My first waltz with depression was at university. I was doing my degree in economics and was very unhappy. So much of the economic theory I was being taught was clearly total nonsense. Much of it is still mainstream economic theory, if you ever wonder why the world's economies are so messed up. Anyway, the course was frustrating, life in south London was not for me and I began to spiral down.
This was when 'The Judge' began to raise its voice. This is the name I gave the internal dialogue that would tear me to shreds. The same words would tumble out if its vicious mouth constantly: 'weak', 'pathetic,' 'failure,' 'useless.' I only broke out of that spiral in my final year when I was able to work on my dissertation titled 'The economic costs of the destruction of the rainforest.' It was something that I was really inspired by and felt in alignment with my values.
After graduation I pent a few years working in sales. Then, in 1995, I was introduced to the World Wide Web. Though I had little computing skills I ended up building the website for the publishing company I was working for. I saw the potential of the Web in in late 1995 I started my own business designing websites, called Media Paradigm.
Media P, as we called it, was my chance to run a company aligned with my values. I wanted it to be a great place to come to work. I wanted to look forward to Monday morning and I wanted my team to feel the same way. The business grew from me and a laptop to a team of 12 and some of the UK's biggest business as customers. We all loved working together. It felt like I was working with a great bunch of friends. In 2000 I turned down an offer of approximate £3 million for the business. Things were going great and the Web was only just getting started.
Then the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 took place. Following the global crash in stock markets the spending on web development fell off a cliff. In 2002 we very nearly went bust. I had to let half the team go. They were my friends and they had done nothing to deserve it. It was a dreadful experience for me. I felt like I was throwing people who I loved, and who trusted me implicitly, overboard.
This was when my mental health spiralled down. I was having trouble sleeping. I would cry in the morning before work. I hid this from my family by crying in the shower. My middle brother worked with me as Director of Operations. He left the business. It made sense. Our future was uncertain and he had a good job offer. It was very tough for me. He was my big brother and offered enormous support just by his presence. We had always cycled the 5 miles into work across fields together, as he lived just up the road from me. With him gone I would stop halfway and cry. I felt desperately alone and unable to cope with the pressure. Then I'd carry on to the office in the centre of Cambridge. I would go down into the basement of the office and cry a few times during the day. But I told no one of my struggles.
I was having a nervous breakdown but I did not accept it. I "manned up" and pushed on. The Judge was loud again in my mind. I despised myself and my weakness as I wept. "You're pathetic. Look at yourself! Crying like a baby, snivelling away. You've f*scked everything up. You failed them. You failed."
In 2005 the business finally went bust. It was a cruel blow as we thought we had just secured a very large contract that would finally end the constant cashflow problems. A final twist took the contract away. The bank demand its money back and that was that.
In many ways it was a blessed relief. I was so sick of the business. All joy was gone. My then wife and I had plans to emigrate to Vancouver, Canada. Now we were free to finally do it. I could not wait to get away from England and all the demons that stalked me there. I had a vision of a beautiful new start, far away from the demons and darkness.
We arrived in Canada in October 2006. Then the problem, that I had been ignoring, with the marriage reared their head. Months of counselling could not resolve the issue. To add to my difficulties, my friend and teacher Kensho Furuya passed away on March 6th 2007. We had exchanged emails about me going to visit him in Los Angeles and he even suggested he might come up to visit. His death was a bitter blow and added enormously to my sense of being lost and alone.
In September 2007 my wife returned to England with our 3 young children. Everything I read said that if we, the parents, were ok then the children would be ok. My wife would be more ok in England close to her family so it made sense for that to happen. I hugged them all at the airport and watched my children walk through security and give me a final wave though they did not know that they would never come back. I cannot begin to express the agony.
I could not be separated from my children.
But I could not go back to live in England. The demons and the darkness lay waiting for me there.
But I could not be separated from my children.
But I could not go back to to live in England...
It was an impossible dilemma. If I went back to live there I knew I would die. But by staying so far away from my children I began a rapid spiral into depression.
Depression started as a feeling of falling into darkness. My world shrank and all colour was lost. As the months went by my descent accelerated. The darkness that had previously felt like a dark fog changed into a thick black tar. The tar enveloped me and filled me. I began to fold in on myself. I would avoid going out. When I did I would wait for darkness and cover myself in a hoodie. I'd get groceries and scuttle back to my home, avoiding everyone. If I did meet someone I'd out on a normal face and smile. It was just a mask.
Everywhere were memories of my children. I remember finding one of their boots in the long grass. I instantly collapsed and wept uncontrollably. The loss was all encompassing. Grief filled me. The pain was unbearable. My vision began to change. I noticed a darkening to the periphery of my vision. It began to feel like I was looking through a tunnel. My world literally began to darken.
Still I told no one and tried to continue to function normally. I fell into working for a tech company in Vancouver. It seemed great on the surface. But I was nowhere near well enough to do it. I would commute from the small island where I lived to Vancouver on a water taxi. I would stand outside so no one could see me and I would cry the whole way in. I felt so trapped. I managed to sustain this for about 7 months.
Then I had another, more serious, nervous breakdown. I was in a meeting and my mind ceased to function. The other people were asking me relatively simple questions but I was failing to understand. It was incredibly disturbing. It shook my trust in my own mind to the core. A trust that I have never fully regained. It was obvious I could not continue to work so I left.
All along The Judge was growing stronger and stronger. The diatribe was continuous and growing more and more vicious. My self-loathing was becoming all I knew. I had failed at everything. I had hurt so many people, including those who I loved so dearly. I was pathetic.
My family did not understand what was happening to me. They were judgemental of my actions and my inability to function normally. I did have the unending love and support of my sister-in-law. She listened to me for hours as I struggled with the reality of having to make money but being unable to even contemplate challenging work. I was able to help a friend with his landscaping business, digging holes and mowing lawns. It was manageable, zero-stress. But beyond that it was impossible for me to contemplate "real" work.
I had reached the point now that every fibre in my being longed to die. People talk about "hitting rock bottom" but I never did. I just sank deeper and deeper into the black abyss. The despair was utter and complete. I knew that this would never end. There was no hope. No hope at all other than to die.
I wrote this poem during this time:
Though I had called to him in dreams, drawn him to me in my thoughts,
His presence was still a surprise.
But oh so much more than that was the sense of relief, the release. My life-long companion was here. The battle was won at last!
Truth be told he had been with me since my conception.
He had watched me, never once leaving my side though I wasn't aware of him.
He was the only truth left in my life, a trust, a bond,
That I could rely on when all else failed me,
All others cast me aside, forsaking me.
I embraced him, as one would a long lost brother, and whispered "I am ready."
But Death said not a word. Slipping my tight embrace it left me alone once more.
Alone save for the tears that lovingly caress my cheeks.
When people who have not experienced severe depression speak of "holding on" and "things will get better," they have no sense of the profound lack of hope. For me at least, it was the hopelessness of the situation that was so difficult to overcome. I knew that there was no hope. I knew that it would never get better. There was not the slightest glimmer of hope. Hence dying became the only option.
The only thing that stopped me from taking the final step to end my own life was the love of my children. I felt that I had betrayed them so horribly. I felt that my weakness and failures had so badly let them down. As much as The Judge urged me to just end it I could not betray them again. I might not be able to return to England but I would not take my own life.
It was the love and light of my children that kept me going. But it could so easily have not been enough. I have no judgement of those parents who find that that is not enough. Or, to word that more accurately, for whom the despair overwhelms even that light. I was as close to the point of losing even that light as one can come.
If there was one thing that saved me from suicide it was the mountain. Somehow I would drag myself from the house to hike/run up a nearby mountain. I vividly remember lying on the kitchen floor wailing, literally wailing, I missed my children so desperately. I vividly remember The Judge ripping me to shreds for how I sounded. Yet somehow I managed to pick myself up, get to my bicycle and cycle the 15 minutes to the foot of the mountain. Then I would make my way up the trail. It was always empty, at least outside of summer. It was me, the mountain, the forest and the streams. Maybe there was some other power at work, a power as ancient as the mountain, that was helping me.
It wasn't reading spiritual texts, or doing therapy, or taking medication. Though any and all of those might help. For me it was feeling the embrace of the forest, of breathing its fragrant air and feeling the mountain lift me as I ran. It was connecting to reality, far beyond the thoughts that filled my mind.
I huge breakthrough for me was the moment when I truly embraced the fact that I was a "total bloody idiot." That might seem odd as it seems to be playing into the hand of The Judge. It was quite the opposite. The power The Judge had over me was my own expectation of myself. I expected myself to be perfect. Failing to meet that expectation was a certainty. That was where The Judge stepped in. But once I let go of my expectation of being perfect, or even close to, The Judge was rendered irrelevant.
"I'm a bloody idiot and so is everyone else," replaced The Judge's diatribe. Everyone, without exception, has a massive and ever growing list of mistakes. We're all stumbling from one mistake to the next, with the occasional victory thrown in if we're lucky. Oh of course most people pretend the complete opposite. Social media has ramped that lie up 1000 fold. But we're all making it up as we go along, doing our best and mostly cocking up royally. When I accepted that truth I became so much lighter, in every sense of the word. I stopped holding on so tightly and began to find it easier to flow with the way things are.
It is nearly a decade since I lay on that kitchen floor, wailing. Things are better. There was some hope. I am glad that I did not die. Tears, grief and guilt are still a regular part of my life. Depression sometimes still comes to visit and tries to dance. I welcome it and embrace it and then I tell it that it can stay for a cup of tea if it wishes but I shall be out. The demons in England are still strong. Oh how The Judge likes to try to rip me up over those. But I choose not to listen to its words anymore. They are poisonous only if you swallow them. The Judge rants and raves as much as ever but it does so all alone in the corner. After all, I'm a bloody idiot so what does it expect?
Your Dance with Depression
If you too are dancing with depression then know that you are not alone. I felt so desperately, desperately alone. I was not and nor are you.
Do not believe everything that you think. Do not listen to The Judge, if you have one. Welcome The Judge (or whatever other diatribe you may have) but do not heed it. Do not fight it or try to suppress it: you will only empower it. Invite it in for a beverage of your choice and then politely explain that you are going out.
Do not underestimate the power of connecting with nature. A park, a garden, a single blade of grass holds the great mystery. Do not underestimate the power of movement. I know, in the deepest fibres of my body, the difficulty of even dragging oneself out of bed. I know the massive inertia and the feeling of complete hopelessness that holds one back. The piles of dirty laundry, the sink full of dirty dishes, the bills that have gone unpaid. They will all try to hold you and trap you. If you can still find a way to move, to walk then do. If you cannot then be okay with that too. Just breathing is a massive victory sometimes.
Read The Sword That Saves series. It is not a story created by me. It is a story that comes through me. It is a spiritual story. It holds truths. If you cannot afford all the books then contact me and I will get them to your library or to you directly.
Listen to and read what I recommend in the section about Tao, Zen and Waking Up. Remember that you are not what you think you are. You are not your depression. Your depression is a visitor. It came and it can leave. Don't believe the lie your depression tells you that things will never get better: this too shall pass. Everything passes.
Is a Friend Dancing with Depression?
I did not speak out about how I felt. In fact most people who knew me then would have been stunned that I was depressed, let alone suicidal.
Talk to your friends about mental health. Share what struggles you may have and make it clear that you are an ally who will not judge them.
Listen to anyone who maybe struggling. You do not have to fix them, or try to play down the seriousness of how they feel. Simply be with them and hear them. If they ask for specific help then by all means give it to them. But more than anything, be a friendly and non-judgemental ear. The greatest gift that you can give them is the knowledge that they are not alone. That gift is huge.