I’d like to thank Steve Picken from ITV for being brave enough to put his name to this blog and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk about his personal challenges and experiences.
What was it about the Calling Out the Men campaign that made you want to contribute?
A friend of mine contacted me recently after working with Lou and the team at Rising Vibe. She told me about the Calling Out the Men Campaign and asked if I would be willing to talk about my experiences. I immediately said yes. I’m always open and willing to talk about mental health, as I don’t really see men doing it. Men rarely admit to being sad and tend to bottle up feelings. I’ve had many challenges myself and have delivered a presentation to ITV about my personal experiences.
I’ve gone through a massive learning curve when it comes to my own mental health. I’ve experienced anxiety and depression and a cycle of rumination – the anxiety fuelling the depression and the depression fuelling the anxiety. It lead to me creating huge problems from situations that weren’t really problems in the first place. This snowballing effect kept me stuck in despair, hopelessness and took all the joy out of life.
With this blog, I wanted to let people know that with focus and dedication there is hope. I learned my way out of it. I often ask myself, if I could go back in time and change it, would I? It was the most harrowing time of my life, yes. But now I feel like I truly know myself. Furthermore, I can identify it in other people and I have way more empathy and compassion. I can spot the signs – drinking too much, self-medicating, behaving differently/irrationally. This ultimately allows me to help people.
I’m stronger for my experiences and I now see the depression as a period of personal development rather than a dark time that I want to forget all about. If I didn’t look at it this way, I could easily get sucked back into old ways of thinking.
What experiences have you (or any other men you know) had around emotional wellbeing challenges? How have you/they managed?
A lot of people can be suffering and not recognise. It. This was true for me. Looking back I had low-level depression for a long time, but didn’t really admit it to myself. I swung from really high to really low and this went on for a while. I had a very busy life which kept me distracted – I’m a musician, a teacher as well as a performer, I had a girlfriend (who did see my depression at the time), a big friendship group, a busy social calendar – I was spinning a lot of plates.
My trigger was my selfishness. Life was all about me and my progression. When the relationship with my girlfriend inevitably broke down, everything started to fall away. I lost everything that was holding me together – my music, my friendships and relationships and the guilt set in. When I stopped blaming everyone else for what was happening to me and took responsibility for it, I started to beat myself up. I told myself terrible things, which spiralled out of control into 24-hour anxiety, severe depression and hopelessness.
People with depression behave in many different ways. Some people can’t get out of bed. I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I could be in my house one minute, then on my way to my brothers the next. 5 minutes after arriving, I’d realise I couldn’t be there either and I’d return home or go somewhere else. And on it continued. I walked everywhere, burning off massive amounts of nervous energy.
It was terrifying. The worst thing about it was that I knew I was wasting my time and not getting anything done. This just made me feel worse and added to the rumination – the anxiety fuelling the depression fuelling the anxiety… I became hyper vigilant and catastrophised everything from news stories to mundane occurrences. I actively looked for problems to perpetuate.
I wanted to get myself out of this cycle but I had no idea how. So I set about looking at everything and anything that could potentially help me. I wanted a quick fix. An off switch. I figured that I’d flicked myself into it and I could flick myself out. And so began the long road to recovery. I’m sorry to say that there is no quick route out of depression. It can sometimes feel like one step forwards and two steps back.
The start of my recovery was a trip to the doctors and a prescription for anti-depressants. I knew I wouldn’t be a big fan of taking pills, but they gave me the clarity and direction I needed to start getting better. I began counselling, which really helped me to unpick and then put myself back together in a much more rounded and robust way. In my sessions I discovered that I’d created a prison within my own thoughts. Terrible as they were and still are sometimes, there is a comfort in what you know. If someone then gives you a way out and suggests an alternative way of thinking, you resist what you don’t know. It’s quite perverse really. Initially if I did take something on board, I’d take it on for a short period, then I’d wake up and be back to square one. I’d catastrophise, my counsellor would help me to understand that my thoughts were highly unlikely to become reality, but I’d still believe and hold on to those familiar thoughts in my heart.
I did this for about 12 months, yet I was still in a state of perpetual anxiety. The only way I can describe it – it’s like trying to breathe through a straw, whilst continually running up and down the stairs. I slept at my Mum and Dads place, as I didn’t want to be alone. I craved a full nights sleep instead of waking up at 3am in a cold sweat. Any distraction was good. I’d even push the toothbrush down my throat sometimes, just to feel something else.
Then I started to get interested in what it was I was actually doing to myself. I discovered a book called ‘Thrive’ by Rob Kelly. I found it incredibly helpful in finding out what was happening to me from a psychological perspective. I started to take a closer look at my unconscious behaviours and address them individually, slowly changing my thought patterns. The biggest light bulb moment with this book however, was learning that I wasn’t alone. The book reinforced everything my councillor was saying, so I realised the theory was sound. I started to work on myself and was genuinely fascinated by what I discovered. I was observing it, rather than engaging in it. I’d sit in a pub corner and work through the book rigorously. I became completely self-aware. The book set me on a path that led to cognitive behavioural therapy and a discovery of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). And with the amazing support of my family and friends, I started to feel better.
I learned a lot about myself in those 18 months. What I thought was the issue wasn’t really the issue. The issue for me was somewhere else, way back in the past and I was completely unaware of it. I believe past experiences and learned behaviours have a lot to do with depression. That selfish way of thinking I talked about earlier was a learned behaviour. My Dad went through depression and I can see those traits within me. And he learned from his father. I sponged all that up put my own slant on it and ran with it.
Changing learned behaviours is tough and it takes time. My brain was hard wired to think a certain way and I had to re-programme it. It was time consuming and frustrating but if you’re depressed, it has to be done. The feeling that I was missing out on life drove me. I wanted to feel joy again.
With self-awareness I can now see myself getting into irrational ways of thinking and I can nip it in the bud with more rational thoughts. Depression is like looking at a painting with your nose to it. You have no idea where to start. Self-awareness helps you take a step back and see the bigger picture. It brings perspective.
What do you think needs to happen next? And how can this campaign help?
Personally, I want to talk about my experiences so that I can help others, although I know this can be very difficult for some people. Those that are happy to talk about it really should. For a long time I thought I was alone in the way I felt. When I presented to my colleagues at ITV I got an overwhelming response. So many people said ‘thank-you’ and I got comments like ‘I thought it was just me’ and ‘I thought there was no way out.’ It gave people a path and a little bit of direction towards getting help. When you share, other people want to share. There is so much relief in the realisation that other people have and do feel the same way you do.
We all need a better understanding of mental health and this will only come about through us actually talking about it. Campaigns like this get people talking. The key to getting better, is understanding yourself. BUT, it’s important that friends/family/work colleagues have some level of understanding too. People who don’t get it can say what they think is an off-the-cuff comment, but it can make the sufferer feel wretched. I don’t know how many times I was told to ‘pull myself together.’ As if it’s that easy.
Fear of judgment is still a big thing. I still worry about what people think of me. But people only judge what they don’t understand. When we talk about our experiences, no matter how painful, we bring understanding and compassion into the world, which ultimately, makes everyone feel better.