I wrote a song a few years ago called The Side That Nobody Sees. It was about someone who’d sat on a secret for too long and had suffered for it. In the song, I sang “It’s time for some honesty” before revealing nothing. I post-rationalised this as deliberate irony but it wasn’t.
The someone in the song was me. The secret was mine. The deliberate irony was me pulling back from the brink — giving the illusion of honesty while spilling no beans.
It’s beans time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health recently
Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and the subject seemed to be everywhere. It wasn’t just in the press; friends, colleagues and work contacts of mine all used the opportunity to be brave and honest about their own struggles. I admire that — and them — massively. I’m sure it helps them to bring stuff into the open. But it also helps those around them, including me. When one person spills the beans, everyone can feast on them. Beans for everyone.
The other reason mental health has been on my mind is that I’ve needed to take some time off work to deal with my own. I had a fortnight off in March. Nearly three months later, I’m still nowhere near normal.
I thought it was a work problem, caused by months of a heavy, hectic workload, exacerbated by my compulsion to volunteer for shit that someone else could probably do better than me.
I thought it was a sleep problem. For about nine months, I had been waking for hours in the night, unable to get back to sleep. My eight hours a night became seven, then six, then five. It takes its toll.
I thought it was a grief problem. The day I went home from work marked five years since my mum died. By and large, I’ve got to a positive, peaceful place with grief, but anniversaries bring things to the surface.
I thought it was a medication problem. I’ve been on antidepressants since 2013 (they filled a beer-shaped hole in my life after I stopped drinking) but recently I’d got a bit sketchy about taking the pills every day. This can stop them working. You can also develop a resistance over time, meaning you need bigger doses to get the same effect. Either of those things may have happened to me. Either could have accounted for what I was feeling.
I tried to deal with everything I thought was troubling me
Time off. Less stressful work. Cutting out caffeine after lunchtime. Herbal sleep remedies washed down with warm milk. Counselling. Doubling the dose of the pills. Pinning them to the fridge to remind me to take them.
I also trebled my chocolate consumption. 😋
It all helped. But none of it, not even added together, has helped as much as just talking about it — and specifically, opening up about why I’m like this in the first place. Every time I tell someone about my experience, a piece of it breaks away. I told my kids everything a fortnight ago and the relief was so intense, it made me want to weep (so I did).
This isn’t my first spell in the mental health ditch
I am a serial ditch dweller. I estimate this is my fourth ditch trip, or maybe my fifth. Before this, there was the one from 2012–2015 that led to me stopping drinking. Before that, there was the one from 2001–2004 that led to me changing careers. Before that, there was the one from 1992–4 that led to me failing a year at university, then getting a first. Before that, there was the one between 1988–91 that saw me come very close to total meltdown, but ended with me doing well at school, going to university, and forming lifelong friendships that I value more than anything.
Each one took two or three years to play out. Each one was horrible in its own way. But each one left me stronger afterwards. When I look back, it’s not the troughs I see, it’s the peaks. I wasn’t breaking down, I was breaking through. This episode will be no different. I can already feel myself hitting escape velocity.
As I’ve retraced my steps through each crisis, the path has led me where I was always going to go: back to the start.
Childhood: where everyone and everything starts
You might have heard of the term Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. They’re traumatic experiences in childhood that cause you toxic stress at the time, and raise the risk of long-term harm to you later in your life.
There are nine or ten ACEs depending on what literature you read. Some of them are things that happen to you, while the rest are things that happen around you.
It’s all the stuff you might expect. Physical abuse. Verbal abuse. Sexual abuse. Alcohol abuse. Substance abuse. Domestic violence. Parental separation. Family suicide attempts. Bearevement. Incarceration. Fun stuff.
You can do a questionnaire online and get a score. It’s like Pointless — the lower the number, the better off you are.
Half of us will get at least one. One in seven get four or more. With every extra point, the risk of long term emotional, physical and mental effects increases.
Here’s what long-term harm looks like
If you score more than five, you’re more likely to be a high risk drinker, a smoker, to use crack cocaine or heroin, to have been violent in the last 12 months or to have been a victim of violence yourself. You’re more likely to suffer from chronic illness, to develop type 2 diabetes, to have a heart attack, and to get cancer. You’re 20 times more likely to have been incarcerated at some point in your lifetime. And you’re 100% likely to be on anti-depressants. Literally everyone who scored five or more in the study was taking medication for their mental health.
When they’re assessing the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, they stop counting after five. You’re in the magic 5+ bracket that seems to represent ‘peak fucked’.
My score is seven.
I try to imagine that being said in the voice of Len Goodman to make myself feel better about it.
That means seven of those things happened to me before age 18.
The great news is that I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’ve never been incarcerated and I’ve never tried heroin (though I hear it’s very moreish).
I am healthy. I have a nice life, with a nice home and family, a great job and some great friends. I have been successful at most of the things I set out to do and where I haven’t, it was as much a result of over ambition as it was under achievement.
But the truth is, despite all this, I’m not OK and I never have been
The things I’m feeling now, in the middle of a crisis, are the things I always feel. The things I’m struggling to do are things I’ve always struggled to do. The things that are making me anxious, or scared, or angry, or withdrawn now have been there for as long as I can remember.
They were there before you knew me, they’re here now and they’ve been here for all the time that’s passed in between.
When I bailed at the last minute, or didn’t do what I said I would, or didn’t get in touch for months or years, they were there. When I snapped at you or yelled at you, or stormed off, they were there. They were even there when I hugged you long past the point where it became awkward, which let’s be honest I probably did a lot. Now you know why.
If I was horrible to you, it wasn’t because I didn’t respect you or care about you, it was because I didn’t respect or care about myself. And if I seemed stretched, chaotic, disorganised, unreliable, it was mainly because I was trying too hard. I wanted to do everything, please everyone, let no one down. I thought if I was perfect, I would be bulletproof. But it wasn’t possible to be perfect, and I ended up riddled with bullets anyway.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of it was me being a twat. But most of it wasn’t. I was trying my best but I fell short of how I wanted to be.
The closer we are, the more likely it is that you’ve noticed it
If we’re not close, you probably missed all of it. If we are, and you’ve been on the receiving end of my ire, then I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve it. If it’s any consolation, I probably liked it even less than you did. When it comes to criticising me, I am the world leader in that field. I’m working on it.
If you want to know the details of what happened, get in touch. I’ll tell you everything — even if you’re that person I used to work with in 1997, or you’re someone I met at a gig once, who thought I seemed nice enough, and who is now backing away wondering what the fuck I’m on about. I’ll even spill the beans if we’ve never met. If you think it’ll help you to know what happened, it’ll certainly help me to tell you. If you don’t want to know the details, that’s fine too. I don’t need you to listen. I just need to be able to talk.
If you’re wondering how to treat me now, it’s easy
I don’t wish for anything from you that you wouldn’t wish for yourself.
You want people to be kind to you. That’s all you need to do for me.
You want people to cut you a bit of slack, and give you room to make mistakes. Same here.
You want people to see that you’re doing your best in difficult circumstances. So do I.
I’ll do the same for you, I promise. What’s happened to me could have happened to you for all I know. It could have happened to anyone.
That’s the point. We should all think twice before judging people. When you see someone behaving in a way you don’t like, there might be a struggle going on in the background that you can’t see.
To the handful of people who knew all this, thank you. You’re the reason I’m not on crack or in prison. To everyone else, thanks for listening. I’m always here if you need someone to listen to you.