That’s a statement I’ve heard and read countless times in the past month. If you hear or see the same words over and over again they eventually lose any proper meaning in your mind.
I’m partly to blame, no doubt. When people keep asking you how you’re doing then you get used to using empty cliché as a diversionary tactic. I’ve certainly assisted people in forming the simplistic view that everything’s fine.
I mean what’s the alternative?
‘Actually I was having some suicidal thoughts just before you dropped round. Now, do you want a chocolate biscuit with your tea?’
I don’t think most people want that much honesty.
Everybody praises the bravery in speaking out. But what they really want to hear is that there’s a happy ending. That you’ve beaten it. No messy loose ends please.
But here’s my truth. There is no better place. I can no more stop the workings of my mind than teach my hair to grow shorter.
The terror is still there. Every day. The raven of despair still flies constantly. The dark thoughts as inevitable as a Monday morning.
On my very best days, the absolutely happiest times of my life, I will have life-ending thoughts. Maybe one hundred times.
Does that sound incessantly bleak?
Well, it shouldn’t. Because that’s the breakthrough.
That’s the realisation that perhaps saved me.
Being able to say those couple of sentences finally gave me what I’d been searching for all of my life. A little bit of peace.
Let me explain. For as long as I can remember I’d always assumed I’d get to an age where everything made sense. When all the edges of the shapes would rub together smoothly. At 20. At 30. At 40.
I would reach a point where I would beat my own monsters. Where my mind would be tamed. Where I would just feel security and happiness.
I would get off the pills forever. I’d never have to be afraid again. I’d stop feeling the maggot worthlessness that infests my soul.
But it just never seemed to happen.
Not only that, but things were clearly getting worse.
Those who’ve read the previous instalments of this story know how the more successful I was at work, the more chaotic my world became. The breakdowns, the suicide attempts, the time in hospital.
I’d had to leave my job. I’d had enough. I had a young son to care for. I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had no idea if there was going to be a rest of my life.
I was tired.
Tired of fighting against my own mind.
So I stopped.
There was no decision made to do it. No convenient moment of clarity that I can use as a neat story to build this post round.
I suppose just being away from the pressure of work must have relaxed me a bit. Being free for the first time in 20 years of the unrelenting pressure of deadline and the next edition allowed me to begin to heal my shattered nerves.
Because of work I’d missed my son’s first week of nursery school. Now I was free of it and able to help him when he needed me. He was struggling with the adaptation to the new environment. I was able to be there. To be with him
I was there in the mornings. To help him have his breakfast, to fight over the dressing ritual. I was there to hold his hand as we went to the school door. There to talk calmly to him as he wept and pleaded to be allowed to go back home. There to hug him and wave goodbye.
I was there, standing among all the mummies when it was time to go home. I’d usually see him before he saw me. As the teacher led him outside there’d be a look of uncertainty, almost fear, on his face. Then he’d spot me and start to run, his bottom lip trembling as he jumped into my arms.
Soon I began to enjoy it. I became familiar with all the drop-off and pick-up times. I learnt the names of all the pupils and made friends with the parents. We went to the park often.
I was there for the school trip, the nativity play, the school disco, the spring fair, the open day, the sports day.
The birthday party invitations started to come. We went to them all. I always tried to be the daddy who played with all the kids, the first one in the bouncy castle. I made a cake for my son’s party. I learnt how to make balloon animals for the kids.
We enjoyed lots of time together as a family. Mummy, my son and me.
People told me I looked better. I gained some weight. Grew a terrible beard. Became easier to talk to, less serious.
I entered the Santa Run in Hillsborough. The look of joy on my boy’s face as he stood by my side when I was presented with my second place medal was memorable.
So had I been healed by a few months away from work?
Absolutely not. All of the old problems and fears still remained. I remember one day being in a shop with my wife and suffering such a severe panic attack that she had to rush me straight home.
But the strange thing was, it didn’t seem to bother me so much anymore. I didn’t allow getting down to get me down. I tried to accept the nasty thoughts which buzzed around in my head as part of me. When I had a low period, I just waited for it to pass.
I had stopped battling against my own mind. Instead I had accepted it. This is me. It’s the way my brain is. I stopped being so hard on myself.
I had found what balanced me out against the worst excesses of myself. Just a little bit of contentment.
I’d done all the treatments. The medication, the counselling, the meditation. But simply having fun took me a lot further. Learning to smile. To laugh. To play. My son gave that back to me.
Everyone who suffers is different. We all just have to find what works best.
I lived the life of the stay-at-home daddy as I tried to figure out what to do with myself. I loved being a full-time parent but there was still a part of me which needed a creative outlet.
There were moments when I felt cut off from the world. Isolated. I needed stimulation, just like my son.
I played around with the idea of doing some writing. But nothing ever seemed to work out. I could never seem to make an idea stick.
I think it was almost a year back that my wife first had the idea that I should do a blog. I’m slow at making decisions, like a cruise ship turning around. The idea stayed latent somewhere in my brain, neither accepted or rejected. A few other people made the same suggestion to me.
I knew nothing about blogs (I still don’t). I had never even read one in my life. It was perfect. I loved the idea of my innocence and the ignorance about the format. The world’s least likely blogger. I decided to do it.
At around this time I also started to explore the idea of writing for therapy. Once I got over the first hurdle of telling people about my suffering, of accepting that this would be my label from now on, it all got a lot easier.
The process worked like this. I’d always found it easier to express my ideas through stories. Often thoughts which don’t make sense internally achieve a logic when they’re committed as part of a narrative.
I found aspects of my own struggle seemed to lose part of their terror when I posted about them.
Then there was the power of solidarity, of networking. Of discovering that thoughts and fears which I had always thought were peculiar to me were actually common, even universal. The wonderful warm feeling of support from others.
It feels good to be part of something creative again. I feel more relevant to the world around me than I ever did working in newspapers. I’ve connected with more people in a few weeks as a blogger than I did in years working in the media.
I feel like I’ve started something. I’m not sure what and I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’ve definitely started something.
It’s exciting and fun. And it helps me.
I don’t have any complacency about my own mental health. I never know when the next bad day is coming. The next breakdown. The next collapse. None of us do.
But I do feel that if it comes I’m better equipped than ever to cope. I’ve got my family. My writing. My smile.
Once you accept the internal terror, then it doesn’t seem to be quite as scary anymore.
So to bring it back to where I began, I’m not in a better place.
I’m in the same place. But I’m learning to love that place.
I’m learning to be kinder to myself.
* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.