I’ve just typed two or three opening paragraphs for this article, and not one of them really conveyed the message I wanted to get across. I suppose that in itself is a metaphor for trying to speak out about mental health issues isn’t it? You know what you want to say, but when it comes to getting it out there it’s often easier to remain silent. Soldier on.
In recent weeks we’ve had examples of high-profile footballers both within our club and in the wider world openly suffering from mental health issues. We saw last week England international Aaron Lennon enter the news due to his own personal battle. Before I even used his name in the blog I did contact Nathan Arnold, because as a fellow sufferer I didn’t want him to think I was using his story just to write my blogs. I’m not, and in the course of our chat (through his partner) he offered to do an interview later in the summer to help raise awareness of mental health, particularly in young males. If you’re here for football stuff, that is as far as it goes. I haven’t chatted to Nathan yet, and the rest of the blog is just about mental health. Please do read on though, that’s what mental health week is all about.
I haven’t openly discussed the things I’m about to talk about, not properly and not in their entirety. I’m only going to touch on the latest ‘flare up’ if you like, but I’d like to give you some context. Yes, I’m going to talk about my own experiences because in order to raise awareness and let you know it is okay to suffer and get help, we need as many people to share the things they have been through.
I was first diagnosed with depression as early as 2001, but as a 23-year old male I didn’t really talk about it. I was offered counselling but instead I just started drinking heavily and going out four nights a week. 16 years ago there was even more of a stigma than there is now, and I remember walking into my local after the doctor had signed me off for four weeks. I was a mess, I had no idea how to even approach my illness, so I wafted the sick note across the bar and laughed. Four weeks off for nothing, get the beers in.
After ten years it came to a head (I know, skip a decade right? Can’t have been that ill, right?) and in 2011 I had a proper breakdown. Even now I barely speak to my family about it, and despite writing this I desperately hope they don’t bring it up in conversation. It was March 2011, it was the Friday night before we played away at Stevenage. There is a story behind it, there’s a story behind it all going back to 2001, but the essence is I suffered from anxiety and depression and I never got it treated. As the years went on I turned into a fairly poor excuse for a human being, unable to express my true feelings even when it led to a trail of destruction. One day maybe I’ll write about it all, but not now. Basically, it was bloody awful and I never want to feel like that ever again.
I fought through that, I still didn’t do the counselling thing, I just banged a few happy pills and cut a load of stuff out of my life. Job done once again, although there was less inclination to get the beers in this time. My self medication was done alone, behind closed doors. Once people know, their attitudes towards you change. In 2010 I had a good circle of friends, but by August 2011 I had one or two who had stuck around, and I suspect they didn’t fully appreciate that I was actually ill. It was far easier to lock the front door and get smashed in front of the PlayStation. Then I met Fe, and everything changed.
Anyway that brings me to last year, January 2016 and depression free for four and a half years. I had moved out here to the house I’d always dreamed of living in, I have the most stable and supportive person at my side I could ever hope for and I had a good job paying the sort of salary that enabled me to buy a new pair of Adidas trainers every week. I had everything that I had believed I needed in March 2011, the stability and lifestyle that I thought would be the remedy to mental illness, I had nothing to ‘be depressed’ about, right? Wrong.
My job was very high pressure, I was a manager at Howdens Joinery. The emphasis there is on sales at any cost, sell, sell, and sell some more. I’d have to ring my boss on a Monday morning to forecast my daily and weekly sales, and if I was a couple of hundred quid out by day or by week he’d be in my ear. He’d come in to the depot looking for things to kick off about, because when you’re scared you’ll go to any lengths to sell more stuff. The more he squeezed the more he got, until one day, like a black head, I popped. The anxiety and depression came out once again.
I often get asked what it was that I felt when it struck, as if my experience is going to be the same as everyones. Of course it isn’t, there is no one special symptom we all suffer, everyone has a different experience depending on what the actual illness is. Mine was (is) classed as Reactive Anxiety Depression, something that had lain dormant in me as I had moved on with my life. I suppose you could say it is like having a bad back, you have it, it goes but it is always there waiting to flare up again. I should know.
Anyway, I first noticed I was ill again when I stopped sleeping at night. That was always where it started for me, once the lights go out. I used to joke to people that the demons only come at night, but for me they did. I’d lay awake for hours with things zipping around my mind specifically fear. In this instance it was fear of losing my job, then my house, then my girlfriend and then everything. I’d get no sleep at all, and then as day came I’d drift off, just in time for the alarm. I’d be snappy and angry during the day, I’d avoid all conflict situations because I began to fear people. In the end it wasn’t just conflict I avoided, it was meetings too. If I was asked anything in a meeting I’d clam up, or I’d spend an hour with sickness swirling in my stomach at the thought of being asked anything. I began to jumble up my figures, I’d be tongue-tied and my boss would seize on it like a cat finally killing a mouse.
I began to sit alone for an hour at a time after work just thinking about things, worrying that it was all going to cave in, worrying how I’d ever be normal again. I would veer from insanely happy on a Friday when Fe came home, to a virtual mute on Sunday, petrified of the week ahead. I was off in January for ten days, then again in March for three weeks. Each time felt like a release, the pressure subsided and I began to feel normal again. I slept, and as I’ll cover shortly, I wrote.
Eventually I was signed off on full pay in August, signed off because I was ill and on full pay because the company realised they’d done it to me. There’s too much to go into, but my mental frailty had been exposed by a culture of bullying and fear. I underwent counselling which I found patronising and at times condescending, and I attended worry management that felt like Fisher Price mental health treatment, like giving a child Calpol for everything from a cough to an ingrowing toenail. How could I take my illness seriously when part of the treatment involved doing what was termed a ‘worry management’ course?
I began to fear I’d never feel normal again. As I was off work I began to lose my self-worth too, ‘friends’ would ask me things like ‘what do you do all day’, or tell me ‘you should get out more, that will cheer you up’. Standard stuff for people who don’t understand, or perhaps don’t want to understand. Thanks for coming, yeah? I’ll just get back to sitting in silence wondering why I’m not like other people.
My own salvation came right here, on these pages you’re reading now. January 2016 was when I first began to write the Stacey West, and as I’ve fought my own personal battle I’ve built up a support network of people who don’t even realise what they’re doing for me, namely all of you. On here I can express myself, I can write and show the personality that lurks inside of me, the same personality that I’m confident enough for only my partner and immediate family to see, but not all of you. It may sound daft to you, but how many of you met me and found I was a bit quieter than you imagined? I bet our exchange was brief, because my anxiety would leave me unable to express myself properly, you kind people come and say hello and (unless I’m drunk) I often don’t know what to say or where to put myself. That said, afterwards I cherish every meeting. I read every email I get twice, I even started taking screen shots of some of the kindest social media comments so I could look back whenever things got tough. They’re my Prozac, and although negative comments absolutely wound me, I’m lucky that in the main you’re a good bunch.
In November of last year you may remember I went off to the Football Blogging Awards, and it was at that time that I stopped taking my fluoxetine. I called them happy pills earlier, that is something I do with the people to try to trivialise my illness. The euphoria of making those awards, voted for by all of you, helped spur me on to a recovery, not a daily dose of anti-depressant.
Perhaps I still haven’t dealt with the root cause of my illness, perhaps I’m just self medicating like I’ve always done, but instead of drink or whatever, I now medicate on your kind words. All I know is I don’t lose sleep over worry or anxiety anymore. I lose it over excruciating back pain.
That brings me to my final thought, and that is the whole purpose of mental health week. When I had my MRI scan on my back I received a print out of exactly what was wrong, a degenerative condition in L5 lumbar and partial degeneration in L4. I photocopied that print out and took it to work, because in a way I was actually pleased. Finally I was off work with something real, something you could see on an x-ray and something I could feel as a real and tangible pain. I wasn’t fighting that invisible illness anymore, you know the one where people are never quite sure how bad it is? This one I had diagrams of and proper drugs like diclofenac, tramadol and codeine.
You see, in truth I am still in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness, and I’ve had it on and off for sixteen fucking years. I’m still that confused 23-year old man in the pub waving his sick note about, mocking his own suffering. I still find it uncomfortable talking in any depth about what I’ve felt or what I’ve been through. I haven’t even done it here, in the blog where I’m supposed to lay myself bare. I’ve skipped eleven years of self-destruction to bring you the feel good story at the end where you’re involved. I’ve skipped the people I’ve hurt or wronged because I was anxious or because I craved approval of other people. I’ve been insecure, I’ve been over-confident, I’ve been surly and I’ve been miserable and I’ve been to hell and back without ever understanding why. I still don’t and the truth is I don’t want to. One day I might have to face up to it, but I hope that by arriving here, as a writer and someone who other people read on a daily basis, I’m hoping I’ve buried whatever lurks in me deep enough for it never to get out. I feel a level of contentment in me that I haven’t truly felt since the turn of the millennium. I feel as if I’ve turned a corner, as if in my head, a slipped disc has slipped back into place. It’s been six months since I gave up the fluoxetine, and eight or nine months since I lost a nights sleep to the demons.
Don’t do what I did. If you’ve read this and you realise you’re suffering too, talk to someone, for heavens sake. Save your own life, share your suffering. This isn’t 2001, nobody will label you, people will understand, and if they don’t then they’re not the right people to have around you. Honestly, share your pain, get help. If you’ve suffered and come through it then try to spot the signs elsewhere. Help people. For everyone who does speak up, for every heartfelt story, for every journey of enlightenment with warm music and happy endings, there is a story like mine. There is a person out there who suffers like I suffered, scared stiff of telling people what they’re suffering, and even more frightened at admitting it themselves. I imagine that quite often the first person who needs to get over the stigma of mental illness, is yourself.
As for Pier Morgan’s comments about manning up, he’s just a massive twat. How can he talk about being a proper man? He hacked the phones of murdered children, his opinion on anything should be filed under ‘worthless’ alongside Katy Hopkins.
Anyway, slowly but surely we can all tackle the beast together, whether it is through our own respected winger talking candidly about his issues, or whether it is a national celebrity suffering with theirs. There is no shame in admitting you’ve suffered any form mental illness, there is no shame in suffering and getting help and the only way we’ll ever begin to understand it properly is by bringing it out in the open.
We’ll be back to football tomorrow, I promise. Thank you for reading, that was incredibly hard to write.