There’s been, rightly, a lot of eulogies about Robin Williams this week. I am a huge fan, weighted more towards his amazing ability to almost freestyle in his stand up routines but also of his roles in Good Will Hunting and as the voice of the genie in Aladdin. Whilst his passing is a tragedy, it has been a catalyst for commentary from various sources about how it has been good to bring mental health into focus. I’m both encouraged and dismayed by this ; good that there’s collective eyes being opened but bad that it takes something like this to engage the consciousness of masses of people. Like a lot of people, i’ve been appalled by the nature of the coverage by some written media, especially the red tops, who seem endlessly able to grab the human tragedy of any story and spin it out with a style that encourages visceral detail that can be absorbed without reflection on issues discussed in Leveson.
One aspect that has resonated with me this week is the strength of the shock from some that a manically fun, happy, creative genius could be privately fighting such disabling depression. I can’t say that when I heard about Robin Williams’ drug use in the 80s and 90s that I linked mental health to it an any way, I probably just saw it as the excess of celebrity – as the media presented it at the time ; in the same way that the media has not, broadly, reflected empathy or compassion to the emotional and mental health of Peaches Geldof prior to her drug overdose. And before there’s a ‘no sh*t sherlock’ reaction from anyone reading if I say that the media creates an image of someone that’s not necessarily true i’d draw a parallel to people who are not in the media.
There’s been a lot of things written about the tears of a clown, and the angst of perception being so far from the truth and I can unfortunately see it in myself.
Until the stresses of the last 4 years I was, by probably most accounts, a sarcastic but happy go lucky bloke. Sarcastic humour and dry insinuation kills me laughing, not because of the cruel ‘victim’ of the sarcasm but because it’s generally quick wit, and that is something I genuinely admire in anyone. The thing is though, for a couple of years i’ve been fighting the debilitation that is depression. I’d never seen it coming, i’d seen people ‘go down’ with depression and just couldn’t (or maybe didn’t want to?) empathise. I never even really clocked it at first, the slow creep of feeling negative about things, the pessimism about possible outcomes and the lack of enthusiasm for the things that used to drive me. I was, on the surface, the same happy go lucky, sarcastic bloke. Under the surface, I was paddling like sh*t but not making progress and on the occasional times I noticed it I quickly reframed it as ‘only temporary’ and told myself to shape up. The thing is, over the 4 years the knocks and bashes to my own individual resilience have been constant – from the stresses of the twins being born, to work stresses, to the bombshell impact that having a boy with acute disabilities has on a little family. I could deal with each knock, no problem. Water off a ducks back, be flippant, be sarcastic, be happy go lucky, be the old ‘me’. What I realised about a year ago is that doing that time and time and time and time again is hard, impossibly hard. Sooner or later the facade drops and its time to either accept it or go under.
I went under, for a while. unconsciously. The toughness of Isaac’s situation and his future, what I perceived as the pitifully small problems of others that they were magnifying (….facebook status’ updates saying how stressed a person was about some sh*t I couldn’t care less about…) the injustice he faced and faces from the world and people who say ‘it must be hard’ but have no idea how hard….all of that ground me down. I got hostile towards it all. That’s the horrible thing about depression ; withdraw and withdraw and isolate. Unless someone reaches in then it’s all about creating distance. The more distance the less stress to take on.
About a year ago I began to struggle to the point where I asked GP for help and started citalopram and CBT. CBT utterly useless as I discovered, as someone who delivers CBT based work with young people ; the old ‘I can see what your doing here’ was a real barrier. Medication? I dunno, it helps, I guess. I don’t know for sure as you get into the zone where you don’t know what would happen should you stop…
I was ashamed to start medication. Ive been on medication since I was about 3 years old for asthma, and a concoction of anti-imflammatories and painkillers at times for my rebuild knee and waltz into my GP to pick up the prescription and then to Boots to pick it up on a monthly basis. That’s me. asthmatic with a buggered knee, take me as you find me. But to start anti-depressants? That’s not normal…..people might think i’m weak and not as resilient as them…..
The consultation that I had with the GP was a bit weird ; essentially he pulled out the MH scoring questionnaire with lots of questions about ‘do I feel like giving up’ and ‘do I lack energy’ and ‘do people notice you speak slowly’ and so on and I ticked the answers that I thought were sort of relevant and then he suggested medication. I remember thinking that the questions just didn’t relate ; I do feel knackered but show me a dad of three under 9’s with a full time job who isn’t and i’ll show you a liar. I do feel pretty worthless but thats work for you. It was like fitting the square peg of my head into the round peg of the questionnaire. Nonetheless, i’m able to function, and that’s what matters most.
‘So how do you appear so happy go lucky and make jokes when you’re talking about 6C’s and stuff?’ – because thats me. That the old me and the new me combining for the best. The new me is motivated beyond words to drive new learning around care that matters. The old me, which I love to feel like, is the happy go lucky one. Gelling the two together is an act. Not an act in a misleading way just that it’s not maybe the real me on the day ; I know though that I want to feel like the old me so the little jokes and stuff are there to keep that connection. The new me is a bit more battered but eventually the two sides will balance up and achieve equilibrium, happy living alongside each other.
I would have been ashamed to admit having had, and living now I suppose, mental health problems like depression, had you asked me even 5 years ago. Now, I see it as something that is the same as any illness, I didn’t ask for it, I haven’t contributed to it and for god’s sake I want to beat it but the reality is that in the same way that my rebuilt knee occasionally flares up then there’s certain things that will trigger a flare up of my demons of depression.
As a bloke, I know that speaking to other people about depression is NOT something done. The old me is what IS done ; sitting each lunchtime with friends and colleagues taking the p*ss out of each other and letting sarcasm out of it’s cage. I don’t WANT to talk about how I really feel ; not because of any other reason other than that i’m tired of how I feel sometimes – I don’t want to indulge the feeling, I want to drive it away.
So, I guess I can understand the dichotomy between behaviour and thoughts and feelings (see, told you I could understand CBT!) that some people with mental illness show, through my own experiences. As a lad who grew up playing a lot of rugby in male environments, I never thought i’d ever write this sort of blog, but in fairness I now have the attitude of thinking that if anyone wants to take the p*ss then they can go for it because life is too short for ignorance, or for blokes feeling ashamed to say how they feel.
I kind of don’t know what route I’ve taken through this blog, it’s a bit deep in hindsight but rather than press delete i’ll press post. Why? Simply because i’m not ashamed to tell it like it is. I’m asthmatic, with a rebuild wonky knee and experience some episodes of depression. Whether that makes me a weaker person is your problem, not mine.