Ten years ago I left the security of a great job, a secure pension and a good salary to follow a dream. That dream was to become a support to teachers who didn’t yet feel the same love for mathematics that I did.
I was fortunate. Part of that, I believe, is down to timing, part down to divine providence (yes I do believe that) and part down to hard work, but a huge amount is due to the fantastic people I live with or have met along the way. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is the that the number one desire of human beings is to matter. To someone, to a few people, to the world, but to matter. I am thrilled that I matter to those who share my heart, my home and my work. I am happy (most of the time), reasonably well off (most of the time) and healthy (most of the time).
And yet, underneath it all, to be honest, I have been struggling. For well over 40 years. For many people who appear, on the surface, to be very successful, I suspect that the same struggle goes on day after day, week after week, and is rarely spoken of in the open. In fact, I have learnt that everyone I meet is struggling with something, but it is not always appropriate or comfortable to talk about such things. And the reason? Mental illness.
My depression, which has got worse rather than better over the years, has been what St. Paul calls the ‘thorn in the flesh’ for as long as I can remember. Recently, thanks to a few brave and high profile celebrities, this illness has been talked about at length and is becoming less stigmatised. Causes are far from clear, even now, though I suspect my early childhood had a lot to do with it. The fact that my own diagnosis took 30 years tells us something, but as yet I am not sure what.
The problem is, this illness itself is often invisible – only the easily-laughed-at symptoms are visible, and therein lies the problem. To many, I am just an extremely forgetful bloke. To others, I am just the guy who forgets where he is, halfway through a speech; (thank the Lord for Powerpoint). To some I am just the needy guy who wants to be with them, or to eat or drink with them, rather than sitting alone in a hotel room. To others, I am the man who never has a train ticket when he needs to show it (and is often treated like a criminal as a result; today dealing with Virgin trains was a case in point.)
I have NEVER sought to blame anyone, or indeed circumstances, for this condition. In fact I often see it as a blessing. I can empathise with a huge range of people. I understand why sometimes my family and friends are anxious about me. Or hesitant. Or staying out of my way for a bit.
As I get older, I have come to realise that being like this does not always have to be a disadvantage. Obviously it is a huge problem when travelling (watching me and my lack of short-term memory try to manage train travel must be pretty comedic). Or when performing magic and mind-reading shows that I have performed many times, won awards for, and should know inside out yet struggle to remember more than two or three tricks at a time. Or when promising my wife that I will do certain tasks by the time she gets home. And so on. But I also know that everyone I meet is facing their own battles. And this helps when in a difficult conversation with a customer service centre. Or a ticket office.
People with depression have good days, and we have bad days, and often there is no obvious trigger; indeed there are many triggers and each person has different ones. For me it seems to be mainly being avoidably late, losing things (not yet sure if that is the chicken or the egg), conflict, criticism of friends and family members, or blatant unkindness; read into that what you will.I choose (and it is a difficult choice, trust me) to get up every day, to love my family, to love my work and to survive. But this is only possible because of five things.
- The love of God – my belief in a God who loves me unconditionally has proved a sustaining, perhaps even life-saving asset at times.
- The love of my family and friends. I have a loving family (like all families we have our arguments, some don’t always get on with others, etc. but we love each other and that’s what matters for me) and the love of the most amazing group of friends. Some started as professional contacts but honest conversations have led to deep friendships, others are from our church, others wouldn’t be seen dead in a church, some are from other religions or none, but people are people, and I love them. Some of these friends live miles away – a few in other countries or continents, but somehow knowing that they are just an email away is enough.
- Understanding– the warmest people I meet either choose not to notice my disabilities or choose not to worry about them. I also have come to understand that depression can be managed, if not always cured, and I have over time come to accept my shortcomings. Perfectionism is not helpful if you are me!
- Vision – I have a heart for teaching. I love teachers, and I love young people, and my whole working life is geared towards supporting them. This means that even on my darkest days I can go to work knowing that I could make a positive difference to someone’s life. I realise that in this, I and other teachers are among the luckiest people alive.
- Exercise – I love exercise, be it running slowly, or cycling slightly faster, or playing cricket with my sons, or being on a gym treadmill next to my wife. This has given me a focus to keep my mind from wandering into the dark places, where it goes far too frequently, and often unexpectedly as anyone with depression will testify.
This is why you will NEVER hear me COMPLAINING about having depression, or hiding the fact that the black dog sits on my shoulder. It has proved to be an eye-opener, for sure, but without it I would not have anything like the understanding and tolerance of others that I currently enjoy – every new person I meet I see as my equal, whether they are flying my plane, hogging my lane or cleaning my train; and all of them are fighting their own battles. I realise it is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you feel ashamed of being with me because of it, our lives are better lived apart from each other.
This attitude has not come about by chance – I am so grateful to have been changed for the better by this wicked illness, despite it throwing some pretty heavy flack in my direction from time to time. I hope that anyone reading this who knows someone who seems ‘a bit down’ at times will find the courage to talk to them, and find a way to let them know they are accepted – even when they don’t feel like they are worth anything.
This is honestly the greatest gift you can give your friends: acknowledge they are having a bad episode, offer them a hug, and ask them if they want to be with you or alone. They may not even know, but trust me -they will ALWAYS appreciate being asked.