My Journey towards the Exit, a positive story about Mental Health

Boy looks at an intimidating mountain with an exit sign at the top. Image is from The Pagemaster 1994

This story has been a long time coming. I’ve probably re-written this in my head a thousand different times over the last 5 years, so let’s get into it.

A little about myself: I am 27, I currently work as a Javascript Engineer, I’m married to a girl I’ve been with since I was 15, we bought our first house when we were in our early twenties and we are about to buy our second. Yet, I have suffered with mental health issues for as long as I can remember, I honestly don’t remember a time when depression wasn’t in my vocabulary. My issues have been described as many things; depression, dissociation, personality disorder and bipolar. However the mistake I let myself believe was that I was managing my problems.

I realised when I finished university that the goal I had been thriving towards my whole life wasn’t what I built it up to be, and I think this broke my internal compass, and left me lost at sea. I moved back in with my mam (mother, mum, I’m from the north east of england this is how we say it), and spent about 6 months in my room barely seeing daylight, I stayed up till 6 or 7 in the morning and didn’t wake up till 4 in the afternoon.

Looking back, I was also fortunate enough to have good people looking out for me which I did not see at the time. A friend used his connections to get me an interview at a local agency (Luckily, I had taught myself how to code, not that I had done any since I had finished University), and I was offered the job. This lifted me right out of the spiral I was in.

Over time, my coding ability continuously improved. In the following 6 years I moved from one job to another for various reasons; generally the main theme being that I felt the companies weren’t doing things right, and didn’t meet my standards.

Eventually, I would find myself back in that dark place, where I was barely able to get out of bed to get to work, and when I got to work it felt like battle after battle to do my job effectively. I would realise that I hadn’t been managing my mental health at all, and I would decide that I needed to do something about it.

What I haven’t mentioned is that during this time, I had been going to the doctors to try and fix things. I was prescribed Citalopram, but found that this didn’t work for me. It did make my day-to-day life easier; I was able to get out of bed and go to work, and I was probably more pleasant to be around, but it was just a facade. I was a zombie (for the lack of a better term). I felt like I had less control over my choices, and I was living on autopilot. So I stopped taking them.

My view on mental health issues was always that they are chemical, that there is something wrong with you, your head is broken and you will always have to battle these demons. I believed that depression was part of me. I was sceptical about ‘Talking Therapies’ (part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies initiative), so when it was suggested that I use that service I dismissed it. I knew I needed to see a qualified Psychologist, as my problems were much deeper rooted, however I was told I had to go through the Talking Therapies process to get referred.

I eventually did speak to them, and after two to three telephone contacts they agreed I needed to be referred. So, all well and good — until they told me it would probably be an 18 month wait before I could see a Psychologist.

Despite a potentially long wait ahead, this is where things started to look up. My wife started going to a personal trainer, this meant she changed her diet and had a somewhat restricted one for the first two weeks. I decided to do the right thing and do it with her, rather than just eating pizza’s and cookies in front of her. I should admit that prior to this I’ve never had a good relationship with food, and I used to exclusively drink fizzy drinks, so this change was very tough for me. We got through those two weeks, but those two weeks lead to three which lead to four. After a month or two of eating healthy and going cold turkey with fizzy drinks. I started to feel a lot better. I also saw the progress my wife made during her time at her personal trainer and it inspired me to do something similar.

This is where I got help from an ex pro-wrestler…sort of.

I used to like WWF/WWE when I was much younger. I was a fan of CM Punk, and around this time he was training for his UFC debut. They showed a 6 part series of him training on YouTube, and it looked tough, intense and most importantly out of my comfort zone. Did I want to train to be in the UFC? No, I just wanted to get fitter, lose some weight and maybe add a few years on to my life in the process.

So I started training at Solo Martial Arts near to where I live. That first class nearly killed me, the first thing we did after the warm up (which wasn’t a cakewalk in itself) was a pyramid of burpees and crunch sit ups… start at 40 then 30 then 20 then 10. My body didn’t know what hit it, and we still had 40 minutes left of the class. I hadn’t really done exercise for about five years prior and even then it wasn’t to this level. I finished the class broken but feeling a level of achievement I hadn’t for a long time. I saw a challenge and overcame it.

For about 7 months now, I have been eating well and training on average four times a week. I have become a good weight for my height. This for a long time was my therapy and I believe everyone around me saw a huge improvement in how I was generally. Again this is something that should be an obvious thing to do when you have depression and I completely understand how hard it is to do something like this. I may have made it sound easy, it’s not, but you have to challenge yourself if you want to get better. Am I saying healthy eating and exercise are the key to getting over your mental health problems. No, but I do believe these patterns help create a strong platform and foundation to be able to accept new ideas and be able to progress in the right direction. For some people this could be meditation, or something else, for me it was kickboxing.

During those 7 months I received a phone call asking when I would be free for an appointment.

My first appointment was weird. I was told I was going to be getting twenty sessions that will be fifty minutes. During my appointment I probably talked more than my therapist did and it felt like it was over in 5 minutes. I didn’t know what to think, however my next appointment came up very quickly and we got into more depth. I was asked to write down a brief timeline of notable things that have happened in my life. She challenged me on most of the points I made, asking leading questions that got me to really think about what I was saying, I still didn’t feel like I made progress but I did feel my thinking starting to change.

It was the third appointment that turned everything on its head.

My therapist wrote down a map of my thinking and how I was in a cycle that was causing the issues I wanted to get control of. She was spot on, this took me by surprise, as after three sessions I felt like she had “got it”. I think it was her direct approach, and her ability to challenge me by getting me to ask uncomfortable questions of myself that really started me on the right path, and then she identified patterns that were causing me harm that lead me to my “AHA!” moment.

I am onto my 8th or 9th session now and I honestly don’t remember a time where I have been happier. I know I haven’t really went into what my problems were specifically, but I don’t think that matters. What I have found through this process is that you must challenge your mental health regardless of what you believe about mental health. My analogy is if you break your leg you seek help, you may need pain killers to get through day to day, but once the cast comes off your leg isn’t magically better, you need physiotherapy, and the results really depend on how much you put in. But what is often missed is, why did you break your leg? Was it an accident? Was it because of something stupid you did? The list could go on, but you need to look at these behaviours and make changes so that you don’t break your leg again.

Therapy has been the most important thing I have done in my life to help myself and I have no shame in that. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma about seeking help relating to mental health. You need to take care of your brain as much if not more so than any other part of your body. I have been very lucky to get this help in the UK. Some people could have waited the full 18 months before getting help. I almost wrote “without getting political” but it is political, these services are under-funded and under-resourced, and we are suffering long term because it. You always have the ability to go private, however I believe some of the most vulnerable people will not be able to afford that. You go to places like San Francisco and you can see America’s approach to mental health problems on the streets, and it’s heartbreaking. What chance do people have when they can’t get insurance, never mind being able to afford the treatment outright? Health care is a basic human right, and mental health should be no different.

Mental health is hard and there is no silver bullet. Some things will work for some people, and not for others. Although I may have made this sound easy, let me remind you I have been struggling with this for the best part of 18 years, and it has only been the last 12 months that I have managed to turn things around. Would I say I am cured? No. But once I was in complete darkness and now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to me that is enough to know that it is beatable and I am on the right path to get myself out.

All I know is I don’t want to be that person anymore, and that is enough motivation to make the changes that are needed.

Side note: I’d like to take this time to say, to the people who have put up with me and been there for me through the years, I might not sound like I do most of the time, but I appreciate you more than you know.