Prioritising self-care is a vital part of good mental health. Finding the balance between mental and physical health wasn’t so easy for me.
Mental Health and Me
I’ve never had any issues mentally, I’ve always been quite a strong-minded person. I can be a bit of a stress head at times but always just see things as ‘it is what it is’.
Over the years, I’ve rarely gone to a doctor, unless it was something of major concern. I’ve not been to the dentist for quite some time. I’ve, also, certainly never, in my life so far, felt the need to talk to someone on a professional level.
I have always just got on with life. That was until 2018 and onwards. Throughout 2018 I devoted my entire free time to caring for my 95-year-old grandma. I’d finish a 9-hour shift then drive through to Hartlepool and do what I needed for my grandma. Every day, without fail. I watched her deteriorate rapidly through dementia. Sadly she passed away in January 2019. Her passing hit me quite hard. I’d spent every day with her and watched this disease literally take away the person she once was.
We live, we die
I used to see things in very black and white. We live, we die. It’s just our life cycle. Of course, I grieved the loss of my grandma, but life went on. I did become a bit lost with my free time. At times I was at a loose end. Life goes on though. Part of me expected my grandma to pass at some point. She was 95! I think all of us expect our grandparents to pass because they’re old. I don’t mean that to sound offensive but old people die right?
Losing a parent
Shortly after the passing of my grandma, my father was diagnosed with terminal secondary cancer. What a kick in the nuts that was! You don’t expect your parents to die. A contradiction I know, maybe it’s just me. But I kind of expect my parents to always be there. Regardless of how far away they live.
My father’s illness was terminal. I’d sort of accepted it. We live, we die right? It’s fair to say for nearly a year I was in denial. He was my Dad. He went through chemo, kept me updated regularly and all seemed to be just ticking along nicely. Maybe I’d subconsciously decided he’d be ok. In April 2020 he text me saying “I don’t think I have much time left now. Very very weak, can’t eat, spending most of my time in bed!”
That was it. The realisation hit me. Big style. I was going to lose my Dad. We were right at the start of a global pandemic, he lived in Kent, and there was nothing I could do. On the 14th of April 2020, I received a phone call at 11:15 pm informing me that my dad had sadly passed away.
My heart dropped. I knew it was coming but wasn’t expecting it to come if that makes sense? I felt completely numb and empty, I was heartbroken but my philosophy still stood. We live, we die. I still had a family to support and had to carry on. It’s cliche, but my dad would expect me to carry on. So that’s what I did.
Two weeks after my dad passed away, I lost my job. Could 2020 get any worse!? I felt I needed to grieve, but I couldn’t and didn’t want to. My priority was to ensure my family was financially sound, whilst I was out of work. I needed to make sure my kids were coping with the loss of their grandad.
During the time when schools were still ‘normal’ and Mrs F still working, I found myself very, very alone. With only the company of my dog. I started to grieve. I became a total mess. I’d be ringing my mam 5 times a day just to make sure she’s ok because I couldn’t lose her too.
My grieving process lasted only a couple of weeks. It wasn’t anything to write home about, it was the typical process you’d go through in the grieving process. I got through it with the support of my family.
Remember I just asked if 2020 could get any worse? Well, for me, It did. In April 2020 I developed my 5th skin lesion on my lip. And that was it, I had cancer, I knew I had. My Dad passed away from cancer, I have had it previously in my leg. This was the start of my year-long skin journey of what felt like a mental torcher.
I’d become paranoid that I had cancer. The thought of me having it had literally consumed my life. All day, every day I’d be thinking about it. I would be ringing the doctors constantly because the swelling was getting worse. I even did the worst thing you can do and spent a lot of my time ‘googling’ what it may be. At this point, I kind of had a second wave of grief at this point. I NEEDED to ask my dad questions about his Illness, I missed him. I missed the random texts he would send, all of the usual grieving emotions returned.
I was slowly becoming a hypochondriac. Every lump, pain, and headache I got, I thought was cancer spreading through my body. I couldn’t sleep because of my fear of not waking up and leaving my kids without a dad and my wife without a husband. I even got to a point, where I started teaching Mrs F how to change plugs and do certain DIY tasks. It didn’t just stop at my wife. I started teaching my oldest daughter how to cook proper meals. I taught my second daughter how to keep a house clean and tidy and taught Alfie, my youngest, the best I could during homeschooling. All just in case, one day I didn’t wake up. I had literally started preparing my family so they were able to carry on without me.
If my kids said they had a spot, a lump or a bit of a rash, I instantly panicked. I asked them a million and one questions to try and find out if it just happened or if it developed over time. What if I’ve passed something down to them. After all, I was going through multiple hospital appointments to find out if this lesion was cancer. Is it genetic and hereditary??
I had become so self-conscious with the lesion on my face, I didn’t want to really go out. Luckily if I did a mask would cover it up. Apart from being obvious in shops, using hand sanitiser, I’d use a ridiculous amount. Just to make sure I was sanitised and at least I couldn’t get anything on my hands. I know it sounds weird but I felt if I didn’t, something could exasperate cancer.
Stress causes so many problems it’s unreal. Early 2021 sees me at probably the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life so far. I’ve never had thoughts of suicide but the lack of sleep and fear that I’ll never wake up, along with the pain I was going through, multiple hospital visits, biopsies, and genetic testing for a rare skin condition that no one really knows about, had taken its toll.
Every part of my body ached, constant headaches, sharp pains in my arms and legs, and constant worry. I just couldn’t cope anymore. I’d seriously had enough of life. Part of me knew all of these feelings I was experiencing were psychological. I knew the emotional feelings and physical feelings had to be related to shear stress. Deep down, I knew I had created this mess of emotions. No one had actually told me I had cancer. It was always a possibility though. But part of me kept thinking it was cancer. The thought of me having cancer was literally consuming every probable reason for how I was feeling.
I tried everything to take my mind off it. Homeschooling helped a lot. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, it became monotonous. A bit like Groundhog Day. Every day was becoming the same. I was trying to hold the kids together with remote learning and homeschooling, ensuring Mrs F was safe and OK at work, and not burning herself out and trying my hardest to block out what I was feeling. It really started to irritate me. Everything was!
I had become miserable, argumentative and irritated. My life for a year had been consumed by my own thoughts and I needed professional advice.
Professional mental health advice
Speaking to my GP over the phone wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a face to face. But, a telephone consultation was what I got and it was better than nothing. I spent a good half an hour waffling on. Similar to this post, bits of information are all over the place. An unorganised mess just flowing out of my mouth. It helped to just be able to blurt it all out.
I told my GP things I couldn’t tell my wife previously, for fear of upsetting her too much. I did however tell her after my consultation. It made it slightly easier as I’d already talked to someone. I knew a better way to express how I really felt. The result of my consultation was antidepressant tablets. That should just fix it after a while won’t it?
Genetic testing consultation
In March 2021 I had my consultation to determine whether I am eligible for genetic testing. I may have a very rare skin condition called Ferguson Smith Syndrome. It’s a condition that creates multiple self-healing tumours and skin cancers.
After a long discussion about the testing process, I asked the question. ‘Do I have Cancer?’ And very promptly I was told I didn’t. I had just as much chance of having cancer as anyone else. A little surprised it’s a 1 in 3 chance mind! I was also told that if I were to have additional lesions they would never present or metastasize internally and would purely be visibly on my skin surface until removed.
As soon as the consultant told me I didn’t have cancer and any lesion I get will be removed promptly. I instantly felt the heaviest weight I’ve had to carry lift from my shoulders.
I know this may sound dramatic, but I instantly accepted the loss of my Dad. My dad’s cancer was highly likely to be related to his Chrones disease. I now know that everything I emotionally felt was all in my head. I need to know the ins and outs of everything and spent close to a year not knowing a thing. controlling my own thoughts, was just impossible. Nothing anyone could do or say would make me feel any different. This one 30 minute consultation had changed the way I see and understand things. I had a clear understanding of the process and clear facts. Of course, there is still the waiting process from the geneticists, but either way, I know the results won’t be life-threatening.
My mental well-being
I have spent nearly a year being terrified, stressed, and depressed. I didn’t speak to anyone about it, other than moaning about all of my ailments. I know Mrs F and my Mam were fed up with hearing me moan all of the time. But I’m a bloke and I didn’t accept I needed help until it was too nearly late. Luckily I sought help when I realised my final trigger point had hit.
It really is Okay to not be Okay. But you MUST talk to people. I used this blog initially to help me rabbit on about all sorts which helped slightly. But it’s too easy to make people think you’re ok when you’re not. On the flip side to that, it’s also important that we listen too.
Anyway, I think I’ve waffled on a fair bit. I just hope if you’re reading this and you’ve experienced mental struggles throughout 2020 and 2021 that you’ll see the importance of talking to people even if you just blurt it all out.
You can listen to my interview with BBC Radio Tees, where I discuss this topic and how I overcame my struggles.