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Mental resilience

This is a story about how I manage my mental health. It’s a story about death, illness and relationship breakdown. It’s a story about life.

We all have problems but I seem to have been dealt a lousy hand in the last five years.

In quick succession my grandfather died and I lost my dad to dementia.

That was followed by my former partner’s diagnosis of cancer. She thankfully made a complete recovery but our relationship broke in the process.

Here’s the thing. I’m not alone. This is the story of modern life for many people in their 40s and 50s.

We’re the generation sandwiched between young families and aging parents and grandparents.

Just when you think you’ve cracked it with your relationship, family and career; life slaps you in the face and pulls you up short.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I have made some poor choices because of my mental health.

This isn’t an article about woe, but it is about finding help and building mental resilience. It’s a living will.

The first thing is recognising that you need help.

In my case that was easy. My mental tells are anger, anxiety and melancholy.

You can only rage at a situation for so long before your behaviour gets called out as unacceptable.

You can only wake up in the morning fretting about the day ahead for so long before you need to get help in order to function. There’s a contradictory force at play in my life. I’m a workaholic and so have frequently used work as a means of escape.

Finally, you can only cry so many times before someone steps in and offers support.

Vulnerability is a powerful state. I reached out to my network and asked for help.

Whenever I’ve done this I’ve always been overwhelmed by the response.

I’ve had some wonderful heart-breaking and heart-warming conversations with men and women simply by recognising a shared experience and asking for help.

There’s a misperception that men don’t like talking about their emotions. It’s very wrong. We want to talk but conditioning and society tells us that we need be strong. I’m not strong.

You have to find a safe place where you can be vulnerable and share what’s wrong.

In hindsight an article that I wrote two years ago about middle age was a cry for help.

I’ve a new found respect for my mum. We’ve talked more about our emotional wellbeing in the last two years than we have in the previous two decades.

Your mum, and if you’re lucky your dad, are the only people that will love you unconditionally. Please nurture these relationships.

Ultimately l sought professional help from a doctor who referred me to a psychologist.

Over weeks and months he helped me tackle my emotional wellbeing and begin to make better decisions. We still check in from time to time.

It’s difficult to underestimate the power of professional counselling. It’s extraordinary value and has been a turning point for me.

In time this professional relationship has made way for a new personal relationship.

You’ve met the Posh Geordie in previous blogs. She’s had a different but similar life experience. As a result we’ve put emotional support and wellbeing at the core of our new relationship. It works although performance indicators and quarterly reviews aren’t for the faint hearted.

There’s any number of ways of improving your mental fitness but I’d suggest that addressing the root cause should be your start point.

I’ve tried most things: art and craft; growing and nurturing plants; meditation; and nature. They all have a place in helping take care of yourself.

Exercise is powerful as it improves your personal wellbeing as well as your mental state. I’m 10kgs down from my peak weight and a hell of a lot fitter.

Explore and find something that works for you.

A word of warning. Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. At best they are a place to hide and a temporary mask. They’ll almost certainly make a bad situation worse.

If there is one single thing I’ve learnt in the past five years it’s that you can’t be anybody but yourself. But you should be the best person that you can be and that means taking care of your mental wellbeing.

Thanks for listening. Please take care of yourself.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

41 Comments

    • Thanks Steve. I’m enjoying the personal perspectives that you are increasingly sharing on your blog.

  1. Stephen, Thank you. I too have been down this dark rabbit hole. For more than a year I was within hours of suicide. Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife and very supportive family.
    I have written a lot of books and found I could not write. I am gregarious and shunned my friends. I am active and spent days doing nothing. I recognise anger, anxiety and melancholy as symptoms. Music still makes me weep.
    Now I am in a better place and know that talking about it helps others.
    So thank you for this post.
    Dvaid

    • Thanks David. I really appreciate your very personal perspective.

  2. This is brilliant, and thanks for writing it. At the weekend I go on my stag weekend and have made it as a Senior Producer, so in a lot of senses as I hurtle towards 40 I’ve turned out alright. My Dad (my hero and a Baptist Minister) died at 38 of liver cancer in 1980 when I was 2. The lack of a Dad has in my view driven many of my successes and is an engine all of its own: but I’ve never really come to terms with it. I know I should, and reading things like this reminds me that I really have to. Hats off, Stephen.

    • Thanks Phil. I thought I was doing okay until my Grandfather died and then the succession of my Dad and ex-partner’s illness. I wasn’t strong enough. Keep talking.

  3. Thank you.

    I’m at the start of my process (figuring out how to cope after an affair… Forgive? divorce? 2v small children that I don’t want to see less of, And trying to cope when few I can talk to without her being judged). Needing help.

    • Hi Rob, I just wanted to say that I’ve been the betrayed spouse. How to cope?

      Firstly, talk to your partner (I am assuming it’s a woman so replace her with him if not). Tell her exactly how you’re feeling. Tell her that you need complete honesty from her in order to move forward. Is the affair over? Does she want to work on your marriage? If yes, then you need to go to couples therapy. And you need to go to therapy for yourself on your own. As does she. Talk. And talk. And talk. Even though you won’t want to. Even though it will hurt and feel embarrassing and awkward and excruciating, you need to talk to someone to get all the emotions out and you and she need to spend a least an hour every night just talking to each other. Go back to why you first got together. Talk with complete honesty about what you’ve loved and what you haven’t. You won’t want to hear this (I didn’t) but you carry some of the responsibility for a marriage that hasn’t worked out as it should have. You’re not responsible for her affair. She made that decision, not you. But you will have contributed to a marriage in which she felt the need to go in search of something else. Just that right there is what hurts the most. But it’s important to accept some responsibility for your marriage, if not the affair.

      When there is literally no more shit to be discussed (and I say shit because it will be), then you are in a position to make the decision. If what stops you from staying together is the sense that by staying you are condoning her behaviour, let me reassure you, you are not. By staying you are forgiving what she did so that you can move on. It in no way means you are condoning the actions. But until you forgive her, you will not manage to move forward. Someone told me: Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. It gives you permission to let the anger go. Read a book called: Not just friends by Shirley Glass. Get your partner to read it too.

      Also ask yourself: if there another woman out there who could better your wife? Would you want to be with someone else? When I asked those questions of myself, I realised that despite his affair, there was still no-one I wanted to be with more than my husband. So my choice was finding a solution or being alone.

      It’s not an easy journey. But do NOT think you need to leave because there is a societal expectation that if you stay you are some kind of fool. Staying and working really hard to fix things, is the brave thing to do. For yourself and your children.

      We are coming up to four years since my husband had his affair. Our marriage is now stronger and happier than it was for many years beforehand because we have worked hard to remember why we got married in the first place.

      Best of luck and sending lots of love your way.

      • Thanks Rob. Like Anonymous I’d urge you to seek relationship and personal counselling, and don’t make a decision until you’ve exhausted the conversation.

  4. Stephen
    Life is fragile and unpredictable. You’re right when you say that just when you think you’ve got it licked, life delivers something unexpected and, sometimes, devastating. Your advice is sound and essential to manage life’s slings and arrows.

  5. Stephen,
    A very courageous post on a topic we should all acknowledge is within all of us at some point in our lives. Life is ebb and flow and sometimes currents take us to dark places. I experienced anxiety to the point of throwing up early in my career. I was let go of my first two jobs in radio which caused many doubts about my abilities. And that was after my dad died. suddenly at 53 when I was just getting started in life. The pressure of being the eldest of a family of five and those two setbacks tested me. What got me back is precisly what you suggest, reach out to your network, exercise and yes I became an overachiever and workaholic. So important to manage ourselves and exteriorize our feelings. Later in life my younger son revealed his long held suicidal thoughts ironically when he was diagnosed with cancer. It took cancer to get him out of his shell and we as parents never saw it coming. All is well or as best as it can be now but the message is clear. We are all fragile and need help and support from loved ones as well as taking charge of our own coping strategies. Hell I’m never sure what’s around the corner but I now know how to manage episodes of darkness.
    I’m sharing hoping to make the point that all of us are at risk and we would all be better is we start the conversation when it is most needed.

    • Thanks Jean. I really appreciate you sharing your story and I’m sure other people will too.

  6. Love this article on mental resilience Stephen. So honest and rings true with so many. It’s so important to have a good network of people around you, family, friends and professional. Thanks for sharing x

  7. Stephen thank you for writing this. It will help many people realise that to struggle is human, and to seek help is brave.

  8. What a fantastic post, Stephen. Many of us have shared similar experiences but few speak out about it. Thanks for sharing yours.

    • Thanks Lisa. The lesson from the experience of writing this article is exactly what you say. It’s heartwarming how people have responded.

  9. One wonders whether the world we operate in – PR/communications – makes. It particularly hard to deal with the challenges going on in all our personal lives. Thank you for opening up the discussion.

    • Thanks Jenny. No I don’t think it’s an issue that is unique to people that work in communications. It’s life.

  10. Clear, articulate, human and much required Stephen. Mental Health affects each and every one of us. Sharing our real experiences connects us so much more than the pretence so often required (or assumed to be required). Going through much in the past years (and seriously contemplating suicide in the process) I’ve learnt never to hesitate to seek and receive the help I need and take time to plan ongoing care (reading, walking, therapy, music, meditation all play a huge part – as does good food, sleep, honest friends, ditto family if you have one (I don’t).
    Love your conscious design in your new/ growing relationship. A great friend of mine once said ‘this self development stuff ain’t for cissies’… Courage, the courage to travel this pass is a sign of both strength and vulnerability – both critical.
    Life delivers all sorts. I know no one who comes through without traumas happening (whatever image is projected) and we never know when they may appear…..

  11. This is a fantastic post. Thank you for writing it. It’s only by talking that people will understand mental health better, and recognise when and how to support friends and colleagues. Having the support of friends, networks, work colleagues and professionals makes dark times that bit easier to bear. I hope we’re getting near a time when everyone can be more open at work (particularly in our industry) about the mental health challenges so many people face.

  12. I’m certain that the biggest risk factor in mental health is fear of fear itself.
    First, it’s frightening to say you’re not feeling OK. But it’s the first thing you need to do, if you’re going to fix things. I did psychotherapy when I realised how (excuse the vernacular) mental my life choices were, 15 years ago.

    Fear of confronting tough decisions is another guarantor of misery, anxiety, anger et al. Then acting on them is scary too. At least, it’s scary before you act on them. Funny how doing stuff is often so much less frightening than contemplating the doing. Sure, there’s always a cost (leaving a failing relationship in favour of potential aloneness, giving up the guaranteed highs of dysfunctional behaviours etc) but the old aphorism of no gain is a good one.

    Fear of taking a (healthy) risk is another bind for many of us. Nearly three years after jacking in a stable corporate role & setting out as a lone wolf I can tell you some fears are really worth conquering.

    I’m willing to bet there was a bit of fear for you around writing this post. But look at how much we loved it :)

    Just my two penn’orth, based on real life.

  13. “This is the story of modern life for many people in their 40s and 50s” – you’re not wrong there!
    Good on you, Stephen – takes guts to first of all recognise you need to heal/be healed, and then to actually do something about it. Over the last six months, I’ve found yoga very helpful in creating a peaceful interlude to the otherwise frantic stramash that is work/family life – you might want to have a go yourself if you haven’t already.
    Keep healing.

  14. Respect Wadds. A brave blog to write and one that I am sure will help many people.

  15. Thanks for the post, Stephen. Last time I saw you I was in a crisis of my own – board meetings aren’t the best places for panic attacks, I found out. Lolz. Anyway back then you told me I needed to work out what I wanted. Marriage to the right man, two children, a commitment to fitness, and a career retrain journey later and I’m getting there. But your point about professional help and reaching out is spot on, there’s no substitute. I’m still waiting, nearly 6 months later, for a referral apt for my perinatal mental health problem – having kids is another head f*ck that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. The upside: I’m not ‘urgent’ but clearly cuts to mental health services are biting. I guess that’s a different blog post. I’m very sorry to hear about your losses, and your struggles with anxiety. It’s amazing how many seemingly strong people are suffering below the surface. I’m not leaving my name but hopefully you’ll know who this is. Sending you my best wishes.

    • Thanks anon. I hear you. I hope we get chance to catch up at some point.

  16. Companies need to support men more at work.
    The evidence shows that men face specific challenges but have been conditioned not to express themselves. They live behind a mask, which builds mental conflict and depression.
    Unfortunately as men, that mask means we do not ask for help.

    Companies could help enormously by offering greater support that targets helping men develop their ability to be more ‘vulnerable’ – what I mean by this is teaching skills to enhance self awareness and providing tools for self regulation.
    Having suffered myself, I decided to put my experience to use and created a coaching program for men.
    As there is no stigma attached to coaching, it is easy to get engagement. The coaching forms part of employee development and creates a safe environment for them to explore common themes.
    Larger companies that invest heavily in employee welfare are starting to engage and the signs are very positive but we need more. The more programmes we run the more men that will be helped, may be prevented from suffering like us.
    It’s brilliant people are talking about mental health….we now need to see some more action to prevent it.

  17. I still like #45 two years on. You can do all the things you mention and still comply with #45.

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