Progress (and the power of anonymity)

Since my last post in January, things have changed hugely. I have made progress which only a few months ago I could never have believed possible. However, this has involved a significant amount of change and hard work. I know it’s a cliche, but despite the progress made, every day still feels like a big mountain to be climbed. And it’s hard to see that changing any time soon.

For me, moving on with my life and returning to the world of work after my most recent episode of severe depression and anxiety has meant moving to a new and much bigger city, where I feel a sense of freedom, energy and confidence which I have never felt in my home town. For me a massive part of this is the feeling of anonymity (which I love), being in a huge city where I don’t know anyone and where I am one amongst millions. For many, this would be the last thing they would want, but for me I feel like it has given me my life back. A life I thought only a few months ago would never be possible again.

This is not unchartered territory for me I must add. After recovering from my previous severe episode in 2005, which took the best part of a year, I moved from my home town to the “big smoke” in 2007. The two and a half years I spent there were a hugely positive and successful period of my life – I met my wife, I found a self confidence I never believed I would experience, I found a job I enjoyed and which I performed successfully in. But after a while a part of me longed to be home. I missed family, I missed an affordable home and I missed the quality of life that came with living in a smaller city in a more remote area. Therefore, shortly after we got married we moved from the big city where we met to my home town. Whilst all of those things listed previously remain important to me, I realised at the start of this year that the only way to get some sort of “normal” life back, for myself and for my wife and children, was to return to the big city, where I feel “normal”.

This has entailed a lot of sacrifice, both personally but also for my wife and for our parents. Without their help with childcare none of this would have happened. Nor would it have happened without the unwavering love and support of my wife. I moved to the new city alone, leaving my wife and children behind, for the time being. With my eldest son in school, a house to sell and my wife in employment it wasn’t feasible for us all to move at such short notice – but for me there was a definite feeling of now or never. We decided I would move on my own initially, with the plan of the family following at a future date if all went well. Those living with recurring mental illness will understand that is a very big IF. After 2 months in my new location and in a short term contract job, it remains a big IF. If it doesn’t work out I have no Plan B.

The biggest and most positive change to my life since relocating two months ago is the increased sense of self worth and purpose that comes from being in the world of work again after a year out of it, and being able to provide for my family again. I still think that it is very sad that we define our self worth by our ability to earn money, but in the world we live in I struggle to see that ever changing.

Despite the progress made over the last few months, I constantly live with the fear that in an instant things could return to the way they were this time last year – being incapacitated by depression and anxiety. For that reason I now struggle to see how it is possible to live in anything but the short-term. The thought of committing to anything frightens me like it never used to – whether it’s the prospect of us buying a new, albeit more affordable, house or booking a family holiday – because there is a feeling that lives with me that whilst things are ok today, tomorrow they could be very different. However, that’s not the way I want life to be for my wife and our two boys, so somehow I have to change my outlook. The phrase baby steps comes to mind, and for the time being I guess I have taken quite a few.

Hanging on by a thread

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My last post was written 4 months ago. In the daily battle I continue to experience with depression and anxiety, I lost the motivation and desire to write any more, faced with the familiar issues of lack of concentration, lack of interest, questioning the point of writing and sharing etc etc. However I have made a promise to myself for the dawning of a new year to try to commit to giving blogging a bit more of a go. The last few months have been truly horrendous and I have reached new depths which I never knew existed, and at times the only source of comfort has been reading the shared experiences of those battling with the same issues. So I have decided that I want to try and do the same, and to find some way of getting a positive out of all of the pain that I and my family have experienced these past few months.

Given my lack of regular posting I will give a very brief update on my current “bad spell”

  • In March 2016 I was made redundant from a job which I had been doing for the previous year and a half. This was due to a downturn in the industry I worked in and came as a real blow because I had a great relationship with my boss and the job suited my personality and health issues.
  • Started new job in April 2016 but had to leave job after 2 weeks due to a recurrence of severe depression and anxiety (my previous bad episode was over 10 years ago in 2005 – I foolishly thought I had come out of that a stronger and wiser person and that it wouldn’t happen again!)
  • End of December 2016 – I still haven’t returned to paid employment yet and continue to struggle with anxiety each and every day. Depression is also still a big issue, but this is where it all gets a bit unclear. Am I still clinically depressed, or is it just that I am living with the aftermath of the severe depression a few months ago and the massive impact this has had on my life and the life of my immediate family.  Given the lack of hope, joy, positivity and confidence I currently experience I would most definitely still consider myself to be in the midst of a depressive episode.  And after 9 months its very difficult at the moment to see what is going to lift me out of that.
  • As a result of what has happened this year we are faced with no option but to sell our family home at the start of the new year. Therefore I ask myself on a daily basis “Can things get any worse?” Looking at basic human needs and values – the role of the male has traditionally been to provide shelter/a home for their family.  In terms of things that are going to destroy any last remaining self worth and pride in a man, surely it can’t get much worse than having to move your wife and children out of their home because you can’t afford to pay the bills anymore. In my view this is truly horrendous, and when it is because of a health issue and at a time when one is already experiencing anxiety and depression on a daily basis, it is extremely hard to live with.

As I reflect on 2016 I wanted to share some of the things I have learnt during my experiences of the past 9 months:

  1. Having thought in years gone by I had hit rock bottom, I have learnt of new depths way beyond what I previously thought existed.  I think one of the main reasons for that is that I now have responsibilities which I didn’t have previously – a wife and 2 young children.  Therefore, the ramifications of any bad episode are now far greater than they ever were before.  I don’t just have myself to worry about. However, whilst my wife and children are a responsibility I never had before, they are the reason I keep going and get up every day and try to fight this illness.  Whilst at the moment I don’t feel that I am able to offer them much as a husband and father because of my difficulties, they give me a purpose, when all else seems lost. My wife asked me just before midnight last night (new years eve) what positives I could take with me into the new year.  My response was that despite things getting as bad and as tough as they have, I am still here and have made it this far, and as a family unit we are still together.  I will try my best to remind myself of that on a daily basis.
  2. This illness is sticking around – yes I’ll hopefully get back to long spells of being “well”, but most likely dark times will return again, based on the experiences of my life to date. After recovering from previous episodes, due to a combination of youthful optimism, lack of true understanding of my condition, and denial, I thought I had learned and experienced enough to stop it from returning. How wrong was I! And no one ever suggested otherwise, including the medical professionals who treated me and could see my case notes going back to my teens.  But I realise they would never have been in a position to tell me to prepare myself for recurring episodes, firstly because they wouldn’t want to have put a limit on what I could achieve as I grew up, and also they had no way of knowing whether or not I would relapse.  As I sit typing this blog tonight in a house and lifestyle which I can no longer afford, a huge part of me wishes someone could have told me all those years ago to build a life that was fit for purpose given my recurring depression and anxiety, rather than the life I did build thinking everything would be fine – a professional career which came with expectations to always be able to perform/function at a high level (this ultimately has been the undoing of me!), nice house, nice holidays etc etc.  I am filled with regrets, but then I suppose most of us probably are for varying reasons!
  3. Stop expecting others to understand my illness, my experiences and what’s going on inside my head. This has been a really tough one for me, particularly when it comes to family members, and it is something I still struggle with on a daily basis. I am learning that is unfair of me to expect others to understand.  A couple of well known quotes now stick in my head. “Don’t expect everyone to understand your journey especially if they have never had to walk your path” and “Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to, it’s not for them.”
  4. Stop hiding who I am.  Become a beacon of light to others who are living with the same disabling illness, as several others have been to me.  Reading the stories of others in the same boat has kept me going over the last few months. It has provided me with a source of comfort I have been unable to find anywhere else.  And the extremely touching comments and messages I have received to my first blog posting have really inspired me to keep writing and keep sharing. A couple of months ago I read an article on the website “The Mighty” by a contributor called Kelsey Rozak.  I found one paragraph in particular extremely powerful and it is something which gave me a feeling of purpose and has stuck with me.  Kelsey’s words were as follows:

“I also share my story to shine my light for others. For the people who can’t navigate the high seas of sadness, I am the lighthouse. For people who can’t find their way through the depths of depression, I am a flashlight. I shine the way because others have shined the way for me. We cannot be afraid of this light. You must shine it for others to guide them through this confusing and terrifying journey. It is a beacon of hope on cloudy days and a sign that we are never alone. Collectively, we will bring light to this condition and make sure no one is afraid of the dark ever again.

I too shall make that my goal, so that some good can come out of my pain. Thank you Kelsey.

 

The Shame of It…

…and why (for now anyway) I am posting anonymously.

As if the challenges you have to face living with and trying to battle mental illness (in my case recurring severe anxiety and depression) aren’t enough! There is also the feeling of shame that goes with it. That’s my experience anyway, and I would guess also that of most others who are living with any type of ongoing or recurring mental health condition.
During my latest/ongoing episode  of depression and anxiety, I have on many occasion likened the shame I experience to how I assume one must feel when they have committed a serious crime. The big difference is, I haven’t done anything wrong. I experience this feeling of shame and embarrassment on a daily basis, often many times during a day. At the moment, I routinely find myself in situations where it is impossible to avoid the subject – you bump into someone (it can happen anywhere – school drop off/pick up, football, supermarket to name but a few) they ask why I’m not working, when will I be going back to work, they wonder why my wife has had to go back to full time instead of part time work given that we still have young children, and I’m now home as the main child carer (although the number of stay at home dads is definitely on the up, it still most definitely isn’t the norm, certainly where we live). Most of the time, I find it extremely difficult being honest, despite many years of experience of this retched illness. And when I do tell people, I very often only tell them part of the story. And even then, after the conversation has ended, I then get paranoid about whether I have said too much, what will they think of me etc etc. I completely over analyse most conversations for that very reason. And that puts you off getting into conversations.

I long for the day that I can be COMPLETELY honest about who I am, and remove myself from these shackles. In the past I’ve been able to get by without having to be too open about my condition, being honest on a need to know basis only! But the latest episode has had such a major impact on the lives of myself and my family that it’s almost impossible not to be honest with people.

Even small talk with a completely innocent and friendly individual can be awkward. Cashiers in the shops often ask things like “so you’ve got a day off work today”. Such a simple everyday situation shouldn’t be difficult. I usually find myself just going along with it and say “yeh”, to avoid that topic going any further. And then I try to change the subject. So even the most seemingly straightforward of encounters can be uncomfortable. I assume many others will relate to this.

And then there are the questions from family members – I would like to stress in my situation this is well meaning family members who themselves are at a loss as to what to do and what to say to their friends. Questions along the lines of “what should we tell xyz if they ask how you’re getting on at work?”, “is xyz allowed to know that you’re not well?”. And as a chronic migraine sufferer, a frequent and at times convenient cover used by myself and my family – “shall we just say that you’ve been having a bad spell with your migraines?”. Having also experienced first hand the stigma surrounding migraines, using that as a more acceptable line to tell people says it all really.  There are also the comments such as “we don’t know who we’re supposed to say what to”. Going back to my earlier comment about crime, that is how comments and questions such as those make you feel, like you’ve done something wrong that shouldn’t really be spoken about, and if so only to a very select few.

I had to deal with those conversations regularly when I was at my lowest point in April. When getting through each day is a huge struggle and a major achievement in itself, the absolute last thing you need is to be faced with making decisions about who is allowed to know what about your condition.
Having been forced to leave more than one job in my chosen (now ex-) career because of mental health issues, I constantly live with the fear and the shame of bumping into former colleagues. Again, I feel as if I have done something wrong. I left because I suffer from anxiety and depression, not because I had my hand in the till embezzling money. But shame doesn’t seem to differentiate.

I still feel awkward bumping into people I worked with almost 15 years ago. What do they think of me, I still wonder. Do they think I’m crazy. In reality I’m sure they don’t give it any thought whatsoever – they have their own lives and issues to deal with. In an attempt to help, my wife often says to me “what makes you think you’re so important that these people are giving you any further thought?” And that is so true. But it doesn’t seem to make it any easier. I frequently avoid social occasions or find myself crossing the road to avoid such encounters.
Even now, when starting this new blog, I feel unable to be honest and attach my name to this blog, for fear of my posts being seen by someone who knows me. And of people I know then talking about me.

In the 20+ years since I first became aware of having mental health issues, it is a subject which is definitely more widely spoken about. And it is more acceptable to admit to suffering from it than it was back then. But despite the progress, anyone who has experienced mental health problems will I’m sure agree that it does remain very much a taboo subject. And none more so than in the workplace.

First timer

Hello. I’m a first time blogger, in my late 30`s.

For pretty much my whole teenage and adult life, I have been impaired to varying degrees, ranging from mild to very severe episodes, by anxiety (generalised anxiety disorder seems to be the closest fit when trying to put a label on it), and depression (most recent episode earlier this year diagnosed as chronic treatment resistant depression). It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. It is usually the depression that I get treated for, however I believe that for me it’s the anxiety that comes first and is the underlying problem, and in times that it gets out of control it then causes a period of depression, often resistant to treatment. But trying to get medical professionals to explain it in those terms hasn’t been easy!

In addition to the specific mental health issues, and I’m sure as a result of these issues, I have also suffered from chronic migraine for a number of years and also ulcerative colitis (now thank the Lord in remission).

My motivation to start a blog is in the hope that by sharing my experiences, built up over the last 20+ years, starting when in my mid-teens I was first referred to a psychiatrist, I can in some way help and offer support and encouragement to others who experience mental health challenges. And whilst I don’t currently see it at the moment, being in the midst of a very challenging time, I’d love to one day be able to inspire others with mental health problems to believe that you can live a fulfilling and rewarding life, despite the illness.

As a result of the recurring nature of my condition, and the length of time I’ve been in the “system”, I believe that I have a lot of insight into the illness and the treatments offered. I can certainly relate to many people experiencing similar challenges.

Whilst not an exhaustive list, I have experienced the following, in no particular order – being on anti-depressant medication for the majority of the time since my   mid-teens – for the last 10 years I have been taking a high dose of citalopram combined with lithium (to augment the anti depressant medication as opposed to being for any other condition); a course of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ETC) in 2005, a 3 week period of hospitalisation at a time of suicidal thoughts, I have been under the care of 3 or 4 psychiatrists over the past 20 years, have done CBT, have been seen by the psychology department at the local hospital, been referred to Occupational Therapy, I now have a Communuty Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) who I meet regularly at the moment. I have also received numerous private counselling sessions arranged through employers at the time. I have also privately tried hypnotherapy and attended a mindfulness retreat.

Despite living  with what I consider to be a disabling condition, I have to some extent been relatively high achieving/high functioning for a lot of my years – although that depends I guess on your definition of high achieving and high functioning. I left school with decent grades, went on to University and successfully graduated with a degree in accountancy.   I then successfully applied for a position with one of the large global accountancy firms, where I successfully qualified as a chartered accountant. It certainly wasn’t an easy journey. But it was in the world of work that my problems really escalated and became at times completely disabling. However I (foolishly I would say with the benefit of hindsight) soldiered on and tried to persevere in my chosen career. I ended up leaving a few jobs because of it. And looking back I can clearly see now the impact it has had on my health, my happiness and my family. I’m now embarking on a journey to change that, before it’s too late!

I’m in the midst of a very bad episode, which really spiralled downwards in April 2016 and resulted in me leaving a job I had only started 2 weeks earlier. Prior to starting the new job, I had just been made redundant from a job I’d done for about a year and a half, due to a downturn in the industry the company was in.  Thankfully things are a lot better now than they were 2 months ago – but I’d say still far from normal, whatever that may be.

In addition to academic and work “achievements”, I have a beautiful and much loved wife and we have two adorable young children. Many years ago I was reasonably successfully at a local level in the sport of cycling – but as with many things, I put too much pressure on myself to be good, which took the pleasure out of it.

I reckon that’s probably enough for my first post. Already wrote way more than I intended!

Good night

The chronic worrier