At the beginning of the year, we learned about Christopher’s story. A very brave and powerful one at that.
This is simply powerful.
Portarlington native Christopher Booth has opened up in incredible detail about his mental health battle.
The Colaiste Iosagain secondary school teacher penned a piece for A Lust For Life which appeared online yesterday.
With Christopher’s permission, we have reproduced his piece in full below.
Take time to read it – it may just help you or someone that you know:
The other day I posted on Instagram that I might share something in the topic of mental health.
Anybody who is close to me, knows that I have had my ups and downs mentally over the years. I also have the ability to write, yet I’ve never combined the two and shared it publically. It’s hard to put yourself out there, firstly…to be very open and frank about something so personal. Secondly, I felt some might feel it was disingenuous.
Then I realised that in fact, I, like many people, have been disingenuous countless times before on social media, posting an image which suggests fun, or joy, or a way of life, when in fact, at that very moment, the opposite can be true. A few nights ago, my brother and I met a 71 year old woman, named Janice. She seemed to be one of the most contented people I’ve ever met. I asked her what the key to a happy life was. She said simply, ‘Be true to yourself.’ So it’s time to do that.
I have dealt with depression and anxiety on and off since my teens. Luckily, it is a lot more rare now. I’d say 90% of the time I’m good. A couple of occurrences over a 24 hour period between Christmas Eve and Day just past, however, gave me an unstoppable urge to write this. So fuck it, here goes. It may not be for everyone, but I’m sure there are those who can relate. I’m also fully aware that there are people out there who are going through far worse things than anything mentioned in this piece, or that I can even understand, but I have witnessed the effects of poor mental health and mental illness.
I mentioned in the post the other day that mental health is extremely important to me, for many reasons. Well, for one, being a teacher of teenagers, I deal with their mental health on an almost daily basis. For me, it truly is the most important part of my job. People sometimes look down on teenagers, but I have found the current generation to be some of the most reflective, open-minded and conscious beings you could meet. Moreover, they are the first generation of teens to essentially live two lives. Reality and a cyber life. This creates obvious pressures. We all remember what it was like growing up as a teen; worrying about popularity, spots, what you say, what you do, girls or boys, sexuality, how you look. Imagine if it was all measurable? To them, it is, through streaks and likes. This adds pressure to their already vulnerable young minds. This is just one reason it’s so important to me.
Secondly, as mentioned above, it has affected my own life at times. As I write, I understand that I am lucky for many reasons, not least the fact that I can sit here and express this. But I would be lying if I said that anxiety and depression have not affected my life at times, whether it was work, relationships, decision-making, or commitment to teams for example. That is not to use it as an excuse, as admittedly I’ve just been a massive fucking arsehole too sometimes, and I am fully aware we must take responsibility for our own actions and for who we are, but I do know how I have felt in certain moments, during panic attacks, bouts of depression, crippling anxiety, a desire to feel complete nothingness and total and utter loneliness.
Thirdly, and I won’t go into too much detail here, but family and friends have both suffered in the past and I am always conscious of this fact.
Anyway, moving on to what triggered this piece of writing. On the night of Christmas Eve, lying down on the beautiful island of Koh Phangan in Thailand, I felt the most severe anxiety I have felt in a very long time. The majesty of my surroundings was no consolation as something like a vice gripped my chest. My heart felt as though it would explode through visible palpatations, my mind screamed at a deafening pitch, my body became paralysed with fear, doubt and self-loathing. I could not breathe, I physically trembled and no matter how much I tried to calm it became worse. On that moment, I wanted to experience anything but the extreme claustrophobia of my chest and mind. I had a desire to literally tear my hair out. You hear the term ‘crippling anxiety’ and I sometimes wonder if people believe it is a real thing. Luckily, it had been a while since I have felt it, but there it was. Paralysin, crippling anxiety. I was trapped, enclosed, a prisoner in my own mind. I called my girlfriend April, who along with her mother, talked me though the process. I calmed slightly, but slept for less than two hours.
But why did this happen? I’m no professional in the area of course, but through experience, observation, research and conversation, I believe it was a culmination of things.
First of all, I was just depressed. I had been for a few weeks, but this time I had failed to recognise it or deal with it.
Let me go back a little bit….
Four months ago, I, along with my best friend Jonathan McGuirk, gave up drinking alcohol. Personally, I had felt it was the root cause of all my problems mentally throughout the years. Anybody who ever shared a room with me during a hangover will know what I’m talking about. Keith and the boys I live with have had to do their fair share of counseling!
When I quit, I made a detailed plan. A list of the reasons, potential benefits and potential challenges I would face. (For anybody interested, I can send it on) And I stuck to it. For over three months, it worked. I felt on top of the world. Invincible. ‘There it is,’ I thought, ‘Ive found the solution. No booze’. Simple.
I had read Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘The Power of Now’ (for me, my bible!) and taken one particular phrase from it. In any given situation, there are three possibilities. Change the situation, move away from the situation or accept the situation. Sometimes, it’s neither possible to change it or move away, in which case you must accept it. I couldn’t accept hangovers or what drinking was doing to my mental health. I couldn’t move away from the consumption of alcohol (I do live in Ireland after all!), so I had to change. It HAD worked…
Then it all changed. About three weeks ago, familiar patterns started to re-emerge. I lacked motivation, for everything really. I didn’t really want to see anyone or chat. I had a limited interest in exercise or running or reading or basically anything productive. I was getting that feeling of disconnection from the world again. That unjustifiable anger at the world for being how it is and that unjustifiable anger at people for being who they are. A desire to be anywhere else but in my head.
The next part is important. I had read about, and believe in, 8 areas that impact the quality of your life. They are:
- Your thoughts
- Your words
- Your food
- Your sleep
- Your fitness
- Your purpose
- Your environment
- Your relationships
For the previous three months, I could confidently state I was on top of each of these. I woke up every day, buzzing. I was confident, enthusiastic, motivated, happy. All of a sudden, this was gone. In relation to the eight above, my thoughts had become predominantly negative, I was eating nothing but takeaways and crap, my sleeping pattern was all over the place, I wasn’t running, I questioned my purpose in life, I didn’t want to be anywhere except in my room and I was a poor contributor to my relationships, whether with my friends, girlfriend, family or work colleagues.
I have been a huge believer for some time now, that mental health equates to physical health, in that it is changeable and much like how we can improve the condition of our bodies through exercise or working out, so too must we exercise and work out our minds. For me, this includes:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Reading and writing
- Actively practicing gratitude
- Open, honest conversation.
- Trying (though admittedly with difficulty) to turn away from the phone for a while.
For months I had been doing these too. Now I found myself doing none. I stopped meditating, feeling I didn’t have the time, which the biggest bullshit excuse not to meditate anyway. I read and wrote nothing, I questioned none of my thoughts, I wasn’t engaging fully in conversation and I was scrolling mind numbingly through Twitter and Instagram.
I had neglected these and was depressed. When you are depressed, sometimes you feel nothing. You long to feel something. The tragic Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis, wrote a great song called ‘Disorder’. Some say it’s about his epilepsy and some say his depression, which ultimately led to him taking his own life. In it, he writes:
‘Ive been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand,
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasure of a normal man? These sensations barely interest me for another day,
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away’.
I interpret it to mean his desire to feel something, anything normal. He knows deep down that there is vigour and beauty in the life. He knows the spirit of it, but he has no feeling. Listen to how he roars, ‘Feeling, Feeling, Feeling, Feeling’ at the end. To me, almost a desperate cry to feel something, anything.
In the throes of depression or anxiety like I felt the other night, you long for something, even a long, hard cry, to almost chisel away at the concrete block that is your chest. (Just listening now, and man, I love Joy Division!)
Anyway, I digress. I found myself on this beach on Christmas Eve, with a panic attack, resulting from a bout of depression I had not acknowledged. I felt angry, confused, alone. I felt entitled to feel good. ‘Ive given up drinking like, what more do I need to do?’ And then I realised. It isn’t just alcohol. I’d neglected all those other things I mentioned above. Those 8 areas, and my ‘mental training’ if you will. I had pushed away the idea I was depressed, assuming it was a small blip and that once I got to Thailand it’d be ok. But again, environment is just one thing that’s important. I have been lucky to travel plenty over the years, but the amount of times I have seen people who are deeply unhappy in beautiful places. It doesn’t matter where you are. The place that matters most is inside your own head. Prioritise that place first. Nurture it and look after it, like your body. You only get one.
I had also forgotten to take into account the fact that last year around this time, the doctor had told me I had the symptoms of SADS (Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome) and no matter what this was going to affect me a little bit. Once I remembered this, and realised I hadn’t taken tablets in a few months, I became a bit relieved. It was an explanation to myself as to why I was where I was at this particular moment, mentally. I know I can nurture my mind, by applying the tools above. Mental illness, like physical illness, is something fare more difficult to change of course, but we can all take action to improve our mental health, just like we can our physical health. This is up to me and it’s up to you.
I looked back to a moment a couple of weeks ago where I delivered a speech to a large group of students in how to cope with poor mental health essentially. I spoke about some of these tools, but afterwards I felt empty and hypocritical, because here I was spouting on but not actively applying the tools myself. Find what your tools are, apply them and set short and long term goals. Then commit to these long term goals. I once heard Mickey Harte (the GAA manager, not the one time Eurovision sensation) refer to commitment as, ‘Staying true to a promise long after the mood you made it in has left you’.
It’s not always easy but I love that quote and try to keep it in mind as much as is possible. I forgot my commitment for a little while.
Slight digression again here, but no matter how good somebody seems to have it on social media, don’t worry. You’re probably just as content in that moment. Comparison truly is the theft of joy. I’m guilty of it on both counts. Right now, I feel good, but there have been times, including the other day, where I was anxious and depressed on a beautiful island, posting shit that made me look as happy as Larry! I appreciate the irony of posting this on social media by the way. I get my kicks from running, or the outdoors or good company and I usually post on these things but I’ve definitely posted in the past where it made as look as though things were better than they were at that time. Be wary of that. No matter where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing, as long as you’re in any way content, just embrace it and live in that moment. Nobody’s life is better than yours if you are happ, whatever you’re doing. You cannot change the past and any image you have in your mind of the future is a fabrication that will never transpire exactly as you imagined it. Live in the present. The here and now. Please do not feel as though I’m preaching, as I’m reminding myself to do these things as much as anyone else.
I’m near the end now I promise!
But back to Christmas gone by. After the panic attack on Christmas Eve, I slept less than two hours. I woke up the next morning. Agitated. Panicked. Weighted. All I could think to do was run.
Ok, slight digression again. I don’t like Christmas anymore. I loved it as a kid and was very lucky to have two parents who made it extremely magical every year, but as a 30 year old man, I get stressed and disillusioned by the in-your-face consumerist element, the pressure to give and receive things. I am not religious and I feel nothing but a mixture of nostalgia and that weight of expectation to convey a feeling from my childhood that is no longer possible to feel. The only outlet is to drink heavily, which I did for a few years, but I do not have the interest in that anymore.
So I ran. And kept running. Not like Forrest Gump. About 10k. I forgot to drink any water beforehand or to bring any and hadn’t drank anything after the exhaustion of my panic attacks. I had only made a half attempt at eating a meal the previous day too. Almost comically, I fainted, right in front of a group of 20-something year old Thai lads, outside their tattoo shop. They were celebrating the older guy’s birthday, gave some water, tea and had a chat and then the youngest brought me back to my accomodation on his scooter. About an hour later, my head still clearly a bit all over the place, I got into difficulty swimming. I’m a very bad swimmer and it was deeper than I thought. More panic. I was helped up and slit my toe somewhere along the process, but luckily there was a really nice Danish woman on hand with a medical kit to sort me out. Cheesy as it sounds, in that moment I thought two things. The true spirit of Christmas or really and time of year is simply kind acts. And secondly, it was time to cop the fuck on. It’s so simple to be kind to people, and it’s free. We, and myself especially, forget that sometimes because either we feel able bit shitty about ourselves or we think that person is ‘grand’ anyway or veacuse were Irish there’s probably an element of begrudgery. We forget that at any time anybody could be going through some kind of shit we don’t even know about. My good friend Anwar is a shining example of this kindness. Unfailingly, he greets people with a hug and a smile and always had a compliment or kind words for every body. It doesn’t cost him a thing.
I repeat, thoughts, words, food, sleep, fitness, purpose, environment and relationships. Observe them. Be mindful of them. You’ll rarely tick all the boxes, but if you tick some of them, you’re doing ok. Just as I am now, thankfully.
Though mental health is now less taboo, there is still that feeling out there that ‘you can just pull yourself together’ It’s just not always that easy. Not for everyone. Men find it difficult. The rate of suicides among young males is scary. There are expectation to be masculine, not to express too much and not to stray too far from the crowd in terms of your belief, actions or values.
I am grateful that there are guys out there like Blindboy from the Rubberbandits, Russell Brand and Bressie, who speak openly about mental health and normalise it.
I am grateful that despite feeling like this sometimes, I live a fun and enjoyable life, surrounded by great people, in a great place.
I am grateful that I have the tools at my disposal to overcome anxiety and depression whenever it rears its ugly head again.
I am grateful for the constant patience, love and generosity of my family. My parents Chris and Josephine and my brother Conor who put up with me last week.
I am grateful for my beautiful girlfriend April and her Mam for calming me in a time of need.
I am grateful for a particular bunch of friends, all of whom do not need to be named, bit know who they are, for always lending a listening ear, but also speaking openly about their problems and allowing my to assist.
I am grateful for my work, for the written word, my students and the courage to finally express all of this.
If there’s something in it all that resonates, feel free to hit me up.
Some things I’d recommend checking out if you’re feeling a bit low are:
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. (Also a 30 mom speech on YouTube.niys fantastic)
- Blindboy’s podcast series on Cognitive Therapy.
- Wim Hof and his breathing methods.
- Mindfulness apps like Headspace or Buddhify or just Google ‘UCLA Mindfulness’
- The brilliant Irish mental health blog ‘A Lust for Life’s
- Russell Brand’s short videos on Twitter.
- Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast with Tony Robbins.
- Youtube the twenty minute TED talk on ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. Watch this definitely!
Or above all, have a chat with somebody!
Have a great new year. I intend to!