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December 19, 2021

You will have noticed that there haven’t been any updates on Cloud With Chris for some time. I’ve also been quiet on social media. For any of my colleagues, you may have seen that I’ve had time away from work by my out of office messages. In this blog post, I want to open up about my recent challenges and have an honest discussion. Whether you’ve experienced mental health challenges before, are currently going through tough times, or haven’t experienced any and don’t quite understand - I hope that me sharing this helps. We’re going to be talking about mental health.

Contents

You will have noticed that there haven’t been any updates on Cloud With Chris for some time. I’ve also been quiet on social media. For any of my colleagues, you may have seen by my out of office messages that I’ve had time away from work. In this blog post, I want to open up about my recent challenges and have an honest discussion. Whether you’ve experienced mental health challenges before, are currently going through tough times, or haven’t experienced it and don’t quite understand (which is completely ok!) - I hope that me sharing this helps. We’re going to be talking about mental health.

Before we jump in, I want to caveat this entire post. I am not a medical professional. I am not a qualified counsellor. I want to use this post to share my own perspectives and experiences, in the hope that it may help either in your understanding, or your own journey.

I also want to challenge several stigmas. The stigma of mental health. The stigma of anti-depressants/medication to treat these types of illnesses. The stigma of taking time off work to recover.

This post has taken a fair bit of time to write. I’ve known that I wanted to write it for several weeks. It has taken multiple sittings to find the appropriate words to put down; a much longer writing process than my usual method of creating blog posts. Even now, I’m not sure that they are the ‘right’ words. But, please know that they are authentic and have taken a great deal of reflection.

If you’ve followed Cloud With Chris for some time, you may have seen some of the previous content that I’ve published around mental health. For example, a conversation on mental health, A livestream on Mental Health - Mental Health Awareness Week and Your Career and Your Mental Health.

Throughout these discussions, I’ve been very open about the fact that I suffer with mental health problems. Only recently, have I realised that it may have been a part of my life for a longer period of time than I had initially thought. More on that a little bit later, though.

My first challenges with mental health

I first (at least, so I thought) started facing challenges around 7 years ago (Summer of 2015). This instance manifested itself as depression. It’s difficult to put into words how I felt at the time. The closest explanation I can give is that I felt at the bottom of a pit with no way out. Or, it felt out of reach, making me feel helpless and very low.

Depression is more than just ‘feeling sad’. I’m incredibly careful of using the phrase ‘I feel depressed’, as it can feel insensitive and belittling to what it really is. If you’re interested, you can read up on the clinical definition of depression from the NHS (National Health Service). For me, the symptoms were feeling hopeless, lack of appetite (therefore, not eating) and tiredness.

This was the first time that I ever admitted that I had a mental health problem. Getting to that stage was hard. Hard to recognise that there was even a problem. Hard to admit that I was not “okay”. In all honesty, I probably hadn’t been okay for a fair while before booking a doctor’s appointment and being diagnosed. What helped me realise? Talking. Talking with my family and friends.

It’s at this point where the recovery process began. There were a couple of aspects to my treatment.

First, medication. Regardless of your own personal views, there is unfortunately still a stigma around taking medication for mental health. I remember feeling uncertain about going on medication but was encouraged by my family that it would help me get better. I gradually told more people about it (friends, colleagues, etc.), but remember thinking that it was a ’taboo’ subject, and people would think differently of me (e.g. thinking of me as unstable, or strange).

Why? Why did I feel like that? Do we think any differently of someone that takes medication for their back pain? Blood thinning tablets? Tablets to control other illnesses? No. Why should medication for mental health be any different? Throughout this period I was prescribed with Fluoxetine (I believe Prozac for my US readers).

In all honesty, I don’t fully remember the side effects that I had - but I’m sure there were some.

Let’s stay on that note for a moment. It’s important to understand that there are side effects with any medication. Medication effects each and every one of us differently. It’s up to us, working with our GP, to determine if the benefits of the medication outweigh any potential side effects.

Secondly, I was referred to the Talking Therapies programme available through the NHS. Specifically, focused on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). From what I remember, this was an online learning-based program, rather than any assigned 1-to-1 counselling session. This helped me identify some of those unhelpful thoughts/behaviours, and how I can deal with them.

There was a major turning point a couple of months after the initial diagnosis / beginning the medication. I was fortunate to have some work travel to Orlando, Florida for an internal conference. I ended up taking some holiday with friends afterwards, spending additional time in Orlando and Miami. During those few weeks, I started tapering down the medication. The depression was (unexpectedly) coming under control, and I felt back to my normal self.

Looking back on this period, there were potentially some triggers that I didn’t spot at the time.

In my first year of work, there were several life changing events. For example, moving cities (away from Coventry for university / Cardiff at home), making new friends, trying to get my feet on the ground in the corporate world, etc. I also went through some organisational changes which meant I had been switched to a different role and team in the company.

Some quick context - I made a conscious decision to apply for a graduate role in a hands-on technical role. With my Computer Science background, this direction made sense for my career. This organisational change took me away from that path. I have been (and continue to be) very driven by my career, and achieving my goals, so is some additional pressure that I would have put on myself.

As you can see, there were a lot of moving parts, so I expect that there was a mix of contributing factors.

My next set of challenges with mental health

Let’s continue the story. My next mental health challenges came in May of 2020. Can you think of anything significant that happened around this time? You’ve probably guessed. The COVID-19 pandemic started becoming a significant problem in the earlier part of that year (though I’m sure no one needs reminding of that).

On March 23 2020, the UK went into its first lockdown. I recall my emotions at the time. The feeling of disbelief, and feeling scared. Not necessarily at the thought of COVID-19 itself (back then, we had no idea of the impact that it would cause). But, the fact that we had a mandatory set of restrictions that we had to abide to by law. This included not leaving your home, aside for food shopping, and a certain amount of exercise per day. We weren’t allowed to socialize, whether that was indoors or outdoors.

Let me add some additional context; I was living alone. I moved in to my apartment in February 2018, so was very settled there. Unfortunately, I don’t live near my family. As we weren’t allowed to socialize, I was unable to see my girlfriend in person for several months. So, what did I do? A mix of Zoom calls with friends and family (quizzes, murder mysteries, online games, etc.), and threw myself into work. I completed a number of additional Azure certifications, and took on some pet projects.

I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert. I wouldn’t call myself an introvert. I’d call myself an Omnivert. If this is a new term for you, check out more here. In a nutshell, depending on the nutshell I may be introverted or extroverted (i.e. I flex depending on the scenario, and need a balance of both).

For anyone who knows me well, you’ll recognise this. I’m quite happy to keep myself to myself programming/gaming, or seeing friends for some drinks, board games, a night out, etc. It’s a bit like a pendulum, if it swings too far one way, it needs to swing back the other way and balance out.

You can likely see where this is going. Significant factors outside of my control. Unable to see my family, girlfriend or friends. Focusing more and more on work. It wasn’t sustainable. I broke. At the end of a long day of work, I finished a call, immediately called my girlfriend and broke down crying - “I can’t do this anymore. I’m not okay”.

This time, it was much easier to see the signs and identify that I wasn’t okay. It didn’t make it easier to admit to others though. I spoke with the doctor the next day. This time, the ‘barrier’ for me to accept medication was lower. I knew that it would help, after all - it did before. This time, I was prescribed with Sertraline. As to be expected, there were side effects - there were a couple that were particularly noticeable for me. I began developing a tremor (or shakes), that would happen at random points. For example, it would become a frustrating and delayed experience to put a key in a door, because I couldn’t keep my hands still/in position enough due to the tremor. Usually, I don’t have regular dreams. Once I started the medication, I had incredibly vivid and clear dreams on a nightly basis, which almost felt real. The medication also caused me to ‘activate’ in the night (i.e. wake up, not due to anxiety/stress, etc. but ’naturally’ wake up).

However, it was clear that my mind was not in the right place for work. I initially took a few days off, and planned to return the next week. I did my best, I tried - but it still wasn’t right. I’m thankful to have friends that can play excellent devil’s advocates, and act as a voice of reason. You’ll see Glen and I talk about it in this episode. I was challenged by the question - How would I handle one of ’those days’ where things don’t go right? Instantly I knew, it was too soon for me to return.

Now, it’s time for us to address another of these stigmas which surrounds mental health. I took several weeks off work. I remember this part clearly. My mind was ‘wrestling with itself’ is the best description I can give. On one hand, I knew that I had to take the time off to get better. On the other hand, I felt that I had to get back to work as soon as possible.

Dear rational reader. You can likely observe that the two scenarios above directly contradict each other.

Unfortunately, the key point around mental health challenges is that your mind is not in a rational place. These conflicting views weren’t helpful, and caused another angle of angst.

This is where we talk about counselling. I’m extremely fortunate that my employer offers some excellent benefits, which include mental health support. I was able to get a number of counselling sessions available through an internal programme. Unlike the Talking Therapies programme that I mentioned before, this wasn’t specifically focused on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Instead, this focused more on the feelings that I was experiencing, identifying them, being able to rationalise them and have someone external to the situation help me to interpret them.

This was of huge value. It helped me identify a lot about myself, including the pressure that I put on myself by the standards that I set. In a nutshell, to avoid letting people down, I set quality levels higher than what someone else would expect of me. In my own mind, that would be the level that they would expect (when in reality, 60 - 80% may have been more than enough). That’s where the mental turmoil of returning to work originated. I felt a ‘duty’ that I had to return to support my customers, and my colleagues. With a rational frame of mind, the best thing that I could do in that situation is first focus on myself and getting better. That way, I can be of most value to customers and to my team.

Another aspect that I discovered through this process is the power of gratitude. I bought a mindfulness diary, and completed that on a daily basis. In the mornings, the focus is on what you’re grateful for and how you’ll make the day great. In the evenings, the focus is on your good deed for the day, how you’ll improve, and good things you experienced. Why is this important? When we reflect, we often reflect upon the things didn’t go so well. How often do we think about all of the good things on a day-to-day basis, or the things that we’re thankful for in our life? I’d argue not enough.

I vividly remember the first time I filled in this diary, and the good thing I experienced that day. I went for a run around my local area, and ran past someone (who was walking in my direction). They gave me the most genuine and beaming smile that I have experienced. It filled me with a lot of joy, and really made my day. These good deeds and acts don’t have to be huge. This person probably doesn’t even remember our brief encounter. But it genuinely made a big difference to my day, and is something I still recall clearly.

Comparing these sets of challenges to the ones in the first section - The symptoms were very similar. I had lost weight and my appetite was impacted. My mood was low and irritable, with regular mood swings. It once again manifested mostly in depression, rather than anxiety.

Reflecting on my recovery, there were several things that I think helped -

  • Medication (we’ve talked about that above)
  • Counselling (we’ve talked about that above)
  • Regular walks. I’m fortunate to live near a country park, which has some excellent lakes to trek around. Every day, I would set off from my home and walk there. Then, around the largest loop (which ended up being a 1 - 2 hour walk most days). I’ve no doubt that this was a contributing factor to me losing weight as well, but the fresh air and change of scenery helped. I also combined this with my next couple of points…
  • Mindfulness. Again, I know there is a camp that is skeptical about this. But for me, it does work. Taking those extra few moments to breathe, and meditate. It takes time to make it work for you, and is not something that will work / become natural instantly. I found that I couldn’t focus in my apartment. Instead, I’d take 10 minutes while I was on my walk and perform my daily mindfulness activities while staring out into the lake at the country park.
  • Spending time with friends (Of course - this was after the rules changed, and it was legal to form part of a bubble (s I lived alone). Or, go for socially distanced walks as the daily exercise. It begun contributing to that balance of being an Omnivert that I mentioned earlier.

After several weeks, I returned to work. Of course, I ramped back up gradually and phased into my usual responsibilities. However, when I returned - I was more aware of my thoughts, and the additional pressure that I tend to put on myself. This was something that I begun watching for and checking on.

After this, I began throwing myself into this channel - Cloud With Chris. I love learning new things. I love being able to help others grow, and contribute back. I’m also a performer (you’ve probably spotted my musical theatre background/enthusiasm already). With amateur dramatics being unable to proceed safely due to the restrictions, this became my creative outlet.

In my mind, there were several factors that helped in my recovery. In the longer term, counselling (having the ability to talk openly), as well as hobbies and mindfulness. In the short term, the medication was a significant crutch. One piece that’s worth adding is that I initially started on a lower dose of Sertraline. After a review with my GP, we agreed that it made sense to double the dosage. It was only after doubling the dose that I began to stabilise. Over time (several months, so we’re talking 2021 at this point), we began to taper the medication down until I was no longer using it.

My most recent challenges with mental health

Fast forward to very recent times, in October 2021. I was becoming very agitated, and not myself. But this time, things seemed different. It wasn’t low mood, or uncontrollable emotions. It was the feeling that any given scenario would go wrong.

I’m not talking a one-off thought. It was attached to anything. Whether that was related to controlling my outgoings (e.g. monthly subscriptions for Cloud With Chris, or my cloud subscriptions on Azure/AWS/GCP), Personal Admin (e.g. Tax/Finance/etc.) being out of control, being late for events/meeting friends, or the feeling that projects I’m working on are going to fail. Perhaps I provided some guidance that didn’t make sense, or didn’t fully understand a scenario. This ongoing fear was incredibly draining, demoralising and demotivating.

This time, anxiety was the leading problem for me rather than depression. Impostor syndrome is something that I’m sure many of us have experienced in IT. I go through waves of impostor syndrome. But, throughout this period - it constantly felt like I wasn’t good enough.

But thanks to the previous set of challenges, I knew more about myself this time. I knew about the high standards that I set myself, and the ‘higher bar’ than what others expected. I kept trying to use my rational mindset to prevent the irrational mindset from taking over. That turmoil is an exhausting fight.

Fortunately, this time I wasn’t alone. My girlfriend and I had now been living together for over a year. The restrictions were not as severe, and there were some signs of normality (e.g. being able to go to restaurants, socialise with friends, etc.). The past year has continued to take it’s toll though. While there have been signs of normality, it’s been far from normal. In the backdrop of COVID-19, a very close family member has also been fighting their own battle with lung cancer. That’s something that had also affected me over time, as they’ve had waves of good points and bad points.

Having had a couple of previous challenges with my mental health, I knew what I had to do. I very quickly admitted that I was once again, not okay. I spoke with family/friends about it, as well as my manager and a handful of colleagues. I had to take time off to focus on myself, and get into a better headspace.

This is the reason you’ve seen Cloud With Chris slow down over recent months. I’ve had to take the time to focus on my health, and get myself into a better place. I’m continuing to get better, and in a significantly improved position than I was a few months ago. Every day, I continue to learn new things about myself, and how to manage my mental health.

So, what did the treatment look like this time around? It’s a familiar story, albeit with some tweaks.

I was prescribed with Sertraline once again, initially starting at a lower dose. It became clear to me over the course of a few weeks that it wasn’t having the desired impact, so the GP and I agreed to double the dosage. This is where things begun to stabilise.

Alongside that, I’m fortunate that once again I could use some of the benefits that I have from work, and take up counselling sessions. This set of counselling has been different from the others. In the first section, I talked about an online programme focused on CBT. The next section, about openly talking on my feelings and exploring them. This time, the focus has been on several areas. Exploring those feelings, and rationalising those (i.e. what would I tell myself now, if I were in those scenarios again), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) & mindfulness to identify/control the triggers and feelings on a day-to-day basis, and finally - working to more clearly understand the root of where these personality traits come from. This is an ongoing journey, but has helped me get a deeper understanding into my character, and why I react/behave in the way that I do. By no means do I fully understand it, but I have more clarity than I did.

Giving myself space. I took several weeks off work, and focused on myself. This time, I felt less pressure on ‘having to rush back’, like I did in the previous scenario. Perhaps, because I had already went through that internal battle on needing to get better to help others vs getting better for myself. I cannot thank my manager and colleagues enough, for all of their help and cover over that time.

During that time, I made sure to focus on hobbies and making myself feel good. Whilst I enjoy creating content and giving back to the community - I had to step away for a while. My focus had to be purely on myself. I barely turned on the PC throughout that period. I made sure to go on regular walks, and tried going on some regular runs (though, I’m still yet to properly motivate myself back into my running regime). I watched some TV Shows and films that I had been meaning to watch. I was able to get going on the new Halo Infinite multiplayer (which I love!). I got into a new hobby, and have started collecting and playing the Digimon Trading Card Game at my local board game store. Interestingly, nostalgia has crept in a lot over this time (e.g. watching TV series that I used to watch, looking back at memories, etc.). I’m not sure if there’s any relevance here, but something interesting that I’ve noticed as I’m typing this up.

Now of course, the recovery process is not all positive. Once again, I had side effects from Sertraline. The tremors came back across the first few weeks, but are not that regular anymore. I still have incredibly vivid dreams nightly, and I’m ‘activated’, so wake up regularly during the night. But again, it’s a case of balancing the side effects against the positives of the treatment. And for me, there’s no question - They are a significant help towards me getting better.

I’ve been teasing something throughout this blog post. In the ‘first challenge’ section, I mentioned that I had thought it was my first time experiencing problems with mental health. One of the symptoms that I experienced this time was an incredibly sharp pain in my stomach.

Interestingly, I recognised this pain. I experienced a similar pain in my late teens. It was sharp, and painful. I was hospitalized with it. Many studies were done, with it being suspected appendisitis. In the end, it appeared to be Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). There were several things on my mind back then, focusing on achieving the right grades at A-Levels for university, relationships and friendships, work, etc. I won’t delve into those, but similar to the theme in the other sections, there was a self-imposed stress/angst at that time.

Experiencing this pain took me back to that moment many years ago. I’m generally a good/healthy eater, so it’s unlikely to be related to a poor diet. While I can’t say conclusively that I had my first mental health challenges back in my late teens, the similarities suggest that it’s something that has been a part of my life for longer than I have realised.

Reflecting and moving forwards

This post was longer than I anticipated, and took longer to write than I expected. But I’m glad that I’ve done this. It’s helped me reflect on my mental health journey, so will of course be a help to me. But, I hope that it also gives you something if you are struggling, or trying to get a perspective on mental health.

Yes, there is still a stigma around mental health. Yes, there is still a stigma around taking medication for mental health. Yes, there is still a stigma around taking leave for mental health. But, it is getting better. Throughout all of my experiences, I can’t say that I personally received any negativity around any of these.

It was once again the pressure that I was putting on myself, rather than others making me feel that way. Ultimately, thinking that the fact I had mental health problems was a weakness. Or, the fact that I used medication or took time off as part of the recovery was also a weakness. These aren’t weaknesses at all. On the contrary, they are acts of strength. During the first lockdown, a close friend bought a few of us a wristband that says “Stronger with every struggle”. Those words perfectly encapsulate the point I’m making here. You’ll notice that it’s something that I’m usually wearing in any of my streams, or during the day-to-day.

Likewise, mental health challenges are not equal. Through these three examples, you can see that I’ve experienced different symptoms, different illnesses and used a range of activities/treatments to help in my recovery. Please don’t misinterpret this point. I don’t mean that some mental health challenges are ’less important’ than others. On the contrary. My point is that those mental health problems are all very real and very painful. My triggers, symptoms and challenges will be very different to someone else that is going through tough times. It doesn’t matter what the trigger is. What matters is the reality of how it feels to the individual, and the pain and struggle that they are going through. And, most importantly - the process of getting better.

We don’t compare physical injuries (e.g. I hurt my back more, or I hurt my foot more). Why would we compare this from a mental health perspective? The thoughts of “This isn’t really a big problem, why do I feel like this?” or “There are people out there who have worse problems than me”.

It is known that there is a connection between depression and anxiety, which is why I’m not surprised that I suffer from both. It’s something that I’ll live with, continue to manage and hopefully control. This is by far the end of my mental health journey, and something I’ll continue to focus on improving. It’s easy to forget ’the small things’. For me, focusing on my girlfriend, family, friends, hobbies (exercise included! As well as some creative outlet) and practicing gratitude are all parts that help me keep balance.

Now, with all this being said - I completely acknowledge that I am in a position of privilege. I am a white male that works in technology. I am based in one of the world’s richest countries, which provides free healthcare to it’s citizens. I’m fortunate to work for an excellent employer, who has excellent benefits, including some brilliant mental health support. I’m thankful for all of the support that I’ve had from our NHS, through the internal programmes at my employer and my girlfriend, family and friends who have given me an incredible amount of support.

If you are struggling, please know you’re not alone. You’re not the first, and you won’t be the last.

There are people who are there to help, and people who are there to listen. I’m always here if you need someone to talk with.

Please be strong and acknowledge the challenges that you are facing. It is okay to not be okay. It is not a sign of weakness to get the help you need, but rather an act of strength.

You are stronger with every struggle.

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