Can you pass me a piece of that fruitcake, please? My battle with trying not to be a mental.
I will never take the NHS for granted. It’s a wonderful privilege and I’ll always appreciate the wonderful work our doctors and nurses do. But if I hadn’t have had the luxury of private health care through my workplace when I hit rock bottom with mental illness, then I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be here to tell my tale today. I’d be six feet under. I don’t think that doctors handing out anti-depressants to me like Smarties was the answer.
I suffered from my first bout of depression when I was 16 years old. Yet that was in 1998 when mental health wasn’t recognised like it is today. I didn’t know what was going on. All I did know is that I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t even familiar with the condition ‘depression and anxiety’, let alone it tying in with mental illness. For a 16 year old in the 1990s, mental illness meant people like Fred and Rose West, or the strange man down my road with the big smelly beard who talked to the red letter box on the corner of our street. I suddenly found myself planning my own suicide and I didn’t know why.
I lay the blame for my first bout of depression on the medication I was taking at the time — Roacutanne for the treatment of acne. I had a face like a dropped pepperoni pizza with metal train tracks on my top and bottom teeth — no wonder why it took many years to gain any kind of self-confidence. The drug is renowned for severe side effects, including depression: type ‘Roacutanne suicide’ into Google and it opens up a whole can of worms. Whether taking this medication in my teens lead to my depression years later is still unknown. Maybe the side effects lasted for years after I stopped taking the drug; maybe it just paved the way for how I would feel during my adult years.
As I left sixth form college to embark on working life in London at the age of 18, my mood had lifted and I felt much better, but only for a year or so when working was a novelty. The novelty soon wore off. Throughout my twenties, I always felt that I was skating on very thin ice with regards to depression, and could fall through at any time. I managed to keep a lid on things, but always knew I was near to boiling point.
Shortly after my 30th birthday, the ice finally broke and the pan finally boiled over. I suffered from a complete breakdown. My whole world collapsed and I was ready to end my existence within that world. I was planning my suicide again. The thought of what it would do to my parents was the only thing that stopped me. It was frustrating because I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t for the sake of my mum and dad. It would have completely destroyed my mum for the rest of her life. I simply could not do that to her, no matter how bad I felt.
If the truth be told, I spent all of my twenties in jobs that I hated. I worked in investment banks in London doing glorified admin; I found each working minute for 13 years mind numbing and soul destroying. I was on bundles of money but still unhappy. Money was buying me unhappiness. I wanted to do something creative, I wanted to write, and not having that outlet was killing me inside. I took a humongous pay cut to try a different career. I couldn’t possibly do a job that I hated until I was 65, no matter how good the money was.
But a relationship breakdown and wrist operation within the space of a few days seemed to be the final straw. I can only describe my head at the time as a tumble drier of twisted rusty metal, all intertwined, going round and round and round. It’s called rumination: the same thoughts over and over.
My mind was like an old cassette player, the type I would tape the charts on each Sunday night as a kid. Apart from that this tape was very negative — hardly Jive Bunny’s latest single. I’d play the tape for ten seconds, rewind it, and then play it again and again, even though I knew what was on it — the same horrible thought, or something someone said or did that hurt me. I did this until I drove myself mad. When you can’t knock negative thoughts out of your head it’s horrible. Especially the same negative thought that relentlessly pings around inside your head like a steel ball in a pinball machine.
It got to the stage where my mum and dad wouldn’t let me out of their sight from fear of me doing something drastic. They slept in the same bed as me and escorted me wherever I went. I suddenly felt like a child again (apart from that my childhood was very happy): I spent a lot of time screaming, crying and hitting myself, I was being taken to and from work and sharing a bed with my mum. I could often be found in the fetal position — on the floor — in just my pants — when doing something as simple as putting my jeans on or brushing my teeth seemed like being tasked with climbing Mount Everest.
I had been on and off anti-depressants throughout my late 20s but the meds were never right. I was on Prozac at first — a drug with origins dating back to 1972. Why my GP put me on such an old fashioned drug when there were clearly more modern and better developed ones out there is beyond me.
Luckily, I was able to go private and receive CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and then be referred to a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist? Isn’t that for people like Harold Shipman? Evidently not. The therapist looked after my thinking and the psychiatrist looked after my meds. I went on a concoction of three different medications and the three doctors whom I saw over those few months in 2012 saved my life.
As for me now: the black dog occasionally pops up to lick my neck, but I’ve taught her a few tricks of my own and she is much more obedient. Anxiety occasionally rears its ugly head but it’s not as debilitating. I sometimes find grey, cold and rainy days in the autumn and winter particularly difficult. I’m still medicated up to my eyeballs; maybe I’ll come off them one day but I’m in no rush at the moment as they have helped me so much. But this isn’t about me — if this article can help just one person then it has served its purpose.
Suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45 in the UK. 84 men kill themselves in the UK every week. It’s time to change that. It’s time to change the opinion that men shouldn’t get upset, cry or talk about their feelings.
It was a close shave for me, but always remember:
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
I’m glad I didn’t do it.
Here are my top tips for the road to recovery:
- Read. But don’t submerge yourself in books purely about depression and anxiety. It’s important to read about mental health, but make sure you reach for a good autobiography or fiction book for escapism. Ditch the newspapers — they are often filled with bad news.
- Consider getting a pet. I can’t tell you how much buying a dog helped me during my darkest days.
- Listen to music you love — it can instantly lift your mood.
- Watch comedies that will make you laugh.
- Play games: buy a games console or play Scrabble on your phone.
- Invest in a Lumie SAD light if seasonal affective disorder makes you sad.
- Exercise. No excuses. Just do it. And remember to really push yourself. Get your body looking how you want it to look.
- Eat and drink well. Alcohol and junk food do not mix with mental illness.
- If you hate your job and/or career then change it. Life is too short to spend 35 hours a week doing something you hate. I changed career at 31 years old and I never gave up following my dream, no matter how many rejections I got. And believe me you, I got tonnes. Then again, so did J.K. Rowling, James Dyson and The Beatles.
- Add coloured stickers around your home and every time you see one, think of something you are grateful for or makes you smile. An electronic reminder in your desktop calendar/diary/phone every 30 minutes is a good way to do this also.
- Don’t hide away. I know it can be tough but get yourself out there to socialise and mix with the people whom you love.
- Listen to Dr. Russ Harris’s mindfulness CDs — I’m happy to copy these for anyone who needs them. Mindfulness takes practice but it will change your life for the better. You will also get to a point when you can do it without the CDs, whenever and wherever you need to.
- Suggested reading material: I Had a Black Dog: His Name was Depression and Living with a Black Dog — both by Matthew Johnstone. Wouldn’t It Be Nice — the story of Brian Wilson’s battle with mental illness.
- Consider quitting social media and spending less time on your phone/the internet in general. Comparing ourselves to others can do untold damage to our mental health and wellbeing. Those who want to keep in touch will.
- Remove toxic people and one way-friendships from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a friend of 25 years, a love interest, a work colleague, a new acquaintance or even a relative — if they continue to treat you in a harmful way then they have got to go. It really is that simple.
- Go private. It will be the best money you’ll ever spend and I’m happy to recommend the psychiatrist who made me better.
You’ve got this!
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