Mirror, mirror on the wall: how did I get so f***ing terrified of it all?

The tears streamed down my face in torrents.  Often when you cry it’s reassuring, a release, a relief.  This was a big release — the dam was breaking — but if there was relief to come, it felt a long way off.

I walked to the bathroom and made myself look in the mirror.  Not just look:  Watch.  Really see what was happening to me.  It was anguish, a feeling like I was crumbling in front of my own eyes.  But I had to.  If things were to change, I had to really feel, to really witness, what I was going through.

It was February 2016.  It had been coming, or so I now realise.

I had been working like a meteorite for weeks or months – or my whole adult life depending on how you look at it.  I was approaching the launch of a big project in one job that stretched me hard.  And I had recently started a second job alongside, one with a three-and-a-half-hour roundtrip commute.

As I sat on the train heading bleary-eyed through the countryside to my second job, I cranked open my laptop, fought off the tired nausea and answered emails for my first.  No-one told me I had to, but I felt there was no other way to turn the wheel fast enough.  I was pulled taut on both fronts: trying to deliver loads to a looming deadline in a few days a week in one arena, then trying desperately to learn the ropes of the other.

Spare time was a relaxing escape at least.  Spare time seemed filled with challenges too.  My wife and I were trying to buy our first house — a move to a county outside of London, a longer commute (which I can barely contemplate now) but the promise of more space, more green, more community, a place we would like our kids to start out in the world.  

Though first you have to get it of course.  Weekends filled with more trains and househunting and false starts, finally finding a place we could call home.  Then the estate agents, mortgage adviser, the tense calculations as we shaved future spending and planned just-maybe-realistic frugality, ironically in order to borrow and spend more money than we’d ever seen in our lives.  The spreadsheet where we tried to calculate how we’d afford to live with C on maternity leave, and later pay childcare, we never could get to add up.

Which brings me to the biggest, most important thing we were trying to do in our lives: have a baby.  It turns out that’s a lot harder to do when you’re both stressed and anxious, and each month’s disappointment was another jolt to deal with.

And it wasn’t just me of course.  C was struggling with what we were going through with conceiving especially, and buying the house – and she had been going through her own difficult time at work.  It had led to her being signed off for several weeks with stress, and her not being well rocked me to my roots in a way that’s hard to describe, like two diagonally opposite legs of a table being knocked out – the table rocking precariously on the other two.

These are some of the outside circumstances, but the inner ones matter at least as much.

I am a very sensitive person, which is a gift and can sometimes feel like a curse.  As a gift it means I’m often highly empathic, kind, diplomatic, creative.  But the flipside can be hard and being anxious is related to it.  I have suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember — not the everyday garden variety, but an ongoing overanalysis of everything that could go wrong, spending heartrending amounts of energy worrying and fearful.  My anxiety has a bunch of mates you might also know, including perfectionism, introspection, being over-careful, retreating from the world, and also hangs out with insomnia and depression from time to time

If you’re a friend or workmate reading this, some of this won’t be a surprise but some of it may be.  My fears and anxiety have always lived cheek by jowl with my utterly joyful, thrillingly optimistic, people-loving, fun-loving and relaxed side.  I’ve often thought of the latter as being “the real me”, but the truth is both (and more) are me.  I’ve tried very hard to hide the darker sides of me — what feel like the less Facebook-able sides — for fear the rest of the world will think I’m a nutcase.  But that’s part of the problem, more on which below.

Back to my impending meltdown.

In hindsight, it was coming.  

A month before, I almost had a panic attack trying to get into a crowded tube station and ended up walking home halfway across London.  A couple of weeks before, when someone at work asked me how stressed I was out of ten I said I was already seven or eight.  A few days before, I sprung a leak and would start randomly crying at little things like someone asking me how I was (despite what you might think reading this blog, that’s not my normal reaction).

But even then, I felt like I was going through a challenging time I would get through.  

Contrary to what you might think reading this story so far, I’m a pretty tenacious and resilient guy.  I’ve worked in wartorn Eastern Congo, I’ve stood for Parliament and debated a TV personality and every political party going, I’ve fought for many social causes, mobilised thousands of people and once launched a campaign in 47 countries on the same day.  I’ve lived through personal challenges like us all, coped and survived.

I had a holiday coming and thought “if I can just get to that everything will be ok”.  I gripped on tighter and tried to drive faster, but one day the wheels just came off.

It was a Tuesday.  I’d decided to work from home to give myself more rest and peace.  I tried to reply to emails, to do some simple things on my computer, but suddenly… I just couldn’t function.  The gas tank was empty and my reddened eyes as the tears flowed were the red lights flashing on the dashboard.  I had broken down.

I contacted both jobs, where everyone was really kind, understanding and supportive (except briefly, when one inexplicably to me asked me to come in two days later anyway, which was soon resolved).  I saw a GP at my surgery who was incredibly good – the first five minutes or so I could barely even talk through sobs as more tension released, it must have been quite an experience for the trainee student doctor she had with her.  Friends and family were amazing, loving, understanding and supportive.  I felt very lucky.  To you all: thank you, thank you, thank you.

I had dealt well with the immediate crisis and had time to take care of myself.  I did all the good things I’d learnt from therapists and blogs of other people suffering: kept talking to family and friends, went for walks in the park, did easy things I enjoyed (I saw pretty much every film in the cinema those first couple of weeks), ate well, avoided alcohol, journalled, tried to sleep.  

I started to heal, and after the holiday finally came (needed more than ever!), I started back at work part-time.  There were waves of panic the first times I walked back into an office, and when someone asked me to do even the smallest thing, but as my mind and body slowly realised the world wasn’t about to explode, these began to subside.

Crisis over.  Phew.  But… nothing the same.

If my wife and I hadn’t both gone through burnouts at the same time, if we had already signed the contract on the house, if it hadn’t been quite so bad, maybe we would have carried on something like before.  But not now.

The more we talked, the more we realised we needed a deeper change.  It was totally f***ing scary, but this time in a thrilling, exciting way, we made one big decision after another.  

The first one came slowly, most cautiously: cancelling the house purchase — we realised we just didn’t want to sign up for years of London stress, commuter trains and maxing our salaries on a just-reachable mortgage.  Once the first domino fell, the others came relatively easy — and so we decided to leave our jobs, leave London and take a trip to Europe to recover, heal more deeply and reimagine what we wanted for our lives.  Making all these choices took us just a week and a half – or had been coming for a very long time depending on how you look at it.

We did it with our eyes open, knowing that a change of place and work wouldn’t solve everything – our inner lives matter at least as much as our outer lives.  A friend who also made a big move recently told me depression had followed him (the black dog had run far), despite the other changes and lots of good going on his life.  I can empathise.  Wherever you go, that’s where you are, and accepting and working on my anxiety has been the hardest part for me so far.  Writing this it’s six months since I burnt out and the shockwaves still ripple through.

But the change of place and change of pace have been good for me.  We’ve spent the past few months in southern Italy where one of the sayings you often hear is “piano, piano” (gently, gently).  Lots gets done here — people work a lot (we’re in Puglia, the breadbasket of Italy right now, where lots of your tomatoes, mozzarella and pasta come from) — but there isn’t the same anxious urgency of somewhere like London.  All in good time, and time’s more good as a result.  Adapting to that way of life has been more challenging than I expected: the fast-or-frustrated approach of London life is a habit that’s lived in me a long time.  But piano, piano I feel more balanced.

It’s also allowed me much-needed perspective being out of the fast lane.

One of the things I’ve come to realise, and been shocked by, is how common my experiences are.  So many friends, workmates and friends of friends – most in the prime of their lives – have burnt out or come close.  Sometimes it’s talked about, often it’s mostly hidden except to a close few.  We are canaries in the mine of what’s not working in the world, but we keep our song silent from each other.

We live in an age of working hard; achievement; looking good.  There’s greatness in all of these, but I feel like these values have become mangled – and are submerging others we urgently need too.  What’s worth achieving that quietly but surely sacrifices our health and sanity?  Should work be so “hard” we give up more and more of our spare time and wellbeing to prove how committed we are?  Are we sharing what looks good about our lives and hiding too much of what doesn’t fit?  Where is the balance with values like caring, self-compassion, freedom to fail, honesty, acceptance, good health, time for a whole and balanced life?  Are we well?

What happened to me is my own story, and I have my own challenges to face.  But I feel it’s also a story of our times, at least in countries like Britain and cities like London.

It’s a self-seeding story, where the most powerful players are us ourselves.  This isn’t the Victorian workhouses: no cruel boss flogged me – they were kind and caring and compassionate.  But I had absorbed the skewed values of our time, that society-wide anxiety for hard work, success and recognition combined with my own, a virus that once caught needed no outside direction.  And I’d argue that, like many organisations, those I worked for had inadvertently absorbed some of the same values, helping create or permit part of the pressure.

It’s a self-silencing story too: talking about struggling or (god forbid) failing, especially at work, feels like a sea of shame, and a kamikaze move when our LinkedIns are meant to read like neverending success stories, our Facebook feeds a neverfaltering magnet for likes.  But sharing our pain and challenges — an essential part of our humanity — is desperately needed to release the pressure valve, and so that we can learn and change what we need to about our culture.

For me, six months on, one of the words that stays with me most often is ‘upstream’.  

If a river’s become polluted you can try to dredge and filter the water when it gets to you — or you can go upstream to the source.  

I feel we’re too often downstream trying to clear up our society’s mistakes: from battling zero-hours contracts to finding fewer and fewer people conceiving before middle age to trying to prise open men’s silence especially about the problems we face, all these issues and more matter enormously and I’m glad people are tackling them.  

But for me personally, I want to travel upstream, to shine a light on the values of our times — and find a vision for a new balance.  I’ll keep sharing what I can discover.

I’ve written this partly to help other people who might be going through similar.  If you think someone amongst your friends or networks might like to read it, please share.  Thanks.