You may notice a slight change on the blog with this post. It’s time for me to open up. I’ve been really struggling with my mental health for the last year or so. Depression. Anxiety. Perfectionism. Anger. I’ve been inspired by some of the extremely honest content that Dallas Hartwig has written on his blog and also by my friend the Grumpy Young Bloke to talk about it in some posts on here.
I hadn’t been feeling good for a while last year. I felt that the stresses of life were often too much and constantly under time pressure. How could I fit in work, caring for my son, sleep (never enough of that with a baby/toddler!), staying fit, cooking healthily, household chores, keeping up with my reading, blogging etc? There just aren’t enough hours in the day but I couldn’t accept that any of these things would be ok to let slip. I had lost the enjoyment in things that should be giving me pleasure, viewing them simply as another task that had to be crammed in to the day. I was totally unable to relax, worrying constantly about time, money and things like maintaining our house. I would react angrily if anything interrupted my already full daily schedule. I certainly wasn’t a fun person to be around, constantly nagging and talking down to my wife. Small, realistically irrelevant things would provoke a verbal overreaction and a chain of angry, negative thoughts.
I didn’t want to feel and act like this but it was only when my wife gave me a serious wake up that I finally took some action. She told me that I needed to get some help because my outlook and behaviour was putting our relationship in jeopardy. My initial response was to feel reluctant and scared. Being a man I didn’t feel that talking to a stranger (or indeed anybody) could help. I was of the attitude that “It’s inside my mind, it’s my problem”. I didn’t want to consider myself a weirdo with mental “issues”. But she was persuasive and I certainly didn’t like the alternative of alienating my family with my behaviour.
So I went to the doctor and told her how I was feeling; that I was depressed and often snappy and angry with my loved ones. She referred me immediately to the local “healthy minds” clinic. I was booked in for a face to face consultation which I was apprehensive about beforehand. It was frightening to have to open up the workings of your inner mind to a stranger and be totally honest. I thought I’d be in a waiting room full of lunatics. But it wasn’t as bad as I feared (as a rule, things rarely are). Everybody else in the waiting room looked totally normal. The consultant was very understanding as we discussed my situation. We talked about my background and I was asked to fill in some questionnaires. Her opinion was that I was suffering with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) (which a bit of further reading has revealed is often closely linked with and has similar effects as depression). Essentially whereas most people worry sometimes about things which are generally valid concerns, people suffering with GAD are in a constant state of stress and worry about concerns which are both valid and not. It’s actually quite common. She explained that often it is a learned behaviour. That made sense. My Dad was and is an enormous worrier. I can see some of his behaviours in my own. I want to point out that I don’t blame my Dad for this, I consider myself lucky to have had a loving and caring upbringing in a “nuclear” family but it has no doubt had an effect on me. As I considered more I recognised that I’ve had GAD and depressive traits and behaviours for longer than I can remember but things just hadn’t reached such destructive level previously.
The outcome of this session was a recommendation that I undertake a programme of on-line Congnitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in conjunction with telephone sessions with a psychiatrist. I worked through the online modules over about 10 weeks and there was definitely a lot of useful stuff in the material which I still refer back to. But there’s no instant ‘cure’ and especially with CBT we need to practice and hone the techniques over time. So I felt that it helped for a while but it certainly hadn’t solved everything. I don’t know if I ever will.
Lately I’ve felt like I’ve been struggling more again so after some more persuasion from my wife and inspired by the grumpy young bloke I mentioned earlier, I contacted my employer’s confidential assistance program to ask to be provided with some face-to-face counselling. After another helpful telephone consultation they’ve referred me to a CBT therapist who I’ve seen once so far. Again I felt apprehensive and embarrassed about being face-to-face talking about my deepest problems, insecurities and fears. But again I needn’t have been. The therapist has recommended me some different CBT techniques and asked me to go away and work on them before our next session. I’m feeling a little guilty because I haven’t stuck to them as well as I should so far but I am working on it.
So as Dallas says in his post that I linked to earlier, revealing our vulnerability enables us to become stronger. By acknowledging that I’m struggling and seeking some help I’ve gained knowledge of my problems and I’m working towards managing them better. I have a much greater understanding and awareness of mental health and more empathy and insight into the experience of others who are struggling or who may be struggling. I’ve been able to talk about it with my wife and some friends. They’ve been massively supportive to the point that I feel humbled. Also turns out a lot more people than I realised have experienced or are experiencing similar situations. My manager at work has been really helpful too.
It’s also clear that it’s not all-consuming. There are still lots of times when I feel great. My son brings me overwhelming pleasure many times a day. There’s nothing that generates a genuine, uncontrolled belly laugh like a toddler doing something ridiculously cute or unexpected, often with hilarious consequence. My wife and I are getting a little more ‘us’ time now that our son is a little older. I get a kick out of riding my bike which I get to do every day going to work. I’m deliberately rekindling my love of lifting heavy things and experimenting with bodyweight strength training by consciously viewing sessions as down-time and fun rather than a chore to get through. I’ve fulfilled an ambition of becoming a success story on Mark’s Daily Apple. Life is still there to be lived. A struggle with mental health is part of my life but it doesn’t define it. I don’t think that most people who I haven’t told would have any idea that I’ve been experiencing this.
So there you have it. I’m vulnerable and I’m a long way from perfect. I write about improving our lifestyle but I’m in the trenches working with everybody else, I’m not on a plateau preaching from a position of power. And I believe that talking about this makes my message stronger.