The highest highs and the lowest lows

After living with the highs and lows of depression and bipolar disorder for 30 years, Anders has chosen to share an honest account of his experiences hoping to inspire other people, especially men, and encourage the conversation around mental health.

The background info

I’m half English, half Norwegian and I was born in Tanzania. My first nine years were spent in Tanzania, Turkey & Romania, after which we moved to the UK. All the moving was due to my father’s career in the British Council.

On reaching the UK, I went to boarding school in Surrey aged nine and stayed there until I was 18-years-old. During this time my father lived in the UK, Zambia and South Africa.

Although the holidays were by far the best of my life, the boarding school experience was full of trauma.

I endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse during those years, and then aged 19, during my first year at University, my mother died after a long battle with cancer.

My first significant bipolar episode

On the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I suffered a major emotional breakdown and it was at least six months before I returned to anything I could describe as stable or normal.

In the years that followed, there were no more obvious issues, though, with the power of hindsight, I had already started to have what I would soon know to be called, “manic highs”.

Course work turned into potential business ideas that were going to be hugely successful and make me loads of money.

Some years later, after I’d graduated, I found myself in Birmingham and in a job that was going to develop into my career. The role involved change management and improving organisational productivity and business performance.

It was fun, demanding, challenging and a fabulous learning opportunity all rolled into one. But as the level of implementation increased, so did the pressure and stress. But I seemed to manage OK.

Then, three years in and without warning, I started to struggle with activities that had previously caused no problems.

As the days passed, simple tasks became more and more difficult, and one day whilst at work, everything became too much and I burst into tears.

I hid the tears and trouble I was having for a while, before eventually talking to a colleague who had become a good friend of mine. By that point, I was a mess and on his suggestion, left work and went to see a doctor. That was my first diagnosis of depression.

Bigger and bigger ideas

A year later I had changed jobs and locations and was now working in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

I was still having problems with depression and in time was referred to a psychologist, who changed my medication and who introduced me to CBT techniques to help me manage my day-to-day life.

Some months later I started to develop bigger and bigger ideas about how to earn a bigger income.

The confidence in me grew quickly, as did the number of ideas and it reached the point where I resigned from my job and went all out to build this fantastic business.

I decided the ‘Shamrock” should be my logo, and then decided because this had 8 leaves, I should have 8 separate companies. I spent thousands of pounds on marketing materials and travelling here, there and everywhere.

I managed to get appointments and meetings with some very senior business executives. And over a period of a year or so, I thought I’d built an amazingly successful business.

Just one small issue. I hadn’t earned a single penny. It wasn’t until my father came to see me and started crying on my shoulder because he didn’t recognise the person his son had turned into that a chink in my armour appeared.

I unravelled very quickly. No more than a couple of days passed by before I was in serious depression.

An emergency appointment was made with a local psychiatrist and the first diagnosis of bipolar disorder was given.

The so-called businesses that I had set up were closed and my total debt was found to be over £50,000.

The next 20 years (or so)

During the next 20 years or so, I changed jobs every 3-4 years on average and usually changed locations too.

I got married and had children and continued with my life as best I could. I developed a fairly standard cycle of a manic high, then depression then a period of stability for a while.

In any one year, I would generally have 3-4 minor bipolar disorder episodes on average. And over those 20 or so years, I had a further two major bipolar disorder episodes, each one following the same pattern as before and each one resulting in me having huge mountains of debt.

I developed ways of coping with the depression as well as systems to help me cope with day to day life.

I attended a course specially designed for men called “It’s a Goal”, which amongst other content, introduced ‘goal-setting’ as an approach to improve my bipolar disorder life.

The level of overall stability improved so much that I was advised I no longer needed secondary care, i.e. the involvement of a psychiatrist. I even got to the point where I believed I might have out-grown the bipolar disorder.

The big one

In January 2017, I was diagnosed as having sleep apnoea. I was given a full face mask & air compressor and a new life with improved sleep quality began.

Three months into the new life, I noticed my brain was working better.

I could analyse things easier. I didn’t feel the need to have a sleep on the way to work. My memory seemed better too.

During a review with my sleep consultant, I was advised that the brain function improvement would be fairly rapid during the first six months then more gradual for another eighteen months or so.

All good news for a change.

In April 2017, I started to have ideas about a new business that could be a good money earner. I thought nothing of it because I knew my brain function was improving. The concept increased in size and grandeur.

I spoke to more and more senior executives and convinced them all that what I wanted to do was both possible and with deliverable benefits.

I even organised a workshop to which everyone I’d spoken to was invited and 90% attended. I certainly had industry support.

It was around this time that my wife challenged me and suggested I was heading towards a significant bipolar high.

I denied this was happening based on my belief that it was the brain function improvement showing itself.

The other key factor for me was that I had never experienced a significant bipolar high whilst on medication before.

So, on I went building support and developing the idea. The company I was working for at the time announced opportunities for voluntary redundancy.

Despite the fact that I had a very good and well paid managerial position, I applied and was accepted.

A similar bipolar high pattern was definitely occurring but as with all previous episodes, I couldn’t see it at all – and continued to refuse that it was happening.

My employment ceased at the end of September 2017, and my new company launched immediately at the beginning of October.

The spending spree also began and thousands of pounds of savings rapidly disappeared on expensive training courses, coaching & mentoring and travel expenses.

Then credit cards started to be used to access more cash. During October, November & December I was most definitely on a significant bipolar high.

But as before, I couldn’t see what was so obvious to those around me.

Starting to unravel

In early December 2017, my imaginary business world fell apart. It was a Sunday evening, and I was looking at my bank account that was now very overdrawn.

I started to add up some of the regular payments, which included payments for someone I’d taken on as a personal assistant, but who didn’t actually do any work. The total for this person alone was over £3,000.

I quickly realised what had happened and the mess I was in again.

The depression developed quickly and by Christmas 2017, I was not well at all. Christmas that year was not good for my children, let alone my wife. But, it was not all bad.

man sitting alone next to christmas tree

On Boxing Day, I woke up and out of nowhere, decided that I would use all my experience with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder to help other people also affected by these conditions.

In my mind, this included sufferers, carers and others closely associated with both of these categories. And there and then, I made three commitments:

  1. To be open about my condition to those around me, whether in the workplace or elsewhere.
    In January 2018, I informed key people within the client organisations that were customers of my consultancy, and as and when others that I felt it was appropriate to share this information with.
  2. To find every opportunity to talk in public about my experiences as a means to help others truly understand how these conditions affect people and carers.
    In the past 12 months, I have delivered 14 x 1-hour talks to schools in my local area with audiences being staff, teachers and students. My future goal is to include businesses and conferences.
  3. To set up a self-help peer to peer support group in Manchester.
    I now have two self-help support groups in Manchester & Macclesfield, with face to face meetings taking place twice a week. The Manchester group has 350 people subscribed and the newer Macclesfield group now has 35 people. I also have a single WhatsApp group for those people who want to chat more regularly and connect to others with similar conditions to themselves. There are 20 people in this group at any one time. And I also provide a 1:1 text support service. I currently have about 30 people who I’m in regular contact with, some multiple times a day, others only once a week or so.

Not like before

The first six months of depression followed a standard route and I continued to work as I had systems that I could put into place and processes to follow that enabled me to maintain near-normal life – a result of nearly 30 years of living with depression.

In June 2018, after a very successful week-long workshop with a global client, I headed home from London for the weekend to be with my family.

For reasons I can still not explain, over that weekend, my depression went from a level I could manage to a level where I became completely and utterly disabled.

I discovered a level of hell I didn’t know existed.

I became a complete prisoner of my own mind and simple things, like using a computer or phone, or going for a walk with our dog became tasks that were impossible for me to achieve.

I could no longer communicate with anyone. My wife had to take over all communication.

She would leave to take the kids to school and then go to work herself leaving me sitting on the sofa. And for many months, when they came home, I hadn’t moved.

I hadn’t watched TV or read a book or listened to an audiobook. I had stayed in that one place, desperately trying to force myself to go to sleep to escape the deep depression and anxiety that had invaded my head.

Prior to June 2018, I had experienced end-of-life thoughts perhaps three or four times in total. From June 2018, these thoughts were affecting me multiple times a day.

The good news, if you can call it that, was that I knew I would never take the next steps of planning & attempting to end my life. But for me, just thinking about not being around any more seemed to be worse than being dead.

Not your usual therapy

In January 2019, with the full support of my family, I headed to Cape Town, South Africa to stay with my father who lived close by.

Everyone hoped that the sunshine, change of scenery, and opportunities to be more active would help break the back of this very deep depression & anxiety I was living with.

My father had a 10m swimming pool in his garden and my daughter had set me a goal of being able to swim 20 lengths every day until I returned home to England three weeks later. I achieved this, so for the following week, she changed the target to 50 lengths.

I was gobsmacked (a good word) when during the second week I achieved and went past the 50 lengths target.

Well, I’m very, very proud to share that towards the end of my third week in South Africa, I achieved a target of 100 lengths. I then did the maths and realised I’d swum one kilometre!

During my time there I also joined in with two 5 km parkruns in very hot conditions with a multitude of different surfaces, including the dreaded sand.

Combine this with the fact that I did all of the cooking for my dad (more than I’d done in three years previously) and encouraged him to join me on social excursions to the local pubs to watch the six nations rugby.

The three-week trip abroad had done more for me than any level of therapy would have achieved back in England. I returned a different person.

The depression and anxiety were still strong but I was no longer completely disabled.

Helping others helps me

Now for the good news. Despite all that was happening to me during 2018 and into 2019, I was determined to meet the commitments I had made to help other people.

I started the self-help group in Manchester, with a monthly meeting to start with. Nobody turned up for the first three months.

Then in April 2018, three people turned up, two of which I am still in contact with today. It was only a small stream of people but it was continuous.

In July 2018, I was asked to increase it to a weekly meeting on a Friday, which I did. Over the summer, we were getting 12+ people attending the weekly meetups.

There were days when the depression was so disabling, I nearly didn’t make it into Manchester, but my wife often asked me what would be worse… staying at home doing nothing or going into Manchester and potentially helping people.

Every time I went in to meet people, I always returned happier.

The addition of the WhatsApp group increased involvement and my 1:1 text support was also providing rich rewards to me in terms of the feedback I received.

In the Autumn, I became aware that some people wanted to attend the weekly meetups but couldn’t come on a Friday, so I added a Tuesday evening too.

And thus it became twice a week with new people joining in. Then people I knew in Macclesfield asked if I could set a group up there too, and after some thought, I did and that is the schedule that continues till today.

Twice a week in Manchester, twice a week in Macclesfield and repeat!

Making a difference

I know I have already improved and saved lives, literally, through the support I’ve given and feedback received.

For some by eliminating their loneliness, and others by helping them to find new ways to manage their conditions and achieve more.

A recent achievement was to help someone in severe depression to go and have a shower after weeks of not being able to do so by teaching this person how to use micro-goal setting via text messaging.

Ever tried that? For some, the lack of showering may appear disgusting and may indicate laziness.

But for those that truly understand the power that depression and anxiety can have over our ability to act, it’s just normal.

I’ve been in the same situation myself. Same with brushing my teeth. It’s just too difficult sometimes.

June again

As I write this update, its June again. 2019. Prior to this experience, my previous record for the total duration of the depression was six months. This depression is entering its eighteenth month. Unbelievable.

It’s nearly a year since the severe & disabling depression stopped me from working and functioning properly. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I no longer know when it’s going to end.

And I’m still having days, like today, where I get as far as the sofa and stay there. It’s not all the time anymore and I can see improvement, albeit very very slowly.

I remain frustrated that using a phone to call people or to receive calls still causes me significant problems, such that I still need my wife to do calls on my behalf. And using my computer causes similar issues.

computer keyboard and mouse on desk

It’s taken literally weeks to get this text written just because using my computer is too difficult. I can’t completely explain why.

I just want to become more stable much faster than is happening.

A hopeful look to the future

My new career is to focus on improving the lives of those affected by depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, or DAB as I shorten it to.

And the impact, if successful, will be far greater than anything I’ve achieved to date, as there are significant issues in mental health care provision and my aim is to tackle at least one of these head-on!

Thank you for reading.

If you want to know more or want to get involved in any way or would like me to give a 30-60 mins talk to any audience, then please contact me using the contact details below:

Anders Timms  |  ambtimms@gmail.com |  07436 241452

Useful links

Anders

Anders is a father of two and works in the nuclear industry. He is also an NCMH Research Champion. 

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