In a Heartbeat....

It was 10am on a Wednesday and I was sat watching Heartbeat. That is a measure of how bad it had become. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the worst thing on the TV (and I always had a bit of a crush on Trisha Penrose), but I was in my early 40’s and was binge-watching a series about 1960’s country life!

Realising that I was trying to find escape from real life and that I must address this before I took the obvious next downward step (Jeremy Kyle), I started to ask myself why was I sat in my living room with the curtains closed and my 3rd coffee in my hand watching a show I that I have no interest in (Trisha aside..). How did I get here?

I never really thought I was a candidate for poor mental health, I had a comfortable and stable family upbringing and always felt optimistic and happy. Even in dark times I generally could see the positives and would usually be confident that something good would come out of any wobbly periods in life.

I left school at 16, became a machine operator in a heavy engineering factory in Stockton-On-Tees, got married at 23 (becoming Dad a beautiful to 3 year old step-daughter) and at 24, my wife was pregnant. My wage had jumped to a very comfortable level and we were living in a 3 bedroom house in Eaglescliffe. To put it all into local context, it was that time when Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho were at Boro and nothing could go wrong..........then it all fell apart.

Boro got relegated, I got poorly and I didn’t respond to any treatment. I spent the next couple of years between a bed and a chair and was eventually diagnosed with M.E. (or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I won’t bore you with all the difficulties and ups and downs of the next 18 years, as that is not so relevant to this blog and would make it very long!

I think you can imagine that is was tough for us, unwaged, young family, benefits system and I will add to that by saying that my wife has battled with significant clinical depression. It was pretty dark.

What is relevant is that I still found joy and humour and always believed that things would be ok, I would still get back to ‘normal’ and run that London Marathon and play football again. I did slip into some short periods of depression, took Prozac and came round again, but generally I was going to be ok and carried on trying to make everyone elses life ok, helping others and keeping busy, smiling and joking and pushing on through. At this point I would ask my wife to keep reading to the end, because she will be wondering what parallel world am I remembering!.

Anyway, fast forward to more recent times. I started to find it harder to find that joy and those jokes and to see that light at the end of the tunnel. My beautiful wife would point out to me that I might be here physically, but I am certainly not present in any emotional sense and that I need to stop and work out what is happening with me. To be honest she had been saying this for years, but I would just try a bit harder to be attentive and think that was all that was needed.

In any conversation about emotional things I would be like a rabbit caught in the headlights and would just sit in complete silence and panic. No thoughts could form in my head, just some horrible mass of cloud that could only be alleviated by doing basic tasks. I can load the dishwasher and vacuum the floor, but don’t try and make me work out my emotional issues!

Last September (2016) I was trying to organise for my daughter to go on a college trip to Spain. I couldn’t bring myself to make phone calls and just felt useless in pulling the info together. I couldn’t ask for help because I felt so pathetic. I thought I had cocked the whole thing up when I missed the deadline for handing the info in and I just completely broke down.

I cried so much it hurt and I finally said the words out loud to my wife that ‘I can’t do it, I can’t be an adult, I can’t be a parent’. I realised that I spend a lot of time being scared, so I hide. I never fully enjoy anything, something always feels ‘wrong’ and I wake up everyday with a knot in my stomach. I just had this feeling of sadness and that most of what I do is just a bit pointless.

At this point I was about 6 weeks in to Heartbeat…. I finally reached out to family and we somehow pulled the Spain trip together, but I was left wrung out and shaky and tearful for weeks.

I am still rebuilding now (maybe I always will be!). My wife helped me to self-refer to Mind in Stockton and I started to see a counsellor, which helped me learn some skills to stabilise me again and then slowly make some progress and challenge some of the ways that I tackle life.

The positive outlook, the jokes and happy-go-lucky persona, although part of my genuinely optimistic attitude, were actually my way of covering up my fears, pain and worry of showing any kind of weakness. I am not a psychologist, but I can see that I have never been comfortable being an adult, having responsibility or facing challenges and I constantly feel like I have failed somehow. I am still working all that out.

I started to use meditation (not very consistent, but it is always positive) and I hope I have started to be more honest. I still can’t verbalise my thoughts and feelings very well, but I hope I am more open to try. All of these things can help to keep me stable.

A few months after that I spotted an ad on Facebook for Men Tell Health's SpeakEasy groups in my area and thought it sounded like it was just what I needed. I had previously frequented a Durham men's group previously, but that had stopped meeting and I was missing the monthly input and time to express how I was, so to find something that gave all of that, plus was mental health aware, just sounded perfect. It has proven to be great and I genuinely think it is vital that this kind of togetherness becomes normal for everyone.

I still have ups and downs, I still want to cry when I need to phone ‘official people’, but I am not shaking anymore and I have space in my mind to make some decisions, plus I have some skills to bring myself into a better place when I start to wobble. I don’t always use them though! Why is that?.

I look forward to getting together with other men at SpeakEasy and have opened up to my family and friends, with a generally positive response.

I didn’t ever watch Jeremy Kyle and I have lost track of what is happening in Aidensfield, so something must be going well! (Although I did pop into the Scripps Garage on the way to Whitby recently, but don’t tell anyone…)

I'm John, I'm 42 and a Boro fan, Dad, full-time carer and political lefty. Nice to meet you.

We're so happy that John found our SpeakEasy groups helped him. Has your depression got so bad that Jeremy Kyle seems like a legitimate use of your time? How do you get out of that downward spiral? Has your crush on Tricia Penrose helped or hindered your own mental health? Let us know in the comments below.

You can find out more about our men-only #SpeakEasy groups that helped John on our website, or click right here!

Hard to believe that this was John's' first attempt at writing a blog. He's clearly a natural! You can keep up-to-date with John on Twitter, where he's @BlimeyBonald