It was a Monday in November 2000 around 11am at work. My boss put his head round the corner:
“Have you got a moment, please Paul?”
“Yes, sure”, I replied.
I followed my manager, another Paul, to a room where a member of our Human Resources group was sitting. The long and the short of it was that they wanted me to take a week off work as paid leave and arrange for free counselling for me. I agreed. Boss Paul, bless him, drove me home in his posh BMW and waited around for my wife to come home so he could explain the situation to her, so she wasn’t “spooked”. (Her first reaction was that I was being sacked, but fortunately he was able to reassure her).
We weren’t busy at work. I was virtually counting paper clips to fill in time. So why was I having to take time off work for “stress-related illness”, as the doctor wrote on my subsequent sick form? My boss said he knew I wasn’t right when I sent out a memo in block capital letters. That wasn’t “me”. I had been seen talking to myself, quite animatedly.
It is possible that it all went back seven years to when our precious little son, Toby, died of meningitis. I felt that if he couldn’t enjoy his life, I must enjoy my life to the full instead, to compensate. It was what he would have wanted, I figured. I had thrown myself full tilt into life and, in particular, the Liberal Democrats. But I didn’t have an “off switch”. I couldn’t really stop. I accepted every request to do tasks outside of work (I was doing 27 regular voluntary tasks – I listed them out). I didn’t “chill”. So finally in November 2000 my body, my mind, told me it wasn’t playing ball any more. I was like a car in a sand dune with the wheels spinning at 500 revs. Then the engine cut out.
In the next few weeks, on two occasions, I couldn’t move, except to, just about, get a mobile phone up to my head to ring for help. On one occasion I phoned for an ambulance. But there was nothing physically wrong with me. Indeed, I had been going to the gym four times a week – that was part of the “wheels spinning” business. I was as fit as a fiddle. So why couldn’t I move?
One of the reasons I am writing this is because I was one of the lucky ones and I want others with mental illness, which is what I had, to be lucky ones as well.
I was lucky that my boss, and company, were really wonderful. My boss spotted my illness and pulled me up. How wonderful is that? I got six weeks off paid leave and then was allowed back working half-time for a month. Without me having to wait, they provided, free of charge, a counsellor with whom I had twelve sessions of what I think was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. My psycho-therapist was Rose. She was absolutely wonderful. So patient, helpful and insightful. My wife escorted me to her door for my first appointment. I couldn’t walk without help to get to the door. When I left after the counselling, I could walk fine. It was like a ton weight had been taken off my head.
I was lucky that my illness was stopped in its tracks.
I didn’t need or have any medication – just “talking therapy”. I was lucky that my wife supported me brilliantly and allowed me time to chill out. I was lucky that I had a wonderful GP who had known me for years and could see immediately that I wasn’t right. And although it seems strange to write this, but I can now with the benefit of 14 subsequent years of mental illness-free life, I was lucky to have that illness in 2000. Yes, I was lucky I was ill that time. I now take life at a sensible pace, enjoy my chilling, enjoy the things I like to do, and (the main lesson from my counselling) say “no” a lot when people outside of work say “Paul, we think you would be very good at….”.
But I want everyone to be lucky when they have mental illness. I want everyone to have a good boss and a great company with fantastic HR procedures. I want everyone to get immediate free counselling. I want everyone to be able to have the time and the medical support to get well promptly.