Let’s talk about mental health

The Firth of Forth, looking towards the Isle of May

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!

Deep breath.

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.

I’m taking a short sabbatical

My former desk (on the right) in the digital communications team office

End of the beginning

This week marks the end of an era. On Sunday 5 August, after 4,480 days—12 years, 3 months and 5 days—I ended my employment at the University of St Andrews.

Changes

Over these 147 months, I’ve seen a huge change in the web development landscape. When I joined the team (of one—the perfect introvert’s team size) in May 2006 as assistant web manager/information architect, the second browser war was still going on. Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant Windows browser, Firefox was a four-year old upstart and Chrome was still two and a half years away.

My first proper project—after dabbling with some designs for a Press Office website redesign that didn’t come to anything—was to wrestle with Saulcat, the University’s library catalogue system. Who can fail to be impressed with online documentation for a third-party system that you’ve barely ever used that runs to literally tens of thousands of pages? That was also the first project that ever made me cry.

There was an excitement back then. We were on the cutting edge. Pulling an almost all-nighter to get the new site launched in TERMINALFOUR Site Manager v5.0, only to discover that some part of the design didn’t work in IE7 as soon as we went live, and the frantic scramble to get it fixed.

Our focus was so much on the technology: the browser wars were still going.

LUKE SKYWALKER You fought in the Browser Wars?

OBI-WAN KENOBI Yes. I was once a Web developer, the same as your father.

LUKE SKYWALKER No, my father didn’t fight in the Browser Wars. He simply used Netscape Navigator on a spice freighter.

OBI-WAN KENOBI That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals—an open, accessible and universal web.

Having come through some pretty hairy health problems (viral meningitis, anyone?), plus a divorce, wardenning in hall (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”), and then a recent bowel cancer health-scare (from January through to April), I realised that I needed to start looking after myself for a while. That’s not something that comes easily to me—I find it more natural to care for others.

I have worked pretty much flat out for at least the last 21 years—I’ve poured myself out into each job and given everything that I can. Earlier this year I simply felt broken, burned out with little left to give.

The last four months have provided a useful buffer to rest and heal and reflect on my future. When I was going through the pros and cons of leaving the University, the biggest pro of staying was being with people that I’ve been fortunate to call my friends, in some cases, for the last 26.24% of my life. But that wasn’t enough to keep me at St Andrews—I can always keep up with my friends outside of work-hours.

I am proud of what I have achieved at St Andrews, and what we as a team have achieved. I have been blessed by the friendships that I have made there. But it is time to change pace for a while and allow myself to heal more fully and gain a little more perspective. 

One phrase in particular has been going around my head for the last few months as I’ve journeyed towards this decision: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick”, and in the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

Solitude

So, I have decided to take a short sabbatical.

I will focus on my health, on eating more healthily, on cycling and walking, on resting and focusing on my mental health too. Then I will turn my attention to whatever is next.

As far as employment goes, it’s not as though I’ll be falling off the edge of the world. I have a few irons in the fire, as they say—all still in digital/web development. I’m excited about what’s next. All will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, I am simply enjoying life, enjoying being with my children, and with those I love. Feels good to me.

Fun fact: as I’m taking a sabbatical, I decided to use a lot of Black Sabbath (geddit?) song titles in this post. See if you can find them all.

Today, I’ve been working at St Andrews for a decade

University of St Andrews homepage in 2006
The University of St Andrews website that I inherited in 2006

Today is exactly ten years since I started working at the University of St Andrews. I joined the web team within Business Improvements as assistant information architect/web manager. There were two of us in the team. I always said at the time that I liked my job title because with the forward-slash it looked like a URL.

I remember getting offered the post and thinking, “Well, if I don’t know it now I can always learn it on the job.” You read my reflections on the job interview here on my blog.

Ten years on I am now the web architect within the digital communications team (part of Corporate Communications) we have a team of 10, and I work mostly in Agile project management and business analysis. Ten years on, I still love my job, and I love my team. I’m still being challenged, I am still learning how to do my job better, and I still growing.

Obviously, I’m now even more involved in the life of the University having taken up the post as warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall. I will reflect on that in more detail in another post shortly, suffice to say here that I’ve agreed to stay on beyond my probationary period.

But today I’m celebrating ten years here… well, fourteen if you include my four undergraduate years from 1989 to 1993. I wonder where I will be in ten years from now.

My new office with the digital communications team

My desk, PC with three monitors. Shelves in an alcove on the right.
I must have been the naughty one to be sitting in the corner, facing the wall.

Today marked the end of my second week back to work post-virus. Last week I worked three mornings, this week five—although I stayed until 16:30 yesterday to help move my things to our new office in the former Bute medical building. It’s been a very positive week, although I am now really rather tired.

Since May we’ve been asking to be co-located with the three members of the digital communications team with whom we’ve been working closely to change how we manage and develop digital and web assets at St Andrews, such as the University website.

Today we moved into a recently refurbished and spacious office on the third floor of the Bute.

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It’s a really exciting time to be working in the area of web and digital development; it’s an exciting time to be doing that at the University of St Andrews. It’s an enormous task that we have ahead of us, but I’m so looking forward to it.

Hopefully when I return on Monday (for my first full day since 25 July) I will have a network and phone connection and the fun can begin…

The Rev Steven Mackie

The Rev Steven Mackie
The Rev Steven Mackie (27 December 1927 – 14 October 2010)

I was reorganizing my images folders on my PC this evening and came across this scan of a former Practical Theology lecturer of mine, The Rev Steven Mackie.

If I remember correctly I scanned this in 1992 after I had finished my final exams and was looking for creative ways to fill my days until the end of term.  The idea was to create some kind of Andy Warhol-style matrix of portraits and get some t-shirts printed as a fun way to say thank you to him for his support through the previous 4 years.

It never happened. I spent most of the week hanging out in the cathedral grounds with friends, or holed-up in the (then very new) computer room creating a satirical/nonsense newsletter.

Out of interest I ‘googled’ his name and discovered to my sadness that the Rev Steven Mackie died in October of last year, aged 82 years old.  His obituary in the Edinburgh Evening News said this about his time at St Andrews:

Steven was offered a post at St Andrews University to teach practical theology at Mary’s College, a post he held for 21 years until he retired to Edinburgh in 1995. He taught theology in a fully practical sense, relating it to social issues of the day. He was a gifted lecturer who made a deep impression on his students.

He did make a deep impression on his students. I was one of them, and I don’t have scanned photographs of any other of my former lecturers on my hard drive!

The first thing that I remember about Mr Mackie is that the first mistake that almost everyone made when they started at St Mary’s College was to pronounce his name “muh-KIE” (sounding like sky); the correct pronounciation was “MAH-kee”.

The second thing I remember is that his interests seemed to lie mostly in ecumenism and Liberation theology.  Two areas of Practical Theology (which I finally took my degree in) that I wasn’t particularly interested in as a 17 year old.  I kind of wish now that I’d paid a little more attention each week day between 10:00 and 11:00 during 1990-1991.

I remember Mr Mackie as a kind, very caring man who genuinely seemed interested in his students.

I was we’d made those t-shirts now.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.  And let perpetual light shine upon him.