As part of Mental Health Awareness week, I’m publishing a series of blogs telling the story of someone. This could be someone who suffers or someone who’s trying to help others.
In this one, I talk to someone I’ve gotten to know online through a few music group pages. He’s a talented guy who’s situation was generated by the pressures of work, doing a job he liked.
This is the story of Chris.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Where to start…
I’m a graphic designer, musician and writer from Ipswich, Suffolk.
I’ve suffered with severe depression and anxiety for a number of years now. It’s not something I’ve had all my life, it grew from an extreme set of circumstances over an extended period of time that ultimately led me to a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.
So when did these signs start manifesting themselves?
I worked as a production manager for a company producing point of sale graphics for high street shops. The company had just started and I was one of the first recruited to make the business work. At first this was great, I felt valued and although the way we were working was extreme I was assured it was temporary and my efforts would be rewarded. No sooner had I begun working there they acquired a massive order, too big for them to handle but they took it on and the thirty plus hour shifts began, we worked until we physically couldn’t keep going then slept for six to eight hours and went straight back to work. After this initial order went out the door they kept coming in, no job was too big and so it went on. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was fired and if they weren’t fired they quit or wanted to do so, the staff turnaround was high, nobody was treated with any respect and we were bullied into carrying on in this fashion. I stuck it out for a year and a half before my breakdown but my symptoms began after less than six months.
At first I was just moody and withdrawn. My wife was already worried about me at this stage because of the sleep deprivation etc but she had dealt with her father struggling with depression in the past and she recognized a lot of the same behaviors in my that she’d seen in him. I refused to get any help because I honestly believed I could handle it, what could a doctor tell me? I had no choice in my mind; keep going and eventually everything will turn out fine.
Over the next year it only got worse, my behavior became more erratic and I began fantasizing about driving my car off the road on the way to work just so I wouldn’t have to endure another day in the office. Soon I spent my entire day thinking of ways to end my life, then that became normal. I began to think everybody woke up in the morning and wished they’d died in their sleep. More people began to notice the change in me, I became extremely irritable especially at work and I tried to cut back on my hours there, I felt as if I was missing my kids grow up because I rarely saw them, unfortunately this wasn’t possible and I resented my employers and my job more everyday.
A month before my breakdown I gave in to my wife’s wishes and went to see my GP, he seemed concerned and put me on Sertraline and I told my employers I could not cope anymore. They seemed to react positively to this and agreed to reduce my hours and take my responsibilities away to lessen the pressure I felt. The trouble was we never had enough staff and nobody else knew my job well enough so despite their promises things stayed the same.
My breakdown happened out of the blue, my boss came into my office and asked who had left a stack of papers on the desk. I told him I’d put them there to which he replied it was untidy and should be cleared away. As things were this was nothing, a throwaway statement that I should have been able to shrug off as a passing comment but it was the final straw for me. As he left the room I flipped a scalpel that I had in my hand over and pushed it into my wrist, I stood there for several minutes with scalpel hand shaking unable to take it away from my wrist until I broke down in tears in front of the staff. A friend I worked with helped me outside where I sat crying and shaking uncontrollably while the doctors were phoned and I was eventually taken away and I haven’t been able to get back to myself or return to work since.
So how were you in comparison to all this, before you started working there?
Pretty “normal” I think, to be perfectly honest it feels like another life, I think if I was able to meet the old me he wouldn’t recognize me at all. I was a lot more confident, I wanted to be liked like everyone does but if someone didn’t like me I didn’t worry about what they thought, now I worry what everyone thinks. I could communicate better, I didn’t shake or twitch when I became anxious, I was able to deal with life.
Unfortunately that’s not the case now, anything can set of an attack in an instant, it could be a documentary on tv, a gesture that I take the wrong way or even, as was the case a few weeks ago, an obsession with a black flannel my neighbor had on his washing line for too long. Tiny things seem like the end of the world and rational thought seems to go out the window.
There’s so much that’s changed but even with all the things I now struggle to do but I think some things have improved. If I had to find a positive in it all it would be I don’t miss any time with my children anymore, I get to be there whenever they need me and the time to watch them grow up is priceless.
How did you start putting things back together? Was there a main form of support that worked for you?
I’m still working on that, as you know recovery is a daily battle, when I first had my breakdown I thought I’d be back at work the next day, then I thought two weeks, now it’s two years and nobody can tell me whether I’ll ever recover.
The best support I’ve had through this has come from family, mostly my wife who had never given up on me no matter how hard things have gotten. It’s a major struggle for a partner to cope with their loved one in so much turmoil but she has stuck by me through everything and I’d be lost without her.
Other than that I have a psychologist at the moment that I see fortnightly who helps me to challenge the negative voice in my head that constantly tells me I should be dead and identify triggers and ways to combat these before the become an issue. Mindfulness has also been a big help and I try to incorporate that into daily life as much as I can.
Once a week I attend a support group in which myself and a number of similarly afflicted people tend an allotment. This I find helpful to see other people with these problems and be able to talk about them and help each other through.
Cool. Do you find doing your graphic design work something that you find therapeutic?
Yes that, music, writing, anything creative helps. I’ve always been a very creative person and I like to feel I’ve achieved something with my day. It’s hard to work up the motivation to even get out of bed in the morning but I’ve always been a busy person and I want to get better and get on with life so I see these things as tools to accomplish that.
I do everything I can that I’ve been told will help with my recovery. I exercise, I try and eat right and I help people I feel can benefit from the things I know how to do. Even though I enjoy these activities sometimes I pressure myself too much to do them when I don’t feel up to it and that itself becomes a problem so occasionally I have to really try and just let myself do nothing and know that’s ok as well.
I love my cats too and sometimes pet therapy is the only thing that brings me back to Earth.
I know your family are really important to you. How are they with you? I take it they’re really supportive?
Yeah they’re great. My wife finds it difficult obviously because she worries about me whenever I leave the house incase I lose my cool and run off or worse. She also has the added responsibility of being the main bread winner in the house now I’m unable to cope with a day job.
Its been a difficult transition for us both into new roles and I am pretty hard on myself for not being able to provide financially in the way I used to, that’s something I’m still struggling with. It sounds stupid to feel guilty for being ill and yet I can’t help but blame myself for my situation. Anyway she continues to support me and I’m grateful that she’s done so because it is a very difficult set of circumstances for a partner to deal with and I certainly wouldn’t have blamed her if she hadn’t wanted to be around me.
My parents have also been a real help during this whole thing. I was worried about telling them because I didn’t know how they would react but they were very concerned and supportive. They knew how I’d been forced to work and they’d been worried for a long time so I think there was some relief to know I was getting help as well. They’ve been there for me a few times over the past few years when I’ve really needed someone and knowing I have them to fall back on is a big help in putting my mind at rest.
I know you’ve had a couple of ‘wobbles’ as we all do. How do you try to deal with them as they rear their ugly heads?
Unfortunately my moods can change in a heartbeat so I don’t really have any time to prepare myself for an attack and because of that these can be very scary times for me because everything the negative voice in my head is whispering to me suddenly becomes fact and I honestly feel like the best thing to do is the worst thing.
Luckily I have my daughters in my life because without them I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today. I hold on to my love for them and the knowledge that although what my mind is telling me is the best thing to do is end my life doing so would never be the best thing for my children who would be left without their father. In those moments as much as I want to die I also don’t want to inflict that pain on them or anyone else in my life. I’ve always prided myself on being a good father but a good father has to be there for his children, that is my anchor.
That’s pretty moving mate, and heartfelt. Do you find people react to you differently once they learn about your anxiety and depression?
I think I expect them to more than they actually do. I’m quite open about it these days and I’m happy to discuss it with anyone who would like to know more. I’m yet to have a really negative reaction to it, at least nobody who’s told me to my face.
Some people over compensate and try and treat me like I’m made of glass but I know that’s out of love so I don’t take it personally. Generally I think most people just want to help and it’s important to admit that from time to time it’s needed. Nobody should feel like they have to manage on their own.
The world can be a pretty shitty place and that’s one of the reasons this is such a good group to be involved with because we all know the score here, there’s no judgments just a great bunch of people who are helping each other though because they care and understand.
Is there anything you’d say to anyone who’s dealing with mental health issues?
I think even in this day and age there’s a lot of stigma around mental health but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The best thing you can do is get it out in the open and talk about it, people can surprise you and nobody has to suffer in silence.
Any final words for everyone Chris? The floor is yours…
Holy shit ok. I think just a thank you to everyone who’s been there for me and offered a word of comfort or encouragement to carry on the fight. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make all the difference so if you know somebody who is going through a tough time and you’re not sure how to help just let them know you’re there, you love them and you’re not going anywhere no matter what.
Thank you Chris.