Cat out of the bag

Cat out of the bag

That’s the cat out of the bag then

The following piece has been written for my colleagues at an amazing marketing agency called Merkle. Every day, the pillar teams at Merkle strive hard to promote inclusivity and bravery across issues of Gender, Ethnicity, Mental Health, Religion, Disability, LGBT+ and Parent & Carers. This is my small contribution to the Mental Health Pillar.

Twenty-four years ago, I sat in a doctors surgery in West London trying to explain to my GP that I thought there was something wrong with me. I had been working ridiculous hours at work, doing the job of a data analyst during the day, and in the evenings for the same company acting as the interim IT Manager. I was perhaps at the time working 16-18 hours a day with around 4 hours sleep and thinking nothing of it. At the weekend I was partying. Come to think of it, I was partying during the week as well. It was the 90’s for God’s sake – it may have lost out to the 80’s in terms of sheer decadence, but the work environment was very different back then. On the days you weren’t going out with your mates in the evening you were out with work. I’m fairly sure my contract back then stated that each employee must be able to go out until 4am in Soho and still be at their desk by 9am. You might not have had to function, but you did need to be at your desk.

I’m not qualified to comment on what the workplace is like for the younger generation today as I’m 51. For all I know those who have yet to hit their third decade on this planet are still out there every day keeping the coffers of the UK’s hospitality industry topped up, that is when Covid is not screwing things up for them. I’d ask my kids, but they wouldn’t tell me about anything they get up to. Actually, that’s not quite true – my eldest daughter does tell me exactly what she gets up to and I have to stick my fingers in my ears as there are things you can’t unhear as a parent. I’m pretty sure overall work life is less hedonistic these days.

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Anyway, getting back to where I was going – working at a thousand miles an hour and having fun at the same pace is a recipe for disaster. The crazy thing was there was no reason for me to be doing this – my mind was choosing to work like a madman. Going out at every opportunity was something everyone in my office did so it was not unique to me. When I read the novel ‘e’ by Matt Beaumont, I found it difficult to detach the content from the reality of the industry I worked in (it is very funny, but please don’t read it if easily shocked). The role I had would often require long hours, but not the absurd level I had decided was necessary. My brain just wouldn’t switch off.

I was at the doctors because one evening I came back from work and decided that I needed to finish off some analysis at a smidgen past midnight. This was because I needed to wear my brain out before I could get any sleep. If I closed my eyes before this, I would have thousands of thoughts and images flying through my head and could not rest. Some of these thoughts were particularly unpleasant.

I sat down in my living room when I should have been in bed like a normal person and booted up my laptop. I then stared at the screen for many, many hours. I had just switched off. It turns out I wasn’t invincible like I thought. After a day or so sitting in the dark in my living room I picked up the courage to call my boss to let him know something was up. Fortune had it he was a good man.

I may have spoken with his wife who was a psychologist before I went to the doctors. I may have just spoken with him about speaking to her – I’m normally good at remembering shit, but at this time my brain was very, very hazy. But I do remember that someone who I was speaking to on the phone told me to go to the doctors.

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So, there I was sitting in a West London GP’s office explaining that I could not switch my brain off and that I had not slept properly for months. I told the doctor that I was working ridiculous hours for no perceivable reason and that I was to a certain degree losing my grip on reality. I told her a lot of other things that I won’t repeat here but suffice to say they were personal enough that they will remain in virtual sealed documents for as long as I am mentally sound. I like to label these as my “uncharacteristic behaviours”. I didn’t feel shit in the run up to the crash – I felt absolutely fine and was enjoying both work and my social life. The crash had left me somewhat bewildered.

To my surprise, the doctor told me to stop working so hard and man up. I mean that’s what I remember hearing – she probably put it in a slightly less incendiary and medically negligent manner, but the diagnosis was that I was tired and was due some rest. I had a couple of weeks off work and then carried on as normal but putting in slightly less hours. Back then there were no questions raised about my mental health state – I’d just not been well and nothing more shall be said.

Moving on ten years and I had another big crash. I did experience a number of episodes in-between where my manic but undiagnosed state had been quite significant, but I had clambered out of the subsequent low without requiring medical assistance and I’d kept up the image of an untroubled soul, so I’ll skip over those. Although I don’t really consider my states to have been full-on mania, where you can detach yourself from reality somewhat, I did live for between four and six months on two occasions with a very different personality so I know I am capable of this and will always look out for the warning signs.

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This time the crash had nothing to do with work – I had a good job and enjoyed what I was doing and the people I worked with. It is more than likely that my first crash was nothing to do with work as I was in the same industry, and the people I worked with back then were fantastic. I had just needed something to blame my state on back then.

This time I was in a relationship that was going fine. My family was fine. I was physically the fittest I had been in many years and the only stress I had was renovating a house that I had purchased in a fairly derelict state – the house that is, not me. I was doing a lot of the work on the house myself, but it wasn’t stressing me out. So, all in all – everything was fine.

The episode preceding the crash lasted six or seven weeks, during which time I behaved very out of character. I won’t go into too much detail as revealing that would be beyond the “what is reasonable to share with you friends, work colleagues and the entire internet and not worry about what people think of you” barometer. Just google the symptoms of bipolar type II if you want to get some idea. I will state that it culminated in a number of manically drafted emails sent in the early hours one morning in 2007. The content below is fictional only because I don’t have the emails anymore, but is based very closely on my reality:

Step 1: Email the solicitor:

To: Acme Solicitor’s Ltd

From: Paul Scullion

Date: 2nd (‘ish) March 2007

Subject: Sale of House

Hi Dave,

Please could you arrange for the sale/auction of my house at the earliest opportunity. I know you have just handled the purchase for me, but I have decided to go off travelling for a few years so won’t really need it anymore. I’ll also need the cash to fund my trip.

Any questions please let me know?

Kind regards,

Paul.

Step 2: Email work:

To: My Boss

From: Paul Scullion

Date: 2nd (‘ish) March 2007 a little later on

Subject: Resignation

Hi Bob,

Please accept this email as my notice of resignation from Marketing Incorporated.

I have decided that I need some time to go off and find myself, so I will be travelling around the world for the next few years and mostly living on the beach.

I have really enjoyed working with you and wish you all the best for the future.

Please accept my apologies for not working out my notice, but I don’t really think I’m up to it and you wouldn’t want me in the office anyway.

Kind regards,

Paul.

Step 3: Email to some mates:

To: <Some of my mates>

From: Paul Scullion

Date: 2nd (‘ish) March 2007 even later still

Subject: Change of lifestyle

Morning All,

I have decided that after 15 years of working I am going to take a lifestyle break.

I’m selling my house and all my possessions and am off to live in a beach hut for a while.

Have fun whilst I’m gone.

Cheers,

Paul.

After I clicked send on that last email, I sat down on the concrete floor of the study of the house I was renovating and completely shut down. I didn’t sleep – I just sat there staring into space. After a couple of days, I decided that I better respond to the rather large number of concerned emails that had been pinging into my inbox. Firstly, out of sheer panic, and for some reason thinking my solicitor may have acted on my instructions, I messaged him and said to cancel the sale of my house as I had had a change of mind. 

I then emailed my boss to let him know that I wasn’t really feeling myself. Fortune would have it that this time my then boss’s wife was a GP and was rather clued up on mental health issues. After a few emails and calls he arranged for her to call me, and she assessed my mental state. She promptly arranged for me to visit my GP for a more formal ‘check-up’.

The elapsed time between sending the initial emails and getting to the doctor’s surgery was around seven or eight days; during which I had lived entirely on mint tea and Weight Watchers Chicken Noodle Soup. I don’t really remember sleeping during this time, but I do remember I was starting to hallucinate which was not good. My thoughts were stemming from the deepest darkest part of my soul. They were the type of thoughts you would not wish upon anyone, and I was immensely relieved when I made it to the doctor’s surgery and more or less broke down.

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The GP was fantastic and went through a lot of the checks that my boss’s wife had gone through. Once it was established that I had BUPA cover, she arranged for an immediate assessment at a private mental health hospital.

I was admitted to the clinic straight away and spent five weeks there as an inpatient recovering from deep depression and anxiety. At the time I didn’t think I was that bad, but some friends I made whilst in the clinic have since re-assured me that I was a total basket case. My room was positioned close to the nurse’s station and my door was propped open for at least the first week I was there. This meant that I was on suicide watch.

After five weeks of individual and group therapy I left the clinic, not necessarily that much wiser as to my condition, but I had definitely gotten through the worst of my depression. My recovery involved another three months of day patient treatment for at least part of each week. I found this of little benefit whatsoever.

After finally leaving I was petrified of what my friends and work would think of me and the impact that this might have on my career. I should not have worried, but I did. There was real fear for the future – should I disclose my madness if I ever got into another relationship? (Mine had ended by my own hand when I left the clinic). Would I have to put this down as a medical condition when applying for jobs? The anxiety didn’t fully leave because I had left the clinic, and it stayed with me until very recently.

I kept up medication for some time after leaving the clinic but had definitely stopped taking it when I first met my wife in 2011. Not only is she the most beautiful woman in the world (I am somewhat biased), but she is also the most amazingly caring person you could ever meet.

Three or four months into our relationship I had a massive crash following another period of uncharacteristic behaviour. Rather than run a mile, on the advice of my parents she came around to my house and kidnapped me. She held me hostage until I had come through the fog. For this I will love her for all eternity. She told the kids I had a migraine. Back then they had no clue what this meant, but these days they do understand what it means when Dad has a migraine.

For a number of years after this I kept the demons at bay by running a lot. I completed a large number of half-marathons and completed the Berlin, Edinburgh and Brighton marathons trying to raise money for the charity Mind on each occasion. This outlet was my medicine, and it really did work. Then my right knee gave way in 2017 followed by my left knee in 2019 and that was my running done (for a while anyway).

At some point in the summer of 2021 my mind started to coil up like a spring again. According to my wife, my behaviour changed, and I was just a tad insufferable to live with. Deep in my subconscious I knew something was wrong. I bought a rowing machine and a cross-trainer and started exercising as much as I could to try and tire myself out. This time I was unsuccessful, but there was a big difference. Instead of having a massive high followed by a crash, I caught myself on the up-slope and broke down in front of my wife on November 7th last year.

I was a complete mess so my GP prescribed fluoxetine which I had been given on many occasions before and gave me a referral to see a psychiatrist. I had also been prescribed Lorazepam and Zoplicone previously to help with sleep, or Trazodone when I was a bit of a mess to help get out of a depressive low, but fluoxetine was my go-to solution. Turns out it was the exact opposite of what I should have been taking.

When I saw the psychiatrist, she read me like a book and described my personality back to me as accurately as if she had been a fly on the wall at my house for months. It was the strangest of processes to go through.

Towards the end of the session, she explained that I didn’t suffer specifically from depression, and then asked if I had heard of bipolar. I knew of it from the documentaries the wonderful Stephen Fry had produced, as well as Carrie Mathison from Homeland, so I had only a very narrowed down idea of what was involved. I was then told that I was clearly bipolar. This was assessed not just from the session – she had quite a few medical notes to go on as well. In particular, at the time she saw me I was in a state of hypomania which is associated with bipolar type II. 

It is difficult to explain how knowing this has changed my life in a very short period of time. Some of my historical behaviour now made sense (although not perfect sense), but more than that I was taken off the antidepressants and prescribed a mood stabiliser called Quetiapine. I have to admit that some of the side effects are not great – in particular weight gain and lethargy, but I feel like I have been given a new lease of life. My brain isn’t normal – it will never be normal – but I feel closer to normal than I ever have in my life. My levels of anxiety have dropped through the floor as well. This last part in particular has made me enjoy life again to levels I previously thought unimaginable.

I also don’t feel afraid of people knowing that I have a mental health issue. It is part of me, so I have to deal with it. If I try to hide it, I will be miserable.

A big part of being able to embrace this disclosure is because I work for a company that on many fronts has tried to remove the stigma around mental health.

When a CEO has divulged his anxiety issues to the entire company, and a practice lead has openly discussed his struggles with depression, one of the big fears I had about opening up about my mental health had been erased.

Many more people than you can imagine are suffering from mental health issues – either temporary and related to circumstance, or in a more permanent form such as with myself. I have had no visible signs of illness when I have been at work, and my condition has not really interfered with being able to deliver. In part this is because I have become a fairly accomplished actor, but also because emotion is not always a visible thing. When I have really needed to, I have taken a few days off here and there to recover, but without this admission most people will have remained completely unaware of my condition.

If someone you know or work with opens up to you about their issues, the greatest gift you can give to that person is to listen and not judge.

Scully

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