Into the Gloom once more

My story is not unique. My struggle was no greater than those impacted by the pandemic. The issues I experienced utterly insignificant in comparison to those being rocked by war. Yet from my perspective I experienced the worst years of my life.

It started with the little things; I was tense, distracted, I lost interest in hobbies, I laughed less, obsessed It started with the little things; I was tense, distracted, I lost interest in hobbies, I laughed less, obsessed about work. Does this sound familiar? The gloom grew; poor sleep, irritability, dropping out of friendship groups, underlying nervousness. The dark took me over; the black dog was circling me, looming large in my peripheral vision. I found myself mind reading every personal interaction – real and imagined, calculating a billion paths through every situation, every end an imagined catastrophe. The hill was getting steep, I was getting desperately tired. The terrible crashing crescendo was immanent.

I was a cliché, a stereotypical man on the edge of a breakdown. I had everything but was appreciating nothing. I lived as a role not a person. I didn’t spot the – now obvious – building warnings over a period of at least 3 years. When I did sense something was wrong there was an element of not daring to complain to a world suffering through a pandemic. Then I fell, suddenly and fast. The valley floor was darkness, my vision fogged and narrow, I was alone in my misery, I felt I had failed everyone around me. An intense shame that I had let my family down. I was Lost.

Weakened, I shuffled everywhere, then – because life isn’t always fair – I fell again. Physically. I lost my footing, badly damaged my knee, ankle and shoulder. I needed emergency surgery. I was unable to move properly for months. The valley floor became quicksand.

True words, perhaps not correctly attributed –

“If you are going through hell, keep going”. Winston Churchill (probably)

The thing about a long hard climb is that – with effort – it builds back your strength. You become aware of the slippery ground and trip hazards.

I was and remain supremely fortunate. So many strong hands reaching out to pull me ever higher.

I am so thankful to my wonderful supportive wife and caring family, my doctors, therapists, remaining tolerant friends & caring colleagues, all of whom helped me every physical and mental step of the way, sometimes without realising the incredible positive impact of their hug, smile, call or text. “I didn’t do much“, said a friend I thanked recently, while I was recovering he had popped round to check how I was doing, that day was easier.

1 year later and I feel I am almost back at the top of the hill, tired but standing. I didn’t think it would take this long. I feel happier but less resilient, I hope that comes back with time. The metaphor of a gargantuan climb is just a metaphor – the effort and focus is almost invisible. For years I was a sad clown, hard to spot under a painted-on smile; the small talk, sideways smiles, inane jokes and excuses for not socialising – all covering the building torment and struggle, in-turn adding to a sense of isolation. I now feel strongly compelled to help others who face the same arduous climb but perhaps without the level of support I was privileged to have. Mind is a charity which does wonderful work in this area. So I am taking part in a charity event to raise money for them. Feel free to chuck in a few pounds if you can afford it, don’t worry if you can’t, times are tough for a lot of people.

Naturally, the event I am participating in is also a personal challenge. I need to get fit, test out my knee (complete with all new plastic bits). Suitably this is a quite literal climb through the gloom. A mountain bike ride up 1000+ meters over 95km of off-road track through the hills of my home, their beauty obscured by the darkness of night. I hope to reach the intersecting geographic and metaphorical finish line at the same time and enjoy watching the sun rise over a calm sea.

Some who know me will read this and not realise what I went through. I didn’t shout about it. Once I started to feel better I was happy to put it in the past, celebrate my journey to recovery privately, hug my family, appreciate my life and feel satisfied that the period of “craziness” went largely unnoticed. But recently I began to feel a rising sense of guilt. Treating mental health subjects as a taboo is destructive, by not sharing my experience I was giving into a taboo. By not offering my experience and support, people who may fall in the future will be ill-prepared and those currently suffering are all the more lonely. So after much procrastination, you are reading my story. I hope that it will be viewed without judgement, I hope to inspire compassion for other people in this situation and recognition of the symptoms. Please keep an eye out for the sad clowns, they are everywhere.

If anything I wrote resonates with you, don’t wait. Be good to yourself. Take time to find a firm footing in this wonderful world. Hold on to what is truly important, and never be afraid to ask for help, my email address is howarthc@gmail.com.

Thank you,

Christopher

P.s. Got a mountain bike? Fancy joining me for the ride?

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