David Bowden is an educator and founder of Word Guerrilla. Utilising beatboxing, live looping and multi-instrumentalism, he delivers Word Guerrilla’s brand of spoken-word poetry performances to a variety of different educational settings, workplaces and events across the country, making performance poetry accessible and exciting for all.
Today, he's sharing his experiences with clinical depression, the tremendous struggle it causes and the importance of reaching out for support. He's also speaking out about the painful grief he has suffered through losing loved ones and the importance of acceptance.
1) Hi Dave, how are you?
Very well, at present. I am happy, healthy and able to see the good in life.
2) How are you really?
I can get anxious about a lot of things and tend to always find something to catastrophise over. Having been to some very challenging places mentally, when I start to feel low, I then worry I am going to go back to where I was again. I have to work hard to remind myself this is not the case and things are okay. I don’t have to worry- it’s pointless anyway as whatever I am worrying about has not even happened yet or has already passed and therefore, I can’t do anything about it.
3) What made you reach out to share your mental health experiences through this interview?
I am a normal guy. I am relatively successful in what I do. I am confident. I appear happy. I don’t think I am the sort of person you would associate with poor mental health. The truth is that poor mental health can happen to anyone. Under a given set of circumstances you may take a turn for the worse. This is normal and by me sharing, I want to normalise it so that people feel open to talk about it.
4) Do you believe that people’s negative views and judgements around mental health can be changed?
Definitely…if we understand that challenges to our mental health are normal and happen to people more often than we realise, we will be more accepting, more understanding and more able to support people who are struggling.
5) You were diagnosed with clinical depression in 2018, can you tell me about the lead up to this diagnosis?
In February 2018 I broke my collarbone. I was very active, I rode push- bikes constantly, I boxed…being active kept me mentally well. When I was inactive I realised this. I recovered and took up physical activity again. Then during a sparring session at the boxing club in June 2018 I broke my collarbone again. I was in agony and back to being sedentary. My mood was really affected but I did not consider myself depressed, just fed up. Then in August 2018 one of my best friends died from suicide. He had been unwell for a while but this was not expected. I don’t think it ever is. At first, I thought I was fine in dealing with it…I knew I was grieving, I missed my friend, but I did not consider myself to be depressed. Alongside my inability to move properly and the physical pain I was in due to injury and the sudden death of a close friend, there were several acute challenges at work that were making my life very difficult. At the time I was a primary school headteacher, which at the best of times is a mentally challenging job. I started to feel as though everything was getting on top of me and I was feeling suffocated. Then a work colleague suddenly died. On the evening of their death I remember sobbing and saying to my wife “I can’t take anyone else dying.” The pain I was feeling was frankly unbearable: grief, chronic stress, physical pain from injury. Some days later, I was on a work course off site and I received a phone call about an issue from work. In that moment had a panic attack. This had never happened before and I was terrified. I went to my vehicle and cried. I literally had no control of my emotions. I could not suppress my feelings and simply felt overcome, tired and unable to continue like this. There and then I phoned the doctor asking for help.
6) Did the diagnosis of clinical depression come as a shock or were you expecting it?
I don’t think it did. I think I had realised that most people going through what I was going through would have suffered some sort of emotional damage. I also had never felt like this before; low does not describe it. I was not suicidal but I did not want to be on earth. I just wanted to switch off and check out. I was ill- I just needed a name for it…depression.
7) You did regular physical activity before your injuries occurred, how does physical activity impact your mental health?
Physical activity affects my mental health positively. For me physical activity is a release valve. I used to box, and the focus and intensity of that sport took away any negative feelings. Boxing is a beautiful sport and often misunderstood. Boxing for me is more than a sport, it is lifestyle that focusses you to be at your physical optimum and have mental grit and determination that can transcend the ring. I love riding push bikes as well. When I get out and ride my bike, I feel free, I can breathe and I can take my self away from anything that is concerning me.
8) I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend and your work colleague. Have you learnt any mechanisms over the last couple of years to help you process the grief?
Acceptance is key! I accept that people are gone. I accept I could not do anything and I can’t change the past. I accept I will feel grief some days more than others. I think about my friend who died from suicide probably most days. This is not a negative thing- I just miss him and I am reminded of him constantly through photos I have up or thoughts of my childhood with him. Grief will never go away…sometimes it will be more intense and sometimes it will be dull and exist only in the background; I accept this.
9) For someone who has never experienced depression, how would you describe it?
Terrible, terrifying and although you can probably describe it, you don’t want to describe it because the description just scares the people you love. I would never want to take my own life…I could not do that and leave my children or my wife but at its worst depression made me feel as though I did not want to exist. It is physically and mentally painful. It is tiring. It is unrelenting.
10) For you, what has been the hardest thing about having depression?
Being in situations where I know I should feel happy but I cannot stir the right feelings. Christmas Day 2018 was particularly hard. Surrounded by Christmas cheer, I found myself jumping at the chance to remove myself from the house, taking my baby daughter for a walk and listening to motivational podcasts to give me the strength to interact with people again.
11) Has counselling had an impact on your mental health? If so, what impact has it had?
Counselling gave me the strength to work through my issues and reframe the way I was thinking, which during my depression was overtly negative. It helped me to be more positive and gave me strategies to tackle my illness.
12) If someone reading this has just been diagnosed with clinical depression, what would you like to say to them?
Take all the help on offer. At first, I refused medication but it became apparent it was necessary to overcome my challenges. Medication allowed me to find balance again and not be overwrought with my illness. Don’t be afraid of talking, through counselling or any means. If you express you won’t suppress.
13) You mentioned that you experienced a panic attack a couple of years ago. Can you tell me how that felt?
Frightening…I could not breathe and everything around me in that moment slowed down. However, I am glad it happened- it was the catalyst to seek help.
14) If someone reading this today is struggling with their mental health but has not yet reached out for help, what would you say to them?
Don’t hesitate to seek help. If you broke a bone you would go to hospital; this is no different and professionals will not judge you. Talk about it as well. Find someone you trust and speak about it as opening up is an important step in realising you may need professional help.
15) If you’re having a difficult mental health day, what could someone else do to support you through it?
Take me out on a long bike ride. Movement is my medicine.
16) How you would describe yourself, without referring to your mental health diagnosis…
Strong, creative and ever the optimist. Where I have been will not determine where I go. I am thankful for all of my experience as I better understand the human condition and as a result feel I can now relate better to others.
17) Tell me more about your poetry and where other people can check out your work…
I operate under the name Word Guerrilla. Thinking and writing is my fighting; the battle can be against anything: food that is not tasty, climate change, technology taking over or the battle in our own heads. I love poetry and I want it to be something that can be accessed by all- not as something that only a club of academics can understand. My poetry is performance based and I perform to a backdrop of beatboxing, live looping and multi- instrumentalism to create a show that people will love and will make them realise how great poetry is. I also deliver a variety of workshops to different educational settings, workplaces and events with a key focus on developing the confidence in people to write, be creative, productive and develop their own well-being through the writing process.
18) What is your biggest personal goal mental health wise?
To stay positive, be happy but also accept that sometimes I won’t feel great. This is okay and normal. I feel anxious a lot of the time but this is also okay and normal- I won’t worry about this (or at least I will try not to) as worrying only perpetuates the anxiety.
19) What is one thing you hope people take away from your interview today?
That poor mental health can happen to anyone. Given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, your mind, emotions and feelings can be taken to places completely out of your control. If it does, don’t be afraid to talk about it and seek help. You are not weak if this happens, you are just having a difficult time and this has not come to stay- it’s come to pass.
Also, if someone does not seem okay, ask them if they are okay or if they need help and then ask them again.
20) How do you feel after answering all of these questions?
It has been a positive experience. It reminds me how far I have come. It has been important to do this as I want people to feel they can talk about their mental health without stigma.
Thank you so much Dave for doing this interview. I have no doubt that this will encourage others to reach out and seek help because reading this interview certainly made me feel like that is even more of an option than I already knew. I love what you said, that "this has not come to stay- it's come to pass." It's so true, and so important to remember in the most difficult moments. As a fan of your performance poetry, I look forward to seeing you on stage in the future. Until then, look after yourself, you're important.
If you are reading Dave's story today and you can relate to his struggles with depression, please reach out. See a doctor, speak to someone you trust, or you can go to the 'support' page on this website where you'll find resources which are there for you. There is help out there for you and you are worth helping. Asking for help doesn't show weakness, it shows you are ready to build your strength. You've got this.