Updated: Apr 2, 2021
This week's mental health interview is with Garry. He and I met this year through the wonderful online poetry community which has a beautiful way of bringing people together. I'm extremely grateful to him for wanting to share his mental health experiences with us, and a bit about his family life, in this interview today.
In his own words:
I'm 59, a retired teacher, happy husband, and proud dad to 3 great kids (adults now) and a crazy spaniel . I like reading and watching TV and inflicting my poems and drawings on unsuspecting social media sites. Otherwise, I like to be outdoors when family and hobbies allow.
1) Hi Garry, how are you?
I’m fine, thanks.
2) How are you really?
I’m mostly fine. Up until the last 10 days things have been pretty bad on and off. Recently they’ve been much better, but today was not good. It’s pretty grim to be sat by the side of the canal and suddenly start crying. A bit but enough…
3) Why do you feel it's important to raise awareness around mental health issues?
When I first realised I had mental health issues (depression and anxiety), it was strangely reassuring to know that other people had them. I was quite struck by how many comedians had depression. I guess it helped to know that you could still laugh and be funny despite feeling down. So this is one reason. Also, I suffered unknowingly most of my life – in hindsight – and if I’d known what it was I could have got help much sooner, but people didn’t talk about it at all when I was growing up (60’s and 70’s) so I never really thought about it and how it might affect me.
4) Can you remember your life before mental health issues started to affect you?
Not really. Looking back I first suffered anxiety when I was quite young (6 or 7 maybe). Our only heating was an open fire. One night I heard flames crackling and was convinced that the house was burning down. It was my brother chopping wood but for months, maybe years, I was often terrified about going to bed. I would cry, scream, get up repeatedly. It got so bad my mum eventually took me to the docs – which only happened in our house if you were almost dead. I have had periods of significant panic attacks and prolonged anxiety about things all my life. Fitting lights to the wall, buying my first guitar, my first unrequited love (age 16), buying anything usually stresses me out. Making decisions is hard.
I can remember life before the diagnoses. I just couldn’t fathom why I was unable to do certain things without worrying and being unable to sleep or unable to cope with things as well as other people seemed to (I guess 'seemed to' might be a clue there). When I got the diagnoses a lot of things made a bit more sense. So that felt good.
5) What mental health issues have affected your life?
I have always suffered terrible insomnia. Mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety and depression.
6) For anyone who has never experienced a panic attack before, how would you describe them?
'Panic attack' is a fairly benign term for something that can be so physically and mentally debilitating. It usually starts off worrying about something and I guess overthinking it, second guessing, worrying about outcomes and repercussions. This might just pass or it might progress. The progression can be rapid, just a few minutes, well under an hour anyway, but for me it usually takes longer. I find myself unable to switch off and I keep returning to the ‘problem’.
Eventually, usually about 3am so several hours later, I wake. Sweating, clammy, unable to easily breathe (I have asthma and it is not like asthma, it is more mental than physical I think), feeling dizzy and sick. I sometimes shake so much it wakes my wife. There is an overwhelming sense of doom and dread that something truly awful is going to happen.
Usually this is at night but can occur anytime. I guess the worst thing is feeling that I have no control over anything.
I had a near attack in 2017 on the way to work and nearly just went home because I thought it was a panic attack. I carried on to school and collapsed in the staffroom and they called an ambulance. Once I felt better, after the meds, I just wanted to go home because I was absolutely convinced it was a panic attack. It wasn’t and I needed significant intervention to fix the problem. That’s how bad the physical symptoms can be.
7) Can you remember how your first panic attack felt?
I can’t really remember a first panic attack but I do know I have woken all my life worrying about entirely trivial things which at 3 in the morning seem like the most important thing in the world. I remember feeling sick and being sweaty and a bit shaky. This goes back to my early teens and possibly younger. I just lived with them. I never told anyone because there was no awareness (see q3) for me of anything worth telling anyone.
8) Do you have any particular triggers?
Triggers usually centre around a decision to be made, or some action I have taken and the repercussions this action might have. I was a head of year and responsible for 200 plus 13 and 14 year olds. Having to deal with parents who picked at every action and everything I said or allegedly said was very stressful – it was for my fellow heads of year too.
However, it can be trivial. 'Do I buy this pen or that pen?' 'Will the roof last long enough?' 'Is the tap dripping?' Almost always something that requires action and decision, either already made or needing to be made in the future.
I have disabled twins, 20, and life can be very hard and this is very stressful but surprisingly they rarely cause panic attacks, nor does anything related to them… Interesting? Maybe.
9) Do you have any techniques to help you to deter or to help you through a panic attack?
I use mindful breathing techniques to get me through the worst, though this can be very hard to do. I also find getting up and having a cup of tea or a glass of milk helps. If it’s not too bad an attack I let it run knowing that it will pass. In the last 2 or 3 years I have been using diazepam as needed but I try to avoid this unless I need to be able to get on with doing something that the attack would interfere with. I would strongly recommend mindfulness practice.
10) How does depression impact your life?
Depression mainly makes my chronic inability to take action or make decisions unbearable. I find it hard to keep track of things going on. I forget stuff and get cross / sad about this. It is a feeling that life is passing me by and I have no part in it. I don’t want to do anything, see anybody or talk to anybody, including immediate family. My wife made me go to the doctors after one bad bout when I hid behind the sofa to avoid seeing a visitor.
11) How did your mental health before counselling compare to your mental health since?
I trained to be a person-centred counsellor about 8 years ago. I didn’t complete the 2 years training to qualify due to life pressures but the course made a huge difference to my mental health. I still have anxiety and panics but I usually manage to head off depression and have had no serious bouts since the counselling course. I have had CBT for panic and anxiety but apart from 1 technique (setting aside a worry hour) it didn’t really make much difference. One counsellor was good to talk to and that helped, but the other was so matter of fact and technique based I found it essentially useless.
12) What would you like to say to someone reading this today who is struggling with their mental health but is hesitant about seeking help?
Talk to someone who CAN help. Talking to anyone who will listen can help but there is a danger of a self-reinforcing spiral I guess. A professional can break this cycle either by talking therapy or appropriate medication. SO, go and see a doctor would be my advice – but I had a doctor I knew well and trusted so it wasn’t as hard as it otherwise might have been.
13) What is the most challenging part of having anxiety?
Anxiety lasts for ages, usually it leads to a panic attack eventually, but it is a sense of constantly being on edge. Continually afraid of things going wrong. Often an upset stomach and feeling a bit sick. There is always a sense of things being out of control and having something hanging over me. It affects all aspects of what I do. I find it hard to read, concentrate on tv or music. I love running but if I'm particularly anxious I cant even run because I’m afraid of what might be happening whilst I’m out running. Which seems crazy even to me but I have learnt that there is no point going unless I can shake off some of the anxious feelings.
14) Did your anxiety impact your thoughts about this interview today?
No, this interview did not really make me anxious. I did feel, at one point, that it and other commitments were building up on me and taking over my life which was starting to be a cause for concern but I stopped worrying when I started doing them.
15) Tell me about your life as a parent...
I have a 26 yr old son and 20 yr old twin daughters. My daughters have significant disabilities and health issues. They have a rare genetic condition called DDX3X. My son is moderately neurotypical. Managing my daughter's care and support is hard and getting help from the local authority etc is a continual fight. But, although they are hard work (especially as anxiety is a symptom of their condition and they have limited emotional control / understanding, so they have tantrums and self-harm), they are on the whole gloriously happy and mostly full of fun smiles and enthusiasm. My son is quirky but quite delightful, I think growing up was hard for him as my daughters required attention that he should have got, though he says this is not the case (he’s lovely like that – so kind and caring).
16) Does coping with depression, anxiety and panic attacks make parenting more challenging for you in any way?
Obviously depression etc makes parenting harder as I don’t always have the time and patience needed, but actually their needs often help to motivate me to do things which can be a great help.
17) What do you hope people take away from reading to this interview today?
I hope people will realise that if they feel “bad” about themselves or inadequate at any time, they are not the only ones and help is available and help will make a difference even when everything seems pointless. I think it is important for people to try to build up relationships with people (one person) to who they feel they can always chat with. I don’t always want to see / talk to my mates but it usually helps, and if I tell them I feel bad they can be quite kind in a cheery, blokey sort of way. This banter works for me usually. Everyone needs to have some idea of what might work for them and who could provide it.
18) What is your biggest personal goal mental health wise?
I would like to not be anxious or panic or be depressed. But I guess that's impossible. So I would like to be able to identify the starts of these feelings, which mostly I can now, and continue to develop ways of coping. Sometimes this is really hard.
19) If you're having a panic attack, what do you need? And how could someone else make sure you have what you need to get through it more comfortably?
If I have a panic attack I just need time and I like to be left alone. Though my wife tells me to breath slowly and concentrate on my breathing, this can help.
20) How do you feel after doing this interview today?
I feel surprisingly good after answering these questions. I have thought about things that I haven’t really given much thought to for a few years.
Thank you so much Garry for sharing your story with us today and for being so honest. I have no doubt reading about your experiences with anxiety, depression and panic attacks will help others. I very much look forward to meeting you in the future, perhaps at a poetry event! Until then, look after you. Sending lots of love to you and your brilliant family.
You can see more about Garry's family life, and what life is like for his daughters living with the rare condition DDX3X syndrome, through this video 'Our family: living with a rare condition' via this link https://youtu.be/oj0amWoyGFg.
If you're reading this interview today and you're struggling with your own mental health, please REACH OUT. Speak to someone you trust, see a doctor, or go to the 'SUPPORT' page on this website where you'll find a list of useful contacts. If there's a waiting list for the support you need, put yourself on it. I promise you, you are worth waiting for.
If you'd like to share your own mental health experiences in a future blog, contact me through social media @jemima_unspoken, or send me a message via the 'contact' page on this site.