I have teetered on the brink of mental illness twice. Both occasions were work-related — one near the start of my career and one just a couple of years ago. Both came out of nowhere and shocked me to my core.
The more recent experience came about due to an ill-judged attempt to be someone I’m not for the sake of steady employment. I was the wrong person in the wrong job with the wrong boss. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong.
And boy did it go wrong! The causes are gloriously irrelevant now; suffice it to say I was under pressure to perform but felt completely incapable of doing so. This generated levels of stress and anxiety that I’d never known before and hope never to encounter again.
I was buckling under this pressure and couldn’t see a way out. I felt unable to share my feelings with anyone except my wife. Even with her I couldn’t talk about it without crying. And my boss simply wasn’t equipped to recognise the issue — or to address it when it finally broke the surface in the form of an understated, very English sort of meltdown.
I remember sitting in a team meeting one grim Monday morning, in one of those miserable corporate rooms with no windows and harsh fluorescent lighting. I felt anxious and unhappy. All I could think about was escaping as quickly as possible so I could feel anxious and unhappy at my own desk. But first we had to endure a stilted discussion about the corporate thought for the week, which was — the irony! — mental health awareness.
From the tinny spider phone speaker came the voice of the company’s occupational health chief. In a rather downbeat way, she was saying all the right things about stress and anxiety and how to manage people who suffer from them.
As I mentally ticked off symptom after symptom (‘Yup, that’s me… and that… and that…’) I looked around the table at the bored but studiously attentive faces and saw the chasm that lay between the theory and practice of mental health management in that particular workplace.
There I was, a hair’s breadth away from completely losing my shit — a quivering mess of cold sweats, nervous tics and wildly amplified fears — and no one in the room had the faintest idea.
There was no discussion about encouraging people to open up about their feelings. And no one showed any signs of having the empathy to deal with it even if someone did find a way to ask for help. The lack of authenticity was profoundly depressing.
This all sounds very dramatic doesn’t it? I’m sure the people in that room would raise an eyebrow at this account. But developing a warped sense of reality comes with the territory when you’re stressed and anxious. In that moment I assure you it felt truly desperate.
I knew there was no way I was going to be able to address my problems at work. So I turned to my great friend Kit Somers, who was in the process of becoming an arts psychotherapist in Australia. Over a series of online video conversations, with time and love and patience — not to mention initiating my first attempt at finger-painting since I was about four — she helped me to calm my thoughts and regain my perspective.
Within just a couple of weeks, thanks to Kit I was sleeping better, I was capable of talking about the problem without bursting into tears, and I was plotting an escape plan from that most inappropriate of jobs. The plan was executed within three months and I was happy and stable again.
Kit helped me to steady the ship in various ways, one of which was by encouraging me to take time to focus on nature. I did this every morning during the post-breakfast dog-walk, by stopping, taking some deep, slow breaths and absorbing my surroundings.
And the specific element of those surroundings that helped me more than anything else was the common seagull.
If you get there early enough in the morning, the dog-walking field is full of gulls — most numerously, black-headed gulls. When we enter the field, these pretty little birds take off en masse to escape the over-excited dog.
They fly so elegantly and I’d watch, spellbound, as they wheeled across the slowly brightening morning sky, which was filled with their urgent, raspy cries. They’d make a swooping circuit or two of the field before settling on the grass once more, at a safe distance from the oblivious dog.
These daily gull meditations gave me just enough distance from the turmoil to allow my recovery to begin. They also revived my lifelong love for birds — something I inherited from my twitcher dad. I love to spend time just standing around outdoors listening to a thrush sing or watching a robin patrol its territory or enjoying Brighton’s famous starling murmurations.
Bird comfort is everywhere. On Sunday mornings I’ll lie in bed and listen to wood pigeons softly conversing through the window, just as I did from my attic bedroom as a ten-year-old. One summer’s afternoon a few years ago I stood transfixed as a pair of peregrine falcons engaged in the most spectacular aerobatic play above the dog-walking field. During an off-road bike ride last autumn I disturbed an owl in the woods, which flew ahead of me through the trees for a thrilling 30 seconds or so. And the return of buzzards and red kites to the motorways of Britain is a source of profound joy to me.
But it’s the gulls I keep coming back to. When the winter storms blow, I go to the beach to watch the herring gulls and great black-backed gulls dancing so effortlessly in the howling wind, inches above the raging sea, as the humans run feebly for cover. It’s a reminder that this coastal territory is their domain, not ours. We’re so lucky to have them.