This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while, since way before I even set this blog up at the start of 2018. I’m happy to see that dialogue about mental health has become much more open and honest particularly over the last few years, but I feel like stories from young men (am I young anymore? Maybe its time I just call myself a man) are still maybe not told enough. That’s not to say men don’t experience mental health issues – suicide is the leading cause of death in males aged 20-49 – but I think there’s still a lingering stigma around discussing or even publicly acknowledging it. This brings me onto my story.
Before I get started I want to apologise in advance if this post gets a) a bit rambly and incoherent and b) very long.
Up to the age of about 18, I was just your stereotypical nerdy teenage guy. I did really well in school (got straight A’s in my Scottish Highers, some above 85%), was shy as hell, loved videogames and had an awesome but small group of friends. Sure I’d gone through some horrible experiences in my life, the main one being my parent’s divorce when I was about 11, but I’d say overall I was a pretty happy kid.
I didn’t have a particularly good first year at Uni overall. My grades were fine – I stayed over 70% – but I really hated my course and the motivation to attend and learn just wasn’t there. I started missing some classes, then a few more classes and before you knew it I was spending a lot more time in bed or in the union than where I was meant to be. That summer though, everything started to escalate.
I was on holiday with my friends. I’d noticed some weird physiological symptoms in the weeks heading up to the holiday (palpitations, feeling a bit dizzy, stuff like that) but put that out of my mind for the holiday itself. On the flight home though I had a massive, huge panic attack. I begged to be taken off the plane and it took the flight attendants and all my friends to calm me down and convince me to take the flight home. After that the panic attacks just increased in frequency and intensity. I remember my mum having to pick me up from a game of football I was playing because I was convinced I was having a heart attack. She took me to the hospital and I was physically fit as a fiddle. Another I was on the way to meet my friend’s for a cinema trip and had to go home. I was heading for a walk in the countryside with my family and again had a massive panic attack.
At this point I’d pinned this increase in anxiety on my course and made a hasty decision to switch to a Maths degree. It became clear in my second year though that this wasn’t really the cause. My attendance kept slipping, and now so did my grades. I think I attended about 1/3rd of my classes that year. My social life began to suffer too. I made excuses not to go out. I spent my days hiding from the world, trying to hide from the physical anxiety symptoms that were driving me crazy. Every day my anxiety gave me palpitations, made me feel like I was going to faint, feel like my legs were going to collapse under me. Everything kept dropping down. There was days I just wanted to give up, I just wanted it to go away. This pretty much continued for all of second year. And then I got my exam results. I failed. Not only did I fail, I failed badly. I got 24% in one of classes. Bringing up my grades in previous times wasn’t for bragging rights, it was to show how far one person can fall.
For my parents, this was the last straw. My mum admits now that her and my stepdad thought something was up for a while. But I have a knack of explaining things away pretty convincingly. I wasn’t skipping class, I just never showed them my timetable and said I was going in late today. I wasn’t avoiding going out with my friends, they were just boring and weren’t making plans. Getting my exam results though was hard evidence, and my mum dragged me to my GP the next morning.
The GP visit was both probably the worst moment of my life and maybe the best. I was taken through a questionnaire, firstly with my mum present. The results didn’t lie, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and panic disorder. With my mum out the room the GP asked me another question – had I ever thought of ending things? I had to answer honestly, and the honest answer was yes. I don’t think I’d ever actually have done anything. I just felt trapped in a body that felt committed to making every day a living hell, and wanted a way out. I was immediately referred to a psychologist and put on anti depressants.
The reason I said that may have been the best moment of my life was because it ended up being a mental turning point for me. I’d reached my low point, but from that day I decided I was going to fight and not let it define me. It wasn’t easy – its strange how even simple tasks like going shopping become quite a big thing when your anxiety makes it difficult to leave the house. Thankfully I scraped through my resits at uni, and so I was allowed into third year. I made one promise to myself that year, that I wasn’t going to miss a single class. I also started my appointments with the psychologist that autumn, and he took me through a 3 or 4 month course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). As a bit of a geek this type of therapy really spoke to me. It was all very logical, discussing the body’s physical responses to certain situations and learning techniques and exercises to help manage these responses. I won’t get into too much detail on it, but it really really helped.
I started to feel better over my third year. I threw myself into my university work, not missing a single class and staying behind to do extra work. A combination of the CBT and forcing structure back into my life also allowed me to start weaning myself off the anti depressants I was prescribed. By February time I was feeling a lot better, and wanted to do something that really challenged myself. I went to Camp America recruitment fair, and came back with a placement at a special needs camp that summer. That experience ended up being near life changing, and I came back a completely different person. While third year was partially a recovery year, I was ready to grab my final year by the balls. My mental health continued to improve and improve over that year, and I got my BSc in the end.
Over the last 8 or so years, my mental health has been good for long periods of time. A combination of doing things that work for me (exercise, occasional meditation, eating well, surrounding myself with good people) have helped that be the case. Saying that, I’ve still had some setbacks and not fun times:
- When living in Kent for my postgrad I had a horrid time with some flatmates early on which began sending me into a state of constant anxiety. Thankfully I caught myself early in this spiral and sought help with the university counselling function before it escalated too far. I also took action and moved flats to live with my friend.
- When I initially moved to London I was incredibly lonely. It can be a very lonely city after all. I wasn’t coping at all and had a really tough few months before I forced myself to get involved in social events in the city.
- A few years ago I got into a pretty bad loop of health anxiety, based on a lump I found on my groin. It was nothing, it was just a really bad ingrown hair (sorry TMI). But it made me absolutely paranoid for a while about changes in my body and I started turning into a hypochondriac. Convinced that when I felt some change in my body I had MS, then cancer a week later, and so on. Thankfully I went to a really good doctor in the city, and with her help I worked through these issues and am much more level headed about it now.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, its always a learning process. My worst years were definitely my late teens and early twenties, but the challenges never really completely go away. I still have my general anxieties in life, who doesn’t really. I’m still shy around new people. I still overthink and overanalyse every little thing about my life at times. But these are things I continue to work on, while dealing with any other challenges life tries to throw at me.
Thats pretty much my (much condensed) story. If you take one thing away from this, its that you should never be afraid or ashamed to talk to someone. I wish I’d spoken out fully about a year before I actually did. If you have a supportive friends or family network, reach out to them. If you’re not in that position, you can reach out to a GP or several charities like Mind and Anxiety UK. There’s always someone out there who’s willing to listen and wants to help.
Thanks for reading as always,