I have struggled with mental health most of my adult life. There, I said it. I am a human being, one who has worked all of my life, gained two degrees, has lots of friends, and a good family. Looking in from the outside, I appear to be well-rounded, a tad eccentric, enthusiastic, caring, with a good sense of humour, and relatively intelligent. I work in academia. I teach, train, write, blog, and give various presentations around the UK. Oh, and I suffer from panic disorder, anxiety, and depression.
I am one of many. Yet, I spent a long time feeling alone, thinking something was seriously wrong with me, mentally and physically. I thought that I was failing, letting myself and others down, and that I would at any moment be found out. But this never happened, and so, like many other sufferers, I battle on regardless, hoping that maybe, just maybe, things will sort themselves out.
In all that time, as far as I can remember, I never took a day off sick directly due to my condition. Sometimes I hunkered down at home and worked there instead, and I was lucky to be able to do so. Sitting at my desk, I would try and get on as best as I could, with my black dog resting his head on my lap. I wanted normality, whatever that was. What I didn’t want was the feeling of defeat, or colleagues seeing me as a failure.
Mental health is making more and more appearances in the news and in national media as a topic for discussion, and we’re increasingly seeing it debated in academia. Be it documentaries about the tragic and growing problem of suicide among young males, or how meditation can be used as an intervention in the lives of violent criminals. We have come a long way from the days when pretty much everyone would suffer in silence, that stiff upper lip quivering inside a toilet cubicle before going out to face the world.
That said, it feels like we still have much distance to cover. We have a misconception that people with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, are incapable of undertaking high-quality work. The truth is, as with other conditions, you are still able to perform many daily tasks. People suffering with mental health conditions can carry out their their work, but there are times it can feel hard, almost impossible. Employing a variety of coping skills does help, as does having someone there to support you when times get really tough.
My mother, too, suffered from mental health issues. So much so, that she was unable to look after me when I was a baby, and consequently I was given to the lady across the road. Back in the 1960s, adoption was that simple. The woman who adopted me, however, also had mental health problems in the form of severe depression and anxiety. So throughout my childhood and early-adult life, I saw people very close to me suffering in a way I didn’t truly understand. All I knew was they needed a concoction of medications to help them deal with their ‘bad nerves’. I often felt useless, was probably unsympathetic and, certainly as a teenager, just self-interested.
Fast forward a few years, and suddenly things started to happen in my own life, things I could not begin to fathom. First I started to suffer from long periods of headaches; they would last for days, weeks, months. I was studying at the time to get the A Levels to go to university, and my history teacher told me it was stress. We all get stressed, right? The butterflies in our stomach, the sickly feeling you get when you have to do something you don’t like, that inability to control your annoyance or frustration.
By the time I went to university I was suffering further, long periods of severe sickness. Not illness, but really bad nausea attributed to a stomach infection. It went on: light-headedness, palpitations, tingling, shallow breathing, bad sleep, IBS, more headaches and more nausea. This was all exacerbated by ,my working full-time hours across three part-time jobs to help me afford being a student. By the start of the millennium I had self-diagnosed with everything from the most common cancers to the rarest of African diseases. In 1998, I almost quit university and would have done if it hadn’t been for three incredibly supportive journalism lecturers who helped me get through. It was a lesson learned, that sometimes you need the understanding and compassion of others when your own mental strength is not enough.
Nevertheless, there were defeats. I quit a part-time job and gave up a long-standing, paid hobby as a DJ at prestigious specialist nights. At one point I disappeared to Cornwall to stay with an old friend, and with my remaining money tried to address what my body and mind was going through.
All this time, I knew I could not tell people. I was a working-class lad from a council estate in a mining town, so that ruled out talking about feelings. I started to see that what I was going through was what I had witnessed in my mum: agoraphobia, fear, nausea, social anxiety. To some extent, I later came to understand that I had developed a learned behaviour. I realised that I was just going through what so many people go through, and through a combination of stigma, ignorance, and fear, I suffered in isolation. Like so many other conditions that come with a stigma, such as alcoholism, this suffering in silence was never going to cure me.
Thankfully, one glimmer of hope came as a result of a new direction in life. I had returned to education after a decade in the wilderness, and developed a thirst for learning. I was at university and would later go on to return to my institution after a stint as a journalist. This re-framing of my mind helped me understand some of things I was going through. I discovered yoga, meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, and rediscovered my love of music. I also learned how to search for credible health information, and discover self-help groups and websites that offered practical advice. I started to comprehend that some of the things happening in my body were a result of my anxiety and depression. That my heart skipping a beat was not a heart attack, and my headaches not tumours.
I understood there were battles I could win, and others that required me to retreat and consolidate. Even up until a few years ago I was convinced I was the only person going through this internal drama. After joining my university I suffered continual panic attacks, periods of shallow breathing, light-headedness and other horrible symptoms. Even so, I got my head down and tried to fight through it. At times, it was exhausting.
Then there is the double-edged sword of my personality to take into account. I’m mostly an optimistic, light-hearted, and mischievous kind of a person. My highs are very high, but as a consequence the lows are abysmal. For those who know me and don’t know what I’ve been through over the past 20 years, it’s probably surprising to find out that I have had problems with suicidal thoughts, panic attacks and depression. Don’t worry, I am no danger to anyone else, and I’m not planning to throw myself off a bridge at any point soon. I may, at some point in the past, have considered it, but many of us have at some point given thought to ending it all. The main thing is that I am still here and my plan is to live forever. So far, so good.
I’m certain some would not believe me. There have been many times when I have had to put on a brave face, smile, joke, and be happy. It’s what people expect of me. I do not need special attention or counselling from you, or for you to walk on eggshells around me. I just need people to realise it can happen to anyone.
The purpose of this piece is to explain to others that it is OK to feel like you do, that you are not an exception, that asking for help or taking a break is not a sign of weakness. I learned the hard way that to get through these things alone, to wait for the storm to clear, isn’t always the best plan of action. To ask for help is not a sign that you are incapable of doing your job, being a parent, or a partner. By seeking out help, professional or through friends and family, you can change things for the better. We are not just talking about the nervous, shy, and – on the surface – dour members of the academic community, but also those like myself who appear to be functioning quite well.
Often those in the mire don’t spot their own problem whilst being in the midst of it because they are invariably too busy trying to carry on their working and personal lives, or because they just don’t spot the signs. Getting back a sense of wellbeing can wait till tomorrow when there’s a report to finish. As the American poet Theodore Roethke once said; “A mind too busy is no mind at all”. The last thing an academic needs is a cluttered, rattled, and unsettled mind. Yet, so many have them. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get by just day-to-day, rather than getting to the root cause, invest time in recovery, and seek help and support. Instead, we run the risk of burning out bright minds by kindling the flames of mental health stigma ourselves. By staying silent, or by not acknowledging our issues.
I am certain that some people who will read this will contact me and refer to how ‘brave’ I was to write it. Brave in what way? In the sense that it could be seen as risking my career? That it could affect how some see me? That they may feel uncomfortable, or not know what to say? Things have not changed because I have written this. I am still the same person. I still like a good joke, but I’m also likely to have days when I want to be left alone – I’ve always had days like that. I will continue to do my job as well as I have done before. I will continue to want to help people. I’ve come a long way in the last twenty years. The black dog might pop in from time to time, but I’ve learned how to live with him better, and I’m certainly less likely to pick up his muck these days.
One valuable piece of advice I learned via a course of CBT a few years ago was to treat your depression and anxiety as if it was a monster trying to play tug of war with you across a ravine. I was asked what was the best way to beat the monster, to which I replied: “Pull it into the ravine.” “No,” said the practitioner. “Let go of the rope”. So that’s what I try to do, and that’s the stage I’ve got to.
Not everyone is there yet, and perhaps many reading this are at the start of their journey. They may be new to academia, or even a professor. Mental illness can strike anyone; it’s not a fussy eater. So for those of you willing to push others till they crack: remember that one day it could be you peering into that ravine, looking across to see a leering, snarling monster staring back at you.
I decided about six months ago to publicly come out and talk about this to my friends on Facebook. I was inspired by reading Matt Haig’s brilliant book Reasons to Stay Alive, and by stories from the likes of ex-England cricketer Marcus Trescothick, and by comedians Ruby Wax, and Lee Evans, to name but a few. I learned many things, and this is why I decided to write this post for others who are going through what I am. It was also backed by innocent and well-meant comments from friends who would tell me that I should stop worrying so much. As harmless as that is, it is like telling someone to stop being so caring, loving, honest, and happy. It does not work that way. No one goes out into the world thinking: ‘today I am going to feel like crap and worry about every little thing’.
After coming out about my fight with anxiety and depression to my friends, some of whom I’ve known for almost 30 years, many were saddened, shocked, and stunned. Some felt that they could now open up about their own demons. No less than seven of them told me publicly or via private channels about their own battles with suicidal thoughts. Part of doing what I did was to help others feel like they were not alone and that there was help.
I wasn’t working in academia when it all started, and academia did not make it worse, but keeping it locked away didn’t help either. Naturally, there are those who will feel fearful of opening up within their institution, worried that it may affect their employment and how peers treat them. There are pathways you can pursue in private, without laying bare the details of your mental health to your colleagues or managers. Academia is all about knowledge, problem solving, and working together. Put those three things together, and we can help others to manage and overcome mental illness.
I am not the person I was in 1996. No one is. I will never truly be free of anxiety. I will probably continue to have phobias that came along with the illness. I will occasionally feel ill and nervous in the company of small groups of people but calm in front of 200. I’ve learned to spot the signs in others and can sometimes see behaviour in colleagues that was not unlike the signs I showed at the height of my illness. We live in stressful times, but we do have tactics we can apply, such as meditation, turning our phones off, not watching the news, mindful pursuits, yoga, and educating ourselves about our ills. Books like Haig’s help.
In 20 years I have never thrown up because of anxiety, but spent a 1000 days thinking I would do. I’m lucky and cursed that I work in health research. I’ve learned how to source quality health information rather than read patchy forums and Yahoo Answers. While forums are great for support, they are much less so for diagnosis. There is a whole support network out there, and if one thing really helps it is the knowledge you are not going through this alone. It might feel like it, but you are not. The more I’ve opened up, the more I have found others who have had burnout, depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.
The most important things I’ve learned over the last two decades are this. One, try always to lead a normal life and savour the good times without feeling additionally bad when you cannot. Two, never push yourself too hard, being your own critic does not help, being your own motivator does. Three, there are times you have to concede defeat, stay home, hide, and wait for the storm to clear. It will. In time.
I don’t expect comments or likes. All I want is for people to read this sincere piece of writing and understand what those around them might be going through. I still have good, bad, and very bad days, but I do know that good sleep, exercise, good light, fresh air, and mindfulness help me. For others, it might be medication and retiring from public life for a while. I also didn’t write this for a flurry of support and consolation. I am grateful that my sense of humour is with me still, and that I can look back with some kind of wry smile, knowing I’ve still got demons to face, but at least I have better coping strategies to deal with them, something I wish I’d learned much earlier.