Who told you that you need to feel the way you are feeling? Is there an expectation that you need to be the strong one all the time, that any chinks in the armour will leave you appearing as being weak? What is the impact of not being the strong person all the time?
I’ve been doing some reading and research for my role in work around well-being, mental health, how things like PTSD, stress, anxiety, and depression affect people even when they need to be mentally strong (especially in their peer group which can then effect their status within that group), and the link to our own emotional intelligence.
It is perfectly OK and perfectly normal not to be OK sometimes. We are in a third lockdown, it is sucking the fun out of life for many. Plans go out of the window, circumstances change (or is some cases don’t, causing a sense of monotony), socialising isn’t happening, we are limited in the things we are allowed to do, some are suffering from ‘cabin fever’ by being stuck indoors all the time (which is made even worse by the winter conditions and a more transmissible variant of the virus), and it can sometimes be frustrating with a routine of wake, work, sleep, repeat.
We’ve been through lockdown before and the novelty factor has worn very, very thin for most. Sensibly the government and scientists haven’t put a timeframe on this one as they had with the initial one (12 weeks at maximum I believe) – though that in itself can be a double-edged sword – by not putting a time-frame on the lockdown they are not giving unrealistic expectations but on the flip side we have no indication when the lockdown will lift. That is going to affect people and moods can change daily and weekly due to it.
It is OK not to be OK sometimes. We can all feel low, especially in winter. This winter now has the added challenge of the lockdown. It is OK not to be strong all the time, every minute of the day, 24/7. The way that we manage both our moods and emotions is vital to our individual well-being. Having that awareness of how we are feeling or how we might feel. Acknowledging that we are not always going to be our normal, fully energised, super-selves and there are going to be times when our energy levels and moods are low. If we feel guilty about not feeling our best, our moods and emotions are only going to remain negative and lead us into a downwards spiral and that may be difficult to get ourselves out of in the longer term.
Having an awareness of what is triggering these moods or emotions is important – it could be focusing on the things that we are not able to do, it could be constant news coverage on the pandemic, or it could be the monotony of the lockdown restrictions – wake, work, sleep, repeat. Ask yourself how many of these you can control or influence – not many is probably the answer. Focus on what you can control, what you are able to influence, and what matters – control the controllable. Acknowledge that you are not always going to be at your best and accept that, don’t be too hard on yourself, and be kind to yourself.
Do things that are going to make you happy. Do things that are going to have a positive effect on your emotions. Keep a mood tracker – record your mood at lunchtime and at night, are there patterns emerging? What can you do to change those patterns if you are not happy with them?
What can you do to be kind to yourself?
It was probably my darkest day. I can’t even recall the date now but it was 20 years ago. I’d sunk into a darker and darker depression – I’d stopped going to work, I wasn’t getting up at all as I just couldn’t face another day, I wasn’t eating either. I had gone crashing down into a never-ending downwards spiral. I couldn’t see any way out of it at all.
I was single and hated the fact, I was working as a cycle courier and was fed up with it. I just couldn’t see much of a future let alone a bright one. I was in my late twenties and the depression had taken a strangle-hold on me in a big way. I viewed myself as nothing short of a total and utter failure. The months leading up to this point had been a major struggle – I was drinking heavily and really couldn’t give a shit about anything or anyone.
It was a Sunday and I had filled up two empty bottles with water and filled them with paracetamol – I had put around 50 effervescent tablets into each bottle – before starring at them for an age and eventually drinking the contents of both bottles. This wasn’t a cry for help, this was me at the very end, no more answers having accepted the only solution was to end my life. I thought that the quantity of tablets would knock me out before my life ended. I didn’t leave a suicide note. I just didn’t see the point.
Several hours later I was hunched over the toilet being sick in a way I have never been sick before. It was continuous and seemed never-ending. I ended up in A&E at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital that night. They managed to stabilise me and I spent the following week in hospital. That first night in the hospital was strange. I felt confused and I was scared but felt at peace as well.
The following day a really good friend came to visit me at lunchtime commenting (rather ironically) ‘that if I tried something like that again she would kill me’.
I learnt a lot that week in hospital. I realised that my depression (and episodes of depression) needed to be tackled head on and couldn’t engulf me like it had on this occasion. Back then mental health wasn't widely spoken about as it is today. There was still a certain amount of stigma associated with it as well.
The doctors told me that it was lucky that I was so fit as certain blood counts associated with the overdose were off the scale and they had never seen anyone survive with such high levels before. Thankfully the majority of the damage was to the liver and this would eventually heal.
On the ward I got talking to the bloke in the bed next to me – he had to be admitted to hospital every couple of months due to having sickle cell disease – he was really upbeat and was just getting on with it. One thing that stayed with me was watching an elderly man at the other end of the ward die. I was looking over towards him in those last moments of his life and watched his last breath. I spent a week in the hospital before being discharged. That is when the real hard work started. I was at rock-bottom and needed to rebuild my life again.
I’d come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be instant, and it was down to me to sort the mess out which had become my life. I also had to accept that I suffered from depression and that I needed to control it as best I could – this is something that I am still doing 20 years later. There are times when I think I’m doing well and other times when I think I need to get my act together. That has happened quite a lot over the last 20 years.
I think in the last 20 years I’ve achieved a lot and learnt a lot about myself. I went from working as a cycle courier to becoming a performance manager for the company I was working for. I started a career in the civil service (and was promoted twice within my first 8 months). I studied and trained to become a sports massage therapist, worked for myself and gained an excellent reputation as well as working with some brilliant and inspiring athletes. Another career change has seen me working for the British Red Cross for the last 7 years and advancing, learning, and studying along the way.
One of the things that really helped was exercise – I finished another 8 marathons (I had completed my first a few years before), finished multiple triathlons including four ironman distance, as well as racing for Great Britain at the European Long Distance Championships in 2007.
In that 20 years I’ve been in 6 relationships and am now single again – I’m not that fussed about that, some days I think it’d be great to be with someone, most days I’m happy being on my own.
I don’t really speak about that dark day very much. I know that it changed me. I know that it made me see that if I wanted to achieve anything I would need to really push myself hard. I’ve learned that failure isn’t a bad thing as long as you learn from the mistakes made. That dark day helped me to build a very strong mind-set where I refuse to give up, give in or stay down when knocked down by life.
That dark day was the first step to everything I have achieved since.
It has been a busy couple of weeks. The new role in work is going well as well as being extremely busy – I’m in my 5th week and it has been like being in the middle of a whirlwind. I’m loving it because I’m having to push myself daily and having to challenge myself daily as well.
It isn’t just in work that I’m busy but also out of work as well. A few months ago I was sitting at home alone feeling pretty fed up with life and knew I had to kick myself firmly up the arse to change that. I was in total denial about how much I had dragged myself down and when I looked in the mirror I didn’t like what I saw. I needed to change. In that moment I knew I had to turn things around. Months later and I feel fitter, feel stronger, feel more in control, and feel happier. It was a tough call to make that change. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to do that in my life.
In my late twenties I was in a real rut and suffering from a chronic bout of depression that resulted in me taking a large paracetamol overdose – I wanted to check out as I saw no other way out. I was riddled with guilt about choices, decisions and events that had happened in my life. I was chronically unhappy. I couldn’t see how I could change my life. I spent a week in hospital recovering and was told I was lucky to be alive. I was told the amount of paracetamol I had taken should have killed me.
When I was discharged from hospital I vowed that I needed to turn things around and worked my arse off to do so and continue to do so to this day. When I looked in the mirror last year I knew I needed to take ownership and be accountable again and get back on track, that there had to be more than this and I was the only person that could change things – no one was going to turn things around for me. Life isn’t a rehearsal and we only get one shot at it.
Sometimes the hard part is admitting that there is a problem and there needs to be major change. Making those changes is not an easy option, it means taking yourself well and truly out of your comfort zone, pushing yourself, pushing yourself hard, pushing yourself even harder – do more, be more. It takes effort to do that.
Someone I know has hit that point where they have realised they need to make some major changes because how they are living is destructive and unsustainable. When I found out I knew how they felt as I’d been in that place before. I’ve chatted to them quite a bit since Sunday and we both know that it isn’t going to be easy but it is achievable to make those changes for the better.
I’ve told them not to look solely at the bigger goal but to break it down into much smaller achievable goals. If you make a 1% change to your life every week then in 6 months you could be in a much better place. In a year just imagine what you could achieve. 1% change each week.
To do that takes heart, it takes discipline, it takes effort, it takes commitment. Most people don’t do this – they remain in a rut, they are in denial, they embrace mediocrity. They don’t make changes and remain in their comfort zone. Closed minds and the easy option all the time. Some of the toughest people I know are those who have looked in the mirror and have said ‘things need to change’ and have effected that change. It is not an easy thing to do. It is not the easy option.
If you want to make changes I challenge you to do so – each week write down that 1% change you’ve made – and then in 6 months see how much you’ve achieved and how much things have changed.
I’ve been thinking of what drives me and what makes me determined to complete things over the last couple of days. One of those things is when people doubt me and almost due to their own negative outlook want to tar me with this and say, ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘you won’t do that’. Big mistake really as I’ve been told that so many times in my life that now I just find it hilarious – it is like a gauntlet has been thrown down at my feet and I can’t resist picking it up straight away to prove that person so wrong.
Years ago I was looking at entering a triathlon – it was a sport that had always fascinated me and there wasn’t a great deal of information out there about the sport (we are talking back in the dark ages when the internet didn’t exist and it was a very, very grassroots sport in the UK at the time) and I told someone about this and they told me – ‘you won’t do that, way too difficult, you won’t even get to the start line let alone finish’. I was not impressed. I finished that race (it was only a short sprint distance race) and went on to finish many more over the years – multiple half ironman distance races, 4 ironman distance races, 9 marathons, and raced for Great Britain in my age group in a European Long-Distance Championships – all the time I remembered that person who had said to me ‘you won’t’.
In work about 5 years ago I applied for a different role, got to interview and felt it was an ok interview and I had given some good examples of the work I had done and was capable of. I wasn’t successful and one of the reasons given was I hadn’t evidenced enough managerial ability when I felt I had.
I eventually moved roles and was determined to prove that manager wrong – I worked hard as a manager and then started delivering a managerial and leadership course where the manager actually got their staff to attend the course as it would be good for their development and it was felt they needed to become better managers – Oh! The irony!!!! Now I’m about to move into a role to design and develop managerial and leadership courses!
The one thing I have always been is driven and determined. I may go through spells in my life where my mental health is low and I feel depressed, I may feel like life has knocked me down but it has never knocked me out and I have always got up and always dug in deep and gone on to better things. 47 years undefeated.
I have a tendency to look at myself and say this is just not working or this is not good enough and ask myself what is ‘much better’ – they are not pipe dreams and fanciful ideas but things I know I can achieve.
At times I am brutally hard on myself because I know what I am capable of if I am driven and determined to do so. When people say to things like ‘I’m going to be honest and you may not like what is said’ is so weak to me as I have probably done that tenfold at every minor detail myself as I look towards ‘much better’.
So last year when I hit a real low and was knocked down again that drive and determination was there once more. Yet again I have proved to those who doubt that I am still undefeated, I am stronger, I am harder, and I still possess that drive and determination.
Richard Guy, 47 years of age, born and grew up in London and have lived in Portsmouth since 2017.