I can remember to this day exactly when I first experienced that weird, frightening sense of feeling mentally and physically detached from my body. It was after a long, 14-hour day on the now-defunct Today newspaper in Pimlico. I had worked there for a couple of months on its launch in early 1986, always without a break, trying against all odds to operate a totally unsuitable computer for my job as senior copy taster. My brief was to grade the newsworthiness of reporters’ stories and pass it on to the senior journalists.
My abiding memory of that time was eating about five bananas a day, wearing a beret, and yearning for the provinces again. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job; it was the sheer unreasonable workload – and I wasn’t a novice!
As our computers were unable to automatically combine the folios of every story, I spent my days pecking at my machine like a demented bird, joining up all the folios by hand. How I longed for the simple tactile efficiency of paper!
Eventually, it took its toll.
It was back in April 1986 that it all started as I walked across Euston Station to catch the train to Coventry, and then on by car to Kenilworth where I lived. I bought a miniature whisky which I usually imbibed on the two-and-a-half-hour journey home. Only this time, I felt odd. It was as though someone else was operating my legs. I came over giddy and panicky. I thought I was looking down on myself, like a sort of out-of-body experience.
Was I going mad?
I managed to get on the train but didn’t feel like drinking or smoking, which in itself was odd for me. I felt so frightened that I wrote a note with my name, address and phone number on it and put in my pocket in case I passed out. It sounds terribly dramatic, but that’s how I felt. I had obviously been working far too hard, travelling too far to work, and hardly sleeping to boot.
A couple of months later, I resigned on health grounds. My job, I was later told, was then split between three people! Too late for me; the damage had been done. I returned to my old job at the Coventry Evening Telegraph.
Sadly, I soon realised that I felt great panic every time there was a late change, such as when a story had to be dropped for a better one at the last minute. Previously I had thrived on this sort of pressure!
This time my body and mind seized up and, although I knew the standard of my work was still unaffected, I could no longer maintain the speed and pressure without feeling a terrible urge to flee the building and hide.
Somehow, I managed to keep my head above water, but chose to give up the copy taster job and join the ranks of the news subeditors. My editor was fantastic, so supportive (as were my colleagues), but I felt so guilty that I wasn’t playing a full part in the production of the newspaper. For some reason, I couldn’t edit stories with pictures attached. I was scared to walk to the coffee machine or the loo in case I collapsed. As a result, I would buy one coffee at 8am and sip it slowly until the afternoon, by which time it was stone cold!
I became very agoraphobic. I wasn’t afraid of open spaces but of crowded places, of walking in public with my “jelly legs”, and going out in the evening or travelling anywhere. I couldn’t face anything that had been planned ahead in case I wasn’t feeling well and let people down. This feeling of letting people down is still with me today, but to a much lesser degree, thanks to my wonderful, understanding second wife, Sandra. Even our marriage in 2008 had to be secret as I couldn’t cope with the pressure of anyone else knowing. Not even close family knew!
Anyway, I resigned after 18 months. My first marriage ended and I returned home at the age of 38. My mother and stepfather generously offered me sanctuary in their bungalow.
Back to square one
With the self-confidence of a small child and no income save Incapacity Benefit, I started to rebuild my life. I knew this would take time and that only I could dictate the pace of my recovery.
It was three steps forward, two steps back. On bad days, no steps were taken at all; I just consolidated what progress I had made, took stock, and moved on again when I felt I had a fighting chance of succeeding.
Those 18 months taught me a lot:
- We are not alone. About one in five people have a mental health problem at some time in their lives to varying degrees.
- You are not going mad! Even though you think you are the only person in the world who has ever felt like this.
- Don’t expect everyone to understand what you are going through and how you are feeling but do expect them to believe what you are telling them.
- Don’t have any time for the “pull yourself together” brigade. If you could, you would; after all, you are hardly gaining from this debilitating experience.
- People with depression are rarely selfish or greedy; if anything, we are oversensitive and take on other people’s worries and problems unnecessarily.
- Stop saying ‘Sorry’ all the time. I used to apologise for just about everything, even when someone else crashed their trolley into my ankles in a supermarket. Part of this trait is being British, I suspect, but when you have depression, you feel like saying it all the time.
- My illness turned out to be a valuable test of real friendship and love. You may well be surprised at who helps you the most, and who doesn’t.
- You may well feel a sense of worthlessness and that you are going to let other people down. This is daft, as my wife is always telling me. Even if I do feel not quite right, she says, we will simply go wherever we were going another day. And if we do go and I don’t feel well, then we come back. The universe will remain very much the same whether we go or not. Fair point. With the pressure off I have been able to extend my boundaries
- Talk to fellow sufferers. I have been astounded at the number of people who are kindred spirits. Sharing how you are feeling with someone else and listening to their experiences is hugely rewarding and has helped me possibly more than anything else.
- Find a GP who’s sympathetic towards mental health issues. I have been very fortunate on that score. I was also referred to a sympathetic clinical psychologist and was greatly helped by a devoted CAB senior adviser who spearheaded my Incapacity Benefit appeal when I was too ill to fight it myself and too agoraphobic to attend my hearing 20 miles away. I shudder to think what I would have done without her.
I was prescribed anti-depressants and a beta blocker. A few times I have unwisely tried to reduce the dose without asking my GP. Big mistake! After about four weeks my old symptoms started to return, and I felt awful again. Don’t do what I did. I now accept I need that dose. After all, a type one diabetic doesn’t suddenly stop taking insulin without medical advice!
In 1989, two years after I returned to Surrey, I went full-time on the Surrey Herald as a senior sub-editor. The complexity of the work was no problem; this time, the pressure came from the vast number of pages and the small number of journalists. I left rather suddenly when I suffered a heart attack. I remember it was 1.20pm on Wednesday, September 15th 1999.
I had my last cigarette at about midday. Haven’t had one since and I don’t feel nearly as tired.
Chris Trevor-Wilson, a 68-year-old retired journalist, shares with the reader how he has lived for 30 years with episodes of panic attacks, fear of crowded places and depression and gives encouragement to anyone who feels their life is devoid of hope and their future bleak.
Happily married to his second wife, Sandra, Chris has spent the last 18 years as a part-time gardener following a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 50.
Chris is at pains to point out that he is totally unqualified medically; he merely hopes that his coping strategies and experiences documented here may help and comfort fellow sufferers.