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Updated: Apr 2, 2021

This week's interview is with my friend Tony. At nearly 70, Community Activist and Swindon's Community Poet Tony has worn many hats including youth worker, trade unionist, charity manager, gardener, driver, decorator and maypole dancer. Ecstatic father of two, now grown up daughters, Tony has travelled extensively and a great deal to Kolkata and Kenya. In his senior years he knows in his bones he still has a lot to learn and feels that in responding to this questionnaire it may kickstart him towards further new life adventures.

1. Hi Tony, how are you? I’m OK but feel a bit on the cusp of something – life could dip after a very busy and most generally positive Covid Summer.

2. How are you really? Internal questions persist about who, what, when? My lifetime question remains – “Will the real Tony Hillier please stand up?”

That being said, I am so very, very grateful that I am here to tell the tale. I was born back in 1950 as one of six siblings. Now we are already down to three as three years ago I lost a brother and a sister within the space of two months (had lost a 53-year-old brother to a diabetic coma in Cairo). In fact, in recent weeks, when I have got out of bed at silly-early o’clock I have said to myself (and sometimes later in the day to others) that I’m getting up and on with life because my 3 dead siblings can’t. Yes, that’s blunt and a bit left of field but that’s part of my character. None of our family, including parents, have lived longer than 73 and I am 70 soon and believe I am good to go – good to go on for another 15 or 20 years – lucky me, barring the number 7 bus to Toothill of course! So, how am I really? Grateful and positive yet with a slight bottom lip tremble as autumn gets into its stride and Covid has reminded me of some of my ‘demons’ or life patterns and mindsets – some of which I hope to pay attention to. I am in a reflective mood so hopefully some useful churning will come out of your 20 questions.

3. What made you want to share your mental health experiences through this interview? Personally, in addition to my own mental health challenges under the general heading of depression (with boarder-line bi-polar mentioned by one professional), and sadly in line with the national trends, I have a few younger members of my extended family who have their own challenges in this area. All my life I have been driven by the unrealistic and unhealthy or misbalanced mindset that I needed to be the knight on a white charger rushing to the rescue of people in need. Yes, I want to be of whatever help I can to my relatives, to myself and if that can also open up the topic and more widespread and effective services for others, then I would count that as a result.

4. How do you feel about answering some personal questions today? A bit anxious that I will be too down on myself but also a bit excited that this could be a key step forwards for me to make a contribution to society better understanding the nature of, and complexities of, mental and emotional health issues.

5. How long have you lived with depression? My father had schizophrenia and psychosis on his sick note from D Day paratrooper ‘shell-shock’ PTSD. So, since birth I have lived with that aspect of depression course. That brings up questions about an inherited depressive gene or environmental factors. Bit of each I conclude. As well as feeling like an ‘outsider’ in society as I grew up and due to having to work everything out for myself about how to do life. My parents were incapable of parenting in those intimate and other areas. In my early years at Teachers’ Training College and in my first job as a teacher in a Girls’ Remand Home in Leeds, I felt I was on auto-pilot trying to work out what society wanted and expected of me – and delivering that on the surface and yet feeling somewhat ‘empty’ inside – something was not genuine – this couldn’t be how life was meant to be.

Circumstances emerged in my second job as a Youth & Community Worker in Hemel Hempstead whereby I could no longer function in that upfront, demanding role as I had burnt myself out. I needed and got counselling. Essentially, I was using the inevitable social side of being a youth worker as a substitute for developing my own social life.

For about 20 years from the early 80s, working and bringing up two amazing daughters, I generally kept depression at bay, but as I got older and essentials sorted for children, depression increasingly crept back into my life stealing more and more time from a fulfilled life. This inevitably impacted on my family life.

6. Have you sought any other treatment throughout that time? In addition to the few treatments referred to in other questions, a turning point was CBT. Almost all remedial treatment and none yet to do with analysis and therapy in any depth. However, in the early days when CBT emerged, I was fortunate to have nearly 20 face to face sessions with a young, CBT inexperienced but clinically trained therapist, who gained my confidence. This worked really well for me and I still dine out on her work – in that if things start to get on top of me, I use a rhyming phrase “take that thought to court” – look for evidence for and against the negative thought/feeling. I mostly only have to take myself on that mind trip to gain a healthier perspective on whatever was starting to get on my nerves.

7. Can you remember life before depression? No. Always somewhere there, in the background or foreground for myself or my family.

8. What is the biggest challenge you've faced through living with depression? The nebulousness of it. The insidiousness of it. The shifting sands. Its invisible power to affect events and actions and moods. That there was no physical, alcoholic, sexual abuse in our family as we grew up and yet there was economic and emotional poverty. So when one heard of horrendous situations others faced, just to be poor and not cared for seem a trifle – whereas in fact the emotional neglect, because my parents were themselves emotionally neglected, undermined any building of a firm base of self-esteem in we children. That was the biggest challenge. Add to that I feel tremendously grateful that I have never heard voices nor, apart from academically a few times, never felt suicidal. To experience just those two aspects must be horrendous. So it brings thoughts to me – what am I making all this fuss about – surely my ‘depression’ journey has been in the slow meandering lane not the fast lane – and yet. And yet, that type of depressive life has its own challenges.

9. For someone who has never experienced it, how would you describe depression? Emptiness. No feelings. Inability to make decisions. You don’t want to get up, nor go to bed, you don’t want to eat, to answer the phone, emails or the door. You want to be left alone. You don’t want to engage in things you previously enjoyed – dancing, table-tennis, pool, chatting with people. If you push yourself to get there, you sit in a political action meeting, which a few weeks earlier you were successfully facilitating, and not one word creeps from your mouth. You are not the person you were, to yourself, or to your fellow-activists.

10. How different is being depressed to feeling sad? Depression is perennial, sadness is passing.

11. Have you ever tried to hide your depression from people. If so, how does that feel? What. Do you mean doing supply teaching when depressed and needing to hide in the toilets to gee yourself up to ‘play the sorted teacher game”?

12. Do you experience happiness? Absolutely. My daughters offered me happiness and still do today. Effectively, I look in the mirror and ask myself how it happened that, after my partly chequered lifetime, I managed to be a part of my daughters’ lives, now young adults. Also, I have been hyper at times, and whilst not ‘true’ happiness, those times have been great with all their attendant features e.g little sleep, high activity and productivity. However, the only way is down – and that usually happens too. One aspect of happiness I term ‘congruent with myself’ is when I facilitated two Swindon Poetry Festivals, not organising, but doing all the more backroom stuff ensuring it happened and blips were dealt with. I felt I was in the place I was meant to be, that my lifetime experience and passions collided in this activity. Similarly, on some political campaigns I have felt totally engaged and happy, yes happy.

13. What can a friend do to help you through the darkest times? Find a way to show that they are there for me in whatever way fits with who they are, the nature of our relationship, and whatever it is I need. The last thing they should say is “How are you?” – it’s obvious – you’re effing depressed! My aim in probably the last ten years, and it's an aim I would like much younger people to consider, is to build a small set of people with whom you are ‘out’ about being depressed at times. In whatever way, directly or indirectly, to be able to be strong enough, brave enough, to let those individuals know that you feel you are dipping into or already in a depressive episode. A key aspect towards recovery is to ‘admit’ or recognise in yourself the depressive signs as early as possible, but also to let others know so they can respond as a supportive friend.

14. Do you think it's important that people educate themselves about mental health issues even if they haven't experienced them for themselves? Yes. A million times. At home and in school and college curricula and in wider and media society we need to continue to get the message out there about the condition and its size and variety. An area not yet explored enough is: "It’s difficult enough for the person experiencing depression and yet it is a different type of difficult for their nearest and dearest.” The needs of people close to depressed people is an area not much understood and hence there are inadequate services for families and partners and employers. It’s growing but it needs to get a shift on.

15. When you're depressed, how does it make you feel if someone says something such as 'smile' or 'cheer up' or 'you'll get over it'? It makes me feel that we in society have not yet done enough to educate people about the nature of depression and need to do more.

16. If someone is reading this today and thinks they might be depressed but hasn't yet reached out for help, what would you like to say to them? Small steps but try to take them. Think of the person whom you trust the most who is contactable and bring the subject up. Try not to be a 70 year old who has ducked and dived his depression for far too many years – and survived yes – but we humans are built to thrive much more than survive!

17. On a day when you're struggling to get things done because of your depression, what do you tell yourself?

I take that thought to court. Look at the evidence for and the evidence against that negative thought. I run through the CBT trigger check: If I think I am the worst dad in the world for daughter Lucy, the judge asks her if I am and she replies, "He's a bit zany, does daft things at times but he's my dad and I love him." I only have to begin that thought journey to remind myself that mindset is all - well, certainly nearly all.

18. Do you have any coping mechanisms to get you through the toughest times? Over several years I followed regimes of Prozac but felt inside that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. It got me through I guess. For the last ten years, since giving a kidney to my sister, I have taken no medication. In fact, I say to anyone experiencing depression to donate an organ as for me it boosted my self-esteem enormously! I turn to my own mixture of mindfulness. Buddhist 'treat yourself with loving kindness.' Physical exercise (running for me), eat as healthily as I can, tell someone I’m depressed, be in the now, take joy in small things, this too will pass (even though almost impossible to feel the truth of that mantra), medication if necessary. I abhor that Big Pharma laughs all the way to the bank because we in society do not provide services that get close enough to people with depression to support them realistically to consider and try alternatives to medication – at least every 3 years say – just to check.

19. Why is it so important for us to listen when someone is telling us how they feel? Treat others as you would wish to be treated.

20. How do you feel after answering these questions today? I feel as if I have lifted some lids on some of the aspects of 70 years of living intermittently with depression. It has made me re-commit to seriously considering some therapy to see if there is some unblocking I can do to live an even more fulfilled and fruitful senior life. I am wondering whether this will trigger me into exploring speaking out more on the subject, locally and nationally and on social media, with a view to being of support to others. Thank you Jemima for this chance to open up a bit.

Thank YOU Tony for being willing to open up about your life, there is no doubt in my mind that your story will resonate with others and make a difference. I wish you all the best with whatever you decide to pursue next and I look forward to seeing you at future poetry/ mental health awareness events.

If you are reading this today and you are struggling with your mental health, don't struggle alone. Please reach out. Speak to someone you trust, see a doctor, or go to the 'support' page on this website where you'll find contacts which may be useful to you.

Until next week, remember, there are no expectations in this life, only experiments.

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Loved Tony’s sharing here. Thoughtful and brave as ever.

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