I will never take the NHS for granted. It’s a wonderful privilege, and I’ll always appreciate the incredible work our doctors and nurses do. But, if I hadn’t had the luxury of private health care through my workplace when I hit an all-time low with mental illness, then I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be here to tell my tale today; I’d be six feet under. I don’t think that doctors handing out antidepressants to me like Smarties was the answer.
I suffered from my first bout of depression when I was 16 years old. That was 1998 when mental health issues weren’t recognised as they are today. I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was that I didn’t want to live anymore. I wasn’t even familiar with the condition ‘depression and anxiety’, let alone tying it in with mental illness.
For a 16-year-old in the 90s, mental illness meant people like Fred and Rose West or the strange man with the brown flares and big smelly beard who talked to the red letterbox on the corner of our street. I suddenly found myself planning suicide, and I didn’t know why.
How it all began
I lay the blame for my first episode of depression on the medication I was taking at the time: Roaccutane for the treatment of acne. I had a face like a dropped pepperoni pizza with metal train tracks on my top and bottom teeth – no wonder it took many years to gain any self-confidence or even look at a girl. The drug is renowned for severe side effects, including depression – look up ‘Roaccutane suicide’ and it opens up a whole can of worms.
Whether taking this medication in my teens lead to my depression years later is still unknown. Maybe the side effects lasted for years after I stopped taking the drug; maybe that experience paved the way for how I would feel during my adult years. Perhaps I was just always destined for mental illness – acne drugs or no acne drugs.
My working life and what I really wanted to do
As I left sixth form college to embark on working life in London at the age of 18, my mood had lifted and I felt much better, but only for a year or so when working was a novelty. The novelty soon wore off. I suffered from regular bouts of extremely low mood throughout my twenties, but just about managed to keep control of things. I was always a simmering pan waiting to boil over.
Shortly after my 30th birthday, I lost that control. My whole world collapsed, and I was ready to end my existence within that world. I was planning suicide again. Whenever I saw a kitchen knife I imagined taking it to my jugular, whenever I saw a train I imagined jumping in front of it, whenever I saw a belt I imagined hanging myself with it.
The thought of what it would do to my parents was the only thing that stopped me. It was frustrating because I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t for the sake of my mum and dad. It would have destroyed my mum for the rest of her life. I could not do that to her, no matter how bad I felt.
If the truth is told, I spent all of my twenties in jobs that I hated. I worked in financial institutions in London doing glorified data input. For 13 years I found each working minute to be mind-numbing and soul-destroying. Every day consisted of the same dull and repetitive tasks. I wasn’t interested in finance, trading, investments, stocks, and bonds.
I was on bundles of money but still unhappy. I wanted to do something creative, I wanted to write, and not having that outlet was killing me inside. I took a huge pay cut to try a different career. I couldn’t possibly do a job that I despised until I was 65, no matter how good the money was.
A relationship breakup and surgery on my wrist within the space of a few days seemed to initiate a complete breakdown that had been festering for the best part of 14 years. I can only describe my head at the time as a tumble drier of twisted rusty metal, all intertwined, going round and round and round. It’s called rumination: the same thoughts over and over and over.
My mind was like an old cassette player, the type I would tape the charts on each Sunday night as a kid, apart from that this tape was very negative – hardly Jive Bunny’s latest single. I’d play the tape for ten seconds, rewind it, and then play it again and again and again and again. It was the same horrible thought or something someone said or did that hurt me. I did this until I drove myself mad.
My parents supported me all throughout
When I say that I did this until I drove myself mad, I mean quite literally insane. I couldn’t control what was going on inside my head. It’s horrible when you can’t knock negative thoughts out of your head, especially the same negative thought that relentlessly pings around like a steel ball in a pinball machine.
It got to the stage where my mum and dad wouldn’t let me out of their sight for fear of me taking my life. They slept in the same bed as me and escorted me wherever I went. I suddenly felt like a child again (apart from that my childhood was very happy). I spent a lot of time screaming, crying, and hitting myself. I was sharing a bed with my mum, and she was taking me to and from work like a school kid. I could often be found in the fetal position, on the floor, in just my pants – when doing something as simple as putting clothes on or brushing my teeth seemed like being tasked with climbing Mount Everest freestyle in slippers.
I had been on and off antidepressants throughout my late 20s, but the meds were never right. I was on Prozac at first, a drug with origins dating back to 1972. Why my GP put me on such an old medication when there were more modern and better-developed ones out there is beyond me.
Luckily, I was able to go private and receive CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and then was referred to a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist? Isn’t that for people like Harold Shipman and Ian Huntley? Evidently not.
The therapist looked after my thinking and the psychiatrist looked after my meds. I went on a concoction of three different drugs. The three doctors whom I saw over those few months in 2012 undoubtedly saved my life.
Where am I right now?
As for me now, the black dog occasionally pops up to lick my neck, but I’ve taught her a few tricks of my own. She’s much more obedient. Anxiety occasionally rears its ugly head, but it’s not as debilitating. I sometimes find grey, cold, and rainy days in the autumn and winter particularly difficult.
I’m still medicated up to my eyeballs. Maybe I’ll come off the drugs one day, but I’m in no rush at the moment as they have helped me so much. But this isn’t about me; if this article can help just one person, then it’s served its purpose.
We should tackle suicide
Suicide is the biggest killer among men under 45 in the UK – 84 men kill themselves in the UK every week. That’s one every two hours. It’s time to change that.
It’s time to change the opinion that men shouldn’t get upset, cry, or talk about their feelings or that sensitivity is a feminine trait. It was a close call for me but always remember – suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I’m glad I didn’t do it.
My top tips for the road to recovery
- Read, but don’t submerge yourself in books purely about depression and anxiety. It’s important to read about mental health, but make sure you reach for a good autobiography or fiction book for escapism.
- Ditch the newspapers; they are often filled with bad news.
- Consider getting a pet. I can’t tell you how much my lovely dog helped me during my darkest days.
- Listen to music you love; it can instantly lift your mood.
- Watch comedies that will make you laugh.
- Play games; buy a games console or play scrabble on your phone.
- Invest in a Lumie SAD light if seasonal affective disorder makes you sad.
- Keep a bottle of Dr Bach’s Rescue Remedy with you at all times. It’s great to combat anxiety. I’ve been using it since 1997 when I first had to take exams at school.
- Exercise. No excuses. Just do it. And remember to really push yourself. Get your body looking how you want it to look.
- Eat and drink well. Excessive alcohol and junk food do not mix with mental illness.
- If you hate your job and career, then change it. Life is too short to spend 35 hours a week doing something you hate. I changed my career at 31 years old, and I never gave up following my dream, no matter how many rejections I got. And believe me, I’ve had tonnes. Then again, so did JK Rowling, James Dyson, Steven Spielberg, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles.
- Add coloured stickers around your home and, every time you see one, think of something you are grateful for or that makes you smile. A reminder in your desktop, email, or phone calendar every 30 minutes is also a good way to do this.
- Don’t hide away. I know it can be tough, but get yourself out there to socialise and mix with the people whom you love.
- Listen to Dr Russ Harris’s mindfulness CDs. The guy is a genius. Mindfulness takes practice, but it will change your life. You will also get to a point when you can do it without the CDs, whenever and wherever you need to.
- Suggested reading material: I Had a Black Dog: His Name Was Depression and Living with a Black Dog, both by Matthew Johnstone; Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, the story of Brian Wilson’s battle with mental illness.
- Get Paul McKenna’s books. They really are life-changers.
- Consider quitting social media and spending less time on your phone or the internet in general. If you must stay on social media, break the habit of scrolling idly through news feeds. Only follow positive things and people; block the rest. Comparing ourselves to others can do untold damage to our mental health. Those who want to keep in touch will – Facebook or no Facebook. Those who don’t keep in touch aren’t worth it.
- Remove toxic people from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a childhood friend, a love interest, a work colleague, a new acquaintance, or even a relative. If they continue to treat you in a harmful way, then they have got to go. It really is that simple.
- Stop chasing after people who don’t give a shit about you. Friendships should be a two-way street. No one is too busy; they just don’t care as much as you do.
- Let go of anger about how people have treated you. This may mean forgiveness, which is not always an easy thing to do. As Mark Twain said: ‘Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.’ And as Mitch Albom said: ‘Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from inside. We think that by hating someone we hurt them. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do to others, we also do to ourselves.’
- Go private. It will be the best money you’ll ever spend and I’m happy to recommend the psychiatrist who made me better.
Joe Emery is a mental health advocate and a writer by trade. You can learn more about him from his website.
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