My battle with depression probably started long before I realised it.
It’s only in the last two and a half years I realised how much damage the preceding 5 years had done to me – and sometime after that, that I realised my childhood probably helped shape the way I’d handled those 5 years if not my entire life, rattling inexorably towards breakdown.
People all have stress in their lives. Like arrows, stress rains down upon us. Occasionally we may get nicked or cut by these arrows. And of course, there are those days we get hit by the arrows and have a hard day.
But that’s just life. For the most part, we accept the arrows are raining down, but we just get on with it. Sure, the arrows are irritating, but they’re just there. They’re not going to stop us doing what we need to do.
They don’t stop us because we carry shields of positivity. Our conversations with colleagues, our post-match analysis of the sports we love, the movies we watch, the books we read, the games we play – and we have our friends and families that not only shield us, but prop us up when we get hit and heal us as we journey on.
Of course, none of this is new thinking. The analogy of life’s stresses depicted through arrows and shields is a fantastic tool for teaching anyone about mental health.
It was this analogy that eventually made me realise I had a problem.
Working with a colleague in special educational needs and disabilities at the time, she was explaining this to a room full of SENDCos in the context of well being for children. And as she continued to talk and gesture wildly with her arms to show arrows and then flinch with an arm upraised to role-play using a shield (her PowerPoint had broken so she was off script, and much better for it!), I began to reflect on my own life.
I was 200 miles away from my family, I had a broken trust we were still figuring out at home, I had 2 young children who needed me, I had stopped making time to see friends, my hobbies and interests had long since fallen by the wayside, and I was now working in the most mentally and emotionally demanding job I’d ever had – alongside colleagues whom I rarely saw, and some of whom were meeting at a lunchtime to discuss whether or not I was doing much of anything, suspecting instead that I was in an office somewhere drinking tea – rather than the reality which is far too traumatic to get into now (in fairness, I was invited to the meeting – but couldn’t attend as I worked through my lunchtime too).
So… no shields.
Moreover, some shields that had become arrows and a few arrows that had brought along their friends “trebuchet” and “mortar bomb”.
Looking back, some kind of breakdown was inevitable. My nerves were shredded to within an inch of their lives and I was having chest pains, panic attacks and preparing for meetings by making sure I’d cried all my tears out before the meeting started, so I didn’t meltdown in front of people. These are not the hallmarks of a well person. But at the time, I swear I couldn’t see it.
I just thought I had to get through it. There were too many people relying on me and “failure” (such as I saw it) wasn’t an option.
Twice, I went to the doctor and was offered medication and told I needed to take time off – I was going to burn out. And twice I refused to take the medication and there was no way in hell I was taking time off (again, I don’t know what I was hoping they would say? I remember thinking that they were going to tell me to stop moaning and just get on with it.)
Eventually, the inevitable happened and during the Christmas break from school – I broke down completely and while most people were getting ready to ring in the new year, I was contacting my line manager to tell her I wasn’t going to make the training day as I was going back to the Doctor.
This time I DID take their medication and I agreed to 2 weeks off school.
I didn’t know it then, but this would be the start of a 6 month absence where I became fearful of leaving the house, couldn’t handle crowds, would have a full meltdown in public when trying to pick the kids up from school (this happened twice), and spent a lot of time wanting the ground to swallow me up.
It was at this time that it finally hit me why people become suicidal. It was a frightening thought, but it also made sense of something I’d previously never quite been able to fully understand.
Sometimes, the turmoil, the self-doubt, the paranoia, the worthlessness you feel is so indescribably painful – that all you can think about is how to make it stop. It isn’t about a desire to end your life, simply to stop the unimaginable pain. I know that people won’t understand that. People will say: “there’s always another option”, “think of the other people you’re leaving behind” – the less kind people may say “it’s all in your head!”, “snap out of it”, or “stop being dramatic” – but it isn’t that simple. Ever.
The 6 month period was just the start of my fight. Prior to this, I had only really avoided dealing with things as best I could. It wasn’t until I was properly able to acknowledge the problem that I was able to effectively fight back. It was slow, frustrating and painful. With more setbacks than steps forward. More false starts than genuine moments of progress. It included getting the right medication in the right quantities, having to ask work to stop contacting and asking me to do work related things or answer work related questions of me while I was off with a mental illness (something that would never have happened with a visible or physical illness), working with occupational health, speaking with Talking Matters (who, in my experience, were completely unprepared and out of their depth – and area of expertise – when it came to dealing with me. Made worse by the fact that they couldn’t see it and chose instead to belittle how I was feeling… which is pretty much the biggest fear that anyone who may be seeking counselling has) and eventually talking – at length – to the Clinical Psychology team at Wansbeck General Hospital (who were, frankly, amazing).
I also had to leave my job and take up a different role (my choice, not theirs) and work out how to absorb a £5000 per year pay cut – which brought about its own stress.
But far more important than all of that (or maybe not more important, but equally so), I had to start taking better care of myself. I’d dropped every shield and gone down in a hail of arrows. Now I had reduced the onslaught, if I was ever going to be able to return to the battle, I knew I would have to be much better prepared.
I started with some exercise, as recommended by my GP, to help my mental health. This was no small feat. Depression and anxiety make exercising incredibly difficult to start. The depression will sap your will to do anything. The days you may summon the will and energy to exercise, the anxiety will severely limit your options. “If it don’t get you in the wash, it’ll catch you in the rinse.”
I’d started running the year before, so this seemed like a logical place to start. It’s also easy to do without having to engage with anyone else. Unfortunately, as it was January, the icy roads and shortened days made this very tricky to do.
So instead, I tried going to the Spinning class I’d been attending for the previous few months. It was indoor, it was close to home and the loud, driving music would hopefully disrupt my negative thought patterns enough to give me a 45 minute break.
The first class did not go according to plan. One of the advantages of living in a small town is everyone knows you – you get to meet so many people by face if not name and get the benefit of that community feeling that cities just can’t provide. One of the disadvantages of living in a small town is everyone knows you – so many people know you by face of not name and the whole community may make you a topic of conversation if anything in your life deviates from relative normality.
And to someone battling with anxiety and depression will find it very easy to believe they are being spoken about, even when no-one knows them. Imagine being a “pillar of the community” – and then being off on long term sick with an illness no-one can see.
I walked through the door of the Spinning class and was met with the gentle gym-style ribbing from someone that knew I “should” be at work. They were not being antagonistic and nothing negative was meant by this, it was said with a big, warm and welcoming smile on the face of the person making the comment “Oh! Should I telephone your school and let them know we’ve found you?” A completely harmless comment from someone that knew me well enough to make it, but – like most people in my life at that time, had no idea what I was going through.
It completely overwhelmed me and I had to leave immediately. So full of guilt, shame, inadequacy and panic was I at the time that I also threw my drink bottle towards the wall of an unoccupied unit on the industrial estate at which the Spinning Club was situated. I broke down.
I threw my towel over my head and, propped up by the wall, I just cried and cried whilst the debris of my now broken water bottle rolled around on the tarmac.
I was done. Broken beyond all belief, making a fool of myself in public and now felt out of control.
Then something unexpected happened. A voice said “Woah, what’s going on? Are you ok?”
The owner of the club (and person who had made the joke) hadn’t dismissed me as an idiot and gone on with her day – as I assumed she would, in fact, as I thought she should! Instead, she’d followed me outside because she knew something was not right here, she didn’t know me super-well, but well enough to know that all was not well.
She asked, she listened, she hugged me, she got me back on my feet and somehow even got me back into the class (including providing a new drink bottle for me to use). Somehow, in a few moments, she was able to help me find that tiny spark of fight left in me. It wasn’t very strong. It was going to need a lot of time and a lot of support before that spark was fanned into a flame. Looking back now, I still see that small moment as a turning point.
I’d stumble and fall again and again in the coming months, but every time I would get back up again and make sure that, no matter how small the step, every step would be a step forward, and I wasn’t going to do it alone.
Spinning became a catalyst for returning more of my broken shields to the battle.
As one of the first things to go was my love of art and drawing – I started trying to make time to get creative again. I would draw, started using inks, experimented with new mediums I’d not tried before, new subjects I’d never given time to before. And though I was still struggling with feeling any pride, I started to improve.
I also bought a ukulele. For reasons I won’t go into now, though my family is very musical, I’d always shied away from music and pursued art as a child and into adulthood. But I knew I wanted to sing. I couldn’t really handle seeing other people for more than about 45 minute, especially new people, at the time so I figured if I was going to sing, I would need to learn to play something. I chose a concert ukulele because it was small enough to fit in my house and looked easier to learn than other instruments.
For many weeks I would just strum a few chords, and sing to myself to help lift my spirits from time to time.
After a while, I could sing a handful of songs and was starting to feel more confident all round. My medication was helping me, the counselling had helped me hugely and though both occupational health and my school agreed I was not yet ready to return to work, I was getting a little braver when it came to leaving the house.
One evening I was invited to try an open mic night at a very quiet, friendly village pub nearby. So I went along, sang some songs in public and suddenly opened up a whole new world of friends and possibilities. That evening I met people who would become my friends and I met my soul brother. It was amazing how much love and support was in that room, from people I’d only just met. It made me want to be a part of it, to get to know more of them and maybe one day even collaborate!
Slowly but surely, I rebuilt my shields. I built them stronger, there were more of them, they were more diverse and there were fewer gaps for the arrows to get through.
With new shields and a significant reduction in arrows. Occupational health, my school and I finally agreed that it was time to try and get back to work. And I was able to lay out how I’d like that to look on a 4 week phased return. After 6 months absence, I was back in front of a class, teaching, engaging with staff, children and parents.
There were still tough days, there was still the odd moment I had to step away, but overall, the main thing was achieved. I was back at work – and this time, far better equipped to take care of myself and prepared to fight.
I’d love to say “that’s the end, I won!” it would make a much nicer story. I’m sure it’s how the movie version of depression would go. But as mentioned earlier, it’s not that simple.
The difficulty with depression, anxiety and stress is – these are often battles fought in a war we cannot win. We can prepare, we can survive, we can manage. But we can’t win. There will always be another battle.
Even now, sometimes I get home, after what wasn’t even a particularly difficult day, and just feel overwhelmingly sad. Like I need to cry.
But it’s like my body and brain can’t justify the tears and I find myself at an impasse.
Tension from my legs up to my eyes and yet it just has nowhere to go.
But it passes.
I get lost, scared or confused – as many people do.
But it passes.
I question my self, my attitude, my interactions, my life.
But it passes. And the difference now is that I know it will pass and know how to give it the time to pass.
So why now? Why share this at all? Well, for that, I have to go back to World Mental Health week, 2018. So little is understood about mental health difficulties with the majority of the population.
Mental Health Week in my school was acknowledged, but not really selves into in any real way by most. Because how can you teach what you don’t understand? How can you make mental health accessible to 9-13 year olds when the majority of adults have no idea how it works or what to do about it. Even in a profession that sees 17% of its work force diagnosed with clinical depression, that leaves 83% who won’t have necessarily experienced it first hand. And so it remains a topic that people don’t know how to engage with.
However, this year, I took a different approach. I decided to combine the Arrows and Shields analogy with some real life experience.
Using a massive whiteboard and a few coloured pens, I spoke to a class of 9-10 year olds about how life throws arrows at you. I asked what these arrows might look like for them? “Don’t understand Maths!!”, “Homework!”, “Can’t sleep because your baby sister is crying!”, “Arguments with your friends!” And “parents arguing” were amongst the most common responses.
We spoke of what their shields might look like: “Friends!”, “Family!”, “Fortnite!” Were among the many, many answers my class were able to provide.
Then I told tale of a teacher who had lots of arrows coming at him, from all over. I told them how there were more arrows than he could imagine. I told them how he’d dropped or lost his shields, how some of the shields had become arrows and I asked them how that teacher might feel?
“Really, really sad.”
“Like they couldn’t get up.”
“There heart would hurt.”
They just got it. Instantly. They could see how the imbalance would crush you. To them, it just made sense.
So we spoke about what would need to happen to change things for this teacher?
“Could you take away that arrow, or that arrow?”
How could we do that?
“You could ask your family to help?”
“And your friends, I bet your friends would help!”
“Er… could the doctor help?”
“Maybe the school will help, if you ask them for less arrows.”
Brilliant. What else?
“Hmm… more shields?”
“Yes, more shields. Lots more! And your friends could carry some shields for you!”
“The friends ARE the shields!”
“Yeah, but they could carry them too. Like my friend is my friend, but she invited me to dance class – so she’s both.”
We then discussed exactly what shields had been used for this teacher and examined how he might feel now a lot of the arrows were gone and he was carrying (possibly along with friends) many more shields.
“Like he would have fun again.”
“Like… loved. Not in love but love like you love your family.
“You love your friends!?”
“I love MY friends.”
“Not lonely anymore.”
It was amazing to see. They understood better than most adults I’ve spoken to. They could see the cause, they could see the effect and they understood the steps that might make up a solution. At 9 and 10 Year’s old. The final two questions I hadn’t anticipated and hadn’t really thought about how I would answer. I chose honesty, but that was my choice and it’s not for me to say that this is how it should or shouldn’t be approached.
“Was this teacher a teacher at this school?”
“Mr Keech. Was this teacher you?”
“…yes it was.”