A very personal blog post…

phoenixmustburn-2It’s difficult to know how to even begin a post like this. I stand before you with everything laid  bare, here and if you choose to bail now and go and do something more fun, I won’t blame you for it, at all. If you are still here and still reading, then I appreciate your time and your company.

To say I have found the last few years of my life turbulent is somewhat of an understatement and the effect on my writing, my health, my life, my everything, has been cataclysmic. Whilst I can’t nor shouldn’t discuss in specifics the breakdown of my marriage in a public forum; I don’t suppose it is a matter of public interest in any event, particularly in this saturated age of social media white noise and oversharing.  So that part is largely irrelevant here.

I don’t expect nor feel entitled to anyone’s sympathy or empathy, either. I have no agenda to be self indulgent, seek attention, gaslight or throw mud.  My hope here, is to at least try and talk about my own experience and break down some of the taboo I’ve often found the subject of mental health shrouded in, particularly in men, and reach out to whoever may read these words and might be suffering themselves. To tell you that you are not alone. Really, you are not alone. And you don’t have to suffer in silence.

Especially you tough guys who pretend you’re ok when you know you’re not. I’ll let you into a secret that isn’t so secret. Depression doesn’t discriminate and leave tough people alone.  Sorry. And it’s ok to admit you’re not ok. In fact, let’s start a little club here and make some rules.

The first rule of Depression Club is…. you have to talk about it!

Once upon a time, I was hoping to be a writer.  But somewhere along the long and winding road, I strayed from the path and was lost. I don’t even remember when it happened or how, anymore.

Sometimes relationships end, that’s just a fact of life and those that have experienced the emotional impact of a failed relationship, a divorce or separation will no doubt identify with some of the things I say here. It’s not to say that my experience is any more or less poignant or more or less painful than anyone else’s. Heartbreak is relative and exactly what it says on the tin. And it tastes like shit.  

My marriage ended in February this year, a marriage I gave everything to, and I mean everything that I had to give, in every way. I gave too much and ended up getting seriously hurt. The relationship itself had come off the back of a difficult time for me and I was a little vulnerable when the relationship first chipped up, unexpectedly. But what had seemed like a whirlwind fairy tale to me, my friends and family held a very dark flipside to it’s coin. One I didn’t see until it was too late. It’s not to say that the other party in this sorry veil of tears was totally to blame, either. She wasn’t. For a whole variety of reasons.

I ignored several red flags early on which could have mitigated my situation. My ego began to write cheques my body couldn’t cash. I thought I could handle everything, fix everything, but I couldn’t and never could.  But, in some effort of mitigation, aren’t we all fucking Yoda after the event and blessed with the 20/20 hindsight lens?

And “love”, or what we sometimes think is love, has made idiots out of much smarter people than me, too.  That’s worth noting.

When my marriage ended, I could sense there was something..else. Something was badly wrong inside me. In addition to a broken heart and feelings of anger and hurt, something more insidious was there and had been brewing for a while. My erratic behavior and instability had more gravitas attached to it than previous; and to be fair, short flirtations I had had with depression over the years. I felt like I was on the cusp of something much more profound than just going through “a breakup”. I was emotionally bankrupt, physically exhausted and broken.  My self-esteem and confidence were utterly shattered. I was consumed by hate. For my ex-wife, for myself. For everything. I couldn’t sit still for longer than five minutes. I wanted to claw out my own eyeballs, I wanted to scream and cry, I wanted to lie in bed motionless and mute forever.

I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do.   

People seem to have different thresholds for depression. Rather like alcoholism, I’ve noticed some are “high functioning” depressives, people deeply unhappy and depressed, yet able to somehow soldier on, perform in their careers, grit their teeth and take care of their kids and spouses(aided by medication in some cases/sometimes not) in so far as their depression allows them to do it. They can manage this facade for years, sometimes.  In some ways, I admire people who can do that, and that’s not to play down or make light of how they must feel.

I learned exactly where my threshold was.  And it was nowhere near the above.

The term nervous breakdown is quite loose when you consider it, too. There aren’t really any specific parameters about what it entails or off the shelf treatments, either.  Only a few clicks of a button online will take you to various different tomes of the horrific effects a breakdown can have on a human being. Sometimes the damage is limited, sometimes it spirals out of control and can lead to ruined lives, incarceration of some kind or even suicide.  

Yes Mr Wood “Just take three spoonfuls of this vile tasting syrup, three times per day, said the pharmacist.  In two weeks, you’ll be as happy as a pig in shit again”

Right?  Wrong.

Nobody can tell you what to expect with a nervous breakdown, what will happen, what to do when it does or how to recover. It’s a buzz word of mental health terminology, but in reality, it’s just two words put together that don’t really tell you much, at all.  It’s everything and nothing.

I’d heard the term before and it had always terrified me. I envisaged the prospect of having a nervous breakdown as me sitting in a padded room in a psychiatric ward somewhere in my Spiderman pyjamas, talking to Wally the giant Bunny Rabbit who lives behind the radiator.

It didn’t quite come to that in my case, but for a while, my brain just seemed to say “enough” and shut down almost completely.  I later learned this was a kind of safety switch. When the mind can’t cope, it sometimes let’s go. Just for a while.

I’m not able to take your call right now, but when you hear the tone, leave your name, number and a short message, and I’ll get back to you”  

I spent several months signed off sick from work, bedridden for the first few weeks, and I mean literally not moving from my bed, other than to use the bathroom. I stopped eating, period and my weight plummeted to 10 stones, which for a guy of my frame, looked horrible.  My healthy weight is 12.5 stones. (80kg) Physically, I looked like I was dying and I couldn’t seem to string thoughts together and think coherently. About anything. I could get upset over nothing. Spilling a glass of water could make me cry for an hour. Uncontrollable shaking, insomnia even though I was exhausted, panic attacks at any time, sweating, fatigue, agoraphobia, upset tummy, constant rumination/anxiety and not showering or taking care of chores at home. I didn’t give a fuck. About anything. I looked like Tom Hanks in Castaway, after a Butlins holiday…in Pripyat.  

When my Doctor asked me if I had felt like hurting myself or thoughts of taking my own life I was honest and said no, but I worried that these feelings might come as I seemingly had no control over what was happening to me on a daily basis. (I had had one depressive episode some years ago where I did contemplate suicide).

It was like a thick black and toxic fog had descended upon me and I just wanted to breathe it all in and let it consume me. I saw no way out and had no energy for the fight, even if I did.  There are some weeks I can’t even recall so can’t really document those times.

Luckily, a small group of people part of my inner circle stepped in and although it took a few tries to get the medication part correct, as time passed, I found a certain type of anti depressant to be effective, with minimal side effects. There’s a lot of stigma and negativity surrounding medication, but it’s worth remembering that many people DO get efficacy from some antidepressants.  I was one of those. And no, I wasn’t doped to Timbuktu on Thorazine either.

After a month of adjustment, I was able to function very well and even begin going back to work albeit on reduced hours. I also found a good therapist who was expensive, but she helped me to practically start to unravel what emotionally was going on inside me and begin the process of healing/recovery. I learned that I had no control over bad thoughts or the times when the black dog would come scratching at the door, trying to get in.  But I can control how I react to the triggers. And for me, that was key. They are after all, just bad thoughts.   

In my experience, I got lucky.  I had loyal people looking out for me who stuck by me, even when I was behaving like an arsehole, and being awkward/resistant and draining with people who just had my best interests at heart and couldn’t bear to see me in the state I was in.  A very close friend almost had me sectioned on account of my weight loss and general demeanor.

Thankfully, my friends realized it was the breakdown making me this way and they didn’t give up on me. My employer was also fantastic and supportive.  My Line Manager and Head of Division were very kind and empathetic towards me. I was told to not worry about work, take as much sick time as I needed and to get well. Not everyone gets such fantastic support as I did. I also got very good and constructive medical care. People I have never met personally, or met just fleetingly, but I’m connected with on social media got in touch and offered me their hand and support. One of the great sides of social media…for all its ills.  

Gradually, with a combination of medication, therapy and support, I was able to pull myself up off the seabed. One inch at a time.  

Six months on and the world feels like a different place.  I have a re-calibrated sense of self and feel genuinely more optimistic about the future.  I’m not over the hurt or damage of my marriage and divorce, I’m in transit though, and started to learn again about what is important to me, and have a readjusted sense of value and priority. My marriage taught me a great deal.

I have not so good days of course, still and probably always will.  But they are decreasing and I wake each morning now with a much better sense of optimism and hope.  That had gotten lost somewhere, and to get it back feels wonderful. Everything just feels different, this time.  And ironically, it took a nervous breakdown which somehow, with guidance, I was able to turn into a breakthrough. It came at huge cost.  But sometimes, there can be no real true restitution without cost.

I guess the point of a warts and all blog post is two fold. The first is an act of honesty on my part to lay out in a public forum my own experiences with mental health issues, which has taken some courage to do. The second is to offer some beacon of light to anyone in the midst of anything like what I have described, here.  I’m not giving you soundbite bs when I say I understand what you are going through. I sometimes wish I didn’t… but I do.  What you don’t have access to right now in the depths of your hopelessness, is that you are not hopeless. You have a choice. You always have a choice.  

I’m not some kind of relationship guru, mental health svengali or self-certified psychiatrist now either just because I lost my shit for a while and had some kind of twisted Trinny and Susannah esque makeover to a homeless tramp for three months. The solution to your recovery from a breakdown is made up of different; sometimes complex sometimes not, variables.  There is no off the rack one treatment fits all fix for this thing. You need to admit you’re not well and need help, that’s step number one and be brave enough to reach out for it. That’s your starting point. And admitting you’re not coping does not make you weak. Ironically, it’s a sign of the opposite.

There will be days you feel you’ve made progress, and there will be days you feel like punching yourself repeatedly in the face when you break down in front of a therapist for one hour once, maybe twice per week and feel worse when you came out than when you went in. And that’s before you get the invoice!   Stick with it and invest in the process. Be totally honest with your therapist and chew the really chewy fat.  You know, the shit you want to talk about but just…can’t.  Your therapist might be very experienced and skilled, but they are not psychic. And if you can’t be honest and open with yourself, how can you truly expect any catharsis of your situation or to really, truly get better?

Find the right help, a GP prepared to look at your care short and long term if you are diagnosed with depression. If you feel your GP is not interested, find another who is.  Look for a therapist you feel comfortable working with, be patient and give them time to learn about you, what you’re going through, and what triggers your situation. If you are lucky enough to have good friends in it for the long haul, accept the help they offer you and apologize to them later for being a knobjockey, when you see the world through a clearer lens.  If they are true friends, they will forgive you your trespasses, I promise you.  You may have to do the same for them one day.  Be prepared to make changes to your life/routine and take on new hobbies, exercise, whatever makes you feel better. Go punch a goat. No, don’t do that. The goat might punch you back.

Recovering from a nervous breakdown takes time, courage, work and patience.  

Yes, you must walk this road yourself but you are not alone. There are people behind you who’ve got your back if you fall over and land flat on your face. They can help you up, dust you down and mop up your tears. But you MUST walk for yourself.  Remember, you have a choice. You always have a choice.

Once upon a time I was hoping to be a writer.  But somewhere, on the long and winding road, I strayed and was lost. After some time in the wilds, I see the lights of the path again, up ahead. They are close.  

If I can find them, so can you.

Jonathan Wood

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