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.