Joining The Circus

My shaking finger was poised and ready; I was aiming at his head. I had never shot royalty before and now it all came down to this one moment.

He was on the other side of a small room in conversation and bound to turn towards me. I had dug myself into a real hole. I had one shot; failure was unthinkable.

The conversation seemed to be coming to a close. The back of his royal head was beginning to twist and reveal one of the most famous faces in the world. Instantly, I fired.

Prince Charles immediately stopped and closed his eyes, half blinded, his face screwing up in displeasure and discomfort. I could hear him muttering expletives before he regained his composure.

I could have died. The flash-gun had unleashed a grossly disproportionate payload of white light into his eyes as he turned from his dutiful examination of the shop owner’s wares.

I immediately looked at Camilla standing directly opposite me, barely a few yards away. Her eyes met mine and in that moment we both understood each other. A secret smile, the faintest of expressions, told me that it was alright; she understood and she sympathised and I wasn’t going to the Tower of London to be consigned to a life of torturous incarceration in its infamous dungeons.

Following Lady Diana was like replacing Keith Moon. The media scrum that was never far away, the circus that Charles so obviously despised, was interested only in insulting and deriding her. She had only had bad press, a little like Linda McCartney, the woman who had dared to marry Beatle Paul. I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of Camilla or any of the royal family. That moment of kindness, however, was very gracious.

Inside the nauseous claustrophobia of the tiny Cornish art shop she had been standing facing me, so close that we could have whispered to one another, and I hadn’t been sure whether I should photograph her or not from such close range. She couldn’t have avoided me and I could have clicked away a hundred shots. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and couldn’t make myself do it.

I felt that I couldn’t initiate contact because I was supposed to be invisible; I wasn’t to interfere in royal business, I was there to document it in a silent and respectful manner: but It was almost as bad ignoring her as it was invading her privacy by shoving my lens in her face. Looking back, when I replay it in my mind, as I do sometimes, I wish I had asked her permission for a photograph. I think she might have said yes.

As far as I was concerned coverage of the royal family was just another media soap opera designed to sell newspapers. I found the media’s obsession with them distasteful and embarrassing. There was no doubting, however, that Prince Charles was one of the most recognisable celebrities in the world and that upsetting him was a big deal for a naïve photographer like me.

Charles didn’t look at me once as he filed past, almost brushing my jacket, as though he didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing that I had upset him. It was just another chapter in his daily battle with the paparazzi he so despised.

I was in a strange dream and had been from the moment that my bad-tempered boss had called me up to tell me that he was sending me to photograph royalty. It was my thirty-second birthday and the very day that I was moving in to my new home in my new city, living in my new life and doing my new job. All of a sudden I was facing a very different assignment to the routine cheque presentations I had been expecting. It came out of nowhere and when I asked for advice from my boss (as he had urged me to do a matter of days before) I received an ear-full of abuse.

I loaded my equipment up, strapped some of it to my back like a marine going into battle, and wandered through the drizzle into the circus scrum.

My first instinct was simply to follow the pack and do whatever they did. The village was tiny and most of the shops were too small for more than one photographer to go in with the royals. With unusual fairness and civility, it was decided that we would take it in turns.

A few of us followed them into a tiny church shortly after their arrival. As soon as the doors opened the Women’s Institute burst with fervent enthusiasm into song and did for Prince Charles’ considerable ears what I was later to do for his eyes. The royal couple did well to remain in the building and not turn around immediately and flee.

Later, my turn was to be inside the tiny art shop. That was my showdown with the heir to the throne.

When the showdown was over, back in the office, I went through the usual routine of cataloguing the pictures, choosing the best, printing out photocopies of them and delivering them somewhat warily to the picture desk where my boss may or may not be lurking and poised for attack.

At the end of the day I made my way to my new home. My wife and I sat on the floor in the conservatory, overlooking the wood, looking up at the stars and sharing a takeaway meal whilst waiting for our furniture to arrive. We felt excited and optimistic but I was living through an out-of-body experience. I could scarcely process what was happening to me, but a small, rational, part of my mind, didn’t trust any of it.

Book Review: ‘Pulling The Trigger’

This is a book for sufferers of OCD, anxiety, panic attacks and related depression, currently sitting on top of Amazon’s search lists for books on those topics. Adam Shaw, a successful businessman and founder of a mental health charity, reveals his problems with OCD and how Lauren Callaghan’s approach to treating him worked. The book was published by Trigger Press in 2016, which is a publishing company created by Shaw (Managing Director) and Callaghan (Director).

As a sufferer from obsessive thoughts, anxiety and depression, and diagnosed with BPD I bought the book hoping for at least something helpful.

Reading through the book I remember being very frustrated as page after page (85 of them including the introduction to be precise) just detailed Adam Shaw’s problems and kept saying how wonderful the new approach to treatment was without going on to spell it out. It actually made me quite angry.

In the second part of book the back-slapping continued. I finished the book wishing that they had just written: ‘Adam had OCD and Lauren told him to accept it’. It would have saved me a lot of time, effort and cash. The conclusion is all that you really need to read.

Accepting that you have OCD and panic attacks is very difficult. Embracing it feels wrong. It is not for the faint-hearted and I can envisage many feeling that this approach is not for them. I’m not criticising the technique because it obviously works for some people. I just think this could have been an article on a website and not a book because it keeps repeating itself all the way through.

I would advise people to google treatment for OCD and read about it online instead.

Just Say Yes

 

You can’t run away from depression or beat it by just saying ‘yes’.

I pick up my story in the aftermath of a failed career in teaching. I had been working on my father-in-law’s farm and although it was helpful at the time I was not cut out to be a farmer and I was making little more than pocket money.

My wife had an interest in photography and a decent Canon SLR and she set about teaching me how to use it. I took to it straight away and found (to my astonishment) that I had a natural flair for composition. In those days there was no such thing as digital photography and I had to wait for film to be developed in order to assess my successes and failures. I began to systematically catalogue each creative option – often taking the same shot time after time and adjusting, let’s say, the shutter speed, to try and understand what I could do with it.

It wasn’t long before I decided that I should give photography a go as a career. Around the same time I began to go to CBT sessions. One of the things that CBT does is to challenge negative thinking. For instance, I would say “typical, this always happens to me”. The CBT made me challenge that statement and come up with hard evidence for it: evidence that I would struggle to provide. If I had a specific anxiety, usually some sort of social anxiety, I would be told to go and do that thing deliberately and collect evidence about what happened, to see if it was really as bad as I believed it to be. Don’t say no, I was told, say yes. Fight your fears head on in order to beat them.

Armed with this mantra I plunged head first into a photography business. At the beginning I took pet portraits with the first digital cameras (that created pixelated images that looked like cartoons). I soon moved on into people portraits but found them stressful and nerve-wracking. We made a big decision to invest heavily in equipment for a career in wildlife photography. Huge lenses appeared in great boxes.

I was brought up along the North-West Norfolk coast with its famous beaches and nationally important bird reserves. I lived near the oldest wildlife reserve in the country and all around me were farmer’s fields. I discovered that a hare could see you coming three flat fields away.

This was my area. Over the years I had learned how to spot, and get close to, wildlife – it was now so natural that it felt as though I went into a trance, a zone that could somehow connect me to the creatures around me. Whether it was years of listening, studying, understanding, trial and error, I just don’t know. But when I get into the wild I have a nose for wildlife that’s almost uncanny. And I love it.

Wildlife is part of me. It’s in my soul. I treasure it and I miss it. I miss those habitats that I once lost myself in.

My career in wildlife photography was the best thing I ever did. I loved formulating a plan and pulling it off. I did some crazy things. I have a severe fear of heights. But, I found myself in a bag hide up a huge farm elevator waiting for a kestrel to come back to one of its favourite perches at the top of a particular tree. Its yellow feet had claws with blood still visible on them from the last kill.

I found myself getting up almost before I had gone to sleep; in my camouflage gear; carrying my heavy equipment; with my face full of heavy snow; trudging into the darkness and across slippery bridges; through fields of cows in the pale moonlight; to crouch silently in a specially designed wooden hide on a famous bird reserve. I got on well with the Head Warden and was allowed to set hides up and wander off the beaten track. I had some great experiences and took some pretty decent images. I think I damaged my back there, crouching and holding my breath in wet clothes in the cold with my finger hovering over the shutter release as though it were the trigger of a sniper’s gun. Somehow, though, it was…me.

The problem was selling the images. That was certainly not ‘me’. I made practically nothing. Reluctantly, I decided that I had to try something else.

So, I headed, with my long lens, to see if I could take some pictures of my favourite sport: cricket. It was a long drive to my favourite team’s ground. As I started to take some pictures the long lens attracted the attention of the professionals to my left. One of them ‘took me under his wing’, (believe me there was nothing benevolent about it), and, whilst he was off shooting more lucrative things, I became his apprentice as the official photographer at Essex County Cricket Club.

I would turn up, down two cans of Red Bull, and gain access to all the places that fans couldn’t go. I went into the dressing rooms and got to know some of the players. They got used to me being around and I documented some historic moments for the club. I loved the buzz of big games and I felt like a celebrity because the fans seemed to regard me as somehow being of importance. I was on T.V and out in the middle with some famous cricketers.

Cricket turned into football which proved to be a whole other level of difficulty and pressure. Come away from a game with nothing and your career could be over. There were no contracts, no rights, no certainty that work would continue to flow. I was ripped off again and again. I had some real tales to tell along the way but I can’t tell you them all in this post!

Football was incredibly stressful. I fed off it and suffered because of it all at the same time. I felt that I had a job that gave me self-esteem – something I had rarely had in my life. I said yes to everything. I had successes (it’s great to see your work in national newspapers) but I had some embarrassing failures also. I was an excellent sports photographer but I was so naïve. I was taken for a ride and I couldn’t play the game, I didn’t have what it took to make the real, consistent, money. I did a lot for nothing.

Just saying yes reached its zenith when I was offered work in the business world: jobs at great exhibitions and events in all sorts of places. I was in London hopping from one train to the next and having to be in the centre for a specific time. Being late could be the end of my career.

The jobs were big, high pressure ones, and I felt that I was a bit of a charlatan. I doubted my skills and tried to bluff my way through, hiding the fact that I was making it all up as I went along. I worked in some of the swankiest hotels in London and some of the most exclusive clubs. I met some of my sporting idols along the way and took pictures of celebrities and high-ranking politicians.

I distinctly remember doing a job in parliament for the first time. I had never been in there before and after the security checks I walked around open-mouthed – and nervous as hell. I had to take pictures of a parliamentary committee. They filed in like judges in the high-court and I stood before them knowing I had two shots at best before they got on with their important business. I felt as though I was small boy with his trousers down.

I took the pictures (both of them) with cold sweat dripping down the back of my neck. It was a sign that I was under a severe amount of stress.

One by one the people I worked for fell out with me – usually about the fact that I had the temerity to ask for payment. My career began to falter and money came only occasionally in dribs and drabs and then would disappear into months of famine. I had so many amazing experiences but the long and short of it was that I was desperate for a regular wage. My anxiety was still there and my depression never went away. CBT had some success but I didn’t know how to use it properly. I just said yes.

Then I did a silly thing. I saw a job being advertised at a local newspaper in Devon, in Plymouth – a big city. We loved Devon and Cornwall and decided to go for it. I expected to fail and my interview was dreadful (or so I thought). Amazingly, I got the job. It had all happened in the space of just a few years.

We knew that we were moving to the other side of the country and that it would be difficult to see our families but I was blinded by the idea that I could run away from my depression by leaving the places that had bad memories for me. It was a new start, and, hopefully, a new me.

I had to say goodbye to my goats and sheep and the farm and the countryside that I loved. I admit there were tears.

At last we would have two steady incomes and a better life.

A new chapter began in my turbulent life, one that would eclipse everything that had gone before. Just saying yes had put my foot on the accelerator before I had tested the brakes. I had no idea which pedals to press. I was a car-crash waiting to happen and I was going straight to the scene of the accident.

Five Years Of Hell

I wrote about my childhood and my time at university. Now I turn to the next five years or so. I hope that you find it in some way helpful – perhaps you can identify with my experiences or perhaps you are just interested in other people’s lives. Perhaps you want to share your story here. Let me know!
Whatever your reason for reading I’m glad that I can share a little more about myself with you.
I do hope that your journey hasn’t been anything like mine.

University spat me out into a great chasm. Where does a student of poetry look for a job? I imagined turning up at interviews and being asked if I had been trained to use the latest software. I imagined myself replying “No, but I know what iambic pentameter is”.

I trawled through pages and pages of jobs seeing nothing that I believed I had a chance of getting. I was at a loss and very depressed about it all. Then, motivated by that moment when I would have to ask for my future wife’s hand in marriage, and out of utter desperation, I decided that the only option open to me was teaching. What do you do with poetry? The only useful thing is to teach it to someone else. At least there was a guaranteed job at the end of it with a reasonable salary.

The problem was: I knew that I was completely unsuited for the job. It was never going to work.

I was accepted by Homerton College, Cambridge University, and enrolled on a teacher training course. The subject was ‘English with Drama’ (and believe me there was plenty of drama) and the qualification was to teach in secondary schools. What a mistake.
The course was a total nightmare and I’m not sure to this day how I stuck it out until the end. I’ll give myself credit where it’s due: I’m a determined and tough so and so when I have to be. I don’t think, given what I was going through with depression and anxiety, that most other people could have done the same.

Some of the training was done on the job, (I think I taught at three schools as part of the course) and I was used as maternity cover for one particular teacher. It turned out that she was a friend of J.K. Rowling (I had never heard of her) and she mentioned that Rowling was coming to the school and would be in the library during the lunch-break. I was not in a good place at the time and was feeling less than enthusiastic about anything to do with children, schools, teachers, books, authors and anything that I didn’t really need to be involved with. I feigned interest and didn’t bother turning up.

When I finished my time there the teacher gave me a present: a first edition signed Harry Potter book. My disillusionment was so great that I decided to see if I could sell it. I had no idea if it was worth anything but presumed that there was always someone who wanted a first edition signed copy of something. It sold for a small amount. It would be worth a fortune now.

A career in teaching beckoned. Unfortunately the jobs on offer were not in my area and I had to become a supply teacher. With my boyish face and chronic lack of confidence becoming a stand-in for absent teachers (mostly covering subjects I knew nothing about) was a recipe for disaster.

The kids hated me (they hated all teachers and were particularly cruel to stand-ins) and I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to take it. I once had a laser sight from a gun aimed at me as I was sitting in a staff-room: one of the kids was actually pointing a gun at me. The red spot sat on my tie for a while as I tried to figure out what it was.

They demolished me by totally under-mining my authority. They threw things at me and each other, and if I playfully threw something back they threatened to sue me; they stood on the tables rioting; they threatened to throw each other out of the windows; they made comments about me that nearly reduced me to tears and they gave me a good send-off when at last I could bare it no longer: walking across the car-park to leave for the last time their cries of derision rung in my ears.

However, quitting my career and wasting my training wasn’t good for my mental health either. My wife and her family (we lived on her father’s farm) were sympathetic but I was deeply ashamed. I have tried to lose that sense of shame but shame and guilt are difficult opponents and they refuse to go away. Sometimes they disappear only to return twice as large.

Now depression really sensed its opportunity. I felt I had let everyone down and that I had no future. I felt a failure and an embarrassment. I also started to get the idea that I was cursed somehow and that the world was deliberately designed in order to exclude me and to prevent me from earning a living wage.

I was able to work some hours and earn a small amount of money on the farm (an occupation for which I was equally as unsuited) but I still felt only shame, guilt, fear, depression, isolation, hopelessness and just about every other negative emotion I can think of. There I was, a highly qualified student of poetry, shovelling shit in someone’s stable. There I was, the least practical person imaginable, with no common sense whatsoever, fiddling about with things technical and mechanical, understanding not the faintest thing about whatever job it was that I was being asked to do or trying to help with. That in itself was depressing and humiliating.

I can look back rather sentimentally now and picture myself driving tractors in the warm summer sun, watching an owl quartering the field in front of me on a late summer evening as I was turning the hay; driving the old grey Fergie’ (Massey Ferguson) from the fifties that I liked to chuff along on; lying on top of a trailer full of hay as we set off down the road, watching the white clouds in the blue skies above me with my hands underneath my head; drinking wine on summer evenings under the apple tree we had strung white lights in; walking in the fields with my dogs and looking after my goats and sheep.

However, the fact is that I was seriously ill and wanting to die.

I was seriously depressed and suffering with crippling social anxiety. When I walked through the sheds I saw thick ropes, meant for tying hay and straw securely onto trailers, and I couldn’t help but think of hanging. When we went up to see the majestic cathedral that dominated our landscape I only thought of jumping from it.

Just imagine wanting to harm yourself to that extent. We are hard-wired to survive and yet there I was contemplating ending it all by throwing myself off a tall building. That is how severe mental illness can be. My daily struggle was so awful that I was prepared to smash myself to bits or choke myself to death. I used to wake up in the morning (if I had actually managed to sleep that is) and my first thought would be to despair that another day was upon me. There was virtually no respite and nothing that anybody could do for me.

I didn’t help myself by denying that I had a problem and pretending to be a ‘normal’ person wherever I went. I expected a lot of myself and that only increased my burden. At that time I was learning about myself and my illness. I was learning what my capabilities were, what I could and could not cope with and how to look after myself. I got it very wrong for a long time by expecting too much and not being kind to myself. Knowing what I know now would have made my life much easier.

It was a secret illness. Nobody could see inside my brain. I often wished I had cancer or some other physical ailment that was visible to everybody else. Many other sufferers out there must know the feeling. We all end up being our own doctors, recognising symptoms, monitoring ourselves and trying to get the right treatment.

I began to spend as much time as possible on my own and I only left the house when I absolutely had no other choice. This only made my social anxiety worse. I found some solace in song-writing and losing myself in music but it was a seriously bleak period.

Those five years were really tough. They were hell.

 

Still Alive: University

University can be really tough.

I arrived in Cambridge to begin my course (English Literature and Language) falling to pieces. It frightened me that I was alone in a place I didn’t know, I had no idea of how to look after myself, feed myself, or live within a budget. I was frightened because I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did or what to do about it and I was frightened about a new ‘school’, new fellow students, and a new course with new ‘teachers’.

My father’s church friends got me a place to lodge down the road from them. This came to be very fateful. I was extremely nervous about living in a stranger’s house. I had a small room downstairs and the family consisted of a husband and wife and their young son. They were nice to me to begin with but our relationship grew to be very strained and broke down badly towards the end. I’m sure that some of it must have been my fault but I still can’t work out what.

As time went on I spent less and less time in their house, preferring to be down the road with my father’s friends. I was fed many times there. The example that they set (and the suffering that I was going through) led me to being baptised as a Christadelphian. That was the most momentous thing that happened to me during my time at university: apart from meeting my future wife.

My anxiety wound me up tight and didn’t let up for a moment. I found everybody at university seemed to be on a different planet to me. I was probably the only one that arrived to what I thought was my first day, waited in a queue for an hour and then was told that I needed to come back another day. I was so anxious that I could barely function and read important information like that. Everyone else seemed to turn up late or not at all. They were all paired off and enjoying their new found freedom. They seemed comfortable and like an adult whilst I felt like a child. My insides were exploding every time I went near the place.

Classes and lectures were torturous. There I was on my own and barely able to look at anybody. The chatting and laughter around me made me feel different somehow. I began staring at the floor and couldn’t look up. Trying to find different classes and lecture places reminded me very much of how it felt when I went to secondary school for the first time. I fretted and found it difficult to find things. Sometimes I just scraped in and sometimes I was about 30 minutes early. I didn’t have a friend to help me.

I had no social life during my first year at university. My social anxiety prevented me from hanging around in the pubs and clubs. I wasn’t yet interested in church social life. I found myself alone in my tiny room reading and listening to music. I actually saved quite a lot of my student grant money because I never went anywhere to spend it and I never overspent at the supermarket. This hermit-like lifestyle was a tactic to counter social anxiety but it actually made my social anxiety worse because I might spend two days alone in my room and then have to go to university when all of a sudden the world would be around me again and it was all the more frightening and anxiety-provoking for it.

Seminars were torturous. Often, we would go around the room, saying who we were and introducing ourselves and by the time it got to me I could barely speak, my face was bright red and my bowels wanted to explode. We would each be asked to contribute something in this way quite often and it made seminars terrifying. Any time that I had to speak caused me the utmost discomfort. It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep up with the work itself – it was difficult but I could do it – it was more that I felt the odd one out, I felt everybody’s eyes on me, ridiculing me. I felt that they could see me shaking; they could see that I was some kind of weird misfit, some child that was to be laughed at.

I grew to love Cambridge, but not in those first few years. I wasn’t used to city life. All around me were shocking battles that I witnessed wide-eyed. There were car-accidents, beggars, street preachers, fights, and all sorts of people from all over the world – some real characters too. Cambridge was full of intellectual students and seemed in a political sense, to be a liberal city. I didn’t fit in with the angry drug-taking underbelly, or with the bicycle pedalling intellectuals, and sometimes I felt more like one of the numerous Japanese tourists than a legitimate student.

I remember being almost run over by Professor Stephen hawking. There were quite a few academic heavyweights around the place. So there was a city with the have-nots causing problems and the ordinary people getting on with life, and there was a city with the intellectual liberal elite. As a student with what was the old polytechnic but now a proper university I felt decidedly second-class. The Cambridge University students took all the privileges and we picked up the pieces. There was no niche that I could fit in to.

The anxiety and depression was relentless and the pressure of university never let up, including the intensity of entering whatever world the next author created. The books were mind-expanding and one book or play, or poem, followed another in quick succession. The reading lists were extensive. I bought them all second hand and they piled up into small towers on my floor. I began to get used to being the only one to read the books and be prepared for the seminars. It was my anxiety and fear of getting into trouble and having a confrontation with the lecturers that made me read everything and hand my essays in long before anyone else. It had been the same at school and that was why I achieved what I did: sheer anxiety. There was no pleasure in it.

The others seemed to know that they could get away with not reading the books or turning up to the lectures. By the time my last year came around I wasn’t attending lectures either because I had realised that they were either irrelevant and of no use whatsoever. I feel let down my university. The books that were suggested as helpful for our assignments were not available in the library because usually they had one copy for hundreds of students. I remember doing assignments from the top of my head when I couldn’t access a single book to refer to.

The most important single piece of work was the dissertation so I decided to give a rough draft to a lecturer to get his unofficial opinion on the direction I was taking. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to mark it as if it was finished. I told him this was unfair but the mark was not changed. I narrowly missed out on a first and it galls me to this day.

My mental health was deteriorating sharply. It was about this time that I first began considering suicide. I felt so bad that I went to the university counsellor for help. She told me that I was suffering from Clinical Depression. It felt strange hearing a professional confirm what I already feared. On the one hand it was good because I could now go to my doctor and be more likely to have a fair hearing, but on the other hand I felt like a condemned man and I now had an adversary with a name. I was fighting this external aggressor like the flu virus I had struggled so badly with in first year. It put all sorts of things in my head as I found out a bit more about it. I even read Freud, I was pretty intense in those days and academia was all I knew.

My doctor put me on a medication called Dothiepin. Looking back, all it ever did for me was take away my appetite, give me nausea and dehydration and make me cold and unfeeling. My mood was still rock bottom but any glimpses of joy were squashed. This was to become a familiar problem. Being on medication worried me. These drugs were altering things in my brain but what exactly were they doing to me? How could the doctor know exactly how they were functioning in my brain and what long term effects they could have? My heart seemed to be racing and they put me on more medication to deal with that. That really scared me because I didn’t want to think about anything messing with my heart.

I don’t remember telling anyone about all this. There was more of a stigma in those days and I stigmatised myself. It was a case of living with an invisible plague in contrast to having a physical disability. Down the years I wished that people could see my illness and understand why I acted the way I did.

My connection with the Christadelphians might have saved my life. I found a safe haven down the road, at the church, and with families who took students under their wing and fed them on Sundays. I was helped by one particular family regularly and was taught how to drive tractors and work on their farm. They relied on students for help and I was glad of the diversion, I became very much a regular and got involved in activities that were run just for young people, gaining some friends on the way. Little was I to know that the daughter of my hosts that was away at university was to become my future wife…I like to think that the angels were at work!

By the end of my time at university my wife’s family took me in as a lodger. Every day away from their house, away from my wife to be, was such a contrast. I felt nauseous and full of panic, frightened and depressed, and very lonely. Insomnia plagued me and intensified my problems because I got no respite from the panic. At this time I was very quiet and withdrawn, I appeared aloof and intense, as if I was somehow angry and disapproving of everybody. I was just an impenetrable wall of ice and only my wife could see through it.

I hope this insight into what life can be like at university proves in some way to be useful to you.

Recovering

Clinical depression is a morbid illness. It kills people. It killed my grandfather – even the Nazi’s couldn’t do that. It tried to kill me.

I have spent most of my life wishing for death.

I have stood on the edge of a sheer drop, my toes over the edge, palms sweating and heart thumping.

I have a strong primal instinct for self-preservation. I fear pain. I suffer from vertigo. When you stand on the edge of that drop your mind says jump but your body says stop.

My suicide attempts were all failures. Some were half-hearted cries for help. Some were the only way I could be taken seriously and get some treatment at last. Some were meant to kill me and some very nearly succeeded.

And I’m still alive.

And what’s more, I’m feeling better than I have for many years. I’m recovering.

Clinical depression morphed into anxiety and I ended up in an acute hospital. I rolled around the floor of a deserted corridor having one panic attack after another. The staff just left me to it. I could barely eat. I couldn’t lift my fork to my mouth. I lived on pieces of melon. I couldn’t sleep. I was scared of being murdered in the night by psychopathic patients. Every moment was a hell words cannot describe.

When they let me out again I saw a private psychiatrist for a one-off consultation. She prescribed anti-psychotics instead of anti-depressants, as none had ever worked, and she gave me tablets to help me sleep and to quieten my out of control nervous system.

I slowly began to learn how to function again.

And so here I am: a survivor.

My new diagnosis of BPD is unhelpful and, yes, anxiety is a daily battle but I can actually feel again. Instead of a flat-line low mood occasionally dipping into crisis I can now enjoy the good things about my life and my mood can go up as well as down. I have a wonderful wife, two amazing children and my faith.

Standing on the precipice I never would have believed that I could feel so well or have so much to live for. So I say don’t give up. It’s never too late for things to change.

Still Alive: The First Eighteen Years

All schools ever said about me came in the form of whatever was written in my yearly report. I did well. My reports were good. Teachers liked me because I was bright and polite. They called me ‘quiet’ and ‘conscientious’.

However, my ‘brightness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ didn’t endear me to the rest of the children and being the teacher’s ‘pet’ singled me out as a target. I was different to most of the other kids I neither condoned nor condemned their behaviour in their hearing but by not joining in I earned their wrath. I was scared every day of my school life, at primary school and secondary school, in term time or out: scared of abuse, either physical or verbal, and scared of being mocked and humiliated. I was ostracized at times and tormented at others. This was always going to impact on me both then and in the future.

I was rarely involved in fights because I could run fast and I could make myself scarce at the right moments. I slipped in and out of school through a hedge and managed to avoid being kicked and punched on most days. There were exceptions but nothing was ever done about them. In a way it was for the best because those kids would have hated and persecuted me even more if they had been punished for attacking me. My trials slipped under the radar.

And so, I was just ‘quiet’.

As I excelled in sports (I was virtually always captain of both cricket and football teams in primary and secondary school) along with the academic side of school life teachers must have thought that I was coping with school life better than anyone. Unfortunately, the more they praised me and promoted me the more I was hated, and the more I achieved the more scared I became.

I lost my grandfather (I idolised and loved him more than my own father) when I was ten: he committed suicide on Christmas day. Now I can sympathise with what he must have been going through but I’ll never be able talk to him about it, I’ll never be able to try and help. It gave me a deep wound that has hurt for over thirty years.

My problems only seemed to get worse at secondary school. It was an achingly sad time. In fact it would be fair to say that I spent most of my days in desperate anxiety, dreading every school day and getting more and more nervous from the moment the Friday home time bell went to the moment Monday morning came and my next week of distress began.

The school bus was hell. Sometimes I was persecuted; spat upon; mercilessly and ceaselessly mocked for thirty minutes twice every day. It hurt to take it without fighting back. I kept my anger inside because of cowardice and a hatred of confrontation. My main battle was to keep from blubbering every day.

My mother asked me for permission to divorce my father. When I said yes I felt terrible. I’ll never forget watching him packing up his things in the back of a van and leaving, or the time I saw him crying and said nothing. I sided with my mother but it was still heart-breaking.

I came to live with my father because one of us children had to go with him rather than leaving him totally alone. It meant that I avoided the bus as he had moved into town. Unfortunately we had never got along, I had always lived in fear of his moods and hurt by his lack of praise for me and the atmosphere in the house quickly became poisonous.

During my A-levels my doctor first used the word ‘depression’. Nothing, however, was done about this and I didn’t bother mentioning it to my parents. I was scared of it and didn’t want to be stigmatised.

I left school with good enough qualifications to go to university but also with a lifetime’s worth of issues.

Conclusions

Was it really a surprise that I began to develop stress-related problems, depression and social anxiety? It is not a cliché to look back at these formative years and see problems in later life. There is a reason for psychiatrist’s being interested in our childhoods.

Child and young adult psychology should be made more available than it is now. If it’s not, parents and teachers at last need to be talking about mental health.

I was lonely and isolated and I was being picked on. That’s not just ‘kids being kids’. Teachers should pick up on this and have a conversation.

School time is an intense social experience for children exploring relationships for the first time: relationships with each other, with their teachers, their parents and the wider world. Those children who seem to have trouble with these relationships need to be looked after and monitored.

Is there training and funding for specialist staff in the field of child mental health? Do teachers know enough about what is happening to their pupils at home? What should they know and how should they find out? Do parents know enough about what is happening to their children at school? Does the government care about any of this?

The signs that I was having difficulties were that I had few friends; I was unusually quiet and I was moody; I wanted to run away from home and I was extremely sensitive; I never felt rested after sleep and so I felt tired and weary at school; I was always sad. If they had talked to me they would have picked up on a lack of self-esteem and problems at home.

There are no ‘loners’ in the school system that should be ignored. They need to be dealt with sensitively. If I had the opportunity to talk to someone during my time at school, someone I felt that I could trust, I would have admitted that I faced serious challenges. The long and short of it is that parents and teachers need to understand how important mental health is for kids. They need to see the signs and know where to go to get help.

Every class or year group should have access to someone they can talk to. It’s so important.

I suppose, as with most things, it comes down to money. If the government is serious about targeting mental health it needs to give schools sufficient funding. If we get it right early on we may see the benefit later. The state has had to fund care for me: maybe it could have saved itself from this burden if I had help earlier on in my life.

Every school day I make sure that I talk to my son about how he felt during the day. I give him the vocabulary to be able to answer that question; when he was younger it used to be: was your day ‘good’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ or ‘really bad’? Sometimes we would say was it a ‘normal’ day or an ‘abnormal’ one (he liked this because he was learning about similar structures in grammar)? I always ask him if he played with the other children and if there were any tears. How is he getting on with his teacher? Is there anything worrying him? Does he want to talk to me about anything?

I try to get him to open up and tell me everything. I would thoroughly recommend this approach to all parents. One thing we know for sure about mental health is that talking works.