I’ve gone through a very trying mental health journey this last year. Here I describe my struggles in the hope it will help give fellow sufferers a light at the end of a very dim and lonely tunnel, and educate others in how they can help their colleagues.
13 years ago when I first started in pre-sales I knew a salesman who had time off for mental health issues. To our eternal shame, the majority of us thought it was a scam to get extra time off or an easier sales target.
In fact now we understand it was a real debillitating illness, not an excuse or attempt to game the system. Our judgements at the time were the norm in society. Very common in the software industry, and certainly common in the swashbuckling, competitive, and (still, unfortunately) macho area of sales.
Thankfully these days such opinions would not be openly talked about, or colleagues judged in the open. The internal thoughts are still prevalent within individuals though. You see it in the sideways glances, and faux-concern, and the quick change of subjects when people are in small groups.
I am no longer one of the gossipers. I was a young man when the above happened to a colleague, and I’ve grown and experienced a lot since.
Including nearly killing myself last year.
Below I describe my journey in the hope it helps reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, and eliminates the toxic masculinity still prevalent in the software sales and pre-sales roles in the UK tech sector. Hopefully it will give other sufferers hope too as I have, for the most part, escaped my lows of despair.
Nothing particularly interesting happened in June last year. This detail is provided as a baseline month.
The usual was going on. I was 6 months in to owning a new house. Living not unhappily with a wife and two dogs.
I had a job I enjoyed for the most part, colleagues I liked working and socialising with, and hobbies in my spare time. No major financial concerns. Life was pretty good.
Still, I’d always had a few personal issues. I thought they were purely my own weaknesses with no real reason other than perhaps laziness. I learnt a lot later they were symptoms of deeper troubles brewing.
Now, some of you who have not had mental health issues will see these as ridiculous and minor. Those of you who have will easily relate and probably laugh out loud as you recognise similar traits in yourself.
Please do feel free to laugh out loud. I know they sound ridiculous, as they still do to me, but as you’ll learn later in this post they are symptoms of a wider problem that dates back a long time.
So here are a list of things I found I was doing last June:-
- Struggling to remember to brush my teeth and have a shower in the morning
- Getting out of bed, getting changed, and heading straight for my home office to start work. If I didn’t start at 07:30 in the morning I’d feel like I was cheating my employer – even though most people in the London office only started after 09:00.
- Having lunch, but spending less than 30 minutes rustling something up, and dashing back to the computer
- Not letting the dogs up to see me as I was “at work”, and thought this would somehow be deemed as work dodging
- Being very helpful at work and in my private life to the point of accepting any request for help no matter how busy I was myself, and no matter how much it added to my stress
- Not opening letters, as all paper is evil, and could only possibly contain something to add to my stress. Even if it wasn’t, it was possible it could be, and so it’s left unopened for months
- Knowing things had to be done, but backing them up to the last minute, as somehow this made me feel like I’d do them better
- Jumping from wanting to talk to people (any people) for hours about any subject, to wanting to be alone for a whole day, sometimes jumping back and forth between these two states of mind a couple of times an hour.
- Wanting to do something like walk the dogs, only to when doing these things feel like I had to stop doing them immediately and move on to something else, even though there was no time imperative to do so. What’s next? What’s next? Go, go, go!!!
- Being exceptionally hacked off if someone interrupted me at work more than twice in a day (including wife and dogs)
- Avoiding making phone calls for common admin tasks, like renewing insurance or booking an appointment
- Not keeping in touch with anyone
- Finding other peoples behaviours massively irksome, even when it didn’t really matter
- Becoming obsessed with doing certain activities or hobbies, then losing interest all of a sudden for months, and move on to something else, and become similarly obsessed with that now.
- Not finishing anything.
So yeah, pretty messed up. But this was the baseline. I didn’t feel like I had a real problem. Things were kinda ok, really, honest, with my life.
After all I had no right to complain. I earned a fair amount, had my own house, and could afford food. Much more than 90% of the planet can do.
Things came very much to a head in early July around my Birthday. The trigger was something pretty minor at my volunteering job I do in my spare time. I’ll spare the details as it’s neither the organisations nor the persons fault who triggered it.
Suffice to say, something was said to me that I thought grossly unfair. This sent me in to a spin of paranoia and anxiety. Do people think I’m useless? Why are they saying this about me? Am I a failure? Why can’t I seem to get anything right?
A lot of small threads in my life seemed to coalesce. From minor niggles they melded in to a clear sign of complete failure. I was that failure. My whole life, my whole being. I had nothing to show for my work and efforts. I was neither rich or had thousands of friends phoning me up asking to spend time with me. All I had was a day job and a spare time devoid of any joy or achievements.
What was the point?
It was at this point I started planning how to kill myself.
Of course it doesn’t start like that immediately. I builds over time. You start with ‘oh what’s the point [in trying]?’.
We’ve all been there right? Doesn’t mean we’re all suicidal. This is a normal sign of frustration we’ve all experienced.
You then move on to ‘why do I bother [trying to help]?’. Or get up in the morning. Or trying at work. Or helping others. Or talking to others. Or talking to anyone.
After all, no-one would understand. They’d just think I was weak, or melodramatic. Or likely both.
No, much better to keep the thoughts to myself. Revealing them would only make others think less of me, and frankly I’ve enough to be dealing with.
Who could I talk to anyway? Friends? Well, I don’t see many of them often, and they wouldn’t understand. How could they? It’s me who is weird.
Family? Don’t laugh! Wife? Definitely not. Don’t want to disappoint them. (Probably do that enough anyway…) Don’t want to be alone at 37.
How am I going to get through this? … No wonder people just give up [and kill themselves]. Jump off buildings, in front of trains.
I mean trains. What about the train drivers? But I started to understand. ‘Not such a bad way. Probably instant’ started creeping in to my mind.
Bear in mind I take the train 4 times a week on average. It was a common thought. Stopped only by Dale and his staff at the station having been through that a few months before, and me knowing the agony and trauma it has caused them all.
It got to the point that even my wife got worried… Should probably explain that. With the best will in the world, she’d describe herself as – shall we say – not exactly sympathetic. And this is great British understatement. She’d agree to this, I’m not name calling.
So even she was worried and suggested I join her, the dogs, and her friends in South Wales before she started work there for a few weeks.
I didn’t feel like it but I went anyway. We took both vehicles, her and her van with the dogs and me alone following on.
Ill thinking isn’t thinking normally
It’s at this point I should explain one key thing about mental illness that I’ve learnt, probably the most important thing – certainly the way I’ve experienced it. We’ve probably all thought “Well how could they DO that!?! It’s not normal to do/think that way!” about people with mental illness.
The thing is, that’s exactly the point. When you are in a personal crisis you do not think like you do on a normal, good day (not that normal is a thing… but anyway…)
So for example:-
- Normal thinking: “Kill myself? Don’t be silly. I’m an atheist. I’d be dead. What would the point of that? Doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t help anyone. Plus, you know, I’d be like – dead. No snowboarding if dead dude.”
- Illness thinking: “If I weren’t alive I wouldn’t have these problems. I wouldn’t be a problem. No-one would miss me anyway. I don’t want the hassle or pain any longer. Let’s kill myself.”
I’ve massively summarised the whole train of thought, but this is basically how I felt. Others I’m sure have different experiences.
It was, at the time, totally logical with my vast intellect (I never said I was modest when ill or when healthy…) to kill myself because that’s what the data and reasoning was telling me. And my reasoning had never let me down before. Thus it MUST be the right conclusion.
It wasn’t of course, but you get the idea. It felt like logical thinking. It didn’t feel wrong.
Mental illness affects how your brain works. Illogical is logical. Up is down. Aston Villa is a good football team. Grimsby is a wonderful place to visit. You get the idea.
This is why, I think at least, it is an illness. It’s not a bad mood, or something to get over. It’s how you are suffering at the time.
It’s the limp to your sprained ankle, the grimace as you weight bear. It is caused by an illness, and is not a choice. You limp or grimace like that because you are ill, not because you choose to put it on. The same goes for mental illness. You can’t think right in the same way you can’t walk right with a sprained ankle.
The drive to Wales
Before any funny bugger says “It was Wales that did it then!?!”. NO IT WASN’T! I love Wales, I spent several amazing years at University at Aberystwyth. I’ve climbed most of her mountains. I just happened to be going there for a weekend as this next part of the story unfolded.
So I’m in my car following my wife with the dogs in the van. I’m playing over all the major (although actually minor) injustices and problems in my life and rapidly losing the will to keep on fighting.
I saw no hope, no light at the end of the tunnel, and could see no way out.
I started to think about how to kill myself.
I’m scared of heights, so no jumping off things. Trains are out (I love the staff too much. Don’t tell their money grabbing employers). I don’t like the sight of my own blood, so that’s not happening.
As I was driving again the same thought I’d had pop in to my head every day for the last week came in again. What if I crashed off the road in to a ditch? No innocent bystanders, nothing scary just before hand, just a quick crash and then blacked out to death. Clean. Simple.
On this long drive this one particular day, once the thought had popped in there I couldn’t seem to shake it.
I was now actively looking for places I could do it. I’d driven the route before. I’ve commuted around the whole UK really working in Sales, so know the roads really well.
It was entering Wales on the motorway I thought I’d found the place. A wide ravine, not too high, with little traffic and an insubstantial looking barrier.
I found the wheel turning, me leaving the left lane moving slowly toward the barrier. Almost in slow motion.
I blinked, corrected the travel of the car, and continued to follow my wife’s van.
I started to weep. Not because I’d narrowly avoided doing it, but because I’d failed yet again. My despair was complete. Probably the top of 5 times I’d felt complete, soul crushing despair in my life.
I decided I’d try to kill myself again tomorrow.
That night we stayed in the van – a stealth camper van – outside of Hay on Wye.
(Appropriate I should feel suicidal there as I almost died getting poisoned by a pizza there once with my mushroom allergy. Perhaps I should just avoid the bloody place?)
Nothing that remarkable happened. My dog, Leo, kissed me lots, as he does the soppy bugger. We all went for a nice walk by the river. I still felt unbelievably glum. Couldn’t talk about it though.
Ended the day feeling 0.05% better. Turns out this is enough to stop wanting to kill yourself. Who knew?
But what would the next day hold? Well I’m writing this blog post, so that’s kinda a plot spoiler.
We had a good weekend. I got some alone time, but some fun time with my wife’s friends too. Some Leo puppy and daddy time, with an ice cream each, which is always awesome. Also heard about one of my wife’s friends struggles, which oddly gave me hope with my own. (I hope some of you feel the same way reading this).
Strangely, hearing life was shit for someone else, that they struggled daily, and continue to struggle, but were living through it and even finding some joy in life now – this helped a lot.
It kept me away from the edge. I couldn’t talk about it yet. That would come later.
I managed to drive home after the couple of days, took the dogs with me, and didn’t drive in to a ditch. Although it was touch and go for a bit.
When the dam burst
Although I’m a gobshite, hardly anyone truly knows how I tick. I think really only two people still alive are close enough to understand. I don’t reveal my inner workings easily.
After all just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean there’s no-one out to get me.
So I keep it to myself.
Imagine my surprise then when a volunteer at my group is complaining about something minor that I finally lose it and blurt out “You have to realise what affect your words have. Comments like this have led in part to me trying to kill myself over the weekend”.
What the F.
They look shocked. I internally think “I appear to have lost my inner monologue…”.
I ask them to get some perspective and finish that conversation. I then call in my two uniformed staff members and close the door.
I recant what just happened. Tell them I’ve been struggling and planned to kill myself a couple of days ago.
As luck would have it they both work for the NHS (The UK’s National Health Service). They sign post me to the local urgent mental health team which I visit a few days later (took a while to build up to it). I don’t think my case particularly urgent but agree to go anyway.
They keep things away from my door until I do so. I tell my wife what happened when I get home. Not the full details of my thoughts though, or about Wales.
NHS Mental Health Services
Turns out, at Chesterfield hospital you can turn up to A&E and you can see a GP immediately, who can then call down a mental health team member from the team on site. Who knew?
Naturally as I’m not bleeding, and they have other patients in their care on the mental health ward, I wait for it to take some time to be seen.
I am amazed they move me in to a quiet A&E room pretty quickly after about 20 minutes, to the side of the main rooms, so I don’t have to interact with anyone for a while. After an hour or so a mental health nurse turns up.
We go to a special room decked out to be what I guess is calming and comfortable, with big comfy seats you can lose yourself in.
She asks questions, I talk. Within 5 minutes I’m broken down and blubbering like I haven’t done since I was 5. Everything spills out.
Turns out I have an illness. A mental illness.
The nurse is great. Somehow easy to talk to, non judgemental. I don’t feel psychoanalysed. We speak for 45 minutes. At the end they say they will write to my GP, but that I shouldn’t wait, and can self refer in Derbyshire online to an NHS funded mental health service. They give me the details, and some information about staying safe in the meantime.
I ask if I’m safe to be at work or volunteering around kids. She smiles and says that, yes, she thinks I am definitely safe, but if I’m anxious I shouldn’t feel like I have to go in.
I thank her, head out in a physically weakened and exhausted state – like I’d ran a marathon – and with red raw eyes and dry throat. I had to sit outside for a while before driving home.
August, September 2018
Strangely, although I still plan how to kill myself 2-3 times a week I feel a little more positive. Naturally this isn’t talked about. I mention some feelings to a couple of people, but being dismissed or receiving almost angry responses (“How dare you feel this way!” they may as well say), I stop talking pretty darn quickly.
I have a few minor outbursts when dealing with annoying people, and quickly go home each time to no fanfare, and am supported by my uniformed staff when needed. But I stay safe.
Life goes on. Some people are still dicks, some other things get resolved. Standard life stuff really, but it’s still causing big swings in my mood, and I can’t take pleasure in anything really.
But I had a plan, something to think positive about. Although I was scared about being locked in a padded cell or told I should just man up in my first session.
I’m told a referral will take at least a couple of months although I’m on the list, but that it could be longer depending if there are more serious cases that come along.
I then get a phone call saying I have a first assessment session just two months after referring myself. Hmmm… probably more ill than I thought then.
I go to my first session in the most nondescript location you can think of. I walk down that street a lot and have never seen it before. The name on the door doesn’t really describe what it is (I’m not repeating it here to preserve others’ privacy).
Honestly, it may have as well have been the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. Benefit to this being that people can’t watch me walking in to a “crazy person’s place”. No threat of being discovered… as I discover during my reconnaissance of the location well in advance of the meeting. Again, just because I’m paranoid…
We talk about a whole load of things, not just recently but over years. She asks what I struggle with, if there’s been any incidents or worries thinking back.
With her facilitation I discover It’s not something I’ve just started suffering from. I’ve been ill since I was 13. I’d just never learnt the techniques to help me through and over the years a world of hurt had built up.
I discover my risk score is pretty darn high. There’s a sheet of paper you fill in each visit with ratings from 1-10 in key areas. Other questions have answers ranging from ‘many times a day’ to ‘not in the last 2 weeks’ on them.
These are risk scores for being suicidal, and for being functional in the world, in effect. I’m probably drastically simplifying them, but this is the gist you need to know.
These same questions are asked on each visit to track your progress or to highlight recent problems, and used to spot any newly emerging issues.
She tells me she recommends we commence counselling using CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This is effectively taking the most pressing concern each in turn, and developing techniques to rationalise and deal with the scenarios.
Initial treatment will be for 3 months, as this is what they have funding for.
I leave feeling drained but with a plan, and the hope that I can overcome my challenges.
Over the first two sessions we discuss trying to find a little joy or achievement in every day activities. We make activity plans to try and get things done. Nothing too big or complex to start with, just a couple of things a day.
Snowboarding, tidying the home office, doing basic admin, going for walks with the dogs. Simple stuff, but trying to ensure they or their equivalent are done when scheduled.
This planning is just one technique. Many techniques are discussed and practiced over the following months. I won’t recount them here are tools you need may well be different to what I needed. I’d recommend getting a referral if you are worried. They are lovely people and can truly help.
I conclude after some soul searching that I should try and find a place to work that is more in line with my personal beliefs and values and the way a software org should be run, so I find such a place and change jobs.
I loved my boss at the old place. Very supportive and would have seen me promoted, but I had to move on for my own reasons. I explained this to him and he understood, although he said best not to reveal my mental health issues to anyone else in the office, as some in management may not understand and use it as ammunition for their own nefarious ends.
Although I feel anxious at the upcoming change, I feel tremendous relief too.
I start my new job. It’s a work hard play hard place, and I manage to meet and socialise with everyone the first week.
I don’t reveal my mental health issues. I’d just been told not to reveal them at the last place of work, and it’s the same role, same industry, and about 500m away from the old office in London. (The fear of a negative response to this blog post will cause me a lot of anxiety, but I think it’s right for me to share this openly).
I go away to Egypt on holiday with my wife’s family. The day I return I discover my wife is planning on leaving me, so I ask her to move out.
Another immediate crisis. I call my sister at home. She’s out, but luckily my brother in law answers. I tell him what I’ve just found out, and blab everything I’ve been struggling with the last year. He’s clearly shocked, but helps calm me down, and gets hold of my sister. We talk things through and they help me get through the next few days – this is just 6 days before Christmas.
I see my councillor just 4 days later. She’s more shocked than most people at an East Enders plot. Weirdly, my scores on general happiness have improved. That probably speaks volumes.
I should be clear, I blame my wife for none of this. Crap happens. There are various significant factors at play in the relationship. I find myself left in a zen like state of forgiveness by the whole episode. It’s weird.
New Year 2019
I’m asked out by several of my good friends all of whom flock to check on me after discovering my split. Still not feeling particularly up to being sociable I don’t go to any parties. I just don’t feel up to it, and am absolutely sure me and alcohol should keep apart for a few weeks.
Broke down in tears at 02:00 one morning. Couldn’t stop crying. Thankfully Zack (one of the dogs) was there to kiss me better. Leo (the big dawg) was upset I’d not thrown the toy for him all day and was still sulking. Old man that the is.
Anyway. Crap new year. Although the big cry was oddly cathartic.
Due to new job commitments some counselling sessions are moved back. Obvious I’m not telling my new job I need an hour every couple of weeks for counselling, so I fit it in when it won’t be obvious. People think I’m getting my dodgy back looked at. (An easy excuse in the IT industry). They think it’s because I’m fat. (One even tells a colleague I look fat in meetings. Nice).
The sessions run on in to February. The odd set back, but generally improving. The sessions end with me having a risk score just borderline of being in concern. I’m told I can self refer again after three months of trying to get on by myself with the techniques I’ve been taught.
I tell one friend of my struggles. She’s had her own problems so I’m pretty sure she would understand. She does. It helps to keep in touch with each other. We occasionally vent at each other and reassure each other.
Work continues to pick up, with lots of activity and trips. Not much time for training or onboarding in a growing software company.
I tell another close friend, who’s like a second sister, about planning to kill myself last year. She grabs me for a hug and tells me I can call her or pop in any time. Knowing this helps too.
I take up activities I’ve not done in a few years, even though I don’t feel much up to it, as it helps to try and keep active.
Finding little achievements in things, experiencing small moments of joy – even something as simple as Pizza Hut lunches by myself every couple of weeks.
I continue to feel better and more in mastery of my own destiny. Practicing the techniques helps. I take up mindfulness using the Calm app. I exercise using a yoga mat. I plan admin tasks and complete them. Even expenses at work which are a massive cause of anxiety (for no good reason… yes, still ill), and processing other post I receive.
It’s now early June. I still get worked up over perceived conspiracies and can’t sleep through anxieties, including thinking I’m going to be fired at work, relieved at my volunteering job, or randomly going bankrupt. (Quite why I don’t know…).
I’m now spending more time with my old friends, less time trying to please people or taking on too much myself. It’s slowly helping. I look forward to more and more. I’m completing old activities I’ve never finished. I revisit old hobbies. Grass still needs mowing…
I’m still ill. I don’t think these thoughts and anxieties will ever go away. I learn how to recognise them, avoid them escalating, and keep my mental baseline at a healthy level. I avoid suicidal thoughts successfully pretty much every week. I talk about my feelings more and have a support base now I didn’t have before.
I no longer fear seeking help from professionals. I do still fear others’ perception.
I’ve not “gotten over it”. You don’t “get over it” much like you don’t get over having a permanently deformed spine from a biking accident. You learn techniques to minimise the pain, and find joy in new or different activities. That’s the best way I can describe it.
I’m no expert. I’ve had one probably relatively minor mental health incident in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t know as we still don’t talk enough about this in our society.
I do know most men who die in the UK between 21 and 40 die through suicide. That’s a disgrace. We need and must do better.
So in my little way, I have a few bits of advice for people:-
Advice for those wishing to help others
- Learn to recognise mental health conditions
- Go on a mental health first aid course
- Signpost people to mental health services, or helplines like Childline (for youths) or the Samaritans
- Always be kind
Advice for friends and family of mental health sufferers
- Just because you don’t know what to say, never say “Now you’re not going to go and do anything stupid are you? Promise me!”. Because that makes people feel like they’re 6 months old and failing to go potty. Just don’t say it. This is the most common goddamn thing I’ve been told. 50% of people I’ve told have said this to me.
- Make yourself available, and make it known you are available, but don’t force yourself on someone who is suffering. There will be days they don’t want to socialise, and that’s fine too
- Call your friends and family members who are suffering, and not just to make sure they’ve not topped themselves because they’ve not phoned you in a while.
- Share your own stories. They may be more minor, but it’s important people feel they’re not alone, and that talking about mental health issues is normal and can be done in the open
Advice for employers / managers / leaders
- Always be kind
- Realise you can only observe behaviour and not intent or thought. This means you need to talk to someone to see why they are doing things, rather than just bitching about it or being snarky with them. Ask why something was done and don’t be judgemental. Be supportive. Most everyone wants to grow and succeed. No one wakes up wanting to be an ass. So there’s no need to act like one yourself either.
- Correct behaviour and then instantly forgive and forget about it. The military are good at this, civilian leaders see any minor failing once as something they need to be on the prowl for and bring up forever more
- Come down on gossip about people with mental health issues, or jokes about those with mental health problems, like a tonne of bricks. Stop it dead. Foster a spirit of openness and support.
- Encourage mental health awareness in your team.
- If you’ve suffered yourself, be open about it if you feel able to do so, and say your door or a colleagues is always open (my volunteer boss has done this, and is mostly why I feel safe writing this post)
- Provide mental health and mindfulness apps and employee confidential phone lines to your employees and their families
- ALWAYS be kind
Advice if you think you are suffering
- You’re not weak
- You are loved. I love you.
- If you feel able, talk to an understanding friend. Failing that, a helpline from Mind, the Samaritans, or Childline is a great place to talk to someone you’ll never meet and can be safe in talking to, without judgment
- Realise there is a way out of this where you can live, and not just survive, but thrive.
- It’s ok to ask for help
- You are not alone
- Realise your logical thought process may be compromised, so please talk to someone and see what they think before making any big decisions about your future
- Stay safe xxx
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write and publish. It is shared in the hope that it will help normalise talking about mental health issues, and to help others like me who thought (in error) they were alone or weak or couldn’t talk about how they were feeling.
Please be kind, and leave kind comments.
Oh and no reason if you know me to call me up in desperate worry. I’m safe, and plan to stay that way. Feel free to call for a gossip anytime though. 8o)
Why write this?
A favourite scene from The West Wing explains this.
A man falls down a hole. He shouts for help. After a while a Priest passes by. “Help me Father, I’ve fallen down a hole!”. The priest writes a prayer on a piece of paper, throws it down the hole, and continues on.
The man continues to shout for help. A little while later a Doctor comes by. “Help me Doctor!”. The doctor writes a prescription and throws it down the hole.
A while later, a friend passes by. “Help! I’ve fallen down a hole!” says the man. The friend jumps in the hole to join him. “What are you doing!?!” exclaims the man “Now we’re both stuck in here!”. “Ah yes” says the friend, “but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out!”.