June 12, 2014

I have always suffered with “nerves” as they used to call it in a less enlightened times.  The mere thought of going to school would see me dissolve into a flood of tears. Supposedly enjoyable events and situations, like playing football and cricket which are hard wired into the young male brain, would be akin to trial by ordeal. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to play football and cricket, but mainly in the street with kids much younger than me, where there was no pressure or blame if you were not having a good game.

Schoolwork was another issue. Giving speeches and reading aloud in class were a source of terror, so much so, that I would be physically sick at the thought of having to stand up and talk or read aloud. I felt ashamed, at my cowardice and did not know how to control it. I simply pretended that everything was ok, which it was not. But hey! It was the 70’s after all, and we were light years away from understanding mental health problems.

Anxiety was looked upon as having a lack of moral fibre

In 1979, the problem became so acute, that after a horrific panic/anxiety attack during my mid year exams when I was 17, in which I simply froze rigid with fear during a history paper, I decided that I could not face going back into the exam hall to sit my finals. Not wanting to appear weak, and not knowing who to talk to or who to turn to, I took some pills. Lying in bed panic stricken, I decided to confess my desperate deed to my parents. This resulted in an overnight stay in hospital. I was referred to the school psychologist, which was a total waste of time. I felt that I could not talk to anyone, for several reasons. Firstly, in South Africa, men were supposed to be men. Having feelings, let alone talking about them, just never happened - unless they were connected to cars, girls or rugby. Secondly, anxiety was looked upon as having a lack of moral fibre, a sign of weakness, a blight that should be swept away out of sight.

I have used all my energies keeping up the pretence that I was OK

Fast forward to 2014, surprisingly, nothing has changed much for me. I have still battled on through all of my working life with depression and anxiety, pretending that everything is ok, and that I am normal. I have been signed off work on three separate occasions totalling almost twelve months with anxiety and depression, and on each occasion, friends and colleagues have been the last to know. I have used all my powers and energies keeping up the pretence that I was OK, when all the time I would be crying out inside. I have felt ashamed, weak and worthless that I have been saddled with these mental health illnesses. At times I think I would happily trade my depression and anxiety for cancer. At least that way I could talk openly about it, nay shout it from the roof tops, without the fear of stigma from friends and work colleagues.

I had the week from hell where everything went wrong

The most recent occasion when I had to take time away from work, was after deciding to join a fast paced section which dealt with the public. I soon discovered that I was totally out of my depth. I was struggling to keep pace in the fast environment where thinking on your feet was a pre-requisite. After several weeks of trying to cope and trying to keep my anxiety in check, I had the week from hell where everything went wrong. As per usual, I had maintained the great pretence that I was coping, and as far as everybody else knew, I was in control and ok. I was signed off work for seven weeks after which I asked to rejoin my old section. Upon my return to work, some colleagues were very supportive, but my former colleagues from the other section treated me with either total indifference or contempt, as if some great act of treason had been committed. I decided to keep my illness to myself and just carried on pretending as per usual. After all, who wants to hear from a “loser” about his mental health problems, when everyone else has their own lives.

I still have reservations about being totally open but I want people to see me for the person I am

For me there has been no eureka moment, no liberation of the soul. The forces of darkness and despair have not been repelled and vanquished. I have simply carried on as normal, pretending to friends, and colleagues that everything is alright. I have not found the courage to come out about my mental health problems, because of prejudice and stigma, and since I have subsequently been made redundant at Christmas time, I have found looking for work and a new direction, a challenge in itself. I still have reservations about being totally open and honest with some people about my condition, afraid of their reaction and quite possibly their awkward recoil. But I have decided to try rightly or wrongly to stop pretending anymore, and to be up front with regards to my mental health problems. I am working on the basis that whichever potential employer sees me for the person I am and not the illness, will be the right fit for me. Time to start living, and to stop pretending.

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