My Mental Health Struggles Made Me A Better Dad

After living with anxiety and surviving a suicide attempt, helping Emily conquer her anorexia helped me overcome my own mental demons, writes Mark Simmonds
Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

There are two things that you need to know about me.

First, I suffer from a mental health disorder: anxiety. I inherited it from my Polish mother, Alice, who endured the horrors of World War II in freezing refugee camps. Unchecked, my anxiety has occasionally led to agitated depression. I have experienced the Dark Side and have spent much of my adulthood trying to manage a condition which can be very debilitating. Back in 2001, the illness went one step further when I attempted to take my own life

The second thing you need to know is that during the last 25 years I have enjoyed a wonderful career as a management trainer in the area of creativity and innovation. I’ve run programmes across the globe working with big companies such as Unilever, Philips, GlaxoSmithKline, HSBC and Tesco. I like to think I’ve always been fascinated by the process of learning.

My mental health disorder and occupation are two separate parts of my life, but they have something in common: they both played a small role in helping save the life of our daughter, Emily.

It was the autumn of 2012, at the end of a glorious summer when Great Britain had basked in a sea of Olympic gold. Emily, then just 16, came home one day and confessed she had developed an eating disorder. We just didn’t see it coming. And although we were not complacent and sought professional help very quickly, we weren’t at panic stations yet. We should have been.

“The unwelcome arrival of anorexia into our home meant that each and every day I was subjected to a full dose of depression.”

Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness with a mortality rate of 20%. It’s a real monster. And during a six-year period, our daughter would spend 12 months in three different eating disorder clinics; she self-harmed, threatened suicide, and suffered from severe depression. Her weight dropped catastrophically, and at her lowest point she had a tube inserted into her nose to give her the nutrition she needed to stay alive. Bizarrely enough, that was when my wife, Mel, and I felt greatest relief; our daughter had been spared. The icing on the cake was that anorexia, a ruthless enemy, also prevented her from completing either A-Levels or a university education.

As for my own health through all this, the bad news was that the unwelcome arrival of anorexia – or Ana as we ‘affectionately’ referred to her – into our home meant that each and every day I was subjected to a full dose of depression, which brought with it little joy in anything I did, furrowed brows always heavy with concern. I was not the most robust of individuals and although I had never experienced the same degree of mental suffering as I had done in 2001, I had never really been tested. I would be now.

What I realised, though, was that own experience of mental ill health gave me a clear insight into what Emily was thinking, and the pain she was feeling inside. She no longer lived on Planet Rational and therefore did not respond well to sensible advice like “if you don’t eat enough food, your body and bones will become weaker” or “can’t you see that you are in danger of throwing your life away”. I know from experience that the brain of somebody suffering from serious mental ill health is broken. The neurotransmitters are not talking to one another. It doesn’t react or respond well to the rational or the logical. Emily was now living on Planet Irrational. What she wanted was to be listened to, empathised with, encouraged, nudged forwards, hugged and held tightly. She needed to be told time and time again that everything was going to be alright, that she was simply ‘in hibernation’, having a rest. And that when she emerged, she would be stronger, and life would be even better.

I could speak Irrational fluently, because that’s the language we speak on the Dark Side. But there were also times that Emily responded well to an approach that was based on rational human behaviour and needs.

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

In the world of education, we know individuals enjoy different styles of learning. For some, logical is their preferred learning style – reasoning, theory and numbers. For others, they learn best through a verbal learning approach, using words both in speech and writing. Emily responded best by using pictures and images (visual) and engaging in sound and music (aural). She was best able to express her emotions through poetry, paintings and song writing; and whenever I sat down with her and tried to help her visualise a picture of the future, we would use mood boards, post-it notes and lots of colourful pens. Asking her to digest a 300-page text book full of facts and figures would have been like asking a toddler to read and understand Shakespeare. That wasn’t going to happen. So, from time to time, we both met on Planet Rational, using a colourful language that she reacted well to. She could have been one of my better students. Always conscientious and diligent, always trying so very hard to imagine a life without Ana, always desperately looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. But her ‘evil sister’ was never far away.

In 2018, to our immense pride, Emily finally managed to win her battle against anorexia. She is now 23, and is living and thriving in London. I do not, for one minute, take credit for her recovery. My wife, our family and friends, and an entire army of medical professionals all played a critical role. And most importantly, it was only the moment Emily herself decided she was ready to recover when she was finally able to kick the illness into the long grass.

“How you cope with the bad stuff and the attitude you adopt when dealing with it – that’s what counts.”

However, it is fair to say that my experience of mental illness and my job as a trainer helped me converse more easily with her throughout this period. I felt able to switch between the languages of Rational and Irrational whenever the time was right. And as in all walks of life, if you adopt the right method of communication you will probably get the right results.

There were a couple of welcome silver linings for me as a father, too. Firstly, Emily’s experience showed me that from time to time life is going to throw some bad stuff your way. Illness, death in the family, money worries, friendship issues... the uncertainty of Brexit, the certainty of nothing. It’s how you cope with the bad stuff and the attitude you adopt when dealing with it – that’s what counts. And if you do that well both as a parent and as a father, then you will provide your children with a template that they can follow themselves. I think that’s a great gift to give them.

And the second silver lining was that helping Emily conquer her illness helped me overcome my own mental demons. I had also won my own little war of sorts, emerging stronger and more resilient as a result.

Ana, for that – and that alone – I thank you personally.

Mark Simmonds is an author and management consulant. His first book, Breakdown and Repair, is available now. Follow him on Twitter at @mark_simmonds62.

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