A few months ago, I couldn’t leave the house. Work was busy which was great, so with it being the summer holidays, my wife went off with our children to spend a few days with their grandparents. A nice holiday for them and a few days for me without distraction to concentrate on work. Made total sense. I was going to be on my own for 4 days and nights and in my head had great plans to be super-productive and maximise this time…both with work and getting some exercise and maybe some fresh air playing a bit of golf with the nights still being light.
In reality, this never happened, and I didn’t leave the house once.
I have suffered from depression before but this was the first time I was having panic attacks when trying to leave the house. It really scared me. I ended up rearranging meetings and basically did nothing. I couldn’t sleep so sat up late and then the next day I would have no motivation to do anything. What really frightened me was on the 3rd day, when I tried giving myself a stern talking to. By this point, the denial had gone and I knew I was suffering a pretty serious episode of depression.
So, I aimed my sights low to try get myself back on track. I decided I was going to go to the local pay as you play golf course which is less than 5 minutes’ drive away, and play 9 holes. It’s a course I have played a lot, which is always quiet, and somewhere I enjoy hitting a few golf balls on my own. I was planning to do something which I enjoyed doing. Getting the motivation to get ready was a struggle but by lunchtime I was ready. My golf clubs were already in my car, I was dressed and ready to play golf, I had my wallet, keys, phone etc, and all I had to do was open the front door. Our car is in the driveway at the front door so I don’t even have to walk across the street or anything.
I stood facing the front door and every time I went to turn the handle I could feel my heart racing, chest tightening and my breathing becoming more difficult. I physically could not do it. I know that to people who have never suffered from mental health illness, this must sound bizarre. It was early afternoon so I convinced myself I would try again in about an hours’ time, which I did with the same result. I did this 4 or 5 times throughout the day and every time was the same, so I eventually gave up.
For someone who is often active, confident and outgoing, when this happens, it is very scary. Its hard to explain. The crippling feeling of not physically being able to leave the house, even just to go for a walk, or grab a pint of milk from the shop is very real. Thankfully a couple of days later I found the courage to contact my wife, who is an amazing support, and she came home and the recovery process began.
Looking back, this period of depression had been bubbling under the surface for at least a few weeks but I hid it. I was in denial and didn’t talk to anyone about it. But, if you don’t deal with it, where is it going to go? Nowhere is the answer, until it manifests itself as a more serious episode. I should have spoken to someone, my wife, sooner in this case and it could have saved a lot of pain.
Every day can be a challenge, but I am now back to feeling good and starting to do things I know which help maintain good mental health. I had neglected that earlier this year, which contributed to what happened. Thankfully, as I now understand my illness better, I was able to get back on track pretty quickly.
This is not the first time I have suffered from poor mental health. My depression is something which has likely been part of me my whole life. I am not a scientist or a medical professional but I have been on this road a long time and during that time have learnt so much about myself and mental health. There is no one reason for people to become depressed. For me, it is partly biological and therefore part of my genetic make-up, but is also as a result of some tough challenges in my life, in particular in my childhood and teen years. These moments impacted my development and ultimately, I am wired a little differently. However, that is my personal situation, and up until recently I felt guilty about feeling this way and felt a need to justify why I suffered from depression, because of things which had happened in my life. But, there doesn't need to be justification, someone who seemingly has the perfect life can have depression - as it is an illness, a medical condition.
I was first 'officially' diagnosed with depression when I was 20 years old, after my mum passed away. Of course, anyone suffering a bereavement will become very low and suffer greatly, but through counselling at this time, I began to realise it was more than just grief and that I had a mental illness.
Over the last 17 years I have had more small occurrences than I can remember and two big occurrences where I effectively shut down completely. In truth, it is part of me most days but is something that 95% of the time I have learnt to manage and control, but sometimes not. Depression is something I will live with my entire life, I will never completely cure it, but the really positive thing is that like physical illness, mental illness can be treated and managed.
Until last year, other than my wife, none of my family or friends knew I have this illness. A few years ago, I would not be writing this as I felt ashamed. It has taken me 17 years to accept and acknowledge my illness, largely through the help of an amazing therapist I first saw back in 2014. This was an incredibly difficult period as, with my therapist, we basically lifted the lid on everything in my life and a lot came spilling out. It was tough to deal with, but through dealing with repressed issues and talking about them, it has helped me more than I can put in to words. I cannot stress enough the importance of talking to someone and seeking professional help. My therapist has been life-changing for me.
Now I have accepted my illness, I wanted to share my story for a few reasons:
For me - this is a huge milestone in my journey. Having an illness like this as a secret can be exhausting in itself. Over the years I have learnt that by embracing who I am, that actually the same part of me which makes me depressed, is the same part of me that gives me compassion, desire, determination, passion and fight to succeed. My therapist talks about making friends with your mental health condition, as it is part of you and also what makes you great.
To remove the stigma of mental health illness - it is pleasing to see some of the positive actions some companies and the media are doing but there is still so much more that can be done. My own experiences are that the attitudes and actions in relation to mental health is inconsistent, and therefore different colleagues will have different experiences of how they are treated in the workplace. The culture across all teams and levels of the hierarchy needs to be consistently non-judgemental and supportive. Mental illness is the same as any other illness, like diabetes or arthritis. The brain is the largest organ inside the human body, so a condition of this organ is as likely and as valid as an illness of other organs, such as the heart or lungs. Often people have a predisposition to an illness like depression, in the same way people have a gene which makes them more vulnerable to diabetes, for example. That is true in my case, I have a vulnerability and predisposed condition - I don't 'choose' to be depressed, but in fact have an underlying illness which I live with daily and sometimes manifests in to full depression. It is an indiscriminate illness, it can happen to anyone. And, it doesn't have to define you or limit you - you can still be successful in life.
To help others suffering in silence - I have suffered in silence for many years of my life, and felt ashamed and guilty of feeling depressed. It has taken me 17 years to accept it, and learn to live with it through a variety of things, most importantly talking to someone. Depression can be treated, and opening up and talking about it can be a huge help - whether that is a close friend, a medical professional or maybe even a stranger who you connect with.
To support workplace wellbeing and senior leaders and line managers in supporting colleagues - there is no one size fits all approach to this but the best advice I can give is to listen and not judge. Do not be dismissive. As a line manager, you do not need to be an expert in mental health, you just need to be able to listen, show compassion and most importantly take the colleague seriously and understand that they need support. That builds trust, which then allows practical guidance to be offered in terms of seeking professional help, work life balance, agile working, ensuring leaving desk at lunch and so on.
Please be aware, that someone seeking help for a mental health illness, is not being a victim. Quite the opposite is often the case. Until recently I never spoke about things or opened up, I never once thought or said I am ill because this happened or that happened in my life. Actually, by not talking and repressing my feelings is what brings my depression, as an illness, to life. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of finding someone to talk to if you feel mentally unwell. Over the years as a manager, I have had several people confide in me with their own mental health challenges, and in fact, with support and understanding, these guys have often been some of the best performers. Not only can colleagues with mental health illness contribute, they can excel.
If you can relate to any of this, then I hope in some small way this has helped. Please do not be afraid to speak to me about this, whether it's a quick chat over a coffee or whether you are suffering in silence, and want to chat confidentially - I will happily make time to listen.
Over the coming months and years, I hope to keep sharing more and tell more of my personal story. Thanks for reading.
Take care for now, and wishing you good mental health.