I’ve struggled with my mental health since my teens but at the time it was undiagnosed (like many people) and it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I got the diagnosis that gave me some kind of acceptance of why I have always felt the way I do. I don’t live with regrets because everything has happened for a reason and I can’t control what is gone but I do sometimes think back to my decision making as a young adult, particularly career wise because I made a lot of impulsive important decisions that had a significant impact on the direction in which my life would go in. This was driven by how I was feeling mentally and the need to escape from how I was feeling but not realising that moving elsewhere would make no difference because your mental health is with you permanently. It is part of you.
I was a sensitive and analytical student so naturally I didn’t cope well with day to day secondary school. I wasn’t bullied as bad as a lot of people but still had my struggles and would allow the smallest things to manifest and get me down. I toughened up a bit around 15-16 but this was a front – I started fighting back and throwing my weight about but it wasn’t the real me – I was trying to fit in and earn respect but obviously I was going about it the wrong way.
Early relationships were not great because I wanted control and had a jealous streak. I’m not proud to say this and my girlfriends were never harmed but my attitude and jealous nature ruined the connections. I quit University (I went to one in Newcastle so lived at home and commuted) after a relationship broke down and decided I wanted to escape so joined the Army and was sent to Winchester 300 miles away. I had no desire to go into the military as a kid so as a 19 year old I’m not sure why this was the seemingly ‘right move for me’ bearing in mind I was an emotional, anxious and analytical lad. I’d previously been keen to join the police force from around 12 years old to 15 before my teachers pushed me down the further education route because academically I was good. I did what the teachers wanted because I always wanted to please people and originally applied for Edinburgh University to do Geography (my strongest subject) but once I got into a relationship, she dominated my life and my interest in moving away subsided along with my grades. I started drinking more around this time with house parties, pre-drinks and starting to get served in pubs and clubs. I ended up staying local and went to Northumbria University to do Building Surveying – a course I’d previously shown absolutely no interest in doing but my Dad worked in construction so subconsciously maybe I was trying to prove to him I was a ‘man’ by getting into a career that wasn’t a million miles away from his albeit he was a labourer and I’d be the man on site in a tie. Always wanted to show people I was succeeding in life, a front I suppose you’d call it because deep down I wasn’t doing it for me.
Anyways, as I eluded to previously the girlfriend was lost because of my attitude and behaviour and I quit my Degree after just one year (grades were good but I wasn’t invested enough in it) and I didn’t even bother talking it through with my parents or lecturers / tutors. I just walked away and into an Army Careers Office. An example of my erratic life planning despite being pretty structured in all other aspects of my being. The Army sold me the dream and said my academic success meant I would have no problem being more ‘picky’ about what regiment I went into. I chose the Military police – perfect I thought, I used to want to be a copper anyways when I was in school!
The army didn’t work out and unsurprisingly I struggled with the environment. A Psychiatrist and Army Doctor deemed me unsuitable for the four year minimum term I’d signed up for and before I knew it I was back home at my parents. No job, no career plan, no money in my pocket and most annoyingly for my hard working parents – an expensive burden. They’d paid for driving lessons for me, which I hadn’t stuck at. They’d paid for University, which I’d dropped out of. They’d funded all the shit I needed for the Army, only to be medically discharged. Thinking back they were not particularly loving when I returned but I accepted it at the time because I’d let them down and wasted their money. Its only since I’ve become a parent myself and learned more about mental health that I wish they’d talked to me more and tried to understand the deeper issues I had. The Army medical team had seen enough to discharge me yet my parents saw it as me simply ‘quitting’ because I had no backbone.
20 years old and despite being told throughout my school years I was a a bright lad with a positive future ahead of me, I found myself back in my childhood bedroom with only depression and anxiety to my name. It was around this time I started drinking more. Not to the extent of my later years but I do remember drinking more often and having more in one sitting.
So why am I sharing this? Well, I’ve been doing what I do best this week – reflecting on things and one thing which has really stuck with me is how much better my mental health has been in the last 18 months of being in recovery from alcohol dependency. I like most drank because I felt shit and thought it was helping me. It certainly helped ‘in the moment’ and I was in denial that it was also driving the prolonged bouts of depression and anxiety that would follow a night out or in the house knocking back the beer, wine and whisky. We often try to fix our mental health instead of addressing our drinking or drug use but it is never going to get better as long as you are using. Find me somebody who can honestly, hand on heart say they had an existing mental health condition / illness and they overcome it or massively improved their mental health whilst continuing to use. I’m yet to find somebody and if I did, I’d question their honesty to themselves. I don’t think we ever ‘cure’ our mental health conditions. If we have been vulnerable to it in the past I believe there will always be a chance it will resurface during periods of heightened stress or a traumatic event in life. I do however believe we are better placed to recognise, put in place self-care and manage bouts of poor mental health when we are sober though. We are not being distracted, blurred by and lied to by a substance which takes over your rational thinking and makes you believe that the answer to your woes is to feed it with what is bluntly – an addictive and brain altering substance.
I’m not trying to paint this perfect world of quitting booze and suddenly being mentally strong and eternally happy. Life is still life and we will have ups, downs and lots of in betweens. The problem I had, certainly as I settled down, got married, got a mortgage and had kids was that I would often mistake the ‘in betweens’ as lows because I was bored and therefore turned to alcohol as a way to give myself a buzz. That in itself would turn a period of contentedness in my life downwards into a period of depression and heightened anxiety because as we know, alcohol is a depressant. It will turn boredom into something more sinister. Why do you drink? Or why did you drink? Be honest.
I did it for the buzz because I was bored. To fit in. To take the edge off. I was always drinking for the wrong reasons. But these are the reasons we start drinking at a young age and because it’s so socially accepted and common it becomes a part of our being. We turn to it without thinking and then over time for many of us, like me, we become deluded into thinking it is helping us. Alcohol and drugs have us in the palm of it’s hand.
In my case I always had a vulnerability to poor mental health whether that was genetics, environment or whatever. This was evident before I had alcohol in my life. The blurred part is the following 15 years of drinking pretty heavily and irresponsibly as a young adult and never addressing my mental health enough to the point where I kidded myself that alcohol was actually minimising the harm my mental health could do to me. Now I’m abstinent my mental health has been the most stable it has been in those 15 years. Coincidence?