It's ironic. I specialise in workplace health and I have supported many people at work suffering with depression and anxiety, but along the way I forgot to take stock of my own wellbeing. Everyone's own emotional lows or mental ill-health is unique to them. I felt I had become a cliché - the bank worker who can't manage his own finances, the doctor who smokes - or in my case, the wellbeing guy that suffers a mid-life crisis.
I've seen the impact that depression and anxiety can have on people's ability to perform and reach their potential. I've worked with managers and leaders who have either wanted to better support their own people facing mental ill-health, but not known how, to those who through a degree of ignorance, had taken the approach that people should just 'deal with it'.
I grew up in a loving family environment, but we never spoke about mental illness - or if we did, it was in the context of straight-jackets and outsiders - people to avoid through fear of opening up a can of worms. I certainly don't mean to criticise my family, we were just ignorant of the facts, like so many other families of my generation. Whilst ignorance and stigma is not as prevalent today as it was say a decade ago, it still exists. As I write this blog, I'm sitting on a train, delayed by someone who has taken their life - Almost 5% of suicides in the UK happen on the railway. Many of the passengers around me sigh and complain, preoccupied with how long this delay will last. But I sit here saddened, wishing I could have helped that person. If only I could have had just 10 minutes with them to listen to them and understand their pain, could they still be with us now?
Despite my studies and work in wellbeing and mental health, it was only when I faced my own recent crisis that I came to realise that, in some shape or form, depression has always been in my life. For me, one of the triggers was setting up my own company a few years ago. I was struggling to manage every single element of the business and was starting to feel like a jack of all trades whilst failing to keep up with what I was really good at. I began to feel more isolated and I felt I was losing my sense of direction - and for me, so much about 'wellbeing' is having a clear sense of purpose.
Instead of seeking help, I tried to ignore it. I never spoke about my feelings for fear of being seen as a failure. I would put my mood swings down to simply just having a bad day. We all have off-days, but in my case it had become pretty much every day, and by this time I had become a master of hiding my feelings. I recall weekends spending time with my wife and son, but not really being present. My mind would be on work; 'when would that next piece of business come in?' 'What if this or that happens?' I would go over and over in my head meetings or conversations that I had in the previous week, fretting about the amount of work I had to do, often catastrophizing things that, with hindsight seem futile compared to the time I should have been spending focussing on my family.
I got my wake-up call last October when my wife asked us to go to marriage guidance. I was already struggling with my sense of purpose at work and now, with my family life now in jeopardy, I finally sought help myself and reached out to a counsellor. From there I began a journey of self-discovery and started to open up to my friends and my family. As Dr Steve Peters would say, I came to understand and manage my 'chimp' brain.
Today, I'm much more open about what's going on inside my head with my wife - not just when I have my low points - which are now few and far between - but in all the many good things as well. We are much stronger now as a couple and I admire her for how she manages her own life. She has many, if not more challenges in her life, but is able to balance and manage them. There were many stages in my life where I've felt this way too, but only through experiencing such a low point in my life do I now feel better equipped and resilient to cope with the future challenges life throws my way.
Because I've finally been able to open up to my wife, she no longer feels helpless when trying to understand or support me - and only now do I see how much she has tried to help me in these recent years. One-day last week I remember waking up feeling very anxious, but didn't know why. Short of having an anxiety attack and falling into a spiral of negative thinking, I just spoke with my wife. I didn't need a solution, I just needed an understanding and listening ear.
Mental ill-health, or poor emotional health, looks different to each person. I'm not unique - regardless of the 1 in 4 stat we hear, everyone faces low points at some stage in their lives. The most important lessons I learned through my experience was to talk, reach out and to never feel afraid to open up again.
So in support support the work of the mental health charity, SANE and the Black Dog Campaign, between 15th and 21st June, I'm going to cycle the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and L.A. I'm doing this alone as a reminder that whilst depression and anxiety can often feel like battles we face alone, we should never struggle in silence. If you would like to join me in helping raise money for their cause, please head to: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/HighwayOne
The initiative has been made possible with the generous support of the Wellbeing People, Stepjockey and Cranleigh Freight Services.Suggest a correction