Until today, this story has been shared with four people in the world. My wife, my manager (who only knows the parts of the story he actually took part in), my friend Tim and my psychiatrist.
Recent events in both my private life and the world at large have convinced me that discussing mental health can only be a good thing. If you only visit here for posts about programming and stuff, you’re welcome to give this a miss. However, I’d encourage you to give it a read — who knows, it may help you or someone you know.
There’s nothing quite like writing a letter demanding a solicitors release money from your dead Mother’s estate to make you feel like the scummiest person on Earth.
This is the pivotal moment that poisoned my mind for six months, damaging a time that should otherwise be only filled with wonderful memories — those of marrying my wife and buying a house together.
Grieving the loss of a parent is always going to be a shitty part of your life no matter what. Not to go all Batman about it, but my father died when I was younger and it’s a process I’ve been through before, albeit with a much less mature mind at fifteen years old. This time around I was doing fine, all things considered, and had settled into some sense of peace once I realised (amongst other things) that since death is a fact of life, a parent passing before their child is orders of magnitude less of a tragedy than vice versa. Yes, it’d be lovely if nobody had to die, but that’s not how life works.
However, being her closest living relative, I had the task of supporting the solicitors assigned to administer my late Mother’s estate. In May 2013 I sat in their stuffy office in Stevenage in the UK and was assured that the estate should be a fairly simple affair and that they couldn’t see it taking more than six months to complete. Two weeks later they sent me a document that contained a few currency conversions, all of which had been calculated wrong. And so started the most harrowing set of bureaucracy I’ve ever encountered in my life.
My breakdown came in a one-on-one meeting with my manager in October 2013. In a previous blog post, I hinted that I was thinking of trying to “go Indie” again, and in October I’d committed to take six months off from March 2014 to try just that. All the paperwork was signed, and I was looking forward to making my own apps “for real” again.
However, the process with the solicitors was still trundling along and having to research the multitudes of laws at play to make sure they weren’t making more mistakes was really dragging me down, and it was starting to affect my productivity at work. I thought it’d be a great idea to move this six month leave from work forward to January so I could combine making the app with taking some time off to recuperate.
The flat “No.” that came out my manager’s mouth hit me like a brick wall. “…I’ve seen you planning this leave for months now, and every time you talk about it your face lights up. If you’re unwell, you should use medical leave to get better, and make sure your time away is kept a happy thing.”
I just kind of sit there in a dumbfounded silence.
“Obviously, the company has no legal grounds to deny this request, so if you’re sure you want to do this I’ll approve it, but I really don’t think you should.”
“…are you alright?”
I realise I’ve been sitting there in silence for what must have been a minute. I can’t see very well, so I take off my glasses to clean them. To my surprise, I realise I’m crying quite heavily.
“Go home. Take a couple of days to catch up on your sleep, then call the doctor and get help. Don’t worry about your work, I’ll cover for you and tell people you have the flu or something.”
I get up in silence and scurry to my desk, staring at the floor hoping to God that nobody looks at me. I put on my hoodie and leave the office as fast as I can, tears streaming down my face. I don’t break pace until I’m sitting on the underground train, huddled in the corner with my hood up trying my hardest to be invisible. I’m sure everyone else thinks I’m some unstable lunatic as they avoid sitting near me. Hell, I feel like an unstable lunatic. I’m so upset and so confused that I’m genuinely wondering if I’d had a stroke, or if I’d ever be able to show face at work again.
After that day I do whatever I do when I’m going through a tough time, especially when I can’t rationalise and understand what’s going on — I withdraw into myself. Social interactions become more and more difficult as time draws on, mainly because I feel more and more incapable of functioning in civilised company. Suddenly the answer to “How are you doing?” becomes an elaborate lie, and the friend telling me about how he’s having a great time becomes a stab in the heart. Presenting myself for casual interaction becomes hard work, so I stop doing it.
Even online interaction becomes difficult eventually. You’ll notice a hole in this blog between October 2013 and July 2014 due to this, and while I can’t seem to find any tools to show my social network engagement over time, I’m sure you’ll find that my Twitter and Facebook use during that time dropped off a cliff, too.
Facebook in particular is completely devastating to someone going through a tough time. A quote I hear a lot goes along the lines of “You’re comparing your blooper reel to everyone else’s highlights” and it’s a fairly accurate little soundbite. My Facebook feed, just like everyone else’s, is full of people jostling for attention, desperate to prove they’re winning at life. Look at my amazing holiday! Look at my awesome new phone!
Instasham by Pandyland
Typically, all these posts don’t really bother me — hell, I do the same thing — and I unsubscribe from the people who are particularly obnoxious. In my broken state, however, each one of those posts became a slap in the face, causing me to further distance myself from my friends and coworkers. Eventually, I’d stopped talking to most of the people I knew and had stopped attending any social events at all.
Nearly a year later, I realise that manager practically saved my life. I didn’t return to work for well over a week after that incident, and only after doing as instructed — I spoke to my local doctor who referred me to psychiatric care at a clinic in Stockholm.
My psychiatrist (who I’ll call my doctor from now on, since it takes me about two minutes to type ‘psychiatrist’ correctly each time) and I pieced together what had happened. In short:
My Mother had died.
Being the closest living relative, I had to support the solicitor appointed to deal with my late Mother’s estate.
The solicitor was, to put it nicely, requiring a lot of support.
Being in a different country to the solicitor made their multi-month gaps in communication all the worse.
All in all, I was having a pretty shitty time. The combination of these factors, though, was poisoning my mind and I couldn’t even see it. Looking back, my correspondence with the solicitor is all like this:
One email to the solicitors was discussing that a multiple month delay to “wait for some paperwork” wasn’t acceptable since the paperwork in question was super easy to get, never mind the fact that I had copies of all of it that I’d have been able to supply in ten minutes if they’d only told me what they needed.
Another email discussed Section 27 of the UK’s Trustee Act 1925 and the liabilities of the various parties dealing the the deceased’s estate before and after the Section 27 notice was filed.
Yet another discussed finding records from my Father’s death and supplying them to the UK Tax Agency to get the correct tax status for the estate.
All of this is completely normal stuff to be discussing with legal representatives during this sort of process. However, the entire time it just felt like I was typing GIVE ME MY MONEY. GIVE ME MY MONEY. GIVE ME MY MONEY. over and over and over again. I felt like the worst human being alive simply for making sure my Mother’s estate was dealt with properly and promptly.
Except I didn’t know that’s why I felt horrible. I just felt like a horrible person and I didn’t know why.
Turning it Around
My doctor listened to my story and the most wonderful thing happened. She became autocomplete for my mind, filling in holes in my head I didn’t even know were there.
I told her about that meeting with my manager in which I completely melted down. “Yes, it can be funny how someone else noticing you’re not doing so well can make you realise how bad you’re actually feeling”, she said. I nodded a slight laugh and replied “Yes, it really brought it home”. Wait, it did? Of course that’s what happened! My mind flooded with a clear memory of that meeting — about how I was touched that my manager was so caring, about how I was really not coping well with the multiple jobs I had to do.
Later, I told her about the constant back-and-forth with the solicitor, and made an offhand remark about feeling “kinda greedy” even though I know, rationally, that this process has to happen no matter who does it. “That sort of thing can really eat at the soul, can’t it?” Of course that’s why I feel so bad!
On the way home, I’m bursting with excitement at finally being able to see my problems, and can’t wait to tell my wife all about it. Destructive Daniel kicks in and I start to feel guilty — my sweet, loving wife has done nothing but stand by me and support me while I turn myself inside out for months, and I end up going somewhere else to get help and am transformed in an hour. I wonder if she’ll feel like she’s not capable of supporting me. I wonder if I’m being selfish.
Of course, my wife is ecstatic that I’m making positive progress and I feel like an idiot.
Once we’d rooted out what exactly was wrong, we started a form of CBT which, very simply, is a treatment that embodies “If you were happy when you did x, you should do x.”. My doctor spent a session drawing a diagram on the whiteboard of the destructive cycle that’s common:
First, something crappy happens.
Because you feel crappy, you can feel tired and have the instinct to stay at home and rest and avoid people.
Because you’re at home, you miss out on the things that give you joy — seeing friends, taking part in hobbies, etc.
Because you’re missing out on the things that give you joy, you feel more crappy.
“So, does any of this seem familiar?”
That session is when psychiatry ‘clicked’ with me and I realised just how powerful it was. Simply by drawing a diagram on a board, my doctor both showed me the negative cycle I was in and how to fix it. I don’t mean to belittle her when I say she “simply” drew a diagram — she drew it in the way I “simply” write a computer program to solve a problem or an engineer “simply” uses arches to build a bridge capable of holding up a desired load. Her years of training and experience allowed her to express a concept completely alien to me in no time at all.
My tasks were to force myself to do things I knew I enjoyed doing, even if I didn’t think I didn’t want to. I started out within the house — practicing guitar, doing stuff with my railway, etc. Once I was able to do that, I focused my efforts on actually leaving the house and attending social events. It took an absolutely herculean effort, but I was able to attend a group of friends’ weekly-ish “Hacktisdag” pizza-and-programming gathering again, if only for a couple of hours to start with. Baby steps.
From then on, I started recovering in leaps and bounds and I was able to pull myself out of the negative cycle with some dedication and help from my wife.
Back To Normality
When I think back to the six month period between late 2013 and early 2014, my mind should fill with happy memories of getting married to the love of my life and moving into a beautiful house together. Instead, my heart fills with a deep dread that the person I became — an introvert consumed by confusion and guilt, being driven away from his friends by his own hyper-destructive interpretation of events — is coming back.
It’s slowly getting better. Occasionally I’ll be taken by surprise as an otherwise innocuous comment manages to sting way more than it should, but those are getting rarer and I’m able to shake them off in a few moments.
I’m very lucky, though. By some absolute miracle, a wonderful manager noticed I was in trouble and led me to an incredible doctor who taught me how to identify when I might be having trouble and the steps I can take to mitigate the problems. I avoided depression. Just. Really, by the skin of my teeth.
When Robin Williams committed suicide, I read the same thought over and over again — what could someone so successful and wealthy possibly be so sad about?
I’m a successful young guy earning good money at a fun job, and I have lots of friends and live with my wife and dog in a beautiful home. I really have nothing to complain about. Yet all it took was a few emails and before I knew it I was so outside of my own mind I didn’t know which way was up. I wound up huddled on an underground train, scared and confused and crying and helpless.
And remember: I wasn’t even depressed.
We don’t hesitate to seek help with our cars, our computers, hell, even the rest of our bodies when they break. Somewhere along the way it became taboo to talk about mental health — a subject reserved for conversations that start with “Can you keep a secret?” or, too often, never start at all.
I really wish this would change. I genuinely believe it could save lives.
Just over a week ago I visited my Mother’s final resting place for the first time since she died — a remote spot on top of a mountain in the Alps near the French-Italian border.
My Mother’s Resting Place, ~2100m Above Sea Level Atop Combe Chauve
After an hour-long descent in a battered old 4x4, I slumped into my Mum’s old sofa and opened my laptop to find an email from the solicitor. They’d finished administering her estate, pending my approval.
That email was sent while I was standing on top of the mountain taking in the beauty of it all, less than five minutes after I took the above photo.
Perhaps I should have gone up there sooner.