My Mental Health In 2020: Part 2, The Recovery

Around a couple of weeks ago we left this story standing at the bottom of the cliff wondering what on earth was going on.

If you haven’t read it already, go and check out “Part 1, The Freefall” before you read this!

Realisation Of A Problem

There’s always a running joke in this household, which is that we’re never sure if I’m playing games with Isla or whether she’s playing games with me. I can’t sit back and observe, I have to be building the biggest Thomas train track or making her Peppa Pig characters run away from a pretend monster. Every single activity ends with ‘silly daddy’ from Isla, and I aim to keep it that way until she thinks I’m uncool!

Suddenly I found myself sitting in my daughter’s room watching her & Stacey play games instead of getting involved myself, and I simply wasn’t interested. As mentioned in part 1, I was present in the room but mentally I wasn’t there at all – I felt like I was watching a film rather than being a part of the family.

We all have a perception of what a depressed person looks or sounds like. I didn’t see this in myself and I’ve never met anyone that fits the typical profile either. I was still verbally optimistic and had a smile on my face. After all, no one around me outside of this house except a few close people knew anything was wrong. Rather than seeing unusual negative activities from me such as saying I hate the world or hating myself, it was the lack of positive activity in my day-to-day routine that we noticed disappearing.

Stacey was aware that I felt like this because we discuss serious topics frequently, but Isla was unaware and thought I was tired after a stressful day at work. This couldn’t be further from the truth, work was fine. This only lasted for several days over the course of one week, but it felt much longer and it was time to take some action.

Identifying The Cause

One of the challenges I faced was that I didn’t know why I felt this way. How can you fix something if you don’t know what has broken?

I was fortunate enough to have access to therapy sessions through work, and admittedly I felt stupid for feeling like I needed one but it was definitely the right decision. This session lasted an hour, and by the end of it everything started to come together!

With my job role and the geographical spread of our families, stress can be quite high for all sorts of expected reasons. Work/Life balance is a real focus for us all right now, but this doesn’t work for me. I focus on the Necessity/Desire balance. It’s not a recognised model, but it’s the only way to describe what I feel.

People have said to me in the past that everyone has a stress bucket, and you can only take so much before adding more. Others will associate themselves with this and say it’s true, but for me I find that this analogy doesn’t quite work because it only focusses on the stress level. Stress doesn’t fall into or out of buckets, once it’s there, it’s already happened. You can’t change that and need to accept the fact that it exists.

Here’s a trivial example. Stacey’s family live 2.5 hours away on a good day, so if we plan to drive to see them after work on a Friday and there’s traffic this can easily turn into 4 hours.

Having a relatively quiet day at work prior to this drive won’t help stress levels of travelling for so long on a Friday, and unless you’re the kind of person that finds tucking into a spreadsheet relaxing, then working when you get there won’t help either. For me, I want to know that there’s a takeaway or meal out waiting at the other end of the journey whilst we listen to good tunes on the way down. Nothing can take away the fact that there’s going to be a 4 hour journey, but making it the best it can be is how I control these situations. Think how many different activities you do a day – we can’t be successful in all of them and we can’t control our stress levels as much as we think we can, and we all need to recognise that that’s ok.

We also need to also consider that these stresses are different. A stressful day at work and a relaxing time at home after will impact you entirely differently to a relatively quiet day at work and a stressful time at home. The time or severity might be similar, but that is it.

Given everything that I’ve said so far, in this hour we established that I lost three of my desirable activities as soon as COVID-19 hit:

  1. Photography – I am obsessed with photography. Stacey almost has a heart attack when I say I want to invest in a new camera body or lens and our photo collection is well over 20,000 across our phones and my DSLR. I’m by no means the best, but finding a subject to photograph, enjoying the ‘wow’ moment after, processing, and sharing with friends & family consumed so much of my life before lockdown and every moment was a joy. With the exception of when the Christmas tree is put up, or progress photos when Isla was a baby, all of my photography takes place at events or outdoors. COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK wiped all of these opportunities out.
  2. Aviation – Anyone that follows my personal account on Instagram knows that as soon as the sun comes out I start uploading photos of aircraft. I’m sorry, but you agreed to take me in sickness & in health when you followed! I was initially disappointed moving away from Heathrow, but discovering after we moved here that the Red Arrows fly over at 250ft nearly every weekend during airshow season, and seeing so many military jets fly over our house all year long (including the new F35-Bs and the B2 bomber) on their way to the Mach Loop in Wales or RAF Fairford just made moving to Banbury better. My DSLR used to live in a cupboard, but now it stays firmly on the dining room table (much to Stacey’s annoyance when getting ready for dinner!) just in case an unannounced fast jet roars through the skies and interrupts any conference call we might be on. Airshow season was cancelled, and this year I was planning to buy some new camera equipment for RIAT and Bournemouth Air Festival, and I’m still bitter about it.
  3. Physical Exercise – If I try to pretend to you all that I exercise, I’ll start seeing YouTube videos and other blog posts exposing my lazy life. I have never set foot in a gym and don’t plan to, but I absolutely love exploring the Cotswolds and other scenic places where we live. We used to do this most weekends regardless of the weather, but all of a sudden these places were all shut to the public. Not forgetting the fact that I’d suddenly lost the sprint between Baker Street & Marylebone to catch the next train to Banbury after work which would always get your heart going. Moving from the sofa to the table doesn’t quite create the same experience.

My only hobby left was gaming, but repeating a cycle of work, gaming, and sleeping for more than a week can send you crazy if you’re used to getting out & about.

Couple these lack of activities that help me enjoy life with the increased stress from events in 2020, and it’s not hard to see how I got to the bottom of the cliff. At the time I didn’t notice a single one of these things, I was so busy with COVID-19 related changes, and now I realise that these just prolonged an underlying depression instead of stopping it.

The Steady Walk Back Up The Hill

I realised that my mistake was that I thought this would fix itself because 2020’s circumstances are only ‘temporary’.

Temporary: An event or activity that has a limited time period.

Temporary is an accurate, but yet a very poor choice of word used to describe 2020. When you hear the word ‘temporary’, you think of a minor blip which you can power through such as a train delay or a broken boiler. I last saw most friends and family for my birthday in January, and we’re now in month 7 of the year. Our perception of temporary as human beings is not designed to cope with scenarios that last more than a few days or weeks.

I strongly believe that this word is the reason that so many people have suffered with their mental health during lockdown. In January we were saying ‘I hope that coronavirus thing doesn’t come here’, and before you know it we’re locked down saying ‘it’ll only last three weeks’. Fast forward to the present day and we’re wondering whether our wedding will go ahead in the way it was planned – in April 2021!

Realising nothing will change anytime soon I’ve started a series of activities to fit the new normal which have made me feel better than I ever did before. I realised that my way of relaxing isn’t sitting down and watching TV after a hard day’s work, I need to get up and do something to feel a sense of achievement. My new hobbies consist of:

  1. The Blog – I needed a way to express how I felt without getting in to the world of social media arguments and trolling. The reason I’ve always said that I don’t care about views (although I’ll always recognise achievements) is because I needed to do this to focus and tell the people closest to me how I feel about various situations. I only plan the title of posts, and my raw thoughts are written directly into the post before Stacey proof reads for any grammar or spelling issues. This blog has sparked so many conversations with people that are similar but not the same, or those that are outside of the stereotype that want to learn more. It’s only been two months and yet the feedback has been amazing, so if it stopped today (which it won’t!) then I’d be a very happy man.
  2. Cycling – I live in Banbury at the top of a hill and I have mild asthma so my version of cycling won’t be anywhere near a normal person’s version, but several times a week I go for a bike ride as the sun sets. Anywhere between 3-5 miles taking up to 45 minutes. No music, no screens, no conversation, just watching the hills roll by during golden sunsets puts me in a great mood.
  3. Walking – With our routines being so focussed on being outside of the house before lockdown, we’d do anything for a few spare minutes at home and naturally this led to hopping into the car for journeys less than a mile long. We now make a concious effort to walk a lot more, and sometimes visit shops further away just to stretch our legs. Not only has this helped with fitness but it ensures that we take proper breaks away from work and other personal activities that can be intense.
  4. More Gaming – You might be confused by this one given what I’d just said about the gaming routine, but I’ve started playing a wider variety of games on the Nintendo Switch. Previously they were focussed on games that require online play or daily grinds, but now I play a lot of puzzles or one-player games which require me to think rather than just collect achievements and unlock more stuff.

By doing all of these things, I’m so much happier than I was even before lockdown, and I don’t plan to give them up when normality is restored either.

Lessons

There are a few things I’ve learned in this journey which I will never forget.

  1. It’s ok to not be ok all of the time.
  2. You shouldn’t feel guilty when other people have challenging circumstances. We all do, they’re just different challenges.
  3. Talk. Perceptions do not always give the full story, and this has never been more true with mental health. Tell someone you’ve had a difficult day, don’t just smile because they’ve answered first and said their day is bad. You might be able to help eachother.

I’ve definitely had stresses on the way back up the hill as bad as they were before, but since I’ve started carrying out these new activities and started talking more openly, they’ve never impacted me as much as they did before.

The biggest one for me is starting this blog. I did this because I wanted to talk about people’s feelings on subjects they can’t control and explain to those outside of the situation how and why I feel that way based on real experiences. If you need a non-judgemental, safe and objective conversation with someone for anything that’s been discussed so far, or anything you feel needs addressing in society, my inbox on social media is always open.

I’m no therapist, but if this blog helps anyone and you step away from the cliff-edge then my job here is done.

3 thoughts on “My Mental Health In 2020: Part 2, The Recovery

  1. Thanks for sharing Aaron. I can relate to everything you have experianced but it looks like you got the help you needed early enough to be on the road to recovery quickly. It can be so very hard to admit you need help and ask for it, but it’s essential that we do. I feel much of your pain. I am also mixed race though my situation is quite different to yours. My father ran the Alzimers Society so this is something I have grown up around seeing the effects and have seen relatives affected by dementia. I too have family all over the world so I could relate to the worries of family durring this pandemic. I hope by sharing our experiances we can make the conversation normal, increase understanding and show that it’s ok to feel bad and it’ ok to ask for help. So thank you again. My best wishes to you.

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    1. Thanks Andrew, I really appreciate your kind words! We can certainly only try to help those around us by being so open and hopefully it’ll encourage others to do the same!

      Like

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