It was as though I was paralysed. I was aware that I had been sitting in the exact same physical position on my sofa for eight hours straight without moving a muscle. I wasn't watching television or reading, there was no music playing and nobody else in the house. I was literally just sitting in silence, staring into space like a zombie as the hours slipped by; my brain enveloped in a heavy, suffocating black fog which was invisible to anyone but me. That fog was toxic, noxious, thick as tar - like the industrial smog which once shrouded Victorian streets - and it was slowly choking the very life out of me. I could see no reason to continue living and had no desire to do so. I could not envisage any possible chain of circumstances in which my life would ever get any better. I had no interest in eating. I had no energy, no enthusiasm, no nothing. I couldn't even muster the willpower to boil a kettle. My reserves were completely depleted. I was running on empty. Game over. Or was it?
Fast forward eight years and I'm all good. I survived depression and ultimately kicked the living hell out of what Winston Churchill called "The Black Dog". I'm alive and kicking and, thank God, I've never been happier. But I'm also acutely aware that I'm one of the lucky ones. My depression was caused by a specific chain of circumstances - workplace stress - which is one of the reasons I was able to turn things around. By quitting my job and removing the principle cause of my stress, I was able to give my mind and body the breathing space they needed to slowly recover and regenerate. Many others aren't so fortunate. For those born with mental health conditions, like bipolar or Borderline Personality Disorder, as opposed to those like me who develop depression due to environmental factors, there is no "quick fix" that will cure their condition or magic their suffering away. For them it becomes more about symptom management than addressing a root cause.
My late father suffered from bipolar - or manic-depression as it was then known - and would undergo cyclical mood changes roughly every six months or so. For half the year he'd be so melancholy he could barely get out of bed, while for the other half he'd be so high that we'd never know where he was or what he was up to. His manic episodes would frequently involve such eccentric escapades as digging up the garden in the middle of the night, nocturnal games of croquet on the back lawn or trying to buy castles he couldn't afford. These mood swings made him a nightmare to live with at times, but looking back on it now I wouldn't change a thing. Growing up around manic-depression was an education and gave me a valuable insight into mental health problems - an insight which would stand me in good stead when my own world fell apart many years later. I'd like to think it's also made me more accepting, more tolerant and less judgemental of others with extreme mood disorders whose erratic behaviour can be seen by many as alarming.
Although there's no magic miracle cure for those born with chronic depressive issues, that's not to say there's no hope. My dad was only officially diagnosed relatively late in life at which point his mood swings were successfully moderated with medication. Early diagnosis and intervention can be key to providing those afflicted with a decent quality of life. Here at Phoenix we've already enjoyed considerable success in helping young people with personality disorders and conditions such as ADHD to gain more control over their moods and find creative outlets for turbulent emotions. Dark thoughts can be given expression through creative endeavours such as music and art, which is much healthier than bottling feelings up and suppressing them. Sometimes a tortured mind can produce great song lyrics or an inspired painting. After all, Vincent van Gogh famously suffered with depression - so much so that he slashed his ear off with a razor. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky also had depressive tendencies but managed to convert their melancholia into extraordinary musical compositions. Transmuting inner torment into something beautiful can be a vital step towards restoring self-esteem and a sense of self-worth and provides at least some reassurance that one's internal suffering hasn't been entirely for nothing. Having been a journalist for twenty years, my own outlet of choice is writing. Transmuting thoughts into words and penning blogs such as this one can be a cathartic process and one which enables some lasting good to emerge from an ugly experience. At Phoenix we've also been able to help clients gain greater control over their thoughts and emotions through practices such as meditation and mindfulness which can make it much easier to halt unhelpful rumination. We can also help to release trapped emotions and trauma through techniques such as Integral Eye Movement Therapy (IEMT) - a new service which we'll be offering shortly. We don't pretend to "cure" people but we can help to facilitate powerful positive change. If you haven't already, then check out my previous blog Meditation - The Power of Now - which highlights the effectiveness of meditation and the hard science underpinning it.
Some people still think that depression is trivial and don't see it as a genuine health condition. They’re wrong. Depression is a very real illness with real symptoms, and it’s not a sign of weakness or something you can just “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”, "manning up" or "growing a pair". In fact, the very use of such phrases will only exacerbate the sufferer's condition and drive them deeper into negative introspection, particularly when it comes to young men who tend to feel extra pressure to project a stereotypical image of masculinity and so bottle up their emotions until they reach breaking point. Male suicide is rising at such an alarming rate that it's been classified as "a silent epidemic". It's the seventh leading cause of male death overall and the second most common cause of death in men aged 10-39. These shocking statistics highlight the dangers of suppressing negative feelings and the urgent need to do away with old fashioned macho attitudes. People generally, and young men in particular, need to know that it's okay to talk about their feelings and that doing so is actually a sign of strength, not weakness.
One of the biggest problems is the fact that depression is an invisible illness. Unlike a broken leg, the effects aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Hobble into an office on crutches or with your arm in a sling and you’re immediately surrounded by a scrum of sympathetic well-wishers, wanting to know how you sustained your injury and whether there’s anything they can do to help. Someone with depression walks into an office and no-one even notices. There’s no crutches or sling, so there’s no support or empathy either. There’s also nothing more agonising for a depressed person than to be told “Oh, you look well!” or “Good to see you on the mend”. Such comments, while often well-intentioned, can be perceived by the sufferer as a thinly-veiled accusation of faking their illness – and this only serves to exacerbate the sense of isolation and persecution they already feel. Unless you happen to be an expert in body language, you can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they’re depressed or not. You don’t know what’s going on inside their head. They might look okay but for all you know they’re just putting a brave face on things. Behind the mask they’re hurting badly. So think about that before making any throwaway remarks about how well someone looks, particularly if you know they happen to be off sick at the time. Nobody likes to be accused of being a skiver, especially if they’re already going through hell. And even if that wasn’t how the remark was meant, you can be sure that it’s how it will have been perceived by the person on the receiving end of it.
“What are you doing with your time?” was another common question I was asked while off on long-term sick leave due to depression. And “How on earth do you manage to fill your days?” Such questions demonstrate a breathtaking ignorance of the paralysing nature of depression and the extent to which it robs you of the will or energy to do anything. Nowadays it would be deemed unacceptable for someone in a wheelchair to be asked to justify what they did with their time. So why should those with mental health problems be treated any differently?
Mental health issues can affect anyone at any time and are certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Many famous names have battled depression, including Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, US president Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Jim Carrey and actor Robin Williams whose tragic death in 2015 catapulted the subject into the public eye. Churchill, whose iron will and strength of leadership led Britain to victory against the Nazis in World War II, famously referred to depression as his “black dog”, whilst Rowling has spoken of how she contemplated suicide while she was a single mother living in a cramped apartment after her marriage dissolved. She chose instead to use her daughter as motivation to rise above her grim circumstances and began writing what would become a multi-million pound franchise. Comedian, actor and author Stephen Fry has long championed the cause of mental health, fronting a number of engrossing documentaries in which he's described with characteristically vivid verbosity his own experiences of living with bipolar as well as talking with other celebrity sufferers such as the late Carrie Fisher, singer Robbie Williams and comedians Jo Brand and Tony Slattery. In his Emmy Award-winning documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Fry learned that the illness affected hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and was dismayed to discover the extent of prejudice surrounding mental health problems.
Another public figure who has done much to raise awareness of depression is journalist, broadcaster and political aide Alastair Campbell, whose most recent documentary on the subject, Depression and Me, aired last week on BBC1 to widespread and highly-deserved acclaim. Campbell is an intriguing and complex character, certainly from my own perspective as seldom in my life have I ever done such a dramatic 180 degree about-turn in my personal opinion of someone. Back at the height of New Labour's power, I regarded Campbell as the absolute physical embodiment of everything I considered wrong with Tony Blair's sofa-style government with its apparent emphasis on style over substance; a regime in which unelected spin-doctors seemed to enjoy greater power than Cabinet ministers. Campbell, along with that other master of the dark arts of "spin" Peter Mandelson, seemed to represent an archetype of the Machiavellian political mandarin, wielding undue influence over the levers of power and bullying journalists and editors into peddling government propaganda. He became for me a convenient pantomime villain who could be scapegoated for everything from the Iraq war to the price of petrol. With his brusque public image - every bit the hard-nosed former tabloid hack - Campbell was someone it seemed safe to dislike without risk of offending anybody. However, that all changed dramatically when I was at my lowest ebb and in the process of spiralling deep into a mire of toxic, suffocating depression. As I sat, numb and paralysed, on my sofa, staring into space like a zombie, up popped the most unlikely of saviours onto my TV screen - none other than Alastair Campbell himself - fronting a documentary entitled Cracking Up, in which he spoke bravely and candidly about his own battles with mental health, including a particularly terrifying episode of psychosis in 1986.
That documentary was a lifeline for me at the time, largely because of how brilliantly and passionately Campbell articulated the symptoms, despair and emotional turmoil of living with depression. I was able to relate to virtually every word he said, including how the pressures of journalism had contributed to one of his most seismic meltdowns. The sense of relief inside me as I listened was tangible. He gave me what I needed more than anything else at that moment - the knowledge that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't a freak, that these symptoms were far from uncommon and that they could happen to literally anyone, no matter how tough and battle-hardened they might be. The irony that it was Campbell, of all people, who'd thrown me this lifeline certainly wasn't lost on me. Never let it be said that God doesn't have a sense of humour! Perhaps even more bizarrely, ever since viewing that documentary I've increasingly found Campbell to be a consistent voice of reason in a world gone mad. Now, any time I hear him interviewed on television or voicing his views on Twitter or in print, I find myself to be in more-or-less complete agreement with what he has to say. Can this really be the same man who was the object of such vilification (not least from me) only a few years before? Perhaps he's changed. Or perhaps my own perception of him has been distorted by a sense of empathy for a fellow sufferer of depression. Or isn't it in fact more likely that I'd misjudged him in the first place and that he was never actually that bad a bloke to begin with? We're all guilty of demonising and scapegoating public figures, whether we consciously realise it or not. Sometimes it's easier to deflect our frustrations onto a manufactured pantomime villain than it is to confront our own inner demons. We need to remember that public figures are actually human beings too - with thoughts, feelings, foibles and frailties. It's fine to disagree with people - that's democracy - but we should all look deep within and think twice before we go to the lengths of actually condemning someone, particularly in this social media age where hatred can spread like wildfire with a simple mouse-click. As a certain carpenter from Nazareth once said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". My personal U-turn regarding Campbell was a wake-up call for me in this regard and I'd learned that there was clearly much more to the man than I'd ever given him credit for.
It's hard, if not impossible, not to feel empathy with anyone who suffers from depression when you've been in that position yourself and I defy anyone not to have been deeply moved by Campbell's description of his daily challenge to "raise the blinds" in his home. I will forever be grateful to him for his timely documentary and for his ongoing work to raise awareness of mental health. Whatever your politics, anyone in his position with the guts to speak so candidly on national television about their own experiences of this sort of thing deserves kudos. It would have been relatively easy for him to just go and hide under a rock to protect his public and professional image when things fell apart. To choose instead to openly acknowledge his issues and to articulate them so eloquently on screen and in public addresses around the country, as well as through his support for the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, shows the strength of the man's inner core. Campbell was back on our screens last week, addressing the subject of depression once again as part of a BBC series dealing with mental health. In this latest documentary, Depression And Me, he spoke about being on anti-depressants and the dilemma he faced over whether to ever come off them. Despite several years of mental stability, I, like Campbell, still continue to take the anti-depressant drug sertraline. In many ways this goes against my every instinct and my Phoenix mantra of "Meditation, not medication". As a general rule, I think meds can be a slippery slope to dependency and I agree with the views expressed by Dr Joanna Moncrieff of University College London, the psychiatrist Campbell interviewed on the show, when she opined that medics are too quick to dish out pills as a quick and easy fix rather than attempting to find alternative solutions.
That said, there can be no doubt that sertraline has been a factor in keeping my moods on a relatively even keel for the past five years. Like Campbell, I have no great desire to tamper with a winning formula and to take what would appear to be the unnecessary risk of coming off pills entirely when they seem to be doing their job. I would always advocate supplementing medication with other things though - Campbell has his running, for example, while I have meditation and mindfulness - otherwise pills alone are little more than a sticking-plaster solution. I would advise anyone suffering from depression to be prepared to consider anti-depressants - if nothing else it can provide you with the valuable jump-start you need to get out of that initial paralysis - but always try to supplement it with a healthy lifestyle and other alternative treatments and activities which make you feel good. Here I find myself in complete agreement with Campbell once again. Who would've thought? I have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy now. I hope we can meet for a coffee one day and compare notes. Fair play to him.
Another recent BBC documentary saw HRH Prince William speaking with footballers Peter Crouch and Danny Rose, ex-players Thierry Henry and Jermaine Jenas and England manager Gareth Southgate about the burgeoning mental health crisis in soccer. Southgate highlighted his own experiences of suffering in the full glare of the public spotlight following his notorious penalty miss which sent England crashing out of Euro '96. Hung out to dry by a distraught nation looking for a scapegoat, Southgate was cruelly singled-out in the press as the man to blame for the defeat and left to deal single-handed with the resulting media scrum on his doorstep without any official support at a time when he was already burdened by raw emotions and feelings of having let his teammates, and the country, down. The entire episode has clearly left its mark on the current England manager and fuelled his determination to ensure the current crop of players never have to endure such an experience. Southgate is firmly committed to a new era of openness in the dressing room and stressed the importance of players being able to talk freely with each other about their feelings and emotions instead of trying to hide behind a facade of false machismo which leads ultimately to pent-up stress and performance-impeding inhibition. I couldn't agree more with his approach. Whilst a little adrenaline is a good thing, full-blown anxiety tightens the body and clouds the mind, leading to mistakes and errors of judgement. We perform at our best when we are in a tension-free, relaxed state with a clear mind and a body freed up to flow smoothly as nature intended. Southgate clearly understands this better than most and is to be commended for his efforts to change locker-room culture, particularly as football remains one of the last bastions of toxic masculinity - an environment where men dare not be seen to cry or admit to feeling nerves for fear of ridicule. One has only to look at the lack of openly gay footballers to realise the very real problems players face with being able to be their true selves without risk of facing virulent abuse from the stands. Crouch described being subjected to the most horrendous taunts on account of his lanky appearance, including regular chants of "Does the circus know you're here?" As a society we need to move past this kind of hideous abuse, which has no place on either the football field, in the school playground or anywhere else for that matter. Listening to Henry, Jenas and Rose speaking bravely about their own battles with depression served to highlight the importance of players being able to talk to each other without fear of ridicule. If we can overcome the culture of toxic masculinity in the dressing rooms then hopefully the message will eventually filter through to the "fans" in the stands also.
In the same documentary, the Duke of Cambridge admitted he had "felt pain like no other" after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, in a car crash in Paris in 1997 but that it had enabled him to relate to others who had suffered bereavement. He said the "British stiff upper lip thing" had its place when times were hard, but people also needed "to relax a little bit and be able to talk about our emotions because we're not robots". William also spoke of how working as an air ambulance pilot left him feeling that death was "just around the door". William and his brother, the Duke of Sussex, had previously spoken about the death of their mother when they launched a mental health campaign called Heads Together, which encouraged people to talk more openly about their problems. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex also teamed up earlier this month to launch a text messaging service for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Initiatives such as these, and the involvement of high-profile figures such as Stephen Fry, Alastair Campbell, the Royals family, sporting stars and other household names, can only help to break down the stigma which still surrounds mental health. We must all become more honest and be more willing to open up and talk to each other about our feelings. It's time to do away with outdated concepts of masculinity and, as Prince William rightly says, relax the famous British stiff upper lip. The best thing I ever did was admit that I needed help. Without that starting point I wouldn’t be where I am now. A weight lifted as soon as I sought assistance and was able to talk about how I was feeling. There’s an old saying that a problem shared is a problem halved, and there’s a lot of truth in that. It took time but with the right support I eventually made a full and complete recovery. That's not to say that I don't still have bad days. We all do. It's part and parcel of the human experience and quite often how we learn and grow. But the difference is that I now have the skills to cope and to stop everyday stresses from snowballing into a full-scale catastrophe.
Phoenix offers a wide range of services which can help with depression, including one-to-one therapy as well as training in mindfulness, meditation and other valuable life skills. Don't suffer in silence. Check out our website at www.phoenixcoaching.co.uk or drop us an email at email@example.com to find out more about how we can help you.
You can also call the Samaritans confidential hotline on 116 123 for free 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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