I've wanted to write this for a few years but been constantly afraid of doing it. How would people react? Would I be judged? What would my customers think? Would it affect my business? Those and other questions have weighed heavily on me. It was the last two in particular that stopped me being honest and just writing it.
During the first lockdown and with the tragic loss of so many people my perspective changed. It was a reminder of just how precious and short life was. I strongly felt it needed to be written and shared. If one person read it and it encouraged them to seek help for themselves it would be worth it. I wrote a few paragraphs and stopped, feeling overwhelmed and enveloped with fear again. Now finally, after a gentle nudge from the most unexpected source, I know the time's right. By the freakiest co-incidence, today is also World Mental Health Day. Being real, transparent and true to myself is what I constantly aspire to, even when it's so scary I could throw up. So here goes......I suffer with depression.
There, I've said it. Actually, reading it back and seeing the word suffer has really hit me. That suggests it causes me pain which I guess it does but at the same time it makes me feel like it has all the power and defines me. Maybe "I have / live with depression" are better ways of putting it.
Firstly, what is depression? According to the charity MIND: "Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time and affects your everyday life. In its mildest form, depression can mean just being in low spirits. It doesn't stop you leading your normal life but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, depression can be life-threatening because it can make you feel suicidal."
The Cambridge dictionary describes it as," A state of feeling very unhappy and without hope for the future."
Feelings associated with depression can include:
Even with the increased visibility and awareness over recent years, I still feel mental health is both mis-understood and stigmatised to a degree. When I first shared my depression with people close to me, the most common reactions were, "But you're always happy and smiling" and "But you've got a lovely family and nice house, how can you be depressed?"
I can't say exactly how long I've lived with it, but it's been a long time. I don't have many memories from my formative years so it's not always easy to pinpoint events. I've talked before about my childhood and how my parents divorced when I was 2 1/2 and at 10 my dad emigrated to Canada with his new wife, my half brother and sister. I was already isolating before they left along with being angry and sometimes violent. My Dad leaving exacerbated the feelings and my behaviour. As a result of this I started seeing a child psychologist aged 11. Having someone listen to me and let me be open with how I felt really helped and saved me from a downward spiral to a really dark place.
One strong early memory I do have is when I ran away from home shortly after my dad emigrated. I went to the one place I felt I truly belonged, London Zoo! I spent the majority of the day talking to the gorillas and chimpanzees and remember vividly a sense of feeling safe and content. It's a happy memory for me although I'm sure for my mum it was one of her worst. To this day I don't understand how not one single person asked where my parents were. I was ridiculously small for ten and it must have looked strange. From the building society where I withdrew my £9.50 savings to the Northern Line from Burnt Oak to Camden Town and the zoo itself. No one thought to ask the 4ft tall boy with a hideous bowl haircut why he was on his own. Sorry, I get side-tracked easily, back to the topic in hand.
I have experienced a range of emotions in the past. Thinking back to when I travelled to Australia aged 20 there were times I felt unadulterated joy and others when I felt crippling loneliness and sadness. To an extent I guess that's to be expected being the other side of the world to everyone I knew and loved. If I'm honest, loneliness and sadness have been with me at times for as long as I can remember, even when I've been among people I cared about.
How Does Depression Affect Me?
These are the feelings and what I experienced prior to being diagnosed with depression:
One event that I am sure exacerbated some of these feelings was the birth of my eldest daughter, now almost 18. After a very traumatic birth where we almost lost her, I believe something inside me shut down. I definitely haven't felt feelings of joy or acute happiness since then and the trauma is still very much with me. Even with countess sessions of counselling, I have had trouble feeling and expressing any real emotion since then apart from anger. This was similar to my experience when my dad emigrated. As my children started to grow, I felt an enormous burden and pressure to be the best dad in the world. I have always struggled with being “ok.” Everything I did was either rubbish or fantastic. I was acutely aware of my responsibility as a parent, and it weighed very heavily on me. I wanted to instil everything good in my girls and have them grow up well rounded human beings.
Due to polar opposite upbringings my wife and I argued a lot over the best way to parent the girls. I was used to strict boundaries and my wife was used to having no boundaries at all. I believed we had to parent as a team whilst if she disagreed with a decision, I had made she’d simply undermine me in front of the girls. This led to a lot of conflict and me feeling totally overwhelmed with the emotions I was not able to express healthily. I felt myself retreating into my shell and it became me against the world or me against my wife and children. When the girls didn’t listen to me, I resorted to anger and shouting. I believed they should respect and listen to me. I heard myself screaming and felt horrible, what kind of Dad does this to their children?
I found it harder to cope with life. I had no motivation for pretty much anything outside of my job and was isolating more and more. Everything overwhelmed me and I just wanted to do nothing. I recognised the desire to isolate and feeling alone from my own childhood. My anger was becoming more frequent and my wife told me one day I scared her and the children when I was like that. Hearing that and the thought of my girls fearing me was awful. I felt like the worst parent in the world. Even so, as much as I didn’t want to be like that, I found myself unable to stop.
My wife had pushed me to go the GP, we had a long chat, I answered a long list of questions and was diagnosed with depression. If I’m honest it was a huge relief that there was an answer to how I’d been feeling and acting. I was fiercely resistant to medication initially, preferring to go down the familiar route of counselling. I was petrified of becoming addicted to medication and being on them forever. It took a conversation with a friend to change my outlook. They had lived with depression and anxiety for years and had been on medication throughout. They asked if I’d take insulin to help if I was diabetic to which I’d replied, “Of course.” They explained this was no different, it was a condition that required medication to help with the symptoms. To get through their day they needed medication. Without it, they simply couldn’t cope day to day.
I started medication soon after and have been on it for most of the last 8 and a half years. The biggest positive change has been a dissipation of the anger and outbursts. I feel much calmer and able to cope with everyday life. The lack of motivation in the main hasn't improved, neither did the struggles with feeling nor expressing my emotions. Watching a film or tv I could blub for England. You should have seen me watching Dot and Jim’s wedding night in East Enders. As they danced in their room, I was a mess, snot everywhere and wailing like a dog missing its owner. Reacting to events in my life, happy and sad though, I felt nothing. It’s like my emotions were hidden away under lock and key.
There's a reason that last paragraph is in italics. This was something I wrote initially during the first lockdown. I've spoken previously about my struggles with food and how I overate and binged to repress my emotions among other things. A few months prior to the pandemic I started going to a Community Addiction Rehabilitation Centre to seek help with this along with a group where I receive daily support. Both have been invaluable in helping me make positive changes with my food behaviours which in turn has enabled me to start experiencing a range of emotions which have been hidden for years. I'll be honest, it's not easy and most of the time I feel overwhelmed and in a whirlwind of feelings which are all over me. The miraculous thing though is that I'm not eating my emotions anymore. It's coming up for 21 months free of binging and compulsive overeating which really is a miracle. I have to work every day to help maintain my abstinence and today is all I have. I'll always be a compulsive overeater with a daily reprieve and that's absolutely fine.
Does My Depression Affect Mr Banana Head?
I’ve previously been fearful of potential customers reading what I’ve written and thinking: “What if he’s depressed and can’t be bothered to come to our party? We’d better book someone else to be safe.” With my depression, even at its absolute worst, the one thing that has never been affected in any way has been my parties. Being Mr Banana Head, being silly and interacting with children has always given me an injection of joy. If I wake up feeling rubbish, physically or mentally I'm still always excited to go to my parties. I guess it’s the best medication I can take. When I arrive at a party, I just feel invigorated, free and at peace. It's not a case of putting on a mask, it's like everything negative is temporarily washed away.
After a weekend of parties, I'm utterly exhausted, physically and mentally. I always give everything of myself at every party, so it takes me at least two days to recover. I used to just plod on regardless Monday morning and make myself feel worse. Now, with more self-acceptance and love I try and look after myself in a more positive way.
I know what can help me positively manage my depression. Things like sleeping well, exercising and writing all help, the problem is often the lack of motivation to do them. Self-sabotage can also play a big part, due to a history of feeling undeserving. Again, this is something that is improving over time. Today as I reflect back on the last few years, my relationships with people close to me have changed substantially. I am so much calmer and more present, and my wife and children often relay this to me. I feel more deserving and comfortable accepting compliments the majority of the time. Where I previously isolated, I now reach out. All these things have been possible because I asked for help. Where my head was a constant storm at sea, it's now mainly a calm, peaceful lake. Will I always be living with depression? Possibly. Is that ok? Absolutely. Nothing's perfect and I'll continue to have some days better than others. Isn't that what life is?
See you next time.