To be happy, as opposed to blue. It’s a universal human aspiration. But also an ongoing struggle. Even though sometimes it will seem to others (and even to myself) that I’ve mastered it. This post is an attempt to explain how the effects of one severe episode of mental illness can reverberate through the years in spite of a full recovery. As with the first two ‘Head’ posts, the aim is to defeat prejudice and the sometimes brutal judgements of society with a call for empathy and understanding.
Almost exactly a year before my breakdown, I wrote and delivered a best man’s speech. The peroration made extensive use of Philip Pullman‘s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Specifically this quote by the central character Lyra, from the closing page of the third book:
“We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place…. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build… The Republic of Heaven.”
I ended the speech with a wish for the bride and groom to build their own heaven in their lives together. They’re still happily married, with two children, though life is what it is and to strive for your own Republic should not be mistaken for creating Utopia. The striving is what matters, and this isn’t their story.
Heaven and hell
What if someone made that speech, believed every word of it in his mind and heart, and knew that opportunities to build his own heaven were opening up before him? What if he repeatedly failed to take those chances? Not only that, what if he felt such anger towards himself for this failure that he sought someone to blame for it? What would happen?
I know the answer, because that’s what I did. I built my own version of hell.
The phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” made no sense to me before I arrived at that destination. I couldn’t see how a human being could be pure in motive and yet end up in a horrific state, largely self-inflicted. Now, for more than a decade, it’s been crystal clear. In trying to find my best self, I made the catastrophic error of focusing so harshly and obsessively on what was wrong that I lost almost all of what was good. The result wasn’t remotely funny, yet I can’t think of a better metaphor for my road to hell than this scene from Father Ted.
Dougal could be one of many people, or possibly my own hyper-critic. I’m Ted. Counselling/therapy was the hammer. My mind, personality, confidence is the car. “Sleeping on it” is that last couple of months where you knew something was badly wrong but assumed the mind would right itself.
And 1:42 is being sectioned and waking up on a psychiatric ward.
It’s an accurate word, and the Kubler-Ross model broadly applied in my case. I have no wish whatsoever to belittle genuine bereavement or terminal illness. I have to stress that up front. But loss of the self, of certainties, of long-standing friendships, of work, of potential, of brainpower, of normality – all of it with appalling suddenness – leads inexorably to a grieving process of sorts. Other posts will deal with specific aspects of these years in much more detail.
Denial was incredibly powerful, for two reasons above all others. First, I knew I was a blessed young man and hated myself for failure on this scale. Second, I could not accept becoming mentally ill after seeing mental illness in my father when I was a young child. Anger was present, but inexpressible beneath psychiatric drugs and my permanently stupefied horror at the situation. “Bargaining” is too painful and multi-faceted to write about here, at least at this stage. Depression only enveloped me completely after I was sectioned for a second time a year later.
Acceptance? At the most basic personal level it took almost three years. Acceptance of the professional consequences of my illness, after returning to work and later being unemployed, took another four years. Acceptance of the social consequences is still difficult after fourteen years. The same applies to acceptance of responsibility for my own downfall. I still see myself as having the power to stop it from happening, and not using that power. I might as well admit it: this blog is part of the acceptance process.
You also grieve, I think, for the life you never had and feel you should have. No marriage, no children. I knew I wanted these things from the age of 12, for reasons that may become clear in other posts. There’s an abiding sense that this is a skewed timeline and somewhere there’s a parallel version of yourself who did experience these joys. Of course there isn’t, but when your nightmare comes true instead, you can’t help but think of the dreams you had. And you feel it much harder, because if you couldn’t build your own heaven before the breakdown, why would you inflict your broken self on someone else? Stupid, banal things can get to you, such as one of your many online passwords being the names of the children you might have chosen.
Following up the Tony Slattery section from H2, grief terrorises you with the distance between what is and what should have been. There are times when I think this is self-indulgent, but looking outside yourself makes it worse still. Consider your small, close-knit family. Instead of sharing these joys and happiness with you, these are some of the memories your mother has of you in your 30s:
- Describing you (about three months in) as “like an eight year-old with Alzheimer’s”
- Saying to my brother, in reference to me, “he won’t commit suicide, he doesn’t have the guts”
- Suggesting that she and I get in a car and deliberately crash it into a wall to end this relentless suffering
- Watching me wet the bed in sheer terror, or walk round the house not shaving or even showering
- Asking me a simple question like the name of my late great-grandmother, and it taking more than a minute for me to recall
One moment, a month or so after the end of my first section, is in its understated way more painful to recall than all of those. We were just sat watching TV at home and I noticed that a couple of photographs were face down or reversed. Those photographs were of me as a child. It must have been unbearable for her to see the innocent little boy when confronted daily with the abject mess he’d become.
I use these examples to convey to the reader just how abysmally hopeless everyday life was, for those first two and a half years especially. I don’t judge any of the things that were said. As extreme as they might sound to those for whom such experiences are unthinkable, they were understandable in our specific circumstances. Indeed, I think relating them in such a matter of fact way is more powerful.
And yet, whatever I’ve missed, I still feel I was one of the lucky ones. Some people in this situation never recover. Three years after I was sectioned for the first time, someone in my year at school was admitted to the same ward. Like me, he’d experienced panic attacks some years previously.
He took his own life on that ward.
A news article included this quote from his father:
“I know he had a massive fear that he wouldn’t recover. He felt he was letting his family down… he had a fine future and a lovely family. He had no reason to do what he did, other than his illness.”
I was in that exact place, but I’m still here. That isn’t meant to sound triumphant. Just empathetic and grateful for small mercies.
“You’re locked in”
Nevertheless it was, at a deep level, at the absolute core of my being, psychologically intolerable. The enormity of what had happened hit me very quickly. I knew it would take years to recover, if I ever did. I remember my parents being told by a psychiatric nurse that his minimum estimate was three years. During the most intense phase of denial, I desperately wanted to return to a normal life again and couldn’t.
And this phrase – “You’re locked in” – kept coming to mind. You couldn’t undo anything. This was a new and unspeakably horrendous path. Any imitation of what had once been normal – exercise, sport, social events, brief returns to work – felt like additional mocking admonishment. “You didn’t think this was good enough before, you fucking selfish bastard…”. “You were obsessed with that ‘dent’ and now look what a fucking mess you’ve made of everything else.” Nothing worked. People around me kept looking for signs of improvement, but I could not forgive myself or come close to accepting the new reality. Every time I went to the gym or something I’d come back and think “But you’re locked in.”
If I could have asked for a superpower, it would have been the ability to turn back time and prevent this hell. To tell that blessed self to realise there were actual dangers in constantly turning away from heaven and not trusting those who loved him. But I was locked in. Over the course of those first twelve months, it crushed what was left of my spirit.
Blessed… but happy?
I said I was blessed and I meant it. Of all the other men I’ve met in my entire life, I’ve envied only four. And all of those were friends of varying durations, from 2 to 20 years. I never wanted to be anyone else and I was never unhappy with my lot. I don’t believe I was flawless. Indeed I was aware of my blemishes and tried to work on them. Most people accepted me as a good person. In spite of what eventually happened, I consider myself to have been psychologically healthy in most important respects.
My issue was the difficulty in translating all the positives into a full, happy, satisfying life. There were a few natural obstacles which I overcame, and some I had more of a problem overcoming. I wrote a diary for twelve years as an adult. It strikes me now that the whole thing would read like an internal struggle between awareness of potential and focus on limitations. I allowed the latter to win, which I regret deeply.
It was this internal struggle, along with some anxiety symptoms and two panic attacks, that led me to seek counselling in the year before my breakdown. This may seem like a good idea. If you’re a person in need of help then I wouldn’t want to discourage you from seeking it. But for me, then, it was a serious error that compounded years of little mistakes. For me it was a substitute for confiding in good friends and family. It was the act of a man full of shame and repressed anger, who thought paying someone to unleash it was better than talking for free to those who cared.
Bottling up emotion is commonly cited as a major contributor to depression among men, and even as a factor in male suicide. This is a tricky area to negotiate or discuss. On the one hand, some excellent work is being done by charities such as CALM (see link) and Mind. There was also a sensitive BBC documentary on the subject in 2018. On the other, as I found to my dismay when researching links for this section, far too many seem to reach for the lazy, loaded and unhelpful term “toxic masculinity” when trying to address the issue. This unfortunately leads to politicised, agenda-driven conversations with little in the way of constructive content on either side.
It’s okay, it’s all right, nothing’s wrong
I’m not going to write in detail about either my therapy, my emotional outbursts or their triggers at this stage. Take it from me: I got the bottling up wrong, and the release even more wrong, with incalculably shattering consequences. And living with that is still a test.
This kind of self-knowledge acts as a multiplier on post-breakdown anguish. The awareness that you contributed to your own breakdown almost has to be suppressed in order for you to function. Even fourteen years later, you carry immense shame and guilt day to day. Even though the shame and guilt have obviously dissipated since the early days, enough remains for it to feel like a new part of you, one that wasn’t there before illness. Sure I was uncomfortable with some things about myself back then, but that was a normal part of being human. This really isn’t. It feels like the illness is the defining event of your life, and you can split your earthly existence neatly into ‘before’ and ‘after’.
I only hurt me and mine, and my family have forgiven me. Yet it seems I feel more shame than some who have genuinely ruined innocent peoples’ lives. Earning and receiving absolution from those who did nothing to warrant such devastation is hard enough. If you’re made like me, absolving yourself is even harder.
Strength and weakness
Today is a bad day. They are now thankfully very rare. Whenever I feel myself slipping, I remember how many things are still worth living for and how what I’ve managed to retain or win back outnumbers what I’ve lost, and I know I can be happy. But sometimes the loneliness, the fact you cannot escape your own mind and that self-knowledge, overwhelms.
And you feel weak. Some people assume you “can’t hack life”. And doubtless there are those (I could name names) who would tell you to “man up”. This particular famous person appears to regard mental illness and what he calls “mental resilience” as mutually exclusive.
Well, in all seriousness, I know very few people more mentally resilient than I am, and I still ended up here. I pushed myself to: be the first person in my family to go to university; beat my crippling shyness and overcome an unusual speaking voice; pass academic and professional exams; work more than one job, including anti-social hours, just to ensure I could finish my Masters degree; run a society at university and have people suggest that I run for president of the Students’ Union (I didn’t); refuse to contemplate failure; run marathons; to complete this walk; write thousands of words on this blog because I feel I have something to say which might help people.
I don’t believe I’m here because of mental weakness. Fourteen months before my breakdown I had four weeks off work with severe anxiety, after panic attacks. I interpreted this as a warning: that I hadn’t been true to myself and hadn’t been the best I could be. This event did put the proverbial rocket up my arse and I was determined to change that. I had a wonderful six months or so as a result. This is when I made the best man’s speech and could have built my own heaven (see above).
In the end I’m here because I put myself last, because of a destructive selflessness that caused me to override my own dreams, desires and nature. As if nothing I wanted mattered, or feelings for people could not be reciprocated. As if bullies should be placated and not stood up to. I sought therapy to try and understand this, and failed horribly, instead blaming the people and forces I thought made me that way. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve worked out the deeper reasons why I behaved as I did. That’ll be a separate post one day.
For now it’s enough to acknowledge that years of mental resilience could be undone by one pattern of helpless behaviour, and to credit myself with the mental resilience to have recovered. At the same time though, I do berate myself for showing that weakness and hiding my strengths. But the point is that my episode resulted from a complex interplay of factors. It’s far too simplistic to equate mental illness with weakness, or to deem it the opposite of resilience.
I said I was not an envious person. The last time I saw any of those few envied friends was seven years ago. So the one man I’m truly jealous of is that person from 6-12 months before my breakdown. The man who had the world at his feet and could not possibly have conceived the horror ahead. Someone who had been warned, who was happy, but still couldn’t allow himself to believe he could be even more fulfilled. A young man who was so afraid of hurting or disappointing people he hurt himself and disappointed all who loved him.
I said “What now?” didn’t I? This is dwelling on the past, isn’t it? Well yes, in a sense. But it’s also an attempt to draw inspiration by looking at what you were capable of, and still could be. It’s harder now. That kills. I’ve lost friends and social opportunities, fitness and confidence has taken a long time to come back, the competitive side of me still feels like I’ve under-achieved compared to peers. I wish I could find that man again. Sometimes, undeniably, it feels like I have. Most of the time it feels like there’s a gaping, insurmountable fourteen-year chasm between us. But sometimes it’s just a partition you can slip through with ease. Those days, especially when a woman says you look good, or the groom from the best man’s speech tells you this is the person he remembers, make the struggle worthwhile.
That man was no angel, of course. I never said he was. He took the love of his family for granted and felt like he had to separate himself from them in order to “prove” his independence and make the most of his opportunities. In some ways this is the classic struggle of the working class university student. For me it ran even deeper: that I was so desperate to make my family happy and failed causes me more psychological pain than anything. More than anything. To be told that you would work so hard to create these opportunities and then blow them would have finished the 18-year-old me. There are times when it’s almost finished the 30 and 40-plus me.
It’s frustrating because I know I have limitless capacity for happiness, and as the text message in H2 said, I have a gift for spreading happiness in others. It all seems like such a silly waste of ability. Sometimes I even felt guilty about being so happy and about having such ability, particularly if others were unhappy. I don’t know why – after all the same best man’s speech quoted heavily from this lyric, which was a personal credo at the time. Why not try to uplift people, when we’re all going to die one day?
Happiness and sadness
What is happiness? The Flaming Lips say it makes you cry. Sigmund Freud said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness and thus pre-requisites for human happiness. I have many definitions, from the delight in making someone laugh (sometimes till they cry) to the joy of being drunk/in love. Or, in the absence of some of these things, just knowing you’re healthy and still have your family can be enough.
But people hear you’re depressed and seem to treat you as if you don’t have this capacity. Or they make you feel guilty for self-indulgence, particularly if on the surface you have nothing to complain about. And I never have had cause for complaint. Perhaps, if you look miserable, they tell you to smile, or cheer up. I had a natural frown in repose apparently, even when I wasn’t unhappy at all, so I received the “smile” comment several times when working behind the bar. After my episode, the light seemed to disappear permanently from my eyes for years. Try to go easy on people. I felt like a naturally happy person in search of a happy life. I still do.
On the flip side, I’ve experienced genuine anhedonia even after ceasing treatment for depression. For example I was telling someone at work about my three months travelling Europe on Inter-Rail (a key event in my recovery) and he said I sounded like I was telling him I’d just got divorced. No matter how huge your capacity for happiness or joy, one of the long-term consequences of an episode of severe mental illness is that you have automatic access to a forlorn place your old self never conceived of. Sometimes, as in this case, you won’t even know you’re there. You want to be happy but you’re haunted by everything you’ve experienced and the knowledge that it’s now an immutable part of you.
It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t been there, and perhaps the closest definition I can find is from an episode of The West Wing:
There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation, it’s a state of mind, of soul really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still, there’s hope.
Most of my tears actually came in the months leading up to the breakdown. They were a rarity afterwards and have remained so. But that state of mind, of soul really, is perpetual. As I said, I can keep it at bay most of the time these days, but I can’t wish it away completely, no matter my strength of will. It also feels like punishment for not capitalising on my younger years, for worrying instead about that “dent in my car”.
I’ve written over 3,000 words and yet, in the end, it might all come down to something incredibly basic. My character traits, my influences, the deeper motivations I alluded to earlier – all these things in combination forced me to behave in such a way as to deny myself the opportunity to love and be loved. That is, to force myself to live without one of Freud’s pre-requisites for human happiness and what most human beings regard as the single greatest reason for living. I don’t expect readers to understand this, at least not until I’ve written more posts. It took me more than a decade to work out why I behaved in such a way, after all.
Perhaps it is that easy. Perhaps I was catastrophically stupid. At least I am open to the possibility.
I have an incredible long-term memory, thankfully as yet unaffected by age or the strains of my illness. I remember every chance of love I had. In my mind’s eye I can still see all this potential… all these faces… so happy to be with me, just stupid imperfect me… and so pretty. Hurts like hell that not one of them is here now.
This isn’t really “closure”, of course. It’s not even much of a revelation. Some people who have read the walking blog would probably pick up this subtext in places. The next post will examine love (and indeed imperfection) in more depth.
And so back to the title of this post.
It remains my aspiration in life.
Picture? Well I’m loath to deconstruct the artistic process… But it involved an afternoon (27 October 2019) of frustrating experimentation before the ‘Eureka’ moment. I used three of my black T-shirts, one of which features the precise pink font required for this image. To know why this font in this colour was essential, you have to be familiar with the visual aesthetic behind my inspiration for this post. As with The Hiker’s Guide, if you know what that inspiration was, you know, and you’ll be able to “see what I did there”. Unlike with The Hiker’s Guide, I’m not giving away The Answer. An artist can preserve some secrets even while being remarkably confessional. Suffice to say that it’s an artwork which I will always associate with the early months in my current job. Forever fixed in time as a major symbol of my full recovery.