It was supposed to be easy.
“You can do whatever you’d like.”
“The future is very bright.”
As a kid, I was used to hearing this sort of thing all the time. I was fortunate enough to excel at school, I was top of just about every class since the age of about 7, and never really had hardship in terms of choices and big decisions. My parents were supportive, and I always had at least a few friends – sounds pretty perfect.
However, from a young age I struggled with my mental health; I was naturally quite shy and sensitive, and by the age of 13 I struggled with anxiety in one form or another most days. I couldn’t take ‘banter,’ I rarely went out once alcohol and other ‘fun’ stuff became the done thing. Peer pressure terrified me, and thinking back to how I was, I was probably on the slope to agoraphobia. I only felt safe inside or around the old trees in my garden. I started trying to avoid school, and my attendance dipped. Teachers were perplexed at how I could hate school so much while finding the lessons fairly simple.
School and college came and went, and by this time I had built up some confidence. Through sport, I had become less inward and realised that there was a world outside of the tumbleweed village I spent my childhood in. I was eager to go to uni and ‘spread my wings,’ but I had chosen a degree based on how it looked to other people and its reputation, rather than being encouraged to find a passion.
My first year had ended and I was really getting somewhere, I had lots of friends on my course and had made it onto the sports team of my choice, which brought a social life of its own. However, I was beginning to feel the pull of nerves about my career after uni, like vines around my feet. I had discovered that the job I had been ‘encouraged’ into was double the hours and half the pay that I had anticipated. I was already looking for a way out.
Thankfully, my family had started developing property, and it aligned with just about everything I wanted from a career. But it wasn’t that straightforward. That summer, we found out that my mum had cancer for a second time – she had about three months to live. We tried to stay positive at first, but watching her fade away so quickly was difficult on all of us. All of the plans, cliches and words of motivation about my future seemed to fade away as she did, and by the time she passed away the scaffolding that had kept me going had crumbled.
So, just as I had when school got tough, I hid. I went back to uni, and became SO good at Championship Manager while neglecting my degree. I was told I could defer, “come back next year,” but uni was my new hideout. I avoided and avoided until the last minute at every turn, and although I finished my degree, it was a 2:2.
A 2:2. That’s not what people told me.
That’s not “he can do whatever he wants.”
I had spent the last couple of years learning that the world didn’t revolve around me. I was not the centre. I had felt entitled this whole time and reality had hit me square in the face.
So I hid.
Gaming addiction wasn’t a recognised condition until recently, but for those couple of years of playing eight-twelve hours a day, I think I was probably at that point. I had got into a damaging relationship that was another hiding place, I didn’t really feel much for the person I was with, but it was easy and it meant I wasn’t on my own. I started a job I thought I was interested in and left within two weeks after a breakdown. I had managed to convince myself that I would never be able to work more than a few days a week, and that if I was going to be wealthy like I had imagined and was told I would be, I would have to be an entrepreneur, or a banker, or something that doesn’t exist – someone who didn’t need to do anything or go anywhere and get rich for nothing.
I knew I had to change, and the pressure on myself was weighing me down as much as anything else. I was depressed, anxious, and felt like I contributed very little to anything or anyone. I was a husk with a 2:2, and became harder on myself every day for it.
“I shouldn’t feel like this. I should be doing more. Why am I not doing anything!?”
I wanted perfection, but did nothing towards it. I was trying to live 8 years in the future and doing nothing in the now. I couldn’t move in any direction. I felt like I was in a box, that was safe for now but slowly suffocating me. I had to move in one direction, but I didn’t know where or how, and was scared that if I went in the wrong direction the box would get smaller and I would suffocate quicker. Counselling didn’t work, CBT didn’t work, anti-depressants made me stop caring. My relationship broke down and I was on my own, not knowing what to do, where to turn or how to stop playing Grand Theft Auto.
I was in full-on crisis mode.
I had massive, unrealistic expectations, but no real ambition or purpose. Having no purpose was perhaps the most difficult thing, because I didn’t know what I was trying to move towards, other than ‘better.’ I was constantly in panic mode, anxiety coursing through me from waking up to going to sleep.
But, I had a fresh start.
Being out of the relationship I was in helped a lot, because at last I was just me again. I took time to look at myself in a different light, and spent more time with friends. I felt like I’d been through a five-year winter, and buds were just about to peep through the soil. I started seeing someone new, and she gave me something I’d never had before – tough love. For the first time in a long time, I actually worked for something that I wanted, and faked it until I made it. She was a breath of fresh air, and while struggling with problems of her own, shocked me out of my own ridiculous inner narratives. I had been babied, and allowed to not achieve at least some semblance of my potential, and I saw that it was my own responsibility to move ahead.
I had worked part-time with troubled teenagers for a few months before my epiphany, and had realised that perhaps I could work – just a little bit.
After much anxiety, I applied for a full-time post elsewhere.
“I can’t work more than a few days a week,” kept swirling in my head, my thought patterns almost coming off their rails they were moving so fast. I got the job (not many people with a ‘prestigious’ degree apply for minimum wage jobs, apparently) and mostly hated it, but I made friends with colleagues and stuck with it. Those buds peeping through the soil were beginning to sprout, and I was feeling less and less anxious.
I started pushing more, and although depression still tugged at me on occasion, I was trending upwards. I was learning that the suffocating box I thought I was in was of my own fabrication, and started pushing the walls further and further out. I felt like I could breathe again, and stretch.
After a couple of months, I was bored, but I needed the money. I had seen the cracks in the organisation I worked for, and how it was flawed, but I needed the money. I realised that I was wasted there and craved a challenge, which was a massive step for me.
I had outgrown something that I thought I would never be able to do a year beforehand.
Summer came and I started applying for jobs. Jobs that were a step up. Jobs that were salaried. Jobs that had responsibility. I was surprised at myself and still had the odd pull of anxiety but I was actually applying for proper jobs! None of them would make me a millionaire, though. Shades of perfectionism came and went.
I got one. Interviews, because they usually have a defined end time when I can leave (i.e. not trapped in a box), have never really bothered me, so I went in with interview mode on. The job was in a town I’d never visited, and meant I’d be moving back to my old uni city, which was only thirty miles from home and where I wanted to be, anyway. Thoughts ran through my mind, “what if I don’t like the town?” “What if it’s too much and I have to quit?” “How will I pay the rent if I quit?!” “What do I do if don’t make friends?”
Hushhh. I had armed myself with mindfulness, and a strange confidence that my dad approaches life with in these situations – “it’ll be fine.” Sport meant that I still knew a couple of old faces in the city and my girlfriend was there, too, which helped.
I started the job and admittedly had no idea what I was doing, but discovered that I was a very, very different person to the one playing Championship Manager about 6 years before. I realised that I had actually conquered depression, and began to understand just how long I had been battling with my mental health issues.
In the year and a half since, I’ve been studying myself and trying to distill the things that have got me to where I am now. Although I am bored in my job again, I am less anxious and more hopeful about my next step, less concerned about suffocating in a box in my psyche. The ambition to succeed is now consistently greater than my fear of failing, perhaps for the first time, and I actually feel worthy of these feelings.
I’ve figured out the things that keep my mind healthy:
You can have too much of a good thing. I think my addiction to gaming taught me that balance and variety is one of the most important things in life. We’re not robots, we’re animals. We are complex products of evolution (or so I believe), and excess or obsession takes us away from our natural state. A quick game of FIFA or the occasional beer is one thing, but whenever I see something creeping in more than it should, I knock it on the head for a while.
Do something useful
The idea of working absolutely terrified me, so I avoided it like the plague. What a rookie error. Work ended up a major catalyst for my recovery, to get out of my own head, contribute to something, meet people, receive positive feedback, have structure, etc. These are things I sorely lacked before and really benefit from now.
Make time for myself and keep it real
Sometimes, a couple of hours to myself is a perfect reset button. Although I spend my days talking to and influencing young people, it can be tiring for an introvert’s mind. I try to give myself a few hours every few days to relax alone. Spending this time trying to practice mindfulness and getting back to the present moment helps me, too.
Sport has been a big help for my emotional state since I was young, and any exercise is good for the soul. Either something that keeps me sweating for a while, or being around lots of trees will bring my mind right down to its base level, and does no end of good. Team sports are a great way to get out of my own head, too, and being ‘in flow’ is like Nirvana at times.
Spending time with the right people
I don’t have many close friends, maybe 3 or 4. I’ve learned that relationships are all about value and grounding. As harsh as it sounds, if they don’t make you feel better, they probably shouldn’t be a part of your life. I’ve had to do it a few times, and it’s not always pleasant, but I know I can call upon any of my close friends and them be there.
Anything that develops the brain instantly makes me feel better. If ever I feel a lull coming on, I immediately head to Duolingo and get some language practice in, or read a book, or watch a tutorial video. If you’re learning about something you’re interested in, it should be pretty difficult to be miserable. Shaking the mind out of a funk is a major self-care thing for me. Also, as a side note, I try to consider every small failure as an opportunity to learn. I’ve tried to turn my own mistakes in my favour, which does a lot to help me stop being so hard on myself.
I intended this piece to be about my quarter-life crisis, and how I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, post-breakdown and depression. However, I’ve proceeded to go on about my turbulent few years and somehow turned it into a self-help guide (repeating the same things that are in every depression guide, ever – that I never took any notice of).
A few years ago, I may have got annoyed, deleted all of this and started again, but I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t always have to be perfect for it to work.
At 19 I thought my life was going to become Lamborghinis and manor houses, at 23 I thought it was going to become ESA and a council flat. None of it was real. Expectations aren’t real, I’ve also discovered. At 27 I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I know that if I want to enjoy it, it comes with persistent steps forward. My ambition and belief grows, and I no longer live in a box of depression and anxiety.
One of my new goals is to help people out of that vicious circle, or help them avoid it completely while they achieve their goals.
“He can do whatever he wants.”
Maybe, but it’s taken a few tough lessons first.