For years I worked with this fab guy called Steve Gray and he has written this blog.
I spent years trying to be self-sufficient, strong, quietly analysing the reasons why I just wasn’t myself anymore. I believed I could fix it and be more like my old self even as I was becoming an island – cutting myself off from everyone, exercising my right to denial and deluding myself that I didn’t need to reach out to family and friends. I may as well have put signs up like some kind of new Disney Theme Park: ‘Pardon our Stardust – Auto-Cannibalism World coming soon!’ And of course once the barriers and hoarding come down there would be nothing there because that’s what can happen when you feel that you have nowhere to turn – you simply eat yourself whole and I was already very slowly picking myself apart.
There is a history of depression and mental health issues in my family that I didn’t know about until after my father died. A death in the family brings a wake of recollections and revelations about them that people would not normally discuss. Why? It is the saddest thing to learn more about the person you loved after they’ve gone than when they were alive. My father was the last of three family members to die over the course of 8 short months in 2012 and it was the same with all of them. I just wanted to turn back time and discuss all the new things I’d learned about them, warts and all. It didn’t help that I was living in Wales. All of my family were in England and I was not able to say goodbye or spend any last moments with these people in the weeks running up to their deaths.
I also discovered a dark legacy of injustice towards mental health in the UK when I learned of how my grandmother – my Dad’s mum – had once been sectioned by her own kids because she was suffering from post-natal depression. This bombshell which my father perpetrated on his own mother was softened only by the fact that I believed whole-heartedly that the stigma of depression was a thing of the past – it was the late fifties when my Nan was sectioned so mental care was supposed to be a bit anarchic, right?
But then I took a look around me, at the remnants of my own family: my brother was already being treated under the mental health act by this point – I use the word treatment advisedly because there were no pro-active efforts to identify what was wrong with him or advocate anything constructive. Appointments to see specialists were fragmented and inconsistent because he never saw the same person twice. His appointments did not elevate any sense of optimism or break down walls – it was more like a tour of drudgery where he had to repeat his history, his symptoms – never getting much beyond that before the next appointment two months later where a new face would ask him to explain why he’s there. He’s ok, he’s just never got better and he’s never re-integrated, not even into himself. Apparently that’s as much as we can hope for. My Aunt had once made an attempt on her life many years before – nobody in the family was to talk about it and she sought no help because, well, nobody could know that she had actually felt so miserable she wanted to erase herself from our lives. My aunt was left to work it out for herself. She still bears the scars but she has survived at least.
So when I began to drift into an emotional hinterland in 2013, where every day was handed over to autopilot, the last thing I wanted to do was share, not to my family, not to professionals. The drug that got me through it was denial. Denial is like a hardened enamel – it might seem impenetrable but when it cracks it can take what lies beneath with it. My marriage had its own issues and my denial helped me to cruise through it believing everything was ok; my grief at losing members of my family years before was not a tax worth paying as far as I was concerned so denial dulled the immediate effects of bereavement and delayed any further consideration of it. Denial helped me to side-step the warning signs of a massive depression while I could see that I was becoming an insular, lethargic and dysfunctional person. Denial was the small amount of breathing space inside the eye of the storm.
But I was on a downward spiral and it was my niece – no stranger to depression herself – who made me realise something needed to change. A sense of shame and the feeling that my future was less like a long road and more like a battered cul-de-sac hindered my rehabilitation. Even my thoughts were circular and destructive. The eye of the storm shrunk very quickly once the marriage ended and when the storm finally hit it hit big.
After my meltdown, I finally spoke to my sister, offering up what I thought were the roots of my depression – living so far away from family at a time when they needed me, the mistakes I had made in my marriage, the guilt I felt for the heart I had broken – she asked one question: why had I called their faith or loyalty in me into doubt? I couldn’t answer, not at first. I had side-lined the one resource I had to help me, justifying my actions based on the experiences of others. But I couldn’t do that. I missed enjoying life, I despaired at the direction I was going in. I needed me back. One by one, every family member, every friend listened, offered support, love, insight, constructive honesty. It was humbling and enlightening. I had to ask myself what kind of world did I think I lived in where I could believe these people would cast me off for suffering depression? I sought therapy in CBT, (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), because my depression was not simply linked to environmental issues like bereavement or loss of a relationship. It never is simple and that is what a lot of people don’t understand. I think it was the secret history of my family’s depressive tendencies that had equipped them to recognise it over the years and appreciate the complexities of it even if they were ill-equipped to help those who were struggling. Of course they were. They had struggled with their own crosswinds from 2012 and I had been blind to it. Ensnared by my own mental weather system.
I was lucky to have that support. Sadly, there are still people who are subjected to a passive-aggressive form of ridicule, both within and without the walls of family. I re-built myself and my family and friends were the scaffold that held it together while I did it. And that is what is so important – we need to do the work ourselves. We’re not incompetent, we’re not stupid, we’re not dangerous. We just need the space to work at it and with the lightest touch a guiding hand from anyone can work wonders while we do it. I’m still a work in progress but there is no hoarding covering it up, no Disney Horror Park lurking. Just me.
I have a colleague at work who is having anxiety attacks and has been on and off for years, it transpires. I’ve spoken to him at length, allowed him to have the space to share his experiences and put him in touch with a counsellor. The relief in his eyes was palpable. When I saw that relief I told him that that there were always people who could help, as long as he wanted it.
“That’s not why I’m so relieved”, he said. “I felt stupid and thought people at work would think less of me”. But times are changing, very slowly. Slow-moving plates can collide in the earth and create seismic waves that no one can ignore and it’s the same with the numerous mental health movements that exist in the UK now. Change is here and, (strangely you might think), it seems that corporations take mental health more seriously than some government health departments: no sooner had my director learned of my colleague’s conundrum than he contacted a programme for employee assistance – one of many which exist – and assured us all that whatever issues we had as individuals the door was open, we could talk, they would listen, they would help.
After all, he said, no man or woman is an island.