Mental health and the middle-aged man.

Today I am delighted to introduce to you my friend Phil. Phil has agreed to share his experiences of dealing with anxiety as a middle-aged (his words!) man; how it was for him and what he did about it. Phil is fantastic, I know you’ll enjoy what he has to say. I am very grateful to be able to share his perspective here:

I’ve never been too concerned about my physical health.

I cycle to work, clocking up about 40 miles per week, and apart from my vasectomy have never had more than a day off in 25 years of gainful employment. I’m probably a bit overweight but not in a way that bothers me or my wife.

Until 2012 I had a similar indifference to my mental health.

Happily married, two birth kids, a succession of foster kids, healthy finances, plenty of friends and Chelsea FC were winning league titles. What more could anyone want?

But then I began to stutter.

With hindsight I can see there were a series of events that occurred one after another and took their toll.

There was a shake up at work; I got a new line manger who preferred emails to talking. My best friend at work was ill and I had no one to download with at lunch time. I was sent some data which said my department was performing ‘below the national expectation’. The football season ended but the weather was too bad for cricket to really begin. It was too wet to garden. We transitioned a foster child to adoption and while this was a beautiful achievement, I never gave myself time to grieve.

When I finished work on a Friday, I was unable to switch off.

We went away for our wedding anniversary and I was unable to relax and enjoy myself.

My appetite and libido vanished.

When I woke in the night needing a wee (not unusual for a 42 year old male) rather than going back to sleep, my brain wrestled with work problems over which I had no control.

I found myself in a vicious cycle of something called ‘anxiety’.

On my worst day, I found myself terrified of being alone and unable to complete the simplest of tasks like going for crisps at the shop.

I’d heard of stress, anxiety and depression before and had assumed they were for other people. I thought they showed some sort of weakness on the part of the sufferer. I’m a middle aged, middle class man. My vasectomy not withstanding, I’m not very familiar with the medical world.

My wife held my hand one night, she started the conversation, ‘You’re not happy. How can I help?’

These were not magic words but it was a relief to have the elephant in the room pointed out to me.

That same day, I arranged to meet an old friend who had been a GP. I missed the Euros Final to see him: he knew I was serious. He suspected I had ‘environmental anxiety’. He was right.

I’m a middle aged, middle class man. I needed a plan.

With my wife I began to write a list of what I enjoyed, and what stressed me out. We figured out actions I could take to regain balance in my mental health, to dial down the anxiety. Some changes were profound, others seemed frivolous but they were all important. If it was the cumulative effect of events that prompted my anxiety, I realised it would take a series of changes to get my mental heath back on track.

Here are the changes I have made:

1. Since June 30th 2012, I have never looked at a work email at home. My laptop stays at work.

2. I always take a lunch break and chat rubbish with colleagues.

3. I’ve taken over some scrub land and begun a guerrilla gardening project.

4. I decided that I’m good enough at my job. It turned out that my department was achieving above ‘national expectations’ and the data was wrong. I only found out by mistake. Some things are out of my control. I try to recognise and ignore them.

5. We bought a swing seat and I sit outside watching the garden grow.

6. I have watched The Sopranos, The Wire and subscribed to Sky Sports Multi-room. I also have Sky Go so can watch cricket wherever I am.

7. If I find myself awake at night, I have a series of scenarios to focus on which help me nod off. I imagine I have to survive on a desert island or am escaping from Colditz.

8. My wife bought me a coffee machine and I enjoy the ritual brewing every morning.

9. I looked at photos of our departed foster child and did some proper crying.

10. I began to revisit old hobbies and rediscovered my love of everything to do with the Napoleonic wars.

11. We decided I should consider changing my job. I could have stayed but I needed to think about what I wanted to do with the next 10 or 20 years. I now work part time as a teacher and recruit Foster Carers the rest of the week.

12. I began to do more volunteering for a couple of charities

13. I decided not to go for a promotion.

Seven years later, I’m on an even keel. My home-made strategies keep me mentally healthy.

Crap still hits our fan, but I have learnt it’s not personal, it’s not permanent and it’s not pervasive.

(I got that from a book).

I metaphorically grab the anxious thoughts floating around my head, stare at them and tell them that they are only little.

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself chatting more and more with men of my demographic. I know I am not the only one who has felt like this.

If life sometimes gets too much for you, talk to someone you trust, make a plan, get some help.

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