I am 46 and a father of three. I am an employment lawyer by training, having been a partner in Jones Day and then Speechly Bircham, where I led the employment team and sat on the firm’s management board. It was a traditional private practice legal career in many ways, and one that from the outside was going well.
In May 2011 I was driving home from a half-term holiday with my family in France when I felt really unwell – heart rate rising, breathing out of control, nausea, and an overwhelming desire to get out of the car on the autoroute south of Paris, which I did. I had no idea what was happening. The symptoms were very similar to a heart attack, and when I was taken to hospital by the French emergency services, that was what they checked for. I now know that it wasn’t a heart attack but a panic attack. When I got home I saw my GP who suggested likely anxiety issues, and Speechly’s arranged for me to see a psychiatrist who confirmed the same. Things deteriorated until I was admitted to The Priory for just under a month.
I felt really unwell – heart rate rising, breathing out of control, nausea, and an overwhelming desire to get out of the car on the autoroute south of Paris, which I did.
At the time it seemed to come out of the blue. Now I know there were many warning signs that I had missed or ignored. I had been living with a rising sense of worry, anxiety and panic for many months, if not years. Most of the time I was worrying about things I needed to do, and gave myself precious little time to relax, whether with my family or alone. My dreams were filled with vivid images of uncontrollable cycles. I did not recognise what was happening.
After The Priory I spent months at home or in our holiday home in France. France was a way to limit my interaction with the world, which terrified me, while giving me the time and space to control my own time and to take up building and gardening work which kept me engaged. In England I underwent counselling (which is ongoing), and slowly built up my engagement with the world – voluntary work, limited social engagements and a gradual reintroduction to work.
Although Speechly’s were hugely supportive and kept my position open for me, I left in 2013 as I did not feel able to return to my old role. Instead I started my own small consultancy business, which very quickly led to an introduction to byrne∙dean. We deliver a wide range of training and other support to employers to help create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces. I lead our work on mental health and wellbeing, and I am a campaigner for greater awareness and understanding of mental health. I am also a certified Mental Health First Aider trainer.
For several years I was on medication for anxiety and depression, which kept the depths of the emotional pain in check, while time, counselling and other activity helped to rebuild my ability to interact with the world and to find a way of being that was more aligned with my own values and interests.Since I was first ill I have read and studied a lot about how we think and feel and what makes people ill. Why do some people get ill and others not? There are a whole range of factors, but what I have learned is that it is not events themselves that cause us distress and problems, but the way we react to them. And that is something we can try to understand and do something about. If I can understand the way my thinking works, then I can challenge the less helpful elements and have a more balanced, less stressful, reaction to events. This is something everyone can do, if they knew about it, if they had the information and the opportunity to think and talk about it.
I know how awful it is to suffer, and to think that I cannot cope. I also know something of how awful it was for those around me to see me in the state I was. If we get people talking about mental health, we can start educating people about how to look after themselves and each other, to keep well and to be alive to the warning signs and risk factors. We do it in every other aspect of our overall health, so why not our mental health?