‘This Is How It Feels’ – Personal reflections during Mental Health Awareness week

Chris Bayes

This week marks Mental Health Awareness week.  As stated on the Mental Health Foundation’s website here, “The week will explore the experience of loneliness, its effect on our mental health and how we can all play a part in reducing loneliness in our communities.”

Loneliness affects millions each year and is commonly recognised as a driver in mental health conditions.  Research conducted by The Foundation’s ‘Mental Health in the Pandemic’ research has found that loneliness has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.  Indeed, the pandemic as a whole has had a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing across the globe.

Within our podcast (recorded last October), myself and ‘The Open Circle’ presenter, Tim Roe explored Mental Health and Wellbeing, awareness of mental health issues across society as whole, focusing on the increasing numbers of students reporting mental health issues in higher education across the country.

As someone who grew up with a parent who suffered extensively with depression throughout my life, it is both pleasing and reassuring to see that discourse around Mental Health and associated issues are more common within society today.  When my Mum tried to take her own life on multiple occasions during my teenage years, talking about this was not something I was ever fully comfortable doing.  Obviously, there is a lot more support in this space nowadays – particularly in schools, but a stigma does remain.  Although Mental Health is discussed a lot more within the press and the public domain today, I would question how much actual understanding there is around the issue, particularly in terms of recognising symptoms and supporting people to be able to access support when they need it.

Although my Mum suffered with depression throughout my entire life, I had never considered that depression would be something that I would experience.  Embarrassingly, I was quite dismissive of the illness when I was growing up; I did not understand how or why or what my Mum was suffering with at this point.  My own Mental Health was never something I paid a huge amount of attention to in my teens and twenties – Like most of my peers, I regularly indulged in binge drinking, attending and playing football at weekends.  Alongside this, I would regularly take recreational drugs, as I was a regular attendee at gigs and raves.

Then BOOM, it happened, during the autumn and winter of 2013.  I had turned 30 earlier that year and looking back, I had begun to experience what I now recognise as anxiety on a regular basis over the course of the previous year.  This was largely due to a dysfunctional relationship and not having the maturity or emotional intelligence to be able to deal with this situation.  On reflection, I now recognise that I had probably always experienced anxiety to some extent growing up – I am an only child and I think I definitely suffered from a lack of siblings.  I used to get very nervous ahead of playing football – especially as I was a goalkeeper as a kid.  Having grown up to be a Liverpool FC fanatic, I have seen various goalkeepers from David James through to Jerzy Dudek and Lorus Karius, including the current outstanding incumbent of LFC’s number 1 jersey, Allison Becker, make horrendous errors.  Making an error as a goalkeeper (like any other player on the pitch) is inevitable, but when a goalkeeper makes an error, it is magnified.  Although my appearances for my local team and school were relatively small fry, I used to work myself into a state of panic before games, as I was so fearful of making a mistake.   

As I say, looking back, I was definitely experiencing anxiety throughout 2013 for a variety of reasons, I was using running as a form of escapism at this time.  I completed the Snowdonia Marathon (commonly recognised as one of the UK’s toughest) in under 3:20.  When I look back now, it is clear that I was using this race and the training schedule as a deflection from my problems at the time.  Once I had finished the race and the associated training, I felt really flat and low.  I initially put this down to fatigue after completing such a challenging race in an impressive time.  This accentuated over the next few weeks, but I didn’t know what to do about the way I was feeling.  I tried talking to my partner at the time, she recommended speaking to a doctor, but I was hesitant to do so.  I was probably ignorant at this time, but I didn’t feel able to go and see a doctor, because on the surface there was nothing wrong with me physically.  I had just ran a marathon in a great time, but I was ignoring that mentally, I was not well.    

One morning, scheduled to go away for a city break to Reykjavik, I could not get out of bed.  I felt physically numb and completely drained.  Eventually, I managed to rouse myself, packed my things and headed to London to meet mates.  Over the next few days, I drank heavily during this break – we were attending a music festival.  As I was visiting Reykjavik in November, it was cold, there was a lack of daylight – In Iceland, at this time of the year, the sun does not rise until 10 am, and it sets at 4 pm.  In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best place or environment for someone exhibiting early signs of mental illness. When I came back, I slumped into what I now recognise was depression.

As this had never happened to me before, I didn’t know what to do.  I tried to reassure myself things would improve and eventually they did (they always do).  However, it took time, and I didn’t seek support in a manner that was measured or sensible.  I went to speak to a doctor, but by the time I did, I had convinced myself after a couple of ‘better’ days, things were getting back to ‘normal’.  I ended my relationship – this was stop-start for a while afterwards and probably contributed to my state of confusion over the next few months.  I started and stopped medication, not giving tablets the chance to work fully before seeking another quick fix via another tablet.  For the next few months, I was a bit all over the place at work.  Some days, I couldn’t make it out of bed and just stayed at home.  In the end, I sought support via the University of Liverpool’s Counselling Service (this was my employer at the time).  The support was intensive, face-to-face and delivered over a six or seven-week period and it worked.  Following the counselling, I re-engaged with running and met someone new.  Life was good or so it seemed.

One of the most difficult things about mental illness and depression is that it is recurrent illness.  Someone who suffers a depressive episode is highly likely to suffer a relapse.  Sadly, this was the case for me.  I believe that one of the things that makes depression and associated mental illnesses so difficult to diagnose, understand and treat is that to many it is an unseen affliction.  Our guest on the latest episode of ‘The Open Circle’, Yinka Yesufu, facilitates a 12-week Health & Wellbeing programme in Liverpool and I am lucky enough to have been a beneficiary of this scheme. 

During this and other periods of talking therapy, professionals have commented that I am lucky in that I am able to articulate my experiences clearly and able to recognise my triggers and symptoms.  In the main, this is true.  Nowadays, I do recognise that when I am stressed, I become forgetful, perhaps even snappy or bad tempered with those immediately around me. 

Over the course of time, I have begun to understand what causes this and prior to the pandemic, I became very adept at managing my mental health.  If I was stressed or overtired, I would work from home for a day or two and restrict my social interactions.  I would go for a long walk or a run, recognising that this was beneficial and within a day or so, I would be able to return to a normal pattern.  However, life events aren’t always something that are presented to you with prior warning and you can find yourself presented with challenges that you are not equipped or skilled enough to cope with.  In my next two episodes of depression, this was definitely a massive factor, as was the fact that anxiety and depression can often be interchangeable, thus clouding your judgement and having the potential to leave you feeling as though you have been blindsided.

My second experience of depression came when my ex-girlfriend and I suffered our first miscarriage in 2015.  We had not really been together that long, but we were very happy.  Neither of us had any real life experience or frame of reference regarding pregnancy or what happened subsequently.  What I now realise is how incredibly common miscarriage is, but again it is considered something of a taboo subject to discuss openly, especially for men.

Over the next few months, I once again tried to convince myself that I was fine and looked to throw myself into work.  I subsequently lost focus.  The role I was in at the time entailed the establishment of a collaborative network.  Encouraging HE and FE institutions to collaborate against a backdrop of a marketplace, in which they were cast as competitors, was tough.  I felt as though I was just beginning to get to grips with this before the miscarriage.  I subsequently became withdrawn, paranoid and convinced myself I was failing.  In reality, I wasn’t, I had just lost sight of reality.  As before, I pissed about with medication, stopping and starting on various tablets due to the fact I could not clearly define whether I was anxious or depressed.  During this episode, I was initially suffering from anxiety, but was unwilling to consider talking to anyone or countenance taking medication.  Over the next few months, this escalated into depression, as with the previous episode, it was a combination of factors that enabled me to get ‘better’; the support of a therapist, regular running and the support of friends and family, all helped bring me out of the malaise.

As stated at the outset of the article, the past two years have influenced people’s Mental Health and Wellbeing massively. A lot has happened during the pandemic and it certainly has been a tough experience for many.  Personally, I found the first lockdown an almost therapeutic and certainly positive experience.  That first lockdown probably enabled me to avoid another mental health episode.  In November 2019, my ex and I suffered a second miscarriage.  Whilst it was a horrible thing to experience again, having been through this once before meant that I was perhaps better prepared to deal with it.  However, I also recognise that I was exhibiting trigger signals in the early part of 2020; extreme fatigue, becoming closed in my social interactions and behaving in an insular manner.

Therefore, the first lockdown and the increased flexibility it afforded people probably enabled me not to go under again.  However, as I said before, mental health is not like a physical illness, it is something that never truly goes away, it is always there bubbling under the surface.  Like many people, I have experienced traumatic and painful life events (as well as some truly amazing ones) over the course of the past two years against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic.  An edited highlights package is provided below:

  • Relationship break ups and associated grief cycles
  • Division of assets and associated legal fall-outs from relationships ending
  • The birth of child and becoming a parent
  • The death of a parent and associated grief cycle
  • My team winning a first League Championship in 30 years (albeit when I and many other thousands could not attend and enjoy this experience)
  • My team losing 6 home games consecutively at a point when no-one could attend matches
  • My Dad becoming afflicted with a ‘mystery’ illness impacting hugely on his mobility
  • My Step-Mum being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and then breaking her hip as she was in remission

As stated previously, something you become increasingly aware of as you get older is how life has a habit of throwing things at you for which you are completely unprepared for.  The COVID-19/SARS-COV-2 pandemic has certainly fitted this bill.  As I said, initially I quite liked the novelty of lockdown.  The sun was shining, I had more free time than I had experienced in years and like many, I immersed myself in things I enjoyed.  However, by the time of the second and third lockdowns during the autumn and winter, my mental health and wellbeing slumped dramatically.  I had completely lost sight of my ‘triggers’ due to the pandemic and the monotony of each day, I am sure I am not alone in saying I empathised with Bill Murray’s character in ‘Groundhog Day’ during those dark, long, cold months of January and February 2021. 

Looking back now, I clearly had not been ‘well’ for a while before I actually began to suffer actual depression.  By the back end of last year, I had reached a point at which I recognised I had to make some big life choices.  My Mum had died in July last year and my daughter was born a mere four weeks later.  I was signed off work between July and September.  When I went to work, I realised how trapped I felt in my current role, how miserable it was making me and had been doing so for an inordinately long time.  By December, I realised something had to give, I spoke to the doctor, was signed off again and decided I was not going to go back to work until I felt I was in a position where I was living well.  Over the next month or so, things definitely got worse before they got better, but I began therapy again and acting upon the advice of trusted friends, I finally committed to taking medication.  Since then, things have improved immeasurably.  I am in a lot better place and think people should be encouraged to continue to speak openly about Mental Health.  If you are experiencing anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt, negative thoughts or depression, all I would say is that you are not alone.  There are many services available to support people suffering with Mental Health issues.  Make sure you access them, do not feel ashamed to do so and ensure you play your part in supporting and raising awareness of this key issue.

Mental Health Websites:

https://www.mind.org.uk/

Papyrus UK Suicide Prevention | Prevention of Young Suicide (papyrus-uk.org)

https://www.themix.org.uk/

https://www.samaritans.org/

https://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

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