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.