Thursday, 21 August 2014

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

Cloudy skies looming over St Albans Verulamium Park
(source: Ian Roullier)
I've thought long and hard about writing this post about mental illness and depression and also whether or not to post it in public like this. A friend told me to do so anonymously if I did but I believe it's extremely important to be honest and frank about mental illness, not hide from it, treat it like an embarrassment or hide it from other people.

What happened recently to Robin Williams has definitely played a part in inspiring me to take this step. I hope other people may benefit from this approach and feel less ashamed about their own difficulties and be more able to share them with their friends and families. At the very least, I hope doing this is cathartic and helps me to rebuild my life in a way that's more balanced and harmonious. There will be those who understand and those that don't but one of the many reasons I've ended up in this place mentally is by being overly concerned about what other people think, and it's time that useless pursuit stopped.

"Happiness is a state of mind, not a set of circumstances," wrote author and counsellor Richard Carlson. The same, to my mind, goes for depression.*

In my working life I have achieved many of my ambitions including:
  • Writing a cover feature for iDJ Magazine.
  • Writing cover features for DJ Magazine, a magazine I had wanted to write for since I was a teenager.
  • Being asked to edit the first ever edition of DJ Magazine Croatia.
  • Getting regular work from Mixmag, another magazine I'd wanted to write for since I was 14.
  • Writing album reviews for the BBC.
  • Being asked to write album sleeve notes and biographies for artists' websites.
  • Being a successful business-to-business magazine editor travelling regularly to the Middle East.
  • Covering all of the audio duties (studio recording, sound design, music/sting composition, mixing and mastering) sound for a series of radio comedies.
  • Being commissioned to do the sound recording, sound design and music for a short film.

And on a personal level, I have a fantastic wife, an amazing set of friends, good relationships with the family members that count and have also recently moved house.

On paper, things could not have been better (although money was still very tight), and I would have bitten your hand off had you presented the above scenario to me just a few years ago. But rather than this being an amazing time of my life, it has proved to be one of the hardest and what I should see as positives just end up being sticks to beat myself with. "You SHOULD be happy," goes the mental dialogue. "Why the hell can't you appreciate all that you've achieved or everything that you have? What's your problem?"

The truth was that I felt completely overwhelmed. I felt like I was doing three jobs, because in fact I was (music journalist, business magazine editor and audio producer), and doing none of them well due to the fact I couldn't focus on any one thing. How could I devote myself to keeping up with the music scene and listen to the steady stream of promos I get sent when I should also be trying to read as much as I can about what's happening in the Middle East oil industry? How could I hone my audio skills and try and get more audio-related work when I was trying to edit and fact check a book about business in China?

As John Foxx says of Brian Eno in David Sheppard's 'On Some Faraway Beach - The Life and Times of Brian Eno': "The dangers inherent in these sorts of activity are fairly obvious […] spreading too wide and thin while not firmly grasping anything significant and losing the distinction between position and attainment." Not that I'm comparing myself to Brian Eno in any way, it just echoes the situation I found myself in of trying to play so many different roles that I could never attain anything tangible within any of them. A jack of all trades, and a master of none.

Freelancing also brings its own inherent problems: there are no working hours, there is no routine (aside from the one you choose to implement) and, for me, there ended up being no 'off' switch where I could differentiate working life from the rest of my life and just relax and enjoy things.

On top of my three (or more) career paths, I was also trying to learn Norwegian at evening classes, studying a music production productivity course (Mike Monday's 'Start Now, Finish Fast) and was part of a music-related 'goal orientated' group. I've always been obsessed with human potential and trying to keep reaching my own potential. I realise now the roots of this probably lie in the thought that I'm just not good enough as I am, so I need to constantly improve and prove myself so I can feel OK about myself. This overwhelming pressure from within led to a never-ending, insurmountable list of things that had to be done that would constantly loom over me. This clearly had to stop.

In November last year I was sent to Saudi Arabia by one of the business clients I did editorial work for and every day I walked around an oil and gas show feeling so absolutely disconnected from my environment and what I was doing. It was like an out of body experience and for the first time in years I could feel panic attacks rising up within me again. While in Saudi Arabia, I was also being pressured for work by the team involved with the short film I was doing the audio for, and I was also trying to squeeze in editing chapters of a business handbook for another client. There seemed no end in sight, nowhere for me to catch my breath and collect my thoughts for a while, no way I could breathe let alone relax.

I couldn't afford financially to take time out of work, but my low mood, the pent up anger and constant, debilitating anxiety meant I couldn't afford not to. I felt so stretched that I was snapping, even the smallest task felt like a huge burden, I had no energy, no emotional buffer. I was quick to anger, to snap, and then the guilt that followed would add another layer of self-recrimination. I felt like I no longer knew who I was any more, I would cry as I searched for an answer to why I felt this way and thought of the impact upon my loved ones.

I went to see a doctor in early December who told me that work clearly seemed to be the root cause of my mental health issues and that's what I needed to tackle. Everything else I needed was in place (a good, supportive relationship with my wife, good friends to talk to, regular cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), practicing meditation etc), the only thing I could do better with was having a healthier diet and exercising more often. Antidepressants were an option but I had come off of those that summer and was reluctant to go back on them, wanting to deal with the underlying problems rather than placing a drug-infused blanket over them (I realise now this really is not the right way to view medication though).

Still, I carried on working stupid hours, neglecting my mental health and my relationships with those closest to me. I did this with a deep knowing that I couldn't carry on like this. I needed to park the car for a while. To stop everything, take stock. Rip it up and start again, as the song goes. I gradually set about reducing my workload, and therefore my income, for example cutting back on my commitments to the short film I was working on for instance (under immense pressure from the producer to carry on regardless).

Then in April, a very good friend and colleague of mine, David, died of complications related to Mantle Cell Lymphoma, having been given the all-clear just a few weeks before. While this was the third time he had fought the condition, David's death still came as a huge shock as it had seemed he was through the worst. He had been a true mentor and inspiration to me. Much of the business editorial work I had been doing had been to help David out while he was ill. My duty and commitment was to helping him, not to the publishing company I had worked at for many years, where an increasingly toxic atmosphere had built up in recent years (despite there being a fantastic team of people there).

I'm still not entirely sure if I'm fully aware of the impact of David's death upon me. At one point during the weeks after his death I convinced myself that I was seriously ill - why would I feel like I lacked the capacity to do the smallest of tasks otherwise? - and once again made an appointment with the doctor (at a different surgery this time as I'd moved house). The same questions were asked and the same conclusion drawn - I had many key elements of support in place but I needed to alter my working arrangements. The doctor sent me for blood tests and offered to write me off work for a couple of weeks but as a self-employed freelancer, who would I give the letter to? I was my own boss. Once again, medication could be used as a last resort but I didn't want to go down that path again. I discovered later that another of David's good friends and colleagues had been through the exact same process after David's death, being convinced he was seriously ill and going to hospital for tests (that came back clear).

I gradually cut my ties with the publishing company (stepping away over the next couple of months) and it took several months to finish the other projects I was involved in, and wind everything down. Turning work away was (and is) completely counterintuitive but I had no choice but to create some space to breathe in.

My various blood test results all came back clear and I realised that I could allow myself to start doing more energetic things again, like going for long walks, which definitely helped improve my state of mind. It's almost that by stopping everything I had become unable to cope with doing anything at all. For a while though, my list of work 'things to do' was simply replaced by a domestic one of fence painting, DIY etc and still I felt overwhelmed and stretched. My whole sense of self-worth was coming from what I could achieve every day, how many tasks I could complete was commensurate with how worthy a person I was. This couldn't go on but I still don't know where people's deep sense of self-worth and their strong foundations come from. This is something I still need to work out.

Have I destroyed my own identity because that identity wasn't good enough or because it clearly didn't make me happy? My ego says I have. 'Why have I thrown everything away?' it yells at me. But sometimes you have to create a vacuum so that new things can come into your life to fill that space. I'd come up with the phrase years ago that "The meaning of life is to live a life with meaning", but didn't really take it to heart enough. Now I have to.

What have I learned or should I say been reminded of by the past nine months? That work is important as far as paying the bills goes but should not come at the top of the list of priorities in life. Your relationships with loved ones, friends, family and (most people forget this one) yourself are far, far more important. As has been said many times before, nobody on their death bed regrets not working harder, but many wish they'd spent more quality time with the people they love.

Within work itself, I also want what I do to have more meaning, to impact positively upon other people (something that writing about oil or construction never does and writing about music may even not, although music itself can be amazingly transformative). Whether this is doing editorial work for a charity, giving treatments of some sort to people (I trained in Reiki 16 years ago, perhaps it's time to start sharing that with people?), becoming a sound therapist or perhaps something I haven't even thought of, I want what I do in my working life to be of benefit to others. Driven not by my ego and an obsession with what 'I am' (a journalist, an editor, an audio producer) but driven by my calling, as this article describes so well.

And where am I now? Well, trying to make sense of it all. Realising that I need to start working again soon to pay the mortgage. Working out which path to choose. Most of my days are still off days. I often can't face going out but force myself to, I don't pick the phone up, no matter who is calling, (as my friends are probably all too aware) because I'm not 'at my best' (not that my genuine friends expect me to be, these are self-inflicted expectations). At the moment I am nothing (workwise at least), I have purposely wiped the slate clean, but it's time to unpark the car again and start moving in life, wherever I end up.

*When I say that depression is a state of mind not a set of circumstances, don't get me wrong. I don't know how I would have got through the past nine months without the support of my wife, friends and family. But no circumstances guarantee that you won't suffer with depression, just as being rich or successful doesn't make you immune from catching a cold, breaking a leg or becoming ill. There are certain ways that you can try to help yourself though that are proven to at least help lift the cloud slightly. These include exercise, eating a healthy diet, CBT, mindfulness and meditation and medication helps some people as well. The main thing to do when you're in such a hole is to speak to your friends and family though, or if this isn't possible an organisation like the Samaritans can help. Remember you don't have to be alone and that asking for help with mental illness is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and your will to get better.