On living with the feelings in my head
When I was 10 years old, I learned that my father had a brain tumour. He was treated, our family life continued.
Around that same time — just before, actually — I’d been taken out of my state comprehensive education, and moved into a private school 10 miles from where I lived and grew up. It was a great move for all kinds of reasons, and I know my parents and family were so proud to have had me qualify for the assisted place to attend the school, but it also meant leaving all of my friends, and finding myself at the bottom of the school’s social ladder.
I was a stereotypical 80s nerdy kid with poor physical constitution and wide-framed spectacles. I was away from the other kids I had grown up with to that point — and I was bullied and belittled at school. I cried during my first school assembly at that new school, because I felt so out of my depth and alone. I’m not going to dwell on that now, but looking back, it wasn’t a great start for what followed.
Aged 16, I went off the rails. My mother took me to the GP. He asked me if I’d had suicidal thoughts. I had. She cried. He put me on medication. My dad still wasn’t doing great (and we’d lose him to the longer term effects of that tumour 9 years later).
We had a school chaplain who was also the school’s pastoral lead. I remember the day, I think I was 17, when a teacher found me — one of the most straight-laced students in the school, and a prefect — literally (and very rebelliously) “bunking off” her class in one of the common rooms, eating jam doughnuts and reading the newspaper… I had a panic attack, and confessed to the chaplain. He told me “Don’t worry about that teacher right now. Go down to the seafront. Sit and look at the sea. Come back and tell me about it, I need to know it is still there”. (I went to school in Portsmouth)
Aged 18, I went to university and lived away from home, my family and my school friends for the first time. I felt alone. I got more depressed. I was treated again.
Aged 21, I started my first job. I was on and off of anti-depressants and counselling by that point, but I was “an adult” now, so I needed to focus and get on with growing up and impressing my new employer.
I think it was probably when I was about 25 that the doctor said I’d want to think about reducing the dosage and coming off the medication. I tried, but couldn’t quite get to a balance or level point in my mood where I thought it could work. Every time I tried to cut it completely I felt shaky. We got it to a minimal level, and I was balanced.
I went through a couple of years in my late 20s with a counsellor, talking about my feelings, my (increasingly bad) relationship status at that time, and reflecting on my father’s illness and my family loss. At a certain point around the time I turned 34 or just after, I started to feel comfortable in my own skin again, feel confident, even happy and ready to be independent. But I couldn’t quite drop the medication that was keeping me level, not madly up and down.
That was not long before the time I learned I had a heart issue, needed some other medications, and needed to work with the doctors to balance this whole thing out.
By that time, I’d spent 4 years learning my technical chops as a developer at the UK Post Office; 10 years as a consultant and strategist at IBM; and was starting to make an impact at VMware/Pivotal. I was increasingly in the public eye, speaking on stage, dealing with developer issues and empathising with others day-on-day. Watch videos of me speaking over the past decade — am I any less functional that you’d expect based on what you just read above? I’d progressed my career and my life. I’d been through a marriage breakdown, but I’d learned an awful lot about myself.
All of these things had an impact on my feelings and my brain and state of mind.
I’m lucky that I’ve never felt judged by my family, my employer, my team(s) or my managers, most of whom have been aware of my personal issues — I learned around that time I had the moment with the school chaplain, that I’m better as an open book, than as a closed and repressed personality.
OK. So why am I posting this now, today?
It’s nearly midnight on the west coast of the US on #WorldMentalHealthDay.
There’s no shame in feeling burned out. There’s no shame in feeling anxious. Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ll feel like you need someone or something to support you. Those things (medical or otherwise) are out there. Those people and those friends and those co-workers are right there.
I’ve been working on this, on-and-off, for 20 years or more. I’m doing OK, in fact I’m privileged to say that I’ve been moving upwards, and doing more and being rewarded more, by friends and coworkers who don’t judge me, and who support and understand me.
It’s OK to not be OK sometimes. It’s OK to be honest with others and ask for help when you need it. People are here for you, and always will be.
(thank you for all of your comments and feedback here, via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and privately elsewhere. Overwhelmed by the kind words!)