In a sense, this is a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ or, more accurately, two countries; actually three if you count this one. This short tale is about asking for help when you don’t think you need it. It is a tale of contradictions.
In 2011 I moved, with my wife and two daughters, from a small international school in Lilongwe, Malawi: the Warm Heart of Africa. Our destination was a top tier school in Beijing, China. Now, in 2018, we find ourselves in Cornwall.
I am the grandson of a teacher, the son of two teachers, the nephew of four teachers and the brother of two teachers. To the best of my knowledge all of them, except my grandfather, have lived with depression. It is with some pride that I can say that I resisted this familial destiny until the ripe old age of 31; teaching that is, not depression. Here’s the thing: it took a huge upturn in my fortunes for me to understand that I was depressed.
In 2003 I jacked in my dream job with a theatre company, split up with my girlfriend (who promptly went to Africa) and embarked on a PGCE (teaching qualification) in Drama. Teaching at the heart of inner city Birmingham was as gruelling as it was exhilarating. Above all, however, it was exhausting and, frankly, depressing. Therein lies another story about how not to get sucked into working too hard – but that’s for another day! Come the Spring break of 2004, I made the financially idiotic decision to spend my last few quid on a flight to Malawi to visit my ex. Spoiler alert, she’s now my wife. Malawi was stunning and my equally stunning ex and I got on very well. So I did the only sensible thing for a man in my position and ripped up my air ticket. OK, that last bit isn’t true. What I actually did was write a cheeky letter to the headmaster of the nearest international school asking for a job before returning to a cold gloomy Birmingham to complete my training. As for the letter, the head said yes. I was bound for Africa. Malawi was both beautiful and brutal. I witnessed enormous human courage and compassion amongst some of the most appalling poverty and corruption. The sun shone almost every day but, nevertheless, some days were dark. I married the woman of my dreams. I had great friends with whom I made superb memories. I had a great job. Most wonderfully of all, I became the father of two girls. In spite of all this I felt relentlessly tired and often terribly down. I tended to blame my low spirits on the pressures of work (there were few) or the stress of parenthood (it was mostly fun) and even relentless exposure to the hardships endured by Malawians (they were generally very happy people). Life was good, but somehow I was not.
I guess moving overseas for work and adventure is a fair sign of itchy feet and, after 7 years, we left Malawi for China.
Our new school was, by reputation at least, world class. It was well resourced and we were well paid. My new boss made it very clear we were lucky to be there – expectations were high. By the end of year one I was exhausted to the point of numbness but financially better off than I had ever been. By the end of two years I was beginning to feel some sense of belonging and our bank account looked like I had one of those proper jobs ‘other people’ have, but something felt wrong. I felt physically drained. I was sure I had something nasty and probably life shortening. I constantly berated myself for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. My social life was virtually non existent (even by parental standards). Much of the time I simply did not want to be with other people. On a couple of occasions I was called in for a ‘chat’ with my boss and, after a few pleasantries, accused of letting things slip. I said this was a tale of contradictions. Work was undoubtedly stressful but things were materially great. My girls were growing up to be healthy and happy. My marriage was sound. We could afford to travel around South East Asia. We were even saving! But there it was – self doubt, anxiety and a more or less constant feeling of gloom. I blamed my state of mind on external factors and one was about to change significantly. My boss announced her retirement.
I’m coming to a conclusion so bear with me as we begin a new school year in Beijing with a new boss. She seemed very positive but I reserved judgement, until that is, I was assigned to teach a class with her. Here’s another contradiction. Teaching can be a lonely business. Yes, you are in the constant company of students. What’s not to love about hanging out with noisy, opinionated and slightly nutty teenagers? But the job, the nitty gritty of how to keep this beautiful garden of learning blooming, tends to be something teachers do alone. It fills our heads. It’s what keeps us awake at night. Above all, it makes us terrible dinner party guests. The prospect of working alongside another teacher can be daunting, especially your boss. Happily, my new boss was awesome. She was, and still is, one of the most positive, supportive, caring and all round decent human beings I know. She was also great fun to teach with. In many ways she was the final ingredient in the recipe of my pretty awesome life. Let’s recap. Great marriage. Great kids (oh, and two dogs). Great home. Great finances and now a great boss! So here is the final contradiction; it was time for things to fall apart!
I’d had an anxiety attack once before, in my early twenties, so I saw this one coming, right? Wrong. I won’t go into the details of what triggered either episode but this occasion involved an imminent student trip to Japan and an airline booking with a Chinese travel-agent that went very wrong in translation. Similarly, you don’t need me to go into the messy details of what happens in the mental maelstrom of anxiety. Suffice it to say, I eventually made it to the school nurse who threatened me with a paper bag and gave me sanctuary in her clinic. I was about 15 minutes late for the lesson I was meant to be teaching with my boss. She greeted me warmly and I got stuck in. It is testimony to the kind of woman she is that I felt able to share with her why I was late and an even greater testimony that she was able to tell me she had previously taken medication for anxiety. Her message was clear: This is an illness. It is treatable. I will support you. Get the help you need and deserve.
I visited my GP who listened to much the same story that I have told you. She smiled and told me a little more about myself. One example stays with me: I bet you start a task and before you finish you start to worry about something else and turn your attention to that, but before you get that task done, you are worrying about something else… Sound familiar? She said she could help.
So, with a diagnosis of anxiety and depression, medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, was life all sunshine and roses? Of course not. But life changed. I began to realise that no matter how I tried to change external factors, anxiety and depression were not something that would just disappear. I’ve experienced one major anxiety episode when I was in the process of switching medication. It happened to be while I was in England for Christmas and I got to see just how fast ‘fast response’ ambulances are (the NHS is a treasure that we’d be fools to see buried!). I’ve been taking antidepressants on and off for the last 5 years. Sometimes they work well. Sometimes I have to take stock, remind myself why I am feeling depressed and acknowledge that it has nothing much to do with my marriage, kids, employment status or bank balance. Circumstances do not necessarily cause or eliminate depression. It might sound contradictory, but being happy is not the same as beating depression.
In conclusion, it took the best of times for me to recognise the worst of times. If our first few months in Cornwall are anything to go by, the sun will shine more some days than others and on darker days, I’ll ask for help. Since my diagnosis, I have made it my business to talk about mental health. I have talked with friends, colleagues, students and strangers. I reckon everyone is different and as such we deal with mental health if different ways. If nothing else however, one thing is common to us all; we all have the right to ask for help.
Written by Tom Knight