This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and Pocket Size Theatre have asked me to share my story, as someone in the industry who has both suffered from mental health problems, but also benefited massively from the support that is available. While I am by no means an expert when it comes to mental health (the good, the bad and the ugly), my battles have left me with a wealth of experiences, and I make a conscious effort to be open and share my story, in the hope that it will show others that they are not alone, and that help is available to them.
As a child, I was always sensitive, and I’m no different now. World events play on my mind, the diatribes of Hopkins, Morgan and Trump upset me, and I could win awards for my ability to over analyse every single conversation I’ve ever had with anyone who has walked the Earth. Anxiety was something that entered my life during secondary school, and although I can’t remember any particular triggers, it’s possible that general ‘stress’ was to blame. Despite being a generally healthy young man, I’d be struck down by a mysterious plague once a year without fail. This would usually result in a visit from the paramedics and 24hrs in hospital, leaving doctors baffled when test results came back showing absolutely nothing wrong with me. “It’s seems like you’ve been under a lot of stress recently” was a phrase I grew to loathe.
Let me clarify – I cope very well with stress at work. I actually perform better when the stakes are high but the problem has always been personal stress; fractured relationships, confrontation, arguments. It has taken me years, but I am now at a point where I can confront my problems head on.
By the time I got to drama school, there was no denying that I was living with full-blown anxiety. Panic attacks were my new normal, and it never occurred to me that living without them was possible. I was also diagnosed with depression, but wasn’t offered any treatment other than medication, which I refused. Flash forward 10 years and things are very different, and there’s a plethora of way to combat mental health problems.
Two years ago, I had a breakdown. Game over (or so I thought). However I try to describe it now, it sounds contrived, a cliché. After so many years of ignoring my unhappiness, my body and mind surrendered, and I was completely overwhelmed. I hadn’t cried properly for years, but now the floodgates opened, and every suppressed emotion, abusive relationship (I could write a book about partners I allowed to treat me like dirt because I had no feeling of self-worth), and regret burst forth, and I had no choice but to let them.
I’d considered therapy a few times over the years, but had never gone through with it because I knew it meant actually admitting there was a problem. Finally, I was ready. Sink or swim. I immediately contacted a private therapist and arranged a consultation a few days later. It was clear to us both that there was a lot of work to do, but luckily I found it very easy to talk to my therapist, and although she gave me a list of options and alternative organisations I could seek help from, I chose to continue working with her. As well as the immediate and obvious reasons for my anxiety and unhappiness, she asked about my sleep, concentration, energy levels (“I’m just a naturally tired person”), and my yearly hospital visits. It was profound moment when she said to me “you’re not tired, Greg, you’re depressed, and you have been for a very long time”. I opened my mouth, and without realizing it said, “I know”.
So what next? First things first – I arranged to see my GP to discuss a course of antidepressants. I mentioned earlier that I’d refused meds when I was younger, but this time I was desperate, and willing to try anything that would help my recovery.
My GP was wonderful throughout my treatment, and restored my faith in the NHS. Before I could start my antidepressants, it was vital that I understood the gravitas of the situation – you take them for months even after you are feeling better, and coming off them has to be done very slowly to avoid withdrawal symptoms. My GP also went through the possible side effects (and there are lots), and both she and my therapist talked at length about which ones should be tolerated (loss of appetite, for example), and which should not (night terrors). It was really important to keep the dialogue going, so I was seeing my GP fortnightly, and also having telephone appointments, too. Plus, I was booked in with my therapist twice or three times a week, to get to the root of the problem. Antidepressants deal with the chemical imbalance in the brain, which then makes it easier to work through the issues. Where does my anxiety stem from? What’s started my lack of self-esteem? These questions took weeks to answer, and just using medication wasn’t enough; I needed the talking therapy, too. For me, the two went hand in hand.
It takes a while to acclimatise to the medication, and sometimes a stronger or weaker dose is required. My dose was upped after a couple of months because the GP could see I wasn’t feeling the benefit, and for a while things were much better. Later, however, I started experiencing side effects that were dangerous, like agoraphobia and night terrors. Again, my therapist and GP came to my rescue, but that did mean switching to different medication altogether, therefore starting the process all over again.
I always felt worse first thing in the morning, so my therapist gave me a few exercises that helped beyond measure. The first one was to get out of the house as soon as possible in the morning. Wake up, pull on the nearest clothes I could find, and go out. Sometimes I walked around the block for 10 minutes, other days I was out for two hours. This meant that I was getting out of the house before the anxiety had time to kick in., and generally made the rest of the day much easier. Some days were harder than others, but I found it incredibly beneficial.
It was clear that I also needed a hobby, because I was going to be off work for a while. The novelty of watching Netflix wore off very quickly, but it also wasn’t stimulating enough and I was struggling to concentrate, which often led to a downwards spiral. Instead, I spent hours playing video games, baking and building Lego. Each model or cake took a couple of hours, and meant I had to follow set instructions, something I’ve always found therapeutic, so this was also very helpful for me.
Now that I was off work and had plenty of time on my hands, I signed up to BorrowMyDoggy.com, a website which pairs dog owners with dog lovers who can’t commit to having one full-time. Premium membership, which enables you to contact other users, only costs £12 for a whole year. Within 24 hours I’d met a lovely neighbour and her gorgeous Miniature Dachshund, and we agreed that I’d dog sit one day a week. This was also great therapy. It’s something that is in its infancy in this country, but emotional support animals have been a big part of treatment for mental health problems in the United States for years. The unconditional love from Steve the sausage dog, and the purpose he gave me (walks, play and general attention) helped me immeasurably.
I was very lucky that throughout my recovery, my employers were incredibly supportive. I was off work for three months in total, with a sick note from my GP for a few weeks at a time. I’d email my boss once a week with an update on my progress, and they responded time and time again with messages of support and reassurance. At one stage, I even received an email from my boss, explaining that she’d told her superiors about my situation, and that they were willing to offer financial assistance towards my therapy. Needless to say, I was completely overwhelmed. I had no idea this help was available, and it just shows how much things have changed in recent times, and that people are taking mental health more seriously. I was also offered a phased return; reduced hours to ease myself back in. It’s very easy to run before you can walk, and I did that at least once, returning briefly before being signed off again. Having the relationship I do with my employers, and keeping the dialogue open made things so much easier.
Like a lot of my colleagues in the industry, I used performance as a coping mechanism. It never really helped me deal with any of my problems, but it was a pretty good distraction. It’s no surprise that I was unable to sing a note during my depression, nor that auditioning or performing was far from my top priority, but as I came out the other side of it, my voice changed, and my performances became more genuine. Suddenly, I was singing with a voice I’d been dreaming of for years, but had been trapped behind anxieties and stress. I now have a far better understanding of the physical and emotion connections to the voice, and when my voice falters, I know that there’s something playing on my mind, which forces me to take better care of myself.
It would be foolish of me to think that I will never struggle with my mental health again; it’s something that takes work every day. The difference now is that I’m armed with methods to combat those issues, and take better care of myself on a daily basis. I’ve recently started running, using the NHS ‘Couch to 5K’ app, which builds you up from running for 60 seconds intervals, to a 5K or 30 minutes, three times a week. I’ve always hated exercise, but I’m really feeling the benefit, and definitely have more energy. I’m also a big comfort eater, so I have to keep an eye on that. A truckload of chocolate and biscuits doesn’t do me any favours, so if I’ve had a few treats, I know that a really good meal with plenty of vegetables and protein will get me back on the right track. I’m also about to start a course of group therapy via the NHS, to help keep my anxiety at bay long-term. I had no idea, but there are so many different therapies available, and you can self-refer. Performers – don’t panic if you aren’t registered with a GP in London, it made no difference to me!
As I said before, I’m no expert, but I am proof that things get better. I never believed that my situation would change, that I’d be able have healthy relationships, and live without paralysing fear. Now, I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the years of depression and the breakdown, because it has shaped who I am today. Attitudes are changing, and everyone I turned to for help (my GP, 111, out-of-hours GP, my therapist, IAPT staff, friends, family, colleagues) were incredibly supportive. Nobody told me to ‘man up’ or ‘get a grip’. I hope that in sharing my story, it will reassure others that you’re not alone, help is available, and things do get better.