The Blog -Mental Health, This is Me
Independent Mental Health Consultant
In October 2008 I suffered my first mental breakdown. I was lucky and I got the support of family, friends and colleagues in time to prevent me hitting rock bottom – but I came close. This is my story……
I have an outgoing personality, and as often as not I would sing (badly) as I walked into the office in the mornings, much to the annoyance of my colleagues (and to my own secret amusement). As someone said on my return to work after my first episode of depression “you were the last person I would have expected this to happen to.”
Looking back I believe there were some early signs that I was struggling – my usual positive attitude started to fade and I started to use phrases such as “I’m getting old” and “I feel like a grumpy old man”, as well as losing my temper with my family more often. But at the time, if I thought about it at all, I put it down to work being busier than normal. I was stressed and there were times I felt overly so – I would put in the extra hours to get a bid out on time and to meet project deadlines – but I never felt that this went on so long that I began to suffer (although my wife and kids may disagree).
Things started to go wrong in September – I always thought I had a pretty good work/life balance – with plenty of hobbies and lots of opportunity for walks along the beachfront where I live. My weekends were usually quite relaxed and I usually felt refreshed on a Monday morning. Unfortunately, life outside work started to get very hectic; every weekend seemed to involve family visits and obligations, so, as much as I enjoyed the weekends, I didn’t manage to fully relax. In early October we had the unfortunate news that my Mother-in-Law was terminally ill, and this meant a fraught trip to say our goodbyes. She eventually passed away in January.the following year. Add into the mix teenage daughters stretching their boundaries and financial worries I was ripe for a fall.
I also had some problems at work – I am not going to hide behind this illness with respect to some mistakes I made on a couple of my projects. However, the impact of these mistakes on me was quite severe. I pride myself on ‘getting things done’ and doing a good job – these projects were the start of my sense of failure and loss of confidence.
The combined effects of work stress, family stress, not being able to fully relax and a loss of libido and it is no great surprise that I started to lose sleep, culminating in one night of complete insomnia and the addition of fatigue as the final catalyst.
I knew nothing about depression so wasn’t able to recognise the signs for what they were.
Talking to others around me at the time the most significant change to my behaviour was a complete loss of perspective. Every problem seemed critical and I started to make more and more irrational decisions, which of course made the situation worse and led to greater feeling of failure and worthlessness and more sleepless nights; a vicious circle.
Eventually, something had to give and I eventually broke down at work during a conversation with a colleague about one of my projects. The following day, after another sleepless night, I woke up in tears and called in sick. I went to the doctor who immediately diagnosed Depression and put me on antidepressants. I was initially signed off for only two weeks, at my own insistence, but eventually I was able to accept that a longer absence was going to be necessary.
So what did Depression ‘feel’ like for me?
I have been asked this several times and the best way I can explain it is – imagine something you do that is a chore………something that has to be done but that you don’t particularly enjoy – the washing up, hoovering, walking to the bus stop in the rain. Now transfer that feeling to everything (and I mean everything) that you do………….
Now add in the physical feeling of profound sadness (like a black hole in your chest sucking all the joy out of life); panic attacks and the feelings of guilt and failure (why can other people manage the stress and not me?) and the fear of not knowing how to cope and you are getting close to realising how debilitating my Depression was.
There are other feelings that are typical of Depression, that I didn’t suffer from, such as a complete disassociation from the people around you and an inability to carry out even the most basic daily tasks – so, in a way, I was lucky.
A story of this type would not be complete if I didn’t talk about the taboo subject of suicide. Did I think about suicide? – Yes. Was I suicidal? – No. I did think about ways to take my own life; jumping off cliffs, a long swim out of my depth, stepping in front of a bus etc. But I didn’t dwell on them. I have a fantastic wife who has fully supported me through this illness and two great daughters (despite my occasional tirade against them). Whenever I thought about suicide I would think about the impact on my family and realise the harm my loss would do them. I had to keep going. I had to get better.
The road to recovery
When I saw my doctor for the first time he prescribed antidepressants. Whilst I started to take these ‘happy pills’ as I branded them it still took me some time to accept that I was very ill and that it would take a long time for me to recover. This was in part because of my sense of guilt – “How could I take time off and dump my workload on to people who were at least as stressed at work as I was?”
But there was also a large amount of misplaced pride – “Mental illness is for weak minded people – I am stronger that that” – “How can this be happening to me?” This just shows how little I knew about Depression at the time.
The most important help that I received at this time was the constant reassurance from colleagues that ‘everything was in hand’, my projects were being redistributed and cover had been found for my other responsibilities. This allowed me to accept that I could take time off to recover properly. Ultimately it took more than two months before I returned to work in any capacity and it took much longer for me to get back to full capacity.
Having accepted that I was ill and needed time to recover I was determined to get better as quick as I could. That is not to say that there weren’t days when I was just incapable of doing anything. Days when the sense of worthlessness were so overpowering that the best I could manage was to get out of bed and sit on the sofa watching daytime TV (are you getting a sense of how desperate I was yet?).
On my better days I researched Depression online to help me better understand my illness. This helped me to come to terms (to some degree) with the fact that Depression can hit anyone and is not a sign of weakness but it also helped me realise that I could do something to help myself get better.
Structured Activity Programmes are often used to treat Depressives – so I developed some of my own (after discussion with my doctor). These included reading, going to the gym, swimming, long walks and baking. Initially it was very much a case of forcing myself to do this stuff (and there were still days when it didn’t happen) but eventually I found myself starting to enjoy the activities – with the exception of the gym which I still hate with a passion. I used to set myself small targets, e.g. swim more lengths than last time, complete the walk in a faster time etc. and these small successes started to help me overcome my sense of worthlessness.
This was enough to get me back to work part-time but it wasn’t until my employer arranged professional counselling for me that I started to make bigger improvements. The sessions helped me resolve many of my outstanding issues – such as my sense of failure and loss of self worth. They also provided me with the tools to help me cope with my continuing episodes of negativity and sadness through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I was finally able to realise that although Depression is a very common illness it is possible to recover.
So what has happened since?
Since my first breakdown in 2008 I have had several further depressive episodes. I have developed coping mechanisms that means I am still able to function effectively during these episodes. I have had to take occasional time off, but for the most part I have managed to remain at work and actually achieve some career highlights whilst in the midst of a depressive episode.
This has helped me realise that depression (or indeed, any mental illness) is not an ‘ending’, With the proper support and coping mechanisms it is still possible to achieve great things even with a mental illness.
Mental illness should not be a barrier to thriving at work.
As I recovered and helped my employer create their global mental health matters strategy I recognised the power of story telling in helping to break through stigma and allow people to recognise that is it OK to not be Ok and that it is Ok to ask for help. There will be people at every level in every organisation who have experience poor mental health or a mental illness, but sometimes they just need a bit of encouragement to be able to tell their own story. If you would like me to tell my story at your organisation and start that process please contact me.
Recovery is possible – I am an example of that