I was diagnosed last February with depression and anxiety. That gradual process of deterioration, the erosion of my personality, of the essential me, had started 6 months earlier. Days when I’d retreat into myself and not communicate with my friends and colleagues. It was just me being moody. Then the panic attacks started. I was becoming a stranger to myself. I didn’t understand myself. I couldn’t communicate my fears to others. I was scared. It was in a moment of clarity when I’d started to look for another job – irrationally fearing the sack – that I decided to see the GP.
I knew my life would never be the same
The following months were desperate. Initially, I tortured myself with feelings of loneliness, isolation, bewilderment, hurt, shame and pain. Most of that time was a blur. I recall going into work constantly expecting the sack because of (how I perceived) my behaviour. The panic attacks continued but were now mixing with the exotic cocktail that’s agoraphobia. Talking with those people who were closest to me, most important to me, was torture. Obsessed with the idea that I was a disappointment, I’d retreat into a childlike state where I could only give monosyllable answers. I couldn’t look at my wife, friends and colleagues. I’d want to be on my own, which realised the worst fears of my isolation.
It all sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? Well, yes, it took me to the ultimate extreme of desperation. My life will never be the same. I’ve learnt that I’m a depressive and that I’ve had 4–5 previous attacks that affected my health and career but weren’t diagnosed. The thing is that I’ve survived the crucible of my illness. I am getting stronger. I now have the tools and techniques to help me live.
People like my manager were key to my recovery
How did I start to recover? I read a lot about mental health realising that many of my experiences and feelings were echoed by others. My wife was strong, tolerant and gave me time and space. My GP was honest, sympathetic and interested. The CBT helped and the Occupational Health Service at work helped alleviate the pressure that was building in my mind. They did this by supporting my manager, who was terrific. She never gave up, was patient and continually tried to accommodate how I was feeling.
I was asked at work this year to talk about my mental health experiences to senior management and line managers. I’d learnt from talking with many people that the experience of mental health was widespread but wasn’t openly discussed. I wanted to help people by banishing the stigma. I wanted people to know that they weren’t alone. That there was help out there. That they could help other people. That people who were mentally ill could continue to have productive, rewarding careers. I wanted to give something back to my employer who had given me so much help.
Speaking out to colleagues can help end suffering
A colleague and I did 4 presentations called ‘Negative Thoughts, Positive Results’. We talked for 90 minutes to a total of 100 people without using any presentation aids. We just stood there comparing and contrasting what we had and were still living through. Baring the darkness of your soul is hard. Doing it in front of some people that you know is frightening. We talked about the stark reality of living with our illnesses. The impact on family, friends and colleagues. How we started to climb out of the abyss, back to life. We answered questions at the end on any aspect our experiences and the illness.
The response has been brilliant. People have come forward after suffering in silence. Others have spoken about how they didn’t appreciate the realities of living with mental illness. They are now taking a more considered approach to helping people who are struggling. A mental health group is being setup and will build upon the success of the presentations. One comment on the feedback forms was, “This was the best training course that I’ve attended.”
Speaking openly about mental health is hard but it’s the most effective way to banish the stigma. By speaking we can dilute those feelings of shame and disappointment that blight every day. Speaking helps us realise that we are not alone and that we can keep living. Please have the courage and the trust to tell people how you’re feeling. There are more people than you will ever know who are ready and willing to give their support.
Clive runs a self-help group, 'The Black Dog Bakery'. You can reach him on Twitter @blackdogbakery_