A State of Mind

Today is an important anniversary for me. It’s a year to the day since I went to my GP and he diagnosed me with anxiety and depression. I had known there was something wrong for a long time but had feared to address it. I suppose you could say a year ago was the bottom of the pit from which I have been slowly climbing out.

What’s depression and how does it differ from feeling “down”? For me, and a lot of this is personal, I felt pretty hopeless, useless and increasingly suicidal. I felt my family would be better off without me, and my friends knew what a bad person I was and kept away. I thought I was rubbish at my job (and that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy) and became pretty paranoid.  I had a constant very negative internal voice damning me for my failures and inadequacies. Having suicidal thoughts when you’re driving a 200 mile weekly commute is not a good idea. Anxiety is mainly not being able to stop worrying about things – to the point where the same things go round and round and never go away. I would wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, thoughts racing round, unable to stop them.

I knew that there was a “me” somewhere inside, that wasn’t the person who was having these thoughts, but they became increasingly distant. Fortunately I didn’t lose touch with this “me” altogether.

It didnt come out of the blue – I had been through a traumatic year in 2009-10 when my dad got cancer, recovered, then succumbed finally. My late brother couldn’t deal with it at all, and my mum was obviously in pieces, so I had to step up and be the strong one, the “father” figure. And as a result I had’nt dealt with my own grief, just locked it away. Then I developed a mystery illness – nasty dizzy spells and nausea brought on by computer use or travel. In the end I had a very tentative diagnosis of migraine without headache, which I have since realised is migraine associated vertigo. I also developed panic attacks. Looking back I can see these symptoms were related to my developing (decaying?) mental state.

Then the organisation I had helped build and loved, The Grasslands Trust went to the wall. I had already left to work for another organisation so saw it crumble from afar. The other organisation was a long way from home (hence the 4oo mile round trip) and necessitated staying away from home 3 nights a week. It was with hindsight, a massive error. The pressure of the move and being away from home took its toll rapidly. This wasn’t helped by mum being ill for much of last Autumn and I found myself triangulating between home, her house in London and work. It wsa exhausting and when I was at home I was either very grumpy or very taciturn. my wife and kids became increasingly worried for me and I couldnt speak to them about it  – because I feared of their reaction.

What has the last year brought? I parted company with the organisation I had joined and “came home”. I got help – my doctor put me on anti depressants and I’m still on them. Yes, they do help. I also had a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which was also very helpful. My brother became ill last winter and died in the summer. And yes it has been traumatic but I have found new mental strength to deal with it and support my mum through everything, because recognising my own mental frailty has been a source of strength. I believe that naming a fear reduces the strength of it, which is a very ancient belief and possibly a built in defence mechanism. Writing a blog, which I started after I left my previous employer, has been very therapeutic. It’s also helped my self esteem as it is very helpful to know that people read what you write and like it (well some of them like some of it which is more than enough). Yes it’s a bit of an ego trip, but that’s not an entirely bad thing.

I think one of the hardest things is to open up and explain to my wife what has been happening – I was really afraid of her reaction; yes she was frustrated that it had taken so long for me to come to terms with the fact that I was ill, when it was plain to see from her perspective. I accept that. But overall it feels like a great barrier has been removed; at least most of the time. I can also see that stressful situations can bring the barrier back very quickly and have to be mindful of that. Mindfulness is something that I have become much more …err mindful of… in the past year. I mean being aware of what your mind is doing, rather than assuming that it is just being “me”. It’s a case of being aware that odd thoughts can pop up and not to take them too seriously.

I was exceptionally fortunate to find myself invited to join a vibrant local ecological consultancy Footprint Ecology, in the summer. I talked openly with them about my mental state and they have been incredibly supportive to me, to the point where work is undoubtedly helping me recover my mental resilience, instead of battering it. Having an understanding and supportive employer is very important for people suffering from mental illness

I have had some fantastic experiences in the last year – the ongoing debate with George Monbiot on re-wilding and conservation has been wonderful and I think having had this experience it has made me question a lot of my assumptions about conservation and nature. I have found some friends to be amazingly supportive, and I have been surprised to discover how many others in conservation have also suffered from depression.

There is also still stigma out there, and there may well be employers who read this and think “oh dear we’d better not employ him then.” Well it’s ok because I wouldn’t work for you either, with that attitude.

I think depression may be an occupational hazard in conservation. We spend our time working against the grain of the economy, trying to slow down processes over which we have almost no influence. We rejoice in small victories but see the continuing trend.

Anyone who is reading this and has had the sorts of experience I have, but hasn’t sought help – please do.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in conservation, ethics, George Monbiot, spiritual value and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A State of Mind

  1. Martin says:

    Thank you for writing this – I imagine a lot of thought went into whether or not to write this and I’m glad you decided to do it; being able to talk about mental illness is a sign that things are on the mend and I hope you continue to improve.
    As you say, it is important people are mindful of their mental health, particularly men for whom there is a cultural expectation that they can always cope no matter what. You also make the point implicitly that physical and mental health are linked – by the sound of it your body was exhausted by the demands being placed upon it too.

    For a few people, like myself, diet plays a big part in metal health especially with regard to food intolerances and sometimes doctors are not always aware of this. I have also found my sugar intake and eating habits make a difference and the book ‘Potatoes not Prozac’ has some helpful advice and, despite the rather strident title and touchy/feely writing style, it seems to be based on some interesting science.

    The charity Mind http://www.mind.org.uk/ have a lot of information about mental health on their website. Information about food and mood is here http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/food-and-mood/

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Martin. Food is a huge issue on so many levels. I have put on 4kg over the past 12 months, partly I think due to the medication making me hungrier, partly comfort eating, and partly doing less exercise. I am now trying to limit my comfort eating and also trying to do more exercise. My colleagues at work will have noticed me going on half or 3/4 hour brisk walks at lunchtime – we are lucky in that the office is next to a lovely heathland/conifer plantation mosaic.

      Where I work at Footprint, they are also very enlightened in that we do a yoga session every friday. I have only been to a few sessions but I can already feel it helping both my body and my mind. This isn’t a touchy feely new age sandals and knit your own muesli thing. This is about understanding the relationship between mind, nervous system, muscle and joints; and how they interact.

  2. Thank you Miles for this, and it’s no small achievement to have put your thoughts and feelings so clearly into (public) words. Several times reading this I had a jolt of recognition – everyone’s experience of depression is different, but there is always something the same as well. My worst period of depression was nearly 4 years ago now, but it’s never far away. Thankfully I haven’t had some of the personal trauma to deal with on top of it all. Thanks again for writing this, and look after yourself.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks very much Stephen. It’s great to know how others have had similar problems and dealt with them, because then you know that you’re not alone and things can get better.

      I still have very bleak days when the world is grey and everything loses its meaning. At least I know that those feelings are creations of my own mind and they will pass.

  3. Miles King says:

    thanks for this Colin. I do feel very fortunate to have found somewhere so supportive yes. It has made me realise that having a good employer is as important arguably more important than doing the work you enjoy most. And being self-employed, which I have been on a number of occasions, can be very mentally challenging.

  4. Mark Fisher says:

    Hi Miles. My road to recovery nearly 30 years ago was the phone call from the specialist who said that none of the tests had revealed anything wrong with me, and had I considered that it was all in my head? The recognition was that the dreadful and varied symptoms of illness were self-induced rather than indicating an actual state of illness. Generalised Anxiety Disorder – worrying about worrying! It helped that I was working in a teaching hospital in America at the time, and got professional courtesy. However, the remedy is then in your hands – CBT helps in giving you methods of coping, of breaking debilitating patterns of thought and behaviour. Soft furnishings came in for a bit of battering at one point, mostly as a displacement from having negative thoughts, but there are other ways! I still use a simple mental health skill called self talk. This is the thing you probably did as a child – you held a conversation with yourself, either out loud or in your head, asking and answering questions about the thing that was troubling you. Adult self-talk is an important survival skill: asking the questions that are of most concern and providing reassuring answers, if only that you shouldn’t panic as you tell yourself you need to find out more. It may also tell you when to break a pattern of behaviour that is unhelpful. But I also find the vocalisation of self-talk a useful verbal punctuation, a means to head off developing unhelpful thoughts. I’m sure I can seem potty sometimes, verging on Tourette’s syndrome!

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mark – that’s a really lovely comment.

      I must try self-talk. Actually I think I already do, mostly in front of the computer – but it’s more subconscious. I’ll try mindful self-talk.

  5. mercyjm says:

    Hi Miles, well done for coming out. I work in conservation although a different area, and I suffer too. Particularly so this year. No suggestions I’m afraid, I am very bad at managing mine! Good luck and keep talking, the more we all talk about it, the less the stigma is fed by shame.

  6. Doug says:

    Your blog post is a revelation to me Miles. MANY thanks for posting this.
    I have shared much of your suffering over the last two years and never been formally diagnosed despite seeing dozens of GPs, specialists and consultants.
    You have made me consider blogging about my journey – as it matches yours in many ways.
    By the way I also work in the environmental sector.
    Thanks again Miles.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks very much Doug. If its migraine associated vertigo there’s a good leaflet about it produced by University college Hospital London.

      • Doug says:

        Its not limited to MAV Miles but thats how I first noticed something was wrong for sure… that and gut problems. Probably ALL mental health related but like I say, I was never diagnosed, even though I did do six months of SSRIs.
        I’ll blog about it soon I think – I’d love to know your thoughts when I do.
        Its been a very hard two years for me, and I empathise and sympathise with you.
        Thanks again for posting – its the first post on the subject that has actually rung a bell with me and made me think…. yep. Know that feeling.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Doug. Yes I would be interested to read your blog. Are you finding your own ways to deal with the symptoms/underlying problems?

  7. Don Stenhouse says:

    Good to see such honesty about a subject that a lot of men shy away from.
    I was in a position recently that resulted in me taking 7 weeks off work because I was getting really stressed out. This was due to uncertainty in my museum job situation, trying to do freelance work, and taking medication that causes fatigue and ‘brain fog’. I felt as if I was going mad, but not ‘depressed’. However, like a lot of people I tend to associate depression with ‘sadness’ and suicidal thoughts, but it can also be about irritability, finding fault, self criticism etc.
    I too am lucky work wise – my colleagues are great! A nice bunch of interesting, knowledgeable, understanding people!
    What I especially like about yout ‘state of mind’ post is that it is on a ‘nature’ blog. What is more natural than talking about the habitat in your head.

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