Stop This Now

Everybody probably thought that I was now well and that all’s well that ends well. I would get used to getting up early every morning despite my history of sleep problems; I would get used to the pressures of work life; I would get used to the hours; I would get used to the boredom; I would get used to mixing with work colleagues; I would get used to having a boss; I would get used to living in Devon away from my family, Cambridgeshire, and the Norfolk coast. Probably. That’s how it felt to me.

The problem was that my brave face was a mask for the truth. I couldn’t get used to getting up early every morning. I found that I was struggling to drag myself out of bed after a sleepless night; I found that my medication was making me drowsy; I found that I felt physically sick after getting up; I found that I was making mistakes in the mornings because I was struggling to wake up.

I couldn’t get used to the pressures of work life; every job was a ton of pressure because I still had that feeling that I was making it all up as I went along and that my skills were severely limited.

I struggled to get around a city I had never lived in before and getting around Plymouth was a massive part of the job as we were always so pushed for time. I would be doing one job whilst my boss was shouting in my ear that I needed be over the other side of town for the next one – right now; all the photographers needed to be able to fly across town, they needed to know all the names of the roads and areas of Plymouth, all the roads to avoid at certain times of the day, all the short-cuts and all the places to park.

Driving was a part of the job I had underestimated and I relied heavily on my vindictive sat-nav. It took me up roads that should have been classified as tracks (I remember trying to drive on a road that had pot plants in the middle of it) and confused me into making some horrendous errors. I distinctly remember needing to get into Cornwall early on in my career (so called) and following the sat-nav into a cue of cars. It wasn’t until I could see the estuary that I realised I was about to board a ferry. I had no idea there was a ferry and no idea how long it was going to take. I had no idea that I had to pay for the privilege and thought I was about to get into a whole world of trouble. As it happened, the ferry became quite a regular route and I soon got used to it.

The pressures of work-life were immense; every job was a new challenge and it put all my skills to the test, it was stress from the start to the end of my day. Some jobs were interesting, most not were not, but all were stressful. I have some amazing memories. It felt good to be behind the scenes with television presenters; pitch-side and up close with sports-men and sports-women; meeting actors and pop-stars; being in the captain’s seat in a war-ship and under the water in a submarine, and doing all sorts of crazy things. Yes, those things were good, but they also came at a price to my nervous system.

I couldn’t get used to the hours. We had a rotating work schedule that included evenings and weekends. I had to work every Saturday; I hated missing out on the only day my wife was free to go out (Sundays we spent at church); it felt like my new life was all work and soon that it was no life at all.

I couldn’t get used to the boredom. We had to remain in the office even when news was scarce and we had no jobs for hours. There was nothing to do. I began to bring books to read surreptitiously but I read them knowing that my boss could walk in at any time. The others seemed to have stuff to do but it was not something they could share with me. It wasn’t long before I was begging my boss to let me go out and photograph landmarks for our archives.

I couldn’t get used to mixing with my work colleagues. It was one of the hardest parts of the job. I made one friend but there always seemed to be an agenda with the rest. They all seemed to be jostling for position and the politics produced fake people and I hated that. I found that most of my colleagues were unfriendly and difficult to strike up a relationship with. I feared that they were judging me and speaking about me behind my back. I knew that everyone could see how green I was. The daily anxiety this caused exhausted and drained me.

I couldn’t get used to my boss. He was an ex-marine, very tall and imposing. He was stuck in the 1970’s in a time when it was ok to pick on people; embarrass and insult them in front of the whole news-desk; shout at them, harass them, and get away with it. It was common knowledge in the office that he would pick on people, summon them to the picture desk and shame them, time after time, before moving on to his next victim. He would appear suddenly and then not be around for days. I dreaded seeing his car in the car-park of a morning. His bullying really took its toll on me.

I couldn’t get used to my new city. It was bigger than anywhere else I had lived and whilst it had some great qualities I never really warmed to it, especially as I missed both Cambridgeshire and Norfolk all those miles away across the other side of the country. I missed my old church and my family, I missed my pets and I missed nature. I still do.

And so all of the problems that may have seemed easy to overcome to everybody else I was secretly being beaten by. I was hiding it but it was breaking me. Before the year was out I was so mentally exhausted that my brain began to tell me that enough was enough: stop this now or break completely.

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.