Posts Tagged ‘mental health’

Coming out, all over again

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but this week’s unremittingly horrible events in the French Alps and the subsequent reporting of them have nudged me to get on with it.

A few weeks ago I went to an event at the gorgeous new Foyles on Charing Cross Road. An author called Matt Haig was talking about his new book, Reasons to Stay Alive. I discovered Matt last year, when a friend retweeted once of his tweets, the subject of which I have long forgotten. Whatever it was it got my attention, and I clicked through to read some more of his tweets and found I liked what he had to say. Then I bought his book The Humans, which is well worth a read. I also learned that Matt had suffered with depression and was writing a book about it, the aforementioned Reasons to Stay Alive. He posted some extracts like this one which really caught my attention.

They caught my attention because at the time I was “going through some crap”, or “having some health problems” as I had coyly taken to calling it. Or, to be technically and medically accurate, I was suffering from anxiety and depression. To cut to the end of the story (spoiler alert!) I’m now much better, although one of the many things I’ve learned is that it’s not something you can ever be “cured” of. I’ve had two bouts of it in the past few years, and odds are it will happen again. It will always be loitering somewhere in the depths of my brain, though hopefully dormant for the majority of the time. And with every bad spell I learn more about how it works and how I can deal with it. And most importantly I know that I’ve felt rubbish before and it has gone away. This too will pass…. It’s a cliché for a reason.

Anyway, back to the stuffy room on the top floor of Foyles with a warm glass of wine. Matt mentioned how talking about depression was like coming out. As someone who has done the more traditional coming out as well as this one, it’s entirely true. In both contexts I absolutely hate the “coming out” conversations; if I could click my fingers and have people just know, that would be fine. By all means gossip about me behind my back, saves me the hassle. Because in my (maybe lucky) experience, nobody has a problem with my sexuality or my mental health… at worst they feel awkward and don’t know what to say. And frankly if people do have a problem with it, I don’t care, it’s their problem and they’re welcome to get out of my life.

It’s often said that the first person you have to come out to is yourself, to acknowledge who you are. It’s the same with mental health. At some point you have to realise that a line has been crossed. Everyone gets stressed sometimes, or maybe has bouts of feeling fed up, or low, or “small d” depressed. It’s difficult to spot when it has become capital S Stress, capital D Depression, or in my case capital A Anxiety, not least because you’re not thinking too clearly at the time.

What was it for me? I had been pretty fed up for a while, a few things were not working out as I had hoped and I was pretty angry and fed up about them, plus I had quite a lot on my plate. Nothing special about that – bit of small s stress and small d depression. Eventually though that spiralled into more destructive thoughts that all too easily became self-perpetuating: life was a disappointment (hello capital D Depression), I had so much to do and couldn’t get my head around how to tackle any of it (hello capital S Stress) and I would waste huge amounts of time being indecisive over what the best course of action was (hello capital A Anxiety).

Every day began with the mammoth challenge of getting out of bed. Despite knowing that getting up and doing something, anything, would instantly make me feel better and that staying in bed never helped, it’s all I was able to do. The logical side of my brain was screaming at me to just get on with it, but the hysterical side was screaming louder. It was very noisy. If each side had just shut up for 5 minutes maybe I could have snapped out of it. Then you move onto the meta-depression – depressed about being depressed. What if I never snapped out of this? Was I going to waste my entire life? Fail to live up to my potential? How Depressing!

To make myself feel even worse I threw a hefty dose of guilt into the mix as well. I had an OK life… a decent job which paid well and, despite my protestations, people thought I was good at. I had a roof over my head, which I even owned (well, co-owned with the bank). I had good friends and family and my health, silly brain aside, was fine. What right did I have to be so unhappy?

I couldn’t even explain what the problem was. I am fortunate enough to have many people in my life who I could talk to and who were endlessly supportive. One friend in particular would regularly get in touch to check how I was feeling; I always felt terrible to report that nothing had changed. How endlessly tedious for them; they were trying to help and I wasn’t giving them anything back.

Fortunately for me I was able to acknowledge that something was wrong and I went to my GP to get some help, which came in the form of a prescription for anti-depressants and some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Taking the first pill was a huge step… I stared at it for a good while, attaching far greater significance to it than was reasonable. It felt like crossing a line and committing to this being the new me. I didn’t want to be on anti-depressants, it didn’t fit in with who I thought I was. But I was ill and I didn’t want that, far more than I didn’t want to have to swallow a pill every morning.

I don’t want to get into the debate over the effectiveness of anti-depressants, not least because everyone is different and my experience is unique to me. In short the medication made me worse in the short term, which is very normal. I have no idea how much it helped in the long run; I took them and now I’m much better and am coming off them. How much did the pills contribute to my turnaround? I have no idea. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.

Brilliant though our NHS is it took a good few months to start the CBT and by that time I was feeling much better. It’s very difficult to do CBT when the tangled mess of thoughts is no longer clogging up your brain… it’s pretty indescribable when you’re going through it, let alone when it has passed. So instead I spent a few sessions with a therapist discussing the condition from a theoretical standpoint, which was fascinating. Just having someone listen and recognise the symptoms I was talking about, which to me seemed ridiculous, was hugely reassuring. Another point Matt Haig makes is how you can feel like the only person in the world who has ever been through this experience, or at least this flavour of it. As it turns out we’re not unique and we’re not special. Sorry.

And that’s the reason I’m writing this. Something that did make me feel better was knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through this, and the internet is an endless source of articles, blogs and thoughts on the matter. Talking helps, and so does listening and reading. So this is my contribution. Maybe it will help someone to read about a normal(ish) guy who got laid low by this illness. Middle class, gay accountants who work in higher education and have an unhealthy enthusiasm for the Minions from Despicable Me can get depression too.

The other reason I wanted to write is because of what has happened this week. I doubt we will ever know what was going on in the mind of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot believed to have deliberately guided Germanwings flight 4U9525 into the Alps. Clearly something went horribly wrong, and it’s right that all efforts are made to work out what that was and more importantly if anything can be done to prevent it happening again.

The reality of the story has been horrific and that should be the focus. Yet I have spent more time this week reflecting on the horror of how the newspapers have reacted. At best crass and reactionary, at worst downright dangerous, I am stunned that in 2015 we have seen the headlines that we did this week. I would give some examples, but frankly it’s too depressing (pun intended). To attempt to understand Lubitz’s condition is not to condone his actions, and demonising or scare-mongering about mental health will only serve to fuel the stigma and deter vulnerable people from opening up about it, which clearly was a major factor in this case. This nonsense has to stop. Now. It’s unhelpful, it’s dangerous and, frankly, it really pisses me off.

As my mouse veers towards the “Publish” button, I feel like I should be nervous… what if, for example, an employer reads this? What if the newspapers are simply reflective of their attitude to mental health? Could I be damaging my career? I’m pleased to say that my current employer is incredibly supportive on issues like this. And as for a future employer, if they do have a problem then I probably don’t want to work for them anyway. Their loss.


PS In the style of a sincere end credits voiceover, if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, I would recommend having a read of Mind’s website which has some excellent resources and advice. Go and see your GP… they won’t roll their eyes and laugh you out of their office, honest. Read Matt Haig’s book. And talk to someone (even me if you like), it helps.

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