One year ago today, I walked into work and burst into tears. I didn’t even make it to my desk. I felt the anxiety rising as I approached my office building. By the time I reached the top of the stairs I was shaking and hyper-ventilating. I walked past my office, sat in my boss’s office and wept.
I had come to the end of my ability to cope. It felt like my life was a house of cards and it had finally collapsed. My anxiety levels were in the red, my brain was screaming at me, I just wanted everything to stop. There was too much going on, too much to juggle, too much stress, too much, too much, too much…
For a few weeks leading up to that crisis I knew that I was struggling. I would disappear to the loo a few times during my working day and sit on the floor and cry. I reached out to a few people including my immediate line manager but instead of receiving the support I thought I was asking for, it felt like the pressure increased.
I sat in a meeting and I asked for help. The conversation, as I remember it, went something like this.
“I’m really struggling,” I said.
“Well, if you need any help, just ask.”
I took a deep breath and swallowed my pride.
“Thank you. I do need help,” I said.
It took a lot for me to say that. I had prided myself on how competent I was, how well I could juggle work demands.
“Okay. Well, if you need any help, just ask,” they repeated.
My heart sank. And a few weeks later, so did I.
I had what would probably have been called in the past a nervous breakdown. These days it would probably be classified somewhere between anxiety, depression and acute stress.
I had a lot going on. By day, I was working in the digital communications team at the University of St Andrews, managing multiple projects. At night, I was warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall, the largest hall under one roof in St Andrews with around 540 students. My divorce proceedings were grinding to a horrible conclusion. I was trying to juggle work with seeing my children, and even when I had them I also had to juggle hall duties. I was in a relationship with someone but she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a series of operations, and then I got the news that I might have bowel cancer—I had most of the symptoms and would need to have that investigated.
The final straw was when one of the students at ABH went missing. His friends, on my advice, reported the disappearance to the police. My son Isaac and I stood for two hours in a hall corridor with the police as they searched rooms and took statements. Isaac was such a star, holding my hand saying, “I don’t like this. I don’t want to be here.” Me too, darling, me too. He was supposed to be spending the evening in my flat having a fun, mid-week father-and-son evening.
Two days later I had a breakdown.
I felt guilty. I felt I had let so many people down. If only I could have coped better, been stronger, done this or that… My mind was racing. I felt dizzy. My heart was pounding all the time. I was in a state of heightened alert. I couldn’t think straight. I was panicking all the time.
There were a couple of assistant wardens in hall, especially, who helped me so much, my neighbours, Chris and Will. They would check in on me. They would invite me into hall to sit with them at dinner. They would visit and sit with me and listen and chat and laugh with me. They helped me feel normal and they accepted me.
Occupational health also were really supportive. The occupational health adviser was a former warden so she understood the pressures that I’d been under: the lack of sleep, the disturbances, the constant barrage of emails that you had to keep on top of, the demands on your time and energy, the intrusions into your daily life and the need to make decisions at all times of day and night.
She arranged for me to see a counsellor, Andrew. He was brilliant. I saw him over six sessions and he helped me to understand what was going on in my over-stimulated, flooded brain. Over time, together, we brought my levels of anxiety down. I am hugely indebted to him for his care, his understanding, and his coaching.
I saw my GP. He advised that I start a course of antidepressant medication, Sertraline (Lustral). Within a few days, I felt it kick in a little and my levels of anxiety dropped. I could feel the anxiety was still there but it felt like the medication cut off the peaks and troughs; it was like watching a TV picture but with no sound.
But then things got worse. The longer I was on the medication, the worse I got. The anxiety was gone, but much of that had been dealt with in counselling. I then began to ‘shut down’ completely. For a whole week (it may have been longer) I didn’t get out of bed, except to use the bathroom or eat. I felt groggy and sluggish. I couldn’t put one thought after the other. I watched TV on my Android tablet and I slept.
I kept going in the belief that it would eventually get better. I was told the medication needed time to kick in. But it only ever made things worse. Four weeks into taking the medication, I felt like a zombie. I was physically shaking. I felt unable to stand still. I was wandering around, feeling agitated like something was trying to get out of me. And then I started fantasizing about suicide. I was having suicidal thoughts, considering the many inventive ways I could kill myself.
And then one day, as I was shuffling along the corridor to the bathroom, it suddenly hit me.
“It’s the medication!” I said, out loud. “Of course it is! It’s the medication. I don’t really want to kill myself, this is the medication doing weird stuff to my brain.”
I returned to my bed and started looking up online articles about the safest way to come off Sertraline. And from what I read, it’s a pretty nasty drug to come off. The advice I read everywhere was don’t come off it quickly.
I came off it quickly, over a long weekend in Wokingham at a friend’s surprise 50th birthday party. I had forgotten to pack any of my medication—although, I suspect my unconscious was really in charge of that one. But I couldn’t have wished for a better few days to come off that drug. I was surrounded by friends and love and laughter and I felt none of the side-effects that I’d been promised.
By this point, too, I had learned that I didn’t have bowel cancer, either. It was ‘just’ a large polyp that was removed and a wee drop of Indian ink was deposited to mark the spot. That’s right, I now have a small tattoo about 13 cm up my arse!
I had also made the decision to leave the University, after working there for 12 years.
When I had returned home that morning from weeping in my boss’s office, I closed my flat door and said, “I’m done with this place.” It just came out. I love the University of St Andrews but I just felt so broken.
A few days later, I read something that further guided my decision to leave: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you ill”. That’s exactly how I felt. I knew that I had to leave, step out into the unknown and trust God and myself for whatever would come next.
On Sunday 5 August 2018, my employment with the University ended. I had not long moved from St Andrews to a wee house in Crail and I started to heal.
Five months later, in January of this year, I started a new job with Vision (In Practice Systems Ltd) in Dundee as a scrum master. We build software for the NHS. What a fitting next move. I am absolutely loving it. I’m so happy in that job. I work alongside some wonderful people. I feel included and valued and I’m really looking forward to what we can achieve together.
Life is simpler, I’m seeing my children most weekends and sometimes during the week. Life is good.
I didn’t share any of this on my blog until now, in part, I guess, through fear. In part because I needed time to process it. Last year was hard, really hard. Sometimes you need to finish the journey before coming back to talk about it.
My experience of deep, deep anxiety last year has changed me for the better, I believe. I feel more compassionate. I feel more patient. I feel more grateful.
The thing is, there is nothing shameful about mental health problems. I tried my best. I tried to carry too much on my own. I’m proud of what I achieved, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, but I’m grateful that after I hit my limit I found a way through to a place of healing and that there were some people along the way who cared and supported me.
I am deeply thankful to my counsellor Andrew, to my GP, to occupational health, to my friends and family for their love, their support and especially for listening.
That’s what helped me most—simply having people who were willing to sit with me and listen. Not try to fix me but to understand me, and help me to understand myself.
We need to talk about mental health more.
And speaking of mental health, today is also the 36th anniversary of the date that my late dad, Keith J Saunders, had his first brain haemorrhage.
Beware the Ides of March, indeed.
But that story is for another day.