I have suffered from a condition called dysthymia for something in excess of forty years now, yet it was as recently as 2014 when I finally discovered that what I thought was my “normal” was a form of mental illness that had an actual name.
Dysthymia is a mild, but chronic form of depression characterised by some – but not necessarily all – of the following: gloominess, pessimism, humourlessness (is that actually a word?!), inability to have fun, feeling passive and lethargic, introversion, feeling sceptical and hypercritical, a tendency for self-criticism or being self-reproaching and self-derogatory, and a preoccupation with inadequacy, failure, and negative events.
More than half of the above certainly apply to me, and in amongst the panic attacks, recurrent bad dreams and persistent low mood; my symptoms usually manifest themselves in one particular way.
Right from my mid-teens I have experienced numerous periods of profound sadness (seldom with an identifiable trigger) during which I’m simply unable to stop crying. Such an emotional release can be almost compelling and certain songs or thoughts would always keep the tears flowing; yet despite countless similar episodes over so many years, only a handful of people have ever seen me in that state…
I had been diagnosed with depression in 2004, but although the most acute symptoms responded well to the medication I still take, the underlying negative feelings persisted … as did the increasingly nagging doubt that these traits were more than simply just aspects of my personality.
In 2011, after what I believe is technically known as a “blip”, and also following the tragic suicide of the Wales football manager Gary Speed, I decided to write about my “depression”. It was such a tough thing to do. People who knew me (in some cases members of my close family) were going to find out something I had tried so very hard for so long to keep hidden. I had a mental illness.
When I posted the article, I felt embarrassed, even ashamed, but there was also a sense of pride, and strength gained from the number of amazingly positive comments that followed. I kept writing as I continued to try and understand more about myself and my condition, and by the start of 2014, I had the idea of using a series of “challenges” to raise mental health awareness by showing what can be achieved by talking about mental health and asking for help – just as I had in that GP surgery all those years earlier.
So I wrote down a list of “tasks”; some physical, others mental or emotional, but the majority of which would require me to seek help (often from someone I didn’t know)… In hindsight, that idea was very close to a life-changer. I have pushed myself in so many ways – from completing a marathon on an indoor rowing machine, to performing live stand-up comedy; from sparring with a professional boxer to visiting my first home; from recording song, to spending time with Pat Phelan (actor Connor McIntyre) on the Coronation Street cobbles; from getting a tattoo to sleeping rough for a night.
I have been lucky enough to meet some genuinely inspiring people, many of whom have become friends. I have had some amazing experiences – many of which I’ve been able to share with my wife Elaine, whose love and support has made the most incredible difference – as well as facing my lifelong fear of failure on a number of occasions. But the most important thing is that underlying message. It’s fine to talk about mental health; and it’s okay to ask for help. I just hope that the message resonates with just one person and they find the strength to take that first massive step.
I’m no longer ashamed or embarrassed about my condition – why would I be? Talking about my dysthymia has actually improved my life. The very definition of irony! So have I recovered? The honest answer is “no”; and I’m not sure I will ever fully recover. What I am is stronger (both mentally and also physically). Every day is still a struggle; every day I have negative, sometimes dark thoughts; but the difference is that now I can look at myself clearly and objectively and reassure the face in the mirror that the feelings will pass. They passed yesterday, so they’ll pass today, tomorrow … and the next day.