The answer might be academic to some, the reality is often far from it.

This morning I spotted a tweet praising this article in the Daily Mail. Whilst it makes some interesting points about the gruesome nature of suicide, its main point is that suicides of famous people act as a spur for others to do the same and, in doing so, they join a group of essentially selfish people.  And in making this case it employs academic studies (somewhat ironically for the Daily Mail) which are as far removed from the actual feelings of those involved as they can be. Speaking from the perspective as a trained researcher and academic, these studies are unlikely to tap into real emotions felt by people. In their search for generalisable conclusions they miss the unique nature of each individuals case. More so, research subjects rarely speak that openly and honestly about the non-personal issues which affect their lives, let alone emotions so provide only partial insight of the veneer.  We say what we think others want to hear. And perhaps these fuel the behaviours they claim to dissect and understand.

I actually feel insulted by this article.  As someone who once had these feelings, I can say with all honesty that I was not inspired by anybody else. I felt selfish in having these thoughts and about the consequences of that course of action.  Martin Samuel would do well to refocus on his opening paragraph and in particular these lines:

More worrying are those that have not; those nobody knows about, that are alone in tackling depression, or addiction, or feelings of helplessness. The section of the community who see Speed’s end not as tragedy, but grim inspiration.

We know from a range of real, anecdotal evidence that this exists yet we perpetuate in creating environments in which  these feelings are incubated and grow.  His article is unlikely to inspire many of them to speak out and discuss their thoughts, fears and psychological demons. Whilst Gary Speed’s death is still to raw to analyse with any objectivity the other cases that Samuel highlights surely indicate to the academic and layman alike that there is a trend here which needs to be better understood if the root causes are to be addresses and the deaths prevented. I would expect more from the Sports Journalist of the Year if journalism isn’t being proved to be so toxic itself. I’m sure there’s an academic paper in that but for the time being read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

A Life Too Short

A Life to Short - Ronald Reng

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011

It would be serendipity if the subject matter wasn’t so moving, but yesterday afternoon Ronald Reng won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2011 for his biography of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short. As the cyclist David Millar tweeted, “Worthy winner: pertinent subject.”  I think that says it all. I’m now even more eager to read it.

Time for reflection

Following yesterday’s post I received a wide range of feedback, all of it positive and supportive.  Yet reflecting on what I wrote I realised that “talking about it” doesn’t come easily. I do most of my talking through this blog, much to the annoyance sometimes of those closest to me and I am equally guilty of wearing one of many masks to suit the company I am in.  One correspondent commenting on the story of Robert Enke indiated how depression is a hidden problem of elite sport. I would stick my neck out and suggest that it is an increasing by-product of what is seen by outsiders as success: a case of the higher you climb, the harder you fall? Certainly an increased exposure to pressures from a wider range of peers and critics. This is certainly a feeling I have and talking to others I know I’m not alone.

And then I saw that a friend of mine had posted a reflection on her journey over the previous year. I got to know Louise through Twitter and over the months I think it’s fair to say we’ve shared experiences of the black dogs and when needed given each other a helping hand.  Louise has done a lot in a shorter space of time than me but in exchanging messages last night we realised we are both the same: we find reflecting more difficult that constructing the list of tasks ahead.  So here is her blog post in full, it makes a lot of sense and for me was a useful reminder of all the things I learnt and have forgotten:

I have been generally open about my experience with depression and I do think it is useful to look back and see if anything positive has come out of it. It has been mentioned by many people that it really forces you to make choices about your life in terms of looking at what you can change to try and deal with future episodes. It is a year this week since I cracked, though the months leading up to it had been hard too but I just didn’t know what was going on and was too scared to visit my gp or talk to anyone about it. On the outside I was still happy and bubbly but inside I knew something major was about to happen.

It is always incredibly difficult telling people as there is a worry that they will think you are putting it on, it is impossible to show someone the inner workings of your brain. Often it gets so hard to talk that people attempt to take a different route, one which seems like the only viable option and this is what I did. This is the one thing I haven’t made public over the last year, and I am still so wary about doing so. On the day ‘it’ happened, I drove home in a state of utter panic and distress. I wanted to crash my car into the barrier on the motorway, I couldn’t see any other way out. I got home,somehow,and I could barely walk. I was shaking and my mind was racing, incoherent thoughts filled my brain and all I could see was a blackness. I took some strong painkillers out of my drawer and took a handful.

The tablets knocked me out, which was what I wanted them to do.I wanted them to numb everything. Permanently. I woke up to my fiance shaking me, but I didn’t want to wake up,I just wanted to disappear into the darkness and never have to deal with it.To feel that numbness, to have my brain finally quiet.

Why am I telling you all this? Well part of me doesn’t know, but the other part knows that some of you out there reading this have been in the same place and it may help to know you aren’t alone.

That was the point at which the help came, that I could finally share it ,although I didn’t want to because I knew how hard it would be for my fiance having to deal with all of this. I hadn’t wanted to put him through it, but I realised that the consequences of what I had tried to do ,if they had been sucessful, would have been terrible. At the time you feel a burden, you don’t want to put people through the anguish that living with someone with depression causes. The next day I got taken to my gp where I broke down and was so incoherent yet she listened.She nodded her head, was reassuring and genuinely wanted to help, made me feel I wasn’t alone and the diagnosis of severe depression meant I wasn’t making it all up.

The next few weeks are still a blur. The restless nights, the getting used to the medication, the guilt at having to see my family and fiance coping with this too.

The rest is just about history. Most of you have shared my journey over the last year, have seen my ups and downs, encouraged and supported me and never given up on me.

I thought that the anniversary was going to be really tough, but I feel really quite content this week. The fact that it is a blur probably helps me not focus on the pain of it, so I am trying to look at how my life has changed, but in a positive way. I’m afraid I can’t say “Hurray, it is a year and I am 100% better”, because I’m not but I am still getting there. I am definitely some percent better than I was 2 months ago, which is quite a lot better than the previous 2 months, and so on.

So what have I learned from this experience? Well , here goes:

  • No matter how tough it is to talk, it needs to be done. It isn’t fair on other people to keep this from them
  • It isn’t your fault, this can happen to anyone.
  • Don’t fight the medication – the side effects are hard,but stick with it.They allowed me to start thinking coherently and begin the process of getting better.
  • Contact your GP as soon as possible, they can arrange talking therapy, CBT and meetings with the Mental Health team
  • Take time- don’t worry about work.Forget it exists, you need time, otherwise you won’t get the peace you need.
  • You will learn a hell of a lot about yourself – it forces you to look at yourself in a new way and to make decisions that will help you get better.
  • Don’t be surprised if you realise you need to change job or career. If you work in a stressful environment it may not help you in the long run.
  • Get exercise- even just going for a walk each day. It helps you get outside of your brain.
  • Take a moment to listen and to feel. Listen to the birds while having a brew, take a walk and look at the beauty that surrounds you.
  • Don’t hide away- friends understand and sitting on your own all the time won’t help as you end up contemplating.
  • Think about Mindfulness- this relates to the “sitting” ,above. 
  • Be careful who you trust- people do come out of the woodwork , don’t be paranoid but choose friends wisely.
  • Don’t panic about what your future holds, take “baby steps”, and take one day at a time.
  • Acknowledge that you aren’t well, you need to heal and this will take time and patience.
  • People can be wonderful – those around you will understand and support you.Let them in, don’t push them away, as they are hurting too.
  • Accept change- accept that a year down the line things may be different. They certainly are for me, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Just go with it,do what feels right for you.
  • Eat healthily. Often anxiety can cause gastric problems.I ended up with a stomach ulcer and gastritis. Try and eat veg and a balanced diet. I didn’t and felt too weak to cope with it.
  • Don’t be scared. This happens to so many people. You can get through this!

So there, not an exhaustive list. My life has changed hugely in the last year. It seemed there was no hope at all this time last year, but now I see that there may be good things in the future. It takes time, don’t rush the changes. Take it easy. Rediscover the “little” things in life, that in actual fact are the really important, essential parts of life.

Louise’s blog can be found at http://mimosafliesagain.wordpress.com/ and is well worth a read. And for the cyclists amongst you (and the coffee and cake lovers too) she has taken on the admirable task of compiling a resource to find a decent cafe to fit in with your ride called Patisserie Cyclisme.  Have a look at both and share them with your friends.

Death of a Footballer & The Modern Disease

This time two years ago I was sat at home, signed off work with “moderate” depression feeling unable to do very much at all. One November morning I remember waking up to the radio and the news that the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke had died having stood in front of a train.  Whilst other world news was passing me by, this story really struck home. Here was someone at the peak of their career, comfortably well off and seemingly not wanting for anything. The media asked the question: why would he do something seemingly so silly, so stupid?

Yesterday, the news emerged that Wales football manager Gary Speed had died. He was found at home and had apparently hung himself.  Again, the media seemed puzzled by events. Speed had finished a celebrated playing career and in his short tenure as Welsh manager seemingly turned around the fortunes of the team.  He was married, with 2 sons and lived in a large country house.  Many reports refered to his appearance on Saturday’s Football Focus programme and seeming to be in good spirits.  Robbie Savage referred to Speed’s appearance at Strictly Come Dancing and his happiness at being there.  Again the questions came about why a person with so much took the decision to end it all.

It would be wrong cast further speculation on yesterday’s news. However, Enke’s story is very insightful.  Despite the outward appearance of success and its trappings, Enke was suffering his own inner turmoil. He had suffered from depression for some time. As a professional footballer he had to deal with taunts from fans, both the opposition and his own – a criticism which we expect “professionals” to handle.  Three years prior to his death, Enke and his wife had to deal with the death of their daughter from a congenital heart defect – perhaps fuelling feels of failure on his part? Enke didn’t talk about his mental health. He feared that being honest would lead to his adopted daughter being taken away.  For a man who to the onlooker had everything, fearing the loss of the things that mattered most, the non-material parts of life, was the final straw. In the weeks leading up to his suicide he had kept his real feelings hidden so he could go through with the plans.  He seemed to wear a mask up until the end, the modern way we are expected to deal with our problems.

The masks we wear are the modern disease: outwardly successful and secure but inwardly insecure and vulnerable.  In the machismo world of football the pressure not to reveal these feelings is immense and it takes a tragic event like Enke’s for the walls to be lowered but still they remain.  When the media still wonders why people who seemingly have everything do “stupid” and “silly” things in taking or attempting to take their own lives its is clear that the walls remain.  Once again, sport is merely a lens for wider society. As the incidence of depression and mental health stresses increase through the pressures of life today, so it is becoming the “modern” disease and a symbol of our “progress”. Only progress would mean losing the stiff upper lip. It really is time for change before this silent killer does more damage.

Detach from futility

After posting Wednesday’s piece I watched Yes Minister and was struck by the following dialogue between the Minister and his Personal Private Secretary:

Minster: “What’s it all for Bernard? What are we all doing? What does it all mean?”

Bernard: “I didn’t read theology minister.”

Minister: “The waste of it all. Take that EEC reception last night. Humphrey introduced me to an official who spends his entire time paying a lot of farmers to produce surplus food and then he introduced me to another official who pays others to destroy all the surpluses. Then they pay thousands of bureaucrats to push masses of paper round to make it all work. Doesn’t the futility of it all depress you?”

Bernard: “Not really. I’m a civil servant.”

So, if all seems futile maybe a detachment from the futility is what is called for.  Just a thought.