I have been considering for some time now whether I should go public with my episode of mental illness, and how it developed. Even in thinking about whether to talk about it, I’m worried that people will think I want of praise of “getting over it” but, we must talk about these things. We all have a duty to speak up and educate everyone that it is ok to look fine but feel unwell. You wouldn’t be able to get away with walking down the street with a neck brace on and crutches without catching an odd glance or two from an onlooker, who will assess what may have happened to you and make a judgement (for better or worse) about how they should approach you. However, with a seemingly invisible illness it is easy to cover it up, not get support or help due to being ashamed and no one would really notice. By writing about my experience I hope that I encourage others to do the same and to start that conversation. I was one of those people who thought that going off work with stress is an easy way out of a job you aren’t very good at whilst taking some money out of the company. Even when I began to get ill, I refused to admit it to myself that I needed help. I couldn’t believe that I had got to the stage where I would be appreciating the statutory sick policy that all contracts have in them. Regardless of my wife begging me for months to go to the doctors, my male bravado kicked in; I told myself that I didn’t need to go, that it is just the way my job is, inside I thought the doctor would judge me for being male and stressed.
I started to notice a big change in my character around June/July 2015 a year after starting a very demanding, but financially rewarding job as a service manager, managing a team of professional engineers and dealing with high profile accounts daily. My role required me to cover an area of 300 square miles. The engineers I worked with were fantastic guys who were supportive towards me even though I wasn’t an engineer and helping me out where they could. We were a small but successful team and targets were consistently being reached, which in turn allowed me to lead a comfortable life outside of working hours.
The definition of working hours is always sneaky, mine was something along the lines of:
“your working hours will be 08.30 – 17.00 with one hour for lunch Monday to Friday, due to the nature of the role there may be on occasion that you will be required to work outside these hours with no extra remuneration”
It sounds reasonable, but over time it is easy to lose track of what ‘on occasion’ should mean. I would be receiving up to 115-150 emails per day and over 15 voicemails. Service managers are notorious for not answering their phones, but this is because we are too busy sifting through the “white noise” trying to prioritise and react to problems. At times, I just prioritised those who had emailed the most or the angriest person, although in hindsight this was not ideal and was not a long term strategy for handling work effectively.
Working in my previous industry was exciting and highly reactive, every day is different and you would rise to the next day’s challenge, customers would ring you at midnight or 6am and my phone was always on, waiting for the next issue so I could jump on it and extinguish the fire before it snowballed. I should point out that it was not a requirement to have your phone on 24 hours a day, service managers took it in turns to be on the night shift, however, I thought that was the only way I could effectively work. In some cases, customers would threaten to notify the press if their complaints were not dealt with and this only amplified the problems: 24 hours a day I was trying to balance fixing products in a care home with pensioners with an array of physical and mental issues alongside fixing products in very large and busy hotels; when you are lacking in resource there is no good answer to this conundrum. I would have to accept the verbal abuse and move on to the next problem.
I know it doesn’t sound like a dream job, but it really was, I love process and I love seeing my plans come together; making sure the guys were working safe and learning about the industry was very interesting. What is better than to watch a mechanical object in front of you being carefully dissected by some of the most intelligent engineers I have known. Then the bubble would pop: an 0800 number, the dreaded call centre, panic stations: which engineers were where? Reminding the customer that we don’t have blue flashing lights on the vans, the 1hr countdown clock started ticking, the race was on! Pick up phone; ring engineer to “drop tools”; go to the immediate problem. In the meantime the appointment that the engineer should have been attending is ringing and asking where the engineer has been; this customer has been waiting two weeks for this visit. Ring second engineer, they can cover the visit, but there’s a routine service that won’t get done – that missed service will be counted on everyone’s targets – there’s consequences.
Then one day in July 2015, I had one of my engineers on the phone and he said:
“Freddie, this has to stop we are being pulled all over the place, if were not careful someday someone will die”
It was a sunny afternoon in a Mcdonalds Car park near Gloucester, I glossed over his point and wasn’t focused really on what he told me as I said ok point noted, but have you done the visit for (__) and the repair job for (__). It was non-stop, we just accepted that this was what we had to do and we had to get on with it.
A week later we had our final team meeting before I went on my annual leave to get married and that was the last time I saw this engineer, the following day (Saturday) he had collapsed as a result of poor health, he was taken to a hospital where he passed away 2 months later. There was no time to grieve, reflect, or mourn. Repairs needed completing, servicing needed to be done, but I had one less engineer to carry out the already mounting pile of tasks that were set each day by a computer generated system. My team were working at full pelt and had no time to grieve the passing of their friend and colleague; two engineers were not able to attend the funeral of their friend because they had to repair a lift. A decision that I made, rightly or wrongly, one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my time there.
Visiting this man’s parents to collect his work van, which we emptied together, was one of the hardest moments of my life. A 30-year-old fresh faced manager who only knew this man professionally, sitting down with his broken family and trying to remain professional, calm and reassuring was surreal. It’s silly really, someone who I have worked alongside and managed for 18 months and I was only sitting down reflecting on our relationship after he had gone.
This was a triggering event, by then I was heading for a disaster; doubt was setting in and I began to think that I couldn’t cope anymore. Negativity would creep in at any given opportunity, anything I did I would automatically assume that my wife was going to leave me, be it that I forgot dinner, or I was late, or I didn’t stop working until 11pm (although she did these things just as often as I). When in bed I couldn’t sleep and then the phone would ring as we would work on a rotating duty per week on a one in four basis, “HELLO HELLO??? PROBLEM IN ***HOSPITAL, we’ve tried ringing the engineer but he’s been out of the house since 6am this morning and he says he’s too tired, and the other engineer is 2 hours away, what do you want us to do!!”
As I sat bolt upright in bed and left for the spare room not wanting to disturb my wife, my brain slowly winding up as it goes in to panic mode. What will get me out of this in the quickest time, without upsetting to many people?
what do you want us to do? They ask
“give me his number and I’ll contact him” I barked, I ring the engineer and check the working time regulations against the system to show what he has worked that day and if he is over. I contact an engineer from outside of my area to attend, I advise the customer that we will be there when we can.
“ok… thanks,” heart pounding, sleep disrupted… look at watch it’s 4am, two hours since the call came in and I have yet to go back to sleep, the Groundhog Day drone as the morning alarm went off somewhere between 06.00 and 06.30. I had the biggest head ache, I check my phone to ensure there are no missed calls from the call centre. If I miss a call when I’m on the rota as duty manager it resulted in the disciplinary procedure being instigated.
Roll on to January 28th 2016, which I will call my undoing, it was a Thursday. By this time, I cried every day and I cried all the time to my line manager. The first sign that something might be wrong, was when people asked me how work was going, usually one of those boring conversation starters like ‘how’s the weather been’, but asking someone who is suffering from stress (and doesn’t know it) is opening a rather large can of emotional worms. I described every conceivable dilemma I had experienced in the past 24 hours and watched their face curl up wishing they hadn’t asked.
On this day, I received two issues that needed fixing, 45 miles apart. One was in an old persons social block and the other in student accommodation, both two man jobs and with only two engineers in the area at the time. I prioritised the old persons social block, rang the student accommodation and explained about the prioritisation – the customer understood. However, ten minutes later I get a call from my manager telling me that the manager at the student accommodation has lodged a complaint. She said that if one of the students had tried to kill themselves then the paramedics would have had difficulties entering the building and it would have been my fault.
That one comment at the time was almost certainly a passing note of frustration; she could have just complained that the problem wasn’t being fixed quickly enough. However, at the time, I instantly thought that I would have been blamed for any coincidental suicide attempt. All the repercussions of that made-up incident played over and over in my mind. I finally stumbled into the doctors and I sat down, my work phone is ringing and ringing, I looked up and I said through teary eyes “I just can’t cope anymore”. He looked at me and immediately signed me off for work, I walked out of the surgery back into the bustling city centre having forgotten where I lived, what my name was, I even forgot how to tie my shoelaces. It took me over an hour to get home even though I lived 200 metres away.
Now that I had been signed off, I wasn’t legally allowed to work, but that didn’t stop me. I continued working for the next six hours as I was scared of what my manager was going to say. I had previously told him there was no way I was going on sick, not one bit!” By 4pm someone had kicked off to the Managing Director about something and it had filtered its way back to me through all the chain of management, I told him I had been signed off, and he said: “go home, clear your mind, take the time out to get your head straight”.
I was sat in the passenger seat of my car when all of a sudden the overwhelming sense of terror came over me, my heart was palpitating, my lips shivering, I couldn’t move and my vision narrowed. I rang my wife and told her I was driving to the hospital as I thought I was suffering from a heart attack. She knew it was a panic attack and directed me to her office, I had driven to her office many times, but I had to use my sat nav to find her. We drove home and I started my sick leave.
Over the next 6 months I suffered ongoing and regular panic attacks where I couldn’t leave the house alone and I lost interest in my hobbies. I remember leaving the house to get some air, I got four miles from my house and was so scared I would get lost. I stopped going out, I would make excuses not to see friends because I didn’t want any interaction with anyone, I just wanted to be left alone. I ended up not talking, not even grunting to my wife, full on silence, a mental barrier that left me unable to communicate and I would sporadically burst into tears, wailing in fact, shaking and dazed. My brain didn’t know how to react to the sudden stop of work; I had switched my phone off, I had turned the laptop off and I felt nothing; I heard nothing. Going from rushing around day in day out managing people to end up being a functioning mess was the hardest struggle that I had to deal with, my only decision of the day I would make would be where would I walk the dog!
The sick leave continued along with 12 weeks of counselling on the NHS where we would talk about emotions and feelings towards friends, family, work and establishing the correct work life balance. Life seemed to me more about happiness and less about chasing the big pay checks, I went from a full-time salary to earning £8.00 an hour temping in a call centre in the space of 3 months.
It was a sober moment. My rent became difficult to pay each month and the bills kept on mounting, which in itself bought another wave of panic, anxiety and stress. I was still over-sensitive – an email came round at my temporary job stating that we could no longer eat lunch at our desks. I ended up crying in her office, apologising for the cheese and ham sandwich I had eaten at my desk an hour beforehand.
Finding a new job was big challenge, initially I thought who would want to hire someone who suffers from anxiety? How much of a risk would I be to my new employer? Would I need to be micro managed? Would I not cope with the change of industry? These questions were only answered with the passing of time. During the interview for my current job, my manager told me, “I am not interested in knowing what vegetable best describes you, I just want to get to know you for you”. I learnt that finding a company that cares about you is much better than just accepting the first job that comes your way.
With time has come acceptance and understanding my triggers. There are still times where I need to take some time for myself and switch off and triggers that can cause panic attacks. However, I am nearing the end of my first year in my new job and life is good, I’m back on my bike and incredibly happy.
To anyone who has read this and been reminded of their own situation please do not suffer alone, everyone will be supportive of you, you just need to accept your situation, which for me, was incredibly difficult, but once it’s out there embrace the help that is available. Please remember that it’s ok to fall over sometimes, everyone does, it’s how you go about standing up again that matters.