Running to Recover – My route out of depression

FORWARD

I was asked to write this account of my “recovery” by the team at NHS COAST, to record my road back to good health, so it can be shared with others who are failing to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” in their struggles with mental health issues.

THE FALL

The fall was meteoric, like falling off a cliff !

In August 2018 I completed my first ever 100 mile running race. 

Life was good, and I felt good.

In October 2018, I started to worry, A LOT !  

Not necessarily specific things, but life in general. I had no health issues, money worries, relationship issues. No problems with drugs or alcohol. I had a lovely caring family, and a great set of friends. I was physically fit and healthy. No obvious triggers for my sudden change in mindset. The worries started like a flick of a switch.

The main focus of my worries seem to be work related matters. I had had a successful career as an IT Project manager in the investment banking industry, in London, for nearly 35 years. I was known for getting things done. My catch phrase at work was “All excuses are lies”. But all of a sudden (literally overnight), I started questioning my abilities. I starting thinking I was a fraud. That I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was somehow going to “get found out”. 

I began to develop ideas in my head, that something was going to go wrong with one of the IT systems, and that I wouldn’t be able to fix it. I worked in a large bank, with systems delivered to the trading floor, so any failure of a main IT system would have had large ramifications.

Instead of dealing with these thoughts rationally, my mind went into complete over drive, and I started dreaming up all sorts of disaster scenario’s, which I believed I would be held accountable for. The thoughts became all consuming, to the point I was unable to concentrate on anything, and worse of all, I could not sleep. Night after night, I lay in bed in a state of blind panic. I tried to relax; listen to music, audio books, podcasts etc, but all to no avail. I still could not sleep.

As the days without sleep crept up, the darker my thoughts became. I was simply unable to cope with life, and totally withdrew from everyone. I soon stopped responded to messages from my friends and family. I didn’t look at my phone. I stopped answering work emails, I tried to become as anonymous as possible. All this happened in a very short period of time, about 4 weeks.

My wife was very concerned, and arranged for me to see my local GP. He advised I was suffering from depression, and prescribed anti-depressants, along with some strong sleeping tablets. Neither seem to have much impact me (understandable as most anti-depressants do require 2-3 months to take effect).

After another 2 weeks with next to no sleep, my brain really started to play tricks on me. I became totally irrational and believed there was going to be an imminent system failure at the bank (there wasn’t), and that I was going to be responsible for it (I wouldn’t have been). At this time, I also started having strange ideas that I was being watched by the police. When I spoke about these thoughts to my wife, she was understandably very concerned and tried to re-assure me that there was nothing wrong. She called my boss at work, who advised there were no issues at the bank, and that everything was fine.

A TRIP TO A&E

My paranoia about the police grew to the point I was convinced I was being watched. My wife called my best mate Dave, and explained what was going on. I know my behaviour at the time was very strange, and was getting stranger. He advised that she take me to A&E ASAP. On the way to the hospital, I remember telling my wife the police were following us. The lack of sleep had removed all normality and logic from my brain.

The triage nurse in A&E asked a series of questions, which I know, I gave very bizarre answers to, including thinking, I somehow had some mystery virus, and that everyone should stay away from me. You get the picture, I was not in a good place !

I was eventually given some medications, possibly sedatives. Things after this point became a little vague, but I was admitted to a ward and eventually seen by 2 doctors. They asked me a series a questions, which once again, I gave very strange answers to. One asked me if I had any thoughts of harming myself. I remember saying “possibly” and then laughing at them. My wife was called into a room to discuss my situation, and I was then seen by 3 other doctors. I didn’t know at the time, but I was then “sectioned” under the mental health act, and later that evening, sent to a secure psychiatric hospital, and put on 1-2-1 watch for my own safety. I had been diagnosed with PSYCHOSIS, brought on by stress and extreme sleep deprivation. 

I spent a total of 3 1/2 weeks in the psychiatric ward, most of which is still a blur. I remember being very scared of the other patients, who had a variety of acute mental health issues. My wife came to visit me every day, which I knew put a massive strain on her. I was lucky that my 2 best mates, John and Dave, also went out of their way to visit me. I can still remember the look of alarm in their eyes, when they first visited me. I don’t think they could believe what had happened to me. I was always a very positive and confident person, and some say quite arrogant, and here I was trembling with fear, behind the locked doors of psychiatric hospital.

TIME FOR A BREAK

After 3 1/2 weeks of treatment, and a lot of medication, I managed to convince the doctors I was no longer a threat to myself and was released home. Against the doctors (and my wife’s) advice, I went straight back to work within about 3 days. I was still not functioning, and completely isolated myself from my work mates and friends at the bank. After about a month, my boss pulled me into a room and we had a long chat. He really wanted to help, but I couldn’t see what he could do. Eventually he made the decision for me, and told me I needed to take some extended leave. We agreed on a 1 month break, with regular contact to track progress. 

NHS HEROES

Soon after my release from hospital, I was also contacted by the NHS COAST team in Croydon, who work with people who have suffered from psychosis. This began an almost 3 year journey to recovery. I was seen by a psychiatrist called Serena, who remained with me for my entire journey to recovery. I was also provided a Care Coordinator, Mark, who made regular contact with me, always calling for a quick chat, and to see how I was feeling. We had monthly meetings, where my medications were reviewed, and my state of mind discussed at length. After about a year, with my condition not improving, I was introduced to Anna, who gave me CBT sessions once a week, for about 10 weeks.

DEPRESSION

Thankfully my psychosis and hallucinations never returned, after I left hospital, and was able to get at least some sleep each night. I did however, continue to sink into an ever deeper pit of depression. Worries still filled my head constantly. I stopped doing all the things I loved in life, like running, fishing and socialising. My world began to shrink. My friends stopped trying to get in contact with me, after I had ignored them for so long.

I could honestly say, I could never see a point in the future, where I would ever be happy again. I just couldn’t see a way out of what I perceived was my failures, that had lead me to this position. Despite all the support I was being given (especially from my wife), I just couldn’t see an end to sufferings I was feeling. These are all common symptoms of depression, it really is a terrible illness to live with.

The 1 month leave of absence was extended to 3 months, then to 6 months and eventually, after about 18 months, I asked for, and was gratefully offered redundancy. I took the package they offered me, and immediately felt a weight lifted from shoulders. At least worrying about the banks IT systems was one less thing to dwell on.

RUNNING TO RECOVER

My wife knew about by passion (obsession) for running before I became unwell. Previously my idea of a “fun day out” was running 50 miles over the hilly North Downs Way, with a load of other like minded people. 

Being depressed, the last thing you want to do is any form of exercise. You suffer from very low motivation, and the thought of changing into my run gear, filled me with dread. But my wife insisted, and everyday she drove me to the local park, and waited whilst I tried to run for 20 mins. I hated every minute of it. I used to love running for hours and hours, but now I struggled to last 5 minutes. So I just did a run/walk strategy. Run 2 minutes/walk 2 minutes and repeat. 

We did this for a few weeks, then I signed up the excellent BBC Sounds “Couch to 5K“. The Olympian Michael Johnson was the voice in my ear, helping me run a continuous 5km, over a structured 6 week period.

I still was not enjoying the running, but I knew deep down, exercise was one of the best medicines there is to recover from depression. I was also keen to lower the every increasing dose of medications I was taking on a daily basis. I was also shocked to discover, my sedentary life and unhealthy “comfort eating” had resulted in my weight going from 82Kg to a staggering 97Kg ! 

The depression and constant feeling of stress I felt in my body, led to other health issues. I was frequently fainting when getting up from a seated position, a condition known as Orthostatic Hypotension. I developed Shingles in the face, due to a low immune system. I was also suffering from chronic constipation. I had 2 trips to A&E to help resolve the blockages !

But after about 2 months of my forced exercise regime, and nearly 2 years since my initial “breakdown”, I started to feel better. I pushed the doctors to slowly reduce my medication. I actually started to look forward to my daily runs, which by now had grown to the full 5Km without stopping. I weighed myself every day, looking for any sign of weight loss. I continued to watch what I ate. I began making green smoothies every day (spinach/kale/mango/banana/apple juice).

I cut down on all the sugar based foods and slowly (very slowly) started to control my unhealthy cravings. I made a point of going for at least 1 long walk a day, out into the local woods or downs. Anywhere in the fresh air and away from the sofa and dreaded daytime TV.

Running for me has never been about competing with those who tie up their laces next to me. I do it for myself, its my time to think. I like to set my own challenges, despite how insignificant they are to other runners. I love to run in groups, to enjoy some banter, especially on the trails. For me personally, its the best form of medication.

RUNNING HAPPY
©Sussex Sport Photography

PROSTATE CANCER 

It was at this point though, that a large spanner was thrown in the works.

Following a routine health check, I was diagnosed with Stage II Prostate Cancer.

This was not the life sentence it may sound, as it was caught fairly early. It may sound very strange, but this became a real turning point for me. I started researching Prostate Cancer and the treatment options open to me. I was no longer just sitting around the house, worrying about things that were never going to happen. I had a purpose, to beat this disease. 

The doctors told me the fitter and healthier I was, the better I would be at fighting the cancer. So I upped the exercise, and continued down the healthier eating and weigh loss path. My depressive symptoms started lifting at an ever increasing pace. My wife made contact with some of my old friends, and I started to enjoy socialising again. I spoke freely about my cancer, but talked very little about my battles with mental health.

It seems strange that I could cope with cancer, but not with the mental illness. I mentioned this to one of my close friends. He said:-

With the cancer, you were given a diagnosis, a complete breakdown of what it was, and how it could be treated. You have a very logical brain (debatable), that was geared up to process the information about the cancer, and take the necessary steps to overcome it. With the mental health issues, you never really knew what had caused them, there was no single pill or operation to fix it,  and your brain couldn’t see a logical way to overcome it.” 

That made perfect sense to me.

I had HIFU Ultrasound treatment for the prostate cancer at the end of April 2021. The procedure appeared to go well, but there were several nasty side effects and setbacks to follow. Being rushed to A&E with Bladder Retention was the worse (basically a full bladder and not being able to pee a single drop). I had UTI issues and other aches and pains. I had camera’s stuck where I never thought cameras could go. I was diagnosed with 2 hernias, and I spent a total of 5 weeks, only being able to pee through the use of catheters. 

But 6 weeks after the procedure, things had finally settled down to the extent I could start light jogging again. Within weeks I was doing slow 5-10 mile runs.

I’ll remain on active surveillance for the prostate cancer for the rest of my life, with 3 monthly PSA blood tests and annual MRI scans. I just feel fortunate for my early diagnosis.

Men in your 50’s, contact your GP today and ask for a test.

LIFESTYLE CHANGES – “The List”

With the initial cancer treatment over, and the beginnings of the “light at the end of the tunnel” with my mental health, I decided to make some major lifestyle changes. I wrote on a large piece of paper, a list of things I really needed and wanted to do (after all my life had been on hold for over 2 years). 

I wrote down the “to do list” of things I had a real passion for, and wanted to achieve, as well as general tasks I had neglected (and the wife had been nagging me to do). 

I was determined to regain my fitness and lose weight, and in particular to fast track my return to running. I could no longer run with my old friends and club mates at weekends, as I was simply too slow, and couldn’t do the mileage they did. So “the list” contained things like; training for a half marathon, re-join my local running club, join the local gym, get a running coach (trust me I needed one after 2 years sitting on my butt), run the local Parkrun every Saturday and try and improve my times, dust off the old mountain bike and take it for a spin.

I also wanted to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK through my running. I booked a number of running races, right through to the end of 2022, and added them to my JustGiving page.

I planned some UK holidays (as much for my wife as for me), and of course I made plans to go fishing regularly again, joining a number of local angling clubs.

I made a point of contacting old friends and arranging meeting up for a drink and a chat. I had lots of work to do on the house, clear out the garage etc etc etc. The list grew and grew, but unlike the never ending list of tasks I used to have at work, all of these tasks were for me, and were things I really enjoyed and wanted to achieve.

IT’S A DOGS LIFE

So the list was made, and top of it was getting a dog. During our daily walks, the wife and I had seen so many people out walking and having fun with their dogs (we were now in full COVID lockdown). So a Working Cocker Spaniel call Barney entered our lives. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life (ok it was the wife’s idea). He has bought so much joy and happiness to us both. He’s the reason for getting out of bed every morning. My kids are both grown up now, so I felt my paternal instincts coming back in full, caring and bringing up Barney, from a small 10 week old puppy. Watching this bundle of energy grow and develop, couldn’t fail to bring a smile to your face (even if he did destroy several pairs on my running shoes, the little bugger).

Barney

NEXT STEPS

With lots already ticked off the “list” and more added on a regular basis, things have eventually turned out well. My lifestyle has had a major upheaval. The misery of 35 years of the daily commute to London, was at an end. For most of my working life, I enjoyed what I did. But now, I honestly don’t miss a thing about it. My close friends from work, are still my close friends today. I have more than enough things to do to occupy my days.

Before I never realised there was anything wrong with my life, but with hindsight, I can now see I had lost focus on what life is really all about, and that is simply striving for happiness. A good job, money and all of life’s rich trappings, mean nothing if you don’t have your health. Health really is Wealth !

And just like everyone told me all along, the issues and worries I had in my head, were nothing more than thoughts. None of them ever came close to reality

I have been fully off all medication for 10 months now. Glad to say I regularly go fishing again with my old buddies (and Barney). I make a point of meeting up with family and friends as often as possible. I still make sure I eat healthy every day (weight is now down to 84Kg). I exercise daily, and my wife and I have made lots of exciting plans for the future.

My running mojo is defiantly back. I not only completed my “to do list” half marathon, I have now finished 2 full trail marathons in the last 3 months (slowly I hasten to add). I don’t aim to win the races I enter, I just make sure I always win MY race.

The race calendar is full for 2022 (all 350 miles of it), and since April, I have already raised over £3500 for Prostate Cancer UK . I am hopefully running the London Marathon in support of this great organisation next year.


THE SUN IS OUT

The sun is shining again (it always was, I just couldn’t see it at the time).

Thanks mainly to my wife, and also the amazing team at NHS COAST, who both supported me on my journey, and got me back on my feet again, quite literally.

I don’t mind admitting, they saved my life !

My journey with the NHS COAST team is now over, I am fully signed off (October 2021), but I know the journey is not over for me. 

I’ll never know what really triggered my “fall”, but I will continue to work every day, to avoid that dark place I ended up in. I owe that much to my family and friends, the NHS staff, and of course to Barney, who all supported me so well.

In October 2022 I aim to run my 2nd 100 mile race.

Life is good, and I feel good.

Simon

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