The Helter Skelter

In the past 18 months… I’ve had a mental breakdown. I was asked by many people quite early on during my breakdown to explain how it felt, if you've been there yourselves, many of you know this is easier said than done.

How do you explain to someone the turmoil that is happening in your head? The real physical symptoms you are experiencing? The energy it’s taking to put up the fight of your life? The tiredness and the total inability to deal with even the smallest of tasks? I spent a long time waffling, making no sense to myself and certainly not to other people, even my GP looked at me in total amazement!

My illness, I now understand began many years ago. At a point in my life I jumped on what I describe as ‘fairground ride’ without really knowing I had done so I suppose. It just happened. I didn’t see the danger.

It was a slow ride for a while. But over time, it gathered pace steadily but surely over the course of many years. I can’t lie was enjoying it. I was getting used to one speed before it started to pick up the pace, getting quicker taking me with it.

‘It’ allowed me enough time to acclimatise to each speed, before getting faster again. This process would repeat itself many times over. I should have seen the warning signs then; the lights were definitely flashing danger. Looking back there were signs but I ignored them. I carried on.

During the first few weeks of my illness I very quickly found ways of describing what I was going through. I needed people to understand what it was like. I developed names for the illness, for the depression and the anxiety.

We’ve all heard of the ‘black dog’, but I found a pastime in finding new names for it; ‘Jaws’, ‘Dementors’ and ‘Mood Police’. During my recovery (which is another article all together) these characters helped me fight them, to vanquish them on the days where they started taking over again.

I needed to explain how I got here and what was happening. It’s only right, in my view that I tried to help others understand, so in turn they could help me.

The Helter Skelter was the only ride I quite liked at the fair. I was never someone who liked thrills and dangerous excitement. I know it’s hardly an adventurous ride, but hey ho!

My journey professionally and personally over the past years saw me climb to the top of the helter skelter. One step at a time, some steps quick, some slower. Each step brought it’s own rewards, it’s own challenges and excitement. Each step took me higher. Each step I felt made me stronger.

The first few steps were great. They were exciting. Where would I end up? How far could I go? But the higher and faster I climbed, the desire, the need and the want became a drug the thrill took hold. The top was the goal. The gold medal. There was only one place and it was mine. The next challenge was always more exciting, the next step was better than the last and the next step might lead somewhere different.

I climbed and pushed myself harder. I made the necessary sacrifices to stop any outside influences getting in the way of my goal. I vanquished the odd demon, the odd thought of stopping out of the way and pushed on. I was strong, nothing could stop me. I have boundless energy. Bring it on. If others can do it, so would I.  I climbed … climbed … and there … one day I reached the TOP! There I was!

It had taken time and it had taken huge energy, power, resilience and sacrifice, I had give my all in the pursuit of this moment. I was at the top of the helter skelter – looking down on the great journey I had taken. It had been tough. It had taken time but wow!

I started to believe in my own invincibility. I managed to enjoy the moment, relish in the triumph. Savour the congratulations. But then, something went wrong.

I froze at the top of the ride. I couldn’t move. I was gripped by fear, a feeling of impending doom. The joy, happiness and delight were quickly being taken away by the dark clouds building above me. My focus had been on getting here, I hadn’t thought how I would get down.

I had forgotten the matt at the bottom of the ride. I had no safety harness, nothing to grip on to the slide, what would I do? Suddenly, being at the top of this ride, being at the top of my game turned into a horror film. It wasn’t the nirvana I wanted or thought it would be. There was nowhere else to go, going up further wasn’t an option, everything I knew stopped. I realised for so many years all I knew what to do was to climb and push forward. Nobody spoke about the way down!

Reflecting on it now I was stuck at the top of the helter skelter for some years, I suppose I got used to it. I started to live with the constant fear, the anxiety, the constant feelings of doom, unhappiness and insecurity. I knew this couldn’t go on forever.  Part of me knew I had to come down, but the other part of me didn’t want to and let go of what was once a success story, but what was fast becoming an old relic, a statue of the past that nobody else really celebrated any more.

I’ve read several accounts that people have their breakdowns (each is an individual journey) in unexpected places, very often at unexpected times. Mine was at home on a Sunday morning, 10.14am and in the shower. There and then it was decided that I was to come off the top of the helter skelter – and there was nothing I could do about it, matt or no matt. My Jaws, my Dementor had decided enough was enough.

Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t try to stay where I was. I mustered as much will power and energy so I could stay. I suppose I was used to the feelings of fear, sadness, anxiety and all the other add on’s by now. They had become my comfort blanket, a friend you know is not good for you, but a friend never the less. As horrible as they were, at least I knew them. It’s all I could remember. The fear of the unknown was worse.

By now (I did manage to get out of the shower with some help) I was sitting on the edge of the slide looking down. Sitting as I was in this position, the view of the bottom had disappeared. All I could see was the sharp turn of the first corner. I was holding on for dear life. From time to time my grip would loosen and I would slip and start to slide down a little, but I’d always manage to pull myself back up. Each time draining my reserves of low energy. Each time getting weaker and weaker, but there I was hanging on. Fighting back.

I had been off work now 4 weeks and spent the majority of the time hanging on to the top of the helter skelter. I would push myself to do things, anything to avoid giving in the need to let go. If the truth be told, I was scared. I was petrified of letting go. As long as I held on, I had my self-control, my dignity, my confidence. Remember I had been at the top of this ride for so very long. I would cry out of frustration and fear.  My hands would physically hurt from the grip. I would shake with nerves and my legs would ache trying to keep my body from falling. This for me was real.

Humour me. Just for a moment tense your legs, tighten you fists, close your eyes and imagine your holding on to stop you falling into an a dark unknown place. Hold it there for a few minutes. That was me, but for days and weeks on end. It was exhausting.

But, the inevitable came quickly. One evening, surrounded by the safety of my friends, my hands sweaty from the anxiety, my pulse racing, my heart trying to beat it’s way out of my chest, the whole room went a blur, the noise of chatting deafened. I couldn’t hold on any more. This was it. Here I go. I let go of the sides and started to fall fast … aghhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The ride down, like most rides, was fairly quick. I didn’t try and stop myself. To be honest I didn’t have the energy. For days after I slept a lot. I ached a lot. I cried a lot. I wanted company a lot. I ate a lot!

But like all rides, eventually I reached the bottom and the landing was quite soft in the end. It wasn’t the bump or the thud I expected. I realised that even right at the top of the heater skelter, it wasn’t that tall really and the bottom wasn’t that far away.

I’ve been off the ride now for a few months, and been living at the bottom of the helter skelter. You know what, it actually isn’t the bottom I thought it was. It’s where my journey began so many years ago, but I’d forgotten. It’s where everyone else is and this is where the action really is. This is where life is. This is where happiness lies, amongst everyone else. The top of the ride is the lonely place, that’s where you’re isolated, fearful, hopeless and alone, not the bottom.

I’m learning to live again. Having spent so many years climbing and living on my own at the top of the ride – it’s a new, exciting and sometimes strange world. Do you know people actually laugh down here!!!!! I’m getting used to it. I haven’t cried (well apart from one of those soppy TV documentaries), I’m hardly ever anxious (I have decided I don’t like heights though) and slowly but surely, the black clouds are dispersing and rays of warm sunshine are coming through. I can smell flowers, hear birds sing and see the world for a new place.

Don’t take me wrong I still get ‘motion sickness’ (as I now call it) from the ride down when I have some off days, but the more I look around, so does everyone else and they haven’t even been on the ride I have. So maybe that’s ok, maybe that’s normal. I had been at the top of the ride for so long I had forgotten what normal was!

I’m not invincible – nobody is. I have accepted that. I’m being kind to myself for once. I’m being me and it’s good. I have given myself the permission to live my life in my way, not in the shadow of goals, targets and false achievements, but in the knowledge that you only have one chance, one opportunity and above all happiness, health and peace of mind are the most important.

I’m glad I went up the helter skelter, I’m glad I reached the top, but I’m so glad I came down when I did. Thank you Jaws and Dementors. I have accepted that I’m successful without needing to climb to the top. I’ve learned that life is as bright at the bottom of the ride, even from the top you can’t touch the sky!

I don’t like the funfair as a rule, but you can’t say I didn’t try one of the rides. 

As part of his consultancy business, Andrew gives conference talks, team-building talk to managers and leaders in the business / corporate work about what's it's like suffering and recovering from mental health issues. He spent 20 years as a senior manager in a bank so knows this works very well with all its pitfalls and how it needs to change.

You can keep up-to-date with Andrew via Twitter, where he's @andrewcdf