Speakers’ Corner – What To Pick

It was like I was frozen in ice, unable to move.  My mouth seemed clamped shut. What to choose?  I could feel my eyes darting around the table, checking if they could see through my veneer.

            ‘Come on, Dad,’ said one of my daughters, ‘you’re always first to decide.’

            I nodded and sent out a broad smile of misdirection.  I couldn’t decide what to eat, but my mind raced back to a questionnaire I had completed several days before.

            I’m down,’ I’d told the doctor. 

That admission alone was a release.  It had taken weeks of coaxing from Sue for me to relent and visit the doctor to discuss my mental health.  And here I was, tears dribbling down my cheeks inexplicably.  That was many years ago, probably the first time I questioned my sanity.  The doctor was kind and asked me to complete a list of questions.  I scanned nine questions, each with four answers, which were given a score and totalled to provide a diagnosis.  I filled in the form.

The doctor peered over his glasses and announced, ‘I don’t think you’re depressed, more likely anxiety brought on by stress.  How’s things at work?’

 They were particularly bad, struggling to fulfil orders and under pressure from the supermarkets and my bosses.  The food industry isn’t for the faint-hearted, fast-moving, aggressive, demanding, and relentless pressure to deliver.  That evening in the restaurant, I recalled one of the questions to gauge depression.  At the time, I laughed, but not now. 

When you go out for a meal, do you struggle to decide what to order? 

But now I wasn’t amused. My breathing was shortening. I could feel myself panicking.  I searched the room for my nearest escape and was leaving my seat when Sue laid her hand on mine.

‘Johnny will have his usual Breaded Haddock and Chips,’ she soothed.

Mental health was a taboo subject in my family.  My mother was diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic in her late thirties.  She was volatile, suspicious, and preoccupied.  Her well-being went in waves, long periods of stability but interspersed with black periods.  The family managed her moods, recognising the signs and knowing when to give her space or avoid her.  But always in the background, I worried these traits might be inherited.  It has been hard to admit to my worries and anxieties throughout my life.  I ruminated on issues and analysed the most inconsequential of slights.  It wasn’t until I went to university and met Sue that I realised that my intensity wasn’t normal.  Perhaps that was the first step in understanding my mental health.

            Nevertheless, I never took a day off, as I would if I had the flu or broken my ankle.  I, like most, battled on.  Of course, it was a different time, I was of a generation that talked of the ‘looney bin’, or the ‘asylum’.  Thankfully, attitudes have changed in society and talking about these issues is acceptable and important.  And within a work environment, I had to deal with colleagues suffering from depression, stress, or anxiety.  I recall one incident when two managers couldn’t work with each other.  It became a disciplinary matter, and I had to hold an appeal meeting to resolve the issue.  One person was difficult to manage due to her sporadic work and antagonising attitude toward her line manager.  The person wasn’t well, and her boss was intolerant and not helping the situation.  The manager was bright and able and had produced great work.  During the investigation, she explained that she was a long-distance runner and had just completed her first marathon.  She had set her sights on achieving a run time of under four hours and only completed the 26 miles in four hours and five minutes.  It seemed to have broken her, and parts of her life were falling apart.  I stopped the disciplinary process and encouraged her to see her doctor and discuss some of her issues.   I learned that it’s sometimes difficult to understand what’s causing someone’s problems, and that’s fine.  Very few of us are trained psychiatrists or psychologists.  What we must offer is compassion and not be judgemental.  Trying to rationalise someone else’s worries and demons doesn’t work.  Rather, empathy is what is needed.

It’s difficult to explain why I had a dark period five years ago.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to explain why I didn’t feel well.   I lost my mum and my dad.  Then, I suffered a major health scare.  However, I didn’t join the dots, I disappeared into a black hole of despair that manifested itself, of not wanting to do anything, of questioning the whole point of my existence.  I found myself with disturbing thoughts.  I was moody, short-tempered, angry, and profoundly unhappy.  Once again, I spoke with my doctor; her kind and caring approach lifted me.  The NHS kicked in, and I was seen by specialists who helped me talk and think through why I was feeling as I was.  As I began to understand the issues that were affecting me, so did my mental health improve.  It led to me enrolling in a degree at UHI and making other changes in my life.  Now, I find it easier to recognise when I’m drifting into melancholy.  It allows me to take steps to help my mind feel better.  One of the breakthroughs I’ve achieved is being open about how I’m feeling.  I’m not ashamed or embarrassed.  I’m conscious that I can take the lead and help friends and family talk more openly about their mental state.

Next time, you can’t decide what to order when eating out.  Remember, it may have nothing to do with depression; it might be that the menu is fantastic, and you’d rather have a couple of dishes from the main course.  But if it’s a sign, don’t be afraid to recognise it.  Talk about it to a friend, family member, or a doctor.  It won’t resolve your worries and anxieties immediately, but it will set you on a journey to resolve the problems making you feel this way.