(Spoiler: it’s not joining Plenty Of Fish)
When you speak openly about your struggles with mental health you get called brave quite a lot. It’s understandable, reflecting as it does the very real stigma that has long existed around the issue. Thankfully, this has been consistently challenged in recent years, in particular thanks to the brilliant Time to Change campaign. And while mental health still suffers greatly from lack of sufficient resource to address it, attitudes are definitely moving in a more positive direction.
I’ve never felt brave for speaking about my mental health. For me, bravery is facing up to something that is scary and carries serious risk, and I never felt that way about being open about my issues (I wrote about this here: Who’s a Brave Boy?).
This year however, I did something scary. Very, very scary. I survived to tell the tale, and I hope that in telling it here I might help somebody else to find the courage to do something that scares them. Because sometimes, doing the thing that really scares us can be one of the best things that we ever do.
In my case, it saved my life.
A year of two halves
For the most part, the first five months of 2019 were a living hell for me, engulfed once again in a paralysing depression. I hadn’t suffered an episode since my second, in 2013, and I really believed that depression was behind me for good. I was wrong. Once again, I just didn’t see how I would find my way out of it, and I felt as though my life was over.
Once again, I was wrong. Not only did I find my way out, but I emerged into a new career with a new future stretching out ahead of me; a future that was unimaginable in the weeks and months before.
It was strange how it all came about. More and more I believe that the significant events in our life arrive through a curious blend of intuition and luck. This has certainly been the case for me, and never more so than at this time.
When depression drew its veil across me I had no idea what, if anything, I needed to change in my life to escape its shadow. As such it was very difficult to envisage a way out. I prayed for any sign that would point me in the direction that would lead me out of its grip.
I felt a growing sense that my career had to change. I had always felt fortunate to have a career in sport that I loved, but I felt that I didn’t belong where I was anymore. I felt that, after 11 years with the organisation, I was at the end of the road.
There wasn’t a clearly identifiable reason for this feeling, no support by any clear line of thinking – such a feat was pretty much impossible with my brain mashed up by depression – but I had a very strong sense of its truth and I couldn’t shake It.
The only problem was, how the fuck was I going to change anything? When getting a shower and getting dressed feels like climbing Everest, where do you even begin with changing your life? Even without depression clinging to my back I was a middle-aged man with two children and one income – not the greatest platform for a career change. The days and weeks dragged by, shrouded in a heavy, black fog.
A glimmer of light
I visited the website of a local mental health charity and saw that they were recruiting two project officers for a new project. I read through the job details and knew that I more than met the criteria, on paper at least. The fact that I wasn’t that person anymore was a huge obstacle. Furthermore, it was clear that if by some miracle I was to get the job, then huge sacrifices would need to be made that just didn’t seem possible to make.
Oh, and the application deadline was only a few hours away.
One thing I know to be true – if you don’t do anything to change things then things don’t change.
I knew I had to at least feel as if I was trying to do something, that there was at least some possibility for me to get my life back. I applied.
That was the Thursday, and the following day I received an email to advise that I had been shortlisted for an interview, which was to be held the coming Monday, only four days after I submitted my application.
Monday came and I was, well, I was a mess, as I had been for the previous few months. And I was scared. Terrified.
I’m not someone that is usually given to nerves. Public speaking, first dates, job interviews, none of them phase me. I believe in myself and know that if I have prepared myself then there is nothing to be nervous about. But depression cares nothing for that. Depression was running the show, not me, and all I felt was its pervasive sense of dread.
Depression had robbed me of the ability to think coherently and to speak coherently, and my head was constantly throbbing with tension. Confidence was nowhere to be found in my locker. In my application I hadn’t even mentioned my book or the public speaking I had done to raise awareness of mental health. It’s strange looking back, but I felt like an imposter; I wasn’t that person anymore and I couldn’t speak for him.
As the interview time drew close I didn’t even know if I would be able to go through with it. I had no idea what to expect. Would I just freeze? Would I be able to talk? Would I break down into a sobbing mess? Any of these things seemed possible, perhaps even likely. I put on my suit, got in my car and drove to the interview. I didn’t allow myself to think, to consider any of the terrible outcomes that could be only minutes away. I was on autopilot.
As I walked to the office where the interview was to be held I felt almost disembodied, like I was there but I wasn’t, that ‘I’ was floating along outside of myself. I sat in the waiting room and I waited.
My name was called, I took a seat in front of the panel and the questions came. Usually my biggest problem is trying to stop my mouth from running away from me while my brain tries to catch up. This time, I just hoped that words would come. I had to consciously fish around my muddied brain to find answers, trusting somehow that they were in there somewhere. The words came, but without their usual spontaneity.
When I have been successful in interviews I’ve always been told that I was enthusiastic and engaging. Here, the light in my eyes had been snuffed out and smiling was no longer a natural, spontaneous function. I did the best impersonation I could manage, pulling my face into the necessary shapes as best I was able. The interview panel saw and heard only what was there, they weren’t able to make the comparison with a me that I knew to be missing. Still, when I left the room I was under no illusion about my chances of being offered the job. I was just relieved that I hadn’t made a total show of myself.
A new hope
At 5pm the following day, Tuesday, my phone rang. My first thought was that they had put off delivering bad news until the end of the day. Small talk followed, interpreted as polite chat to soften the blow.
‘The panel all enjoyed meeting you. You answered a number of the questions very well…’ Aaaaaaand here it comes…., ‘but I’m afraid you weren’t successful on this occasion.’
Except the ‘but’ never came.
‘You answered a number of the questions very well and we would like to offer you the job.’
Wow. I wasn’t expecting that.
I asked for a couple of days to consider the offer, knowing in my heart of hearts that circumstances meant I wouldn’t be able to accept.
Damn, can life be unfair. I really wanted to take the job but I knew the sacrifices it would require were too great. In a matter of days a new future had presented itself, teasing me with the belief that maybe, just maybe the nightmare could be over. That maybe the sign I had been seeking had arrived; that maybe, once again, the depths of depression had propelled me to new opportunities, a new life.
But I couldn’t do it. At least, I couldn’t do it alone.
As it turned out, I wasn’t alone.
Someone saved my life tonight
Depression is such a lonely, isolating experience, regardless of the love and support that you have around you. Nobody can climb out of the pit for you. But when it mattered most, I was offered a ladder. My parents offered me support that would enable me to take the leap and grasp the opportunity that I needed.
I could never fully express how much it means to me. It demonstrated a belief in me despite all that my illness had stripped away. Nothing could have meant more. Yet still, it wasn’t easy. It was very scary to take a leap into the unknown, to start a new career when my mental health was so bad. Once depression has its claws in you it doesn’t easily let you go, regardless of external circumstances.
What if I couldn’t do the job? What if I failed the probation period? What if I didn’t even make it that far? What if I couldn’t live up to the faith that my parents had put in me?
These were all very real concerns and I had no way of knowing how things would turn out. It’s terrifying how quickly your life can spiral out of control with no warning, putting everything that you hold dear, everything that you have worked for, at risk. It can happen to any of us, and at such times it can be hard to admit that we can’t get through it alone; that we may need to put ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, in the hands of others.
I pride myself on being independent, on living life on my terms and with purpose. Accepting that you can’t do everything on you own, accepting help, can be very difficult.
Where I belong
Sometimes life doesn’t give you what you want, it gives you what you need. I accepted help, I accepted the job, and within weeks of starting, my depression lifted. Within the first six months of my new job I have already been given many wonderful opportunities to make a difference.
Starting again has been the most difficult thing I have ever had to do; it has also been the bravest. I’m proud of myself for that.
But I know that I wouldn’t have done it without the faith and support of my parents, whose faith in me helped to rekindle my faith in myself. They saved my life.
And in taking a great leap of faith I found that, somehow, life had found a way to put me right where I belong.
Not Alone – Bernard Butler