing interventions and specifically going to step up my running to get more fresh air and exercise. I even went to church today – I will try anything!
I am scared. I am worried. But I am also up for it. I want to know truly how it feels and whether this period taking the medication has done something of a job and will help me go it alone. I would be lying if I said I am confident. I am not and I am ready – and partly expecting – to have to return in the short term to my current medication with a view to trying something new. Let’s see what happens. Only time will tell.
None of this is easy. But when you live with depression, easy is not something you expect. Over the next few weeks I guess I will know more. Perhaps I will know myself better. Perhaps I will feel better. Perhaps not. Either way I will be in a better place – one with more answers, even if it’s not the ones I wanted to hear. I will taken another few steps on the road to living with my mental health challenges. I will have made some progress, even if it highlights how much further I have to go.
Whilst I may be successful in withdrawing from medication – although the betting man in me says I will not – I will never withdraw from trying to learn more about my condition; my options; myself. I will keep entering that doctor’s room armed with all the information and understanding I can muster, because in the final analysis, it is my life – my brilliant, blessed, very tough, bumpy, beautiful life – not his. And only I know what is right for me.
I absolutely hate going on holiday. Hate it. It’s one of my least favourite activities of the year. Spring, summer, autumn or winter, it makes no difference to me. Whatever time of year; wherever we go; how ever long we are away, I dread it, endure it and loathe it.
There, I’ve said it. Exposed another one of my inner – until now mostly hidden – thoughts. And during the half term break of all times. What heresy. What a weirdo.
The reality of holidays for me is a near perfect storm of anxieties, uncertainties, unfamiliarities and discomforts. It brings together so many of the things that have dogged my sense of being settled, content and safe and as a result has impacted my mental health for as long as I can remember. Long before I knew that I had depression and anxiety – as long ago as being a primary school child – I knew that I hated going on holiday.
It was everything about it: the build up; the travelling; the new surroundings; the stress of others (people very often are more than a little stressed when travelling, even if only for a few minutes as they battle through the airport security or as they lift their cases into the overhead luggage racks of the train following the deeply uncomfortable “I’m sorry, but you seem to be sat in my seat” conversation); the homesickness; the loss of routine; the fears – often crippling fears – ranging from the plane is going to crash, to we are going to be murdered in our hotel/apartment/hire car, to we will miss our travel connections back and be stranded for weeks and then of course return to a house that had been flooded/burgled/burnt to the ground etc. All in all, it was far from a holiday. More an ordeal.
I know that many people reading this may have experienced some or all of that growing up – it is not unusual for children to fall into those bogey man mind pits and wildly elaborate imaginary scenarios. It is however unusual for grown adults to continue to be occupied by them into their forties, especially when breaks and rests from work are a much-needed, anticipated and savoured part of vital replenishing, recharging and being ready to go again routines. I really enjoy taking time off. I really loathe using it to go on holiday.
Why? Why do I hate it so much, even now, years after shaking off some of the more irrational fears of childhood. Why do I still want to do anything but go away? The simple answer is in what I associate going on holiday with and how that makes me feel. It is because being on holiday takes me out of my carefully constructed, content, happy, safe, day to day life. This – some may say – is the whole point of a holiday; to break with the normality and monotony of day to day life. But for me, normal day to day life has taken years to establish and much design, trial and error and practice to get right. And getting it right means removing most of the sources of stress and anxiety from my life – including being away from home – something I associate with working too hard or being somewhere I don’t want to be. Getting it right means being surrounded with the sights and sounds (or quietness) that make me feel safe – the security of my own environment, with the people I love.
Holidays remind me of long, hot, tetchy queues in airports; drunk, loud fellow passengers; mini-panics over someone misplacing tickets, passports, addresses for apartments and the like; being surrounded by people in the airport, station or on board the plane or train, who I would not normally see, behaving in ways I do not like (yes, that is a very unsubtle, unguarded comment that reveals what some would say how middle class and elitist I have clearly become but it also reflects my aversion to unpleasantness, rough edges and micro aggressions); being in big crowds – the only exception being at a Liverpool game in which all the rules of my anxieties do not apply, because I have always felt and feel safe amongst that part of my extended family; not knowing where I am going or where everything is where we arrive in the dark, in a strange place that I haven’t seen before; jet lag and tiredness and a struggle to find food that will suit everyone (especially since Miss J arrived on the holiday scene); not sleeping well (I never really sleep well but sleeping worse than normal); not being able to get my newspaper – this was always a big deal for me when much younger, less so now in the days of iPads and downloads; as a child in the days long before mobile phones, the daily trip to the telephone shop or kiosk to call home to see how my nan was and to hear my mum and her inanely ask each other’s about their respective weather; the sheer awful, gut-wrenching nervousness of flying and the jumpiness that accompanied every change in noise or movement of the aircraft; counting the number of nights I was away and counting them down each day, wishing them away and grouping them into patterns to make it seem quicker (e.g. in two days there will just be two nights left) – I still do that; just being in a place that no matter how cool, how warm, how beautiful, how luxurious, how amazing will never be as good as being at home. Safe. Secure. In control. In my happy place. My comfort zone. Home. Where the heart is. Sweet, sweet home.
The irony of this post is that I write it whilst on holiday. Not just taking a break from work for half term but away from home. Yesterday, we went from Birkdale, via Manchester airport to Paris and then by Eurostar after a long day at Disneyland Paris to London, where we are staying for a few days. I am a hypocrite, no? No. Well, maybe.
I have developed better strategies these days for managing holidays and they follow some key themes. Go to places I know and like (with the support of the rest of Team Jones). Stay in the same accommodation – this is our third time in the same apartment in West London – round the corner from where we used to live. Familiar. Write when I am away – this is such a settler for me. Let the train take the strain, avoiding flying and airports where possible. Bring as much home stuff as possible for comfort – this sometimes includes my own tea pot (I know weird!) and tea bags. Keep as much day to day routine as possible, including exercise, getting the newspaper from the local shop and listening to Radio 4. Recreate as much of home whilst away as possible and don’t get down on myself for being down and missing home.
All that said, I would have given you a week’s wages, a big clock or all the tea in China to have not gone away this week and just stayed at home. But life isn’t just about me and what I want. I am part of a team. I am not an island, like High Grant in About a Boy. I am lucky to have this time with my two wonderful life partners; my amazing wife and daughter. I am embracing the time with them; trying hard to reduce my anxieties and stresses and managing the situation in my head.
I am also helping myself by counting the days. Just two nights and three days to go. In one day, there will be just one night left. Then home. Then safe again.