By Graeme Rayner
I’ve written a few times about depression and anxiety and I’ve found it hard to cover new ground, so apologies if I cover old ground for those bored enough to read this having read previous attempts. However, I will try and put a new slant on it. Mostly I’ll just write from the heart though.
I’ve come to realise over the years much of what is at the heart of my mental health issues comes from my family background and upbringing, so I’ll start with a potted history.
I was born in Alexandria, Dunbartonshire (“on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond”). I am the youngest of five, two brothers, two sisters and then me. We left Scotland when I was just weeks old and the story of our leaving is quite dramatic. My father, Billy, had been in the armed forces. He and his best mate Tom married sisters, Jean (my ma) and Sylvia (my aunt).
When they left the forces, their paths were very different. My uncle Tom took his family south, to Essex and was a real grafter, working in the building trade. My father became a wagon driver and struggled with “civvy street”, turning to drink. He became a violent alcoholic, terrorising my mum and older siblings for years. Eventually my mum left him – she went to her local priest who informed her he’d been praying for years she’d come to him. He gave her some money from church funds and arranged a police escort for her and us five kids to leave one night – story has it my old man did try to follow and was stopped from doing so by the police.
Anyway, the long and short of this is that I have grown up not knowing my real father and have had three things on my mind a lot – I absolutely abhor any suggestion of violence against women or kids (this is a real “trigger” for me) and I grew up afraid I’d become an alcoholic and/or be a poor father to my own kids.
I also found it hard growing up to talk about emotions. My oldest siblings were no doubt more affected than me by their early years and the abuse handed out by Billy but it was never spoken about. Most of what I now know I learned while my mum was dying in hospital ten years ago, from her other sister, Ellen. Now, Ellen is a firebrand Scot – she’s the spitting image of my mum and is just about as straight-talking and direct as you can be. She left me in no doubt about what an animal Billy had been. She told me that one time, after he’d given my ma a beating, my granddad (elderly and riddled with the cancer that would kill him) confronted him and Billy broke his arm. The shock at hearing this was complicated by a realisation that my mum had never shared this – why? Was it to protect me? What from, the fact that half of my DNA came from this monster of a man? Sadly, I never got the chance to discuss this, as my mum never regained consciousness and died soon after Ellen told me. Basically, my old man sounded like Begbie from Trainspotting – a scared, violent little man who could only communicate in one highly toxic way. Terrifying.
Fast forward 6 months and I think this is where my real issues started. I’d always had quite profound mood swings, the deepest of lows and the highest of highs but this was new. I felt numb, I cried once, briefly, the night of my mum’s funeral. That was it. I then (and this may be a familiar trope to some) over-analysed my lack of a dramatic reaction. I started to question my qualities as a son – what sort of son doesn’t desperately grieve the passing of their mum? Who doesn’t react to being orphaned at 30? (My father had, I heard, died a few years earlier).
Eventually, I contacted Cruse Bereavement Care, a charity designed to help those grieving process their feelings. A lovely lady (sadly I can’t remember her name) came round, had a brew with me and basically told me what I was feeling was perfectly normal and to stop being so hard on myself.
Another few years passed with my moods still swinging (two young kids will always boost your mood but knacker you out at the same time!) before I hit my low point. I’d felt inexplicably unhappy for some time and had thought it was my job. So I got a new better one, with a decent pay rise – money makes you happy, right? The weekend I was due to leave and start this new job, I felt so low it was unreal. It can’t be the job. It must be my family. So I left. Without warning, without really giving my wife Karen a fair explanation – I simply bolted.
Thankfully, within a few weeks I realised that I’d been a complete idiot. After many heart-to-hearts and uncomfortable conversations she took me back, on the condition that I got help – she had spent the entire time we’d been apart telling everyone who’d listen I wasn’t simply being a dick – I wasn’t well. So I went to my GP and eventually got treatment in the form of CBT and Citalopram. At times the anxiety was worse than the depression – I had my first ever bona-fide panic attack whilst driving at high speed on the M25 – I didn’t know what it was and thought it was a heart attack – my hands clawed up due to hyperventilating but somehow I managed to get to the hard shoulder and was treated by the side of the road. I think that was the singular moment where I was in no doubt that I was ill.
See, until then, I wasn’t sure. Your mind screws with you when you’re in that place – I’d convince myself I was ill one minute, the next I’d tell myself I was fine (but would not say anything – this mental illness thing was a great excuse for my behaviour!) and then the next I’d be hating myself for what I’d put my young, gorgeous family through and how close I’d come to blowing it.
When I look back now, I ask myself why I didn’t talk to anyone about my feelings until after my lowest points. I was born the son of a ‘hard-man’ (animal) Scotsman who expressed himself through booze and fists. I was raised in an industrial town in Essex where the men in my family just got on with it, despite being perpetually fucked up by their life experiences as children. I’d then moved to Yorkshire and settled. Here, one of my best mates at the time was a former miner from Rotherham. I really looked up to him and sought his approval. He’s eight years older than me and in many ways filled the big brother slot my own brothers were too screwed up to fill. He would routinely dismiss anyone speaking of depression as being attention seeking and would state openly depression was not a real thing. In our dynamic he was Gaz (Robert Carlyle, again!) from The Full Monty while I was Dave (Mark Addy’s tubby, insecure guy).
It’s only been in the last five or six years I’ve felt able to be completely open about my mental health issues. And what I’ve found is that when you’re open, others return the favour. One of my very best mates is an HGV mechanic and has had his own issues. We can talk bluntly, often with inappropriate humour, about out mental health. I’ve discovered that big gruff men are willing, often relieved, to open up if you just talk to them. Once the unspoken “this is a safe conversation to open up” rule is established, you find you have more in common than perhaps you thought. I often find myself saying “Oh, you as well?”
So, if there is any advice forthcoming, I have a few tips:
Firstly, if you have any concerns about your mental health, get help. Talk to someone. Depression, anxiety etc. are like thought cancer. Left untreated they will screw you up, sometimes beyond repair. Think of them like a new mole – might be nothing, might be the early warning sign that your body/mind is betraying you – best get it checked and the sooner the better.
Secondly, do not, if you can manage it, beat yourself up. My mental health made me behave like a total idiot to my family. And whilst I will always feel a sense of guilt and shame, it’s tempered by the knowledge that I was ill at the time and that affected my judgement profoundly.
Thirdly, find an outlet. For me, it’s been running and occasionally writing but mainly running. I am a fat bugger, can’t run well but have, since my mum died, completed several 10k runs, the Great North Run and the London Marathon, raising thousands of pounds in the process. This gives me focus, helps me clear my mind and is something I’m unashamedly proud of.
And finally, forget your environment. Whether you are a manual labourer in a working class northern town, a millionaire footballer or a high-flying finance executive in that there London, your brain is as vulnerable as the next man’s to illness. And your brain will react no differently to talking about how you feel. It’s actually braver (more manly) to confront and share those feelings.
As for me, these days I’m ok. I’m in the midst of a mini-wobble, as someone very close to me is being treated for breast cancer and I found myself worrying about her, about her husband (who is not British and Is from a country and culture where, guess what, men don’t talk about this stuff) and also remembering my mum, as much of the current situation brings a lot back. Basically I’m surrounded by triggers almost daily. So, I’ve struggled the last four months – I’ve been overeating and have just about managed to keep my lows high enough. The difference now is that I can talk about it (not that I always do) and I can also see the signs and understand than more than ever before.
I hope this has helped in some way, and if you ever need to talk to someone, my DMs on Twitter are always open – @B1g_Daddy_G
Graeme Rayner is a Consumer Care Manager. You can donate to Graeme’s Just Giving page here.