Slow-Burn…Long-Term…

Half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress, and psychological breakdown can creep up without warning. But what, exactly, is this ‘state of vital exhaustion’, and how can you come back from it?

Sara Cox
Sara Cox, who had to give up her career. ‘It felt like every day I was walking through thick mud.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

In a bedroom in North Yorkshire at 2am, Sara Cox lay next to her sleeping husband in the dark, her eyes open and her jaw clenched shut, anxious thoughts whirling. For the previous two years, the stress of her job at an independent local pharmacy had gradually become intolerable. That night, in June 2013, she made a plan. She crept out of the bedroom and sat at the kitchen table with a pen and a piece of paper. She says now: “I just thought: ‘I can’t do this any more, I need a safety net. I’m going to write out my resignation letter, keep it in my handbag, and if I have another really bad day, I’ll just quit.’” She wrote it out by hand and put it in an envelope, signing herself a cheque for freedom that she could not yet give herself permission to cash.

Over breakfast, she told her husband what she had done. “He told me: ‘That day has come. I’m going to drive you to work and you’re handing in your notice today. We will cope,’” she says. “So that’s what I did.”

In September 2017, in the headquarters of a London high-street bank, Adam was celebrating having completed a major project on deadline. But, moments later, he felt a sharp pain in the side of his abdomen that went on to keep him up all night. The next day, he took 30 minutes to walk from the station to the office – usually just a 10-minute journey. A colleague sent him home, and later that week he found himself rolling on the floor, clutching his stomach in agony. The following week, he was back at the office. “Even though, physically, I was better, I couldn’t focus or think straight,” he says. “I would stare at my screen, unable to engage my brain to send a simple email. I couldn’t remember how to solve a simple problem on a spreadsheet, or who to call – all of which would have been instinctive before. I had blurred vision, like a fog hovering over me. That’s when I realised that what I was experiencing was mental burnout.”

Burnout is what connects Cox, 51, with Adam, 32, both of whom contacted the Guardian in answer to a request to hear from readers who have experienced psychological breakdown following stress at work. They were among 80 teachers, accountants, social workers, architects, students, lawyers and more, aged between early 20s and late 60s, and drawn from all over the UK. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 526,000 workers in the UK suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, and 12.5m working days were lost as a result over that period. The independent watchdog’s researchshows that workers in health care, social care and education are more likely to suffer than those in other industries – a recent review found “a worryingly high rate of burnout” among UK doctors – and women are more likely to suffer than men. Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew finds that burnout-related symptoms are taking up more and more of her time in the consulting room. “I have certainly seen more of it over the last 15 years that I’ve been practising, and I’ve particularly seen an increase in men,” she says. “I don’t think that’s a negative thing; I’m seeing it earlier on, and seeing more men talking about how they are feeling.”

The most poetic definition of burnout appears in the ICD-10, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Disease, which characterises it as “a state of vital exhaustion”. Although burnout manifests in our mental health, says Kate Lovett, consultant psychiatrist and dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “it is not considered to be a mental illness, but rather a form of chronic workplace stress”. It encompasses a spectrum of experiences, says Andrew: “At the extreme end there are people who entirely shut down and end up in hospital having physical investigations; at the other end is someone showing signs of anxiety, low mood and feeling detached from day-to-day life.” In the ICD-11, due for publication this year, the condition is described as “not a single event but a process in which everyday stresses and anxieties gradually undermine one’s mental and physical health”.

True Self…

images-11

“So, when do you think you’ll be getting better?”

“At what?”

This is a conversation that I did not have with the significant she in my life. But, I have sought to create her in my writing as a sounding board. My wife is my touchstone and I rely upon her no-nonsense guidance in everything I do. Strangely, I think that she loves me. Not so strangely, I think that she somewhat despairs at me being me and the one that she chose to get married to. I don’t blame her.

“What does Happy look like?” asks my counsellor.

“Good question,” I respond after a while. “I have never thought of it like that.”

“If you don’t know what it looks like, how will you know when you get there?”

“Another good question.”

 

Happy looks like a Sunday morning run with your wife and daughters through wooded countryside. It involves getting out of bed and pushing oneself into suitable running gear and then finding somewhere nice to run. Trail running and the like are far more preferable to road running, as they provide old-stagers like me with something to look at and admire whilst doing one’s duty to one’s ageing frame. The empty nature of nature lends itself to a feeling of innate wellbeing, a rather clichéd oneness with the countryside and a love of relative silence. It also allows a family to bond.

Well this family, this Sunday, was not so much bonding as abandoning. Our eldest was doing a duathlon in Oxford with the university team whilst our middle one was remaining indoors to do homework and to check any social media that needed checking. My wife had had a wonderfully timed learning-walk goose-step itself into her last class of the day on Friday afternoon, so she was feeling that bed was a proper place to spend the rest of her life. That left me and our youngest.

images-492

Yet, I was full of beans; metaphorical ones.

And aren’t beans full of hot air?

 

 

Enjoying The Little Things…Rule 32

 

images-488

As always, Sunday morning has arrived.

I say ‘as always’ as if it’s given fact, but one day, one week, playing at a theatre near you, forever, it won’t arrive. 

I woke up this morning which means that Sunday has arrived. It was warmer outside and there was a sun shining vaguely through the morning grey. I woke up, I shuck up, and I went to make the ceremonial tea.

After that, I made my announcement:

“Today, and from this Sunday on, we will be going out for a run.”

What I meant by that was not thet we would be running everyday, but that when Sundays came to find us huddled tightly in our duvets, hiding from the promise of another week, we would rise from out slumber and jog politely into the new dawn.

“Is it cold outside?”

This was the significant other asking me a meteorological question and as I had just been outside, in the car, putting air into a dodgy back tyre, and washing off the winter muck for the first time in two months, one would assume that I knew the answer.

I didn’t.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“But you’ve just been outside.”

“I know, but I was doing other things beside observing the weather patterns of East Yorkshire.”

I may have well have been asleep for all the notice I took of the outside world. This sometimes happens to me. Indeed, I think it happens to a lot of us without us realising.

To prove this hypothesis:

Key Question:  Have you ever travelled some distance in your car, arrived at your destination and then forgotten large chunks of that journey?

Key Answer: I think it is YES.

So, I had been outside performing a range of vehicular tasks whilst also buying a particularly healthy soya and linseed loaf of bread. This goes great with the right cheese when toasted. As I was putting air in the offendingly-deflated tyre, I noticed a five pence piece, yet I did not pick it up. Perhaps I am richer that I think I am.  I drove to the carwash and had a medium wash that did not entail being coated in a triple-wax treatment. My reasoning was that some of the winter was still hanging about meaning that the car would get dirty before long. Wait for the spring and then clean properly.

Having left the car wash, I returned to the house, parked the ageing but now shiny car, admired it, stood back and admired it again, encountered a nebulous half-thought that did the mind-coaching crap that I hate ‘this day is the beginning of the rest of your life’ – fingers in metaphorical throat, and went indoors.

“Is it cold outside?” The question I had not revised any answer to.

“I’ll just check.”

Surprisingly, it was a wee bit chilly and that mitigated the wearing of warmer gear and gloves. On this point, I have to say that I find gloves just as annoying as socks when it comes to being found. I have lots of pairs of gloves, but they obviously have lots of hiding places. Eventually, I found some wooly gloves. Although not ideal for sporting enterprises, they kept my hands warm and it was still sufficiently early to avoid the gaze of the athletically enhanced fashion Fascists.

“Hey folks. If you have been reading this blog.”

 Two very misleading statements that I abhor as they tend to assume that the human-race has little better to do with its time here on earth but to read the ravings of a half-baked half-wit rather than battling “against the dying of the light”.

Anyway, I like a run. Unfortunately, I don’t like winter. Most mornings during late November, all December, all January, and most of February, will find me at the mouth a of hollow in our back garden, gazing into the underworld whilst cooing Persephone back from the bowels.

This morning, she was clear of the bowels (Persephone not the missus) and we were on our run.

For a number of years I have counted to twenty when I run. It keeps a constant pace, takes my mind off the strain, and puts me in the moment (zone for us sporty types). My winter lay-offs always take their toll so it takes me some time to return to that Mars-like man that I always dreamt of being. I also like to have a chat with the wife as we run. I tend to say things such as, “This is great, isn’t it?” and she ignores me. I have a greater appreciation of wildlife and the environment at these moments, but refrain from sharing too much until we get closer to home.

It was a good run this morning and I was pleased that the days are starting to get warmer. I was able to shrug off my shroud, ignore my bad knee (something I have not had to endure before), and just be.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEE…

images-489

No zombies, no end of the world, no big deal.

Just the moments, those little moments that make sense of it all. 

Is Knowledge Power?

 

images-483Way back in the day when the gatekeepers kept the gates closed to so many of us, allowing only a privileged few through the hallowed portals, knowledge was certainly power.

Exams started with the Eleven-Plus and funnelled the sections of the school population into three distinct areas: Grammar; Technical; and Secondary Modern educational models. From there on in, there was a relatively trouble-free route into ‘O’ Levels; Vocational Qualifications; or CSEs. On top of that, you could progress to gain absolutely  nothing as those were the days when one’s personal aptitude and indifference would be respected. Back in the day, you were allowed to fail if you merited it.

Some of the main skills required for passing examinations were aptitude, natural talent, hard work, and memorisation. The latter was a godsend for those who wished to wend their way into the wonderland of a university education.  And let’s not forget the teachers. A bright and knowledgeable teacher, who could engage with young people, was the most excellent of escape-routes, unless said teacher was predisposed to that most dreaded of ideologues, ‘the love of learning for its own sake’.

We were up at Durham this week with our middle daughter who has received a rather good offer to study Archaeology. I had never been to Durham before, so it was all new to me. I knew that Durham was one of the best universities in the country and I was happy that our middle daughter had the chance to study there. It was a well-needed tonic and an ‘away-day’ from her issues with self-esteem.

Now that it has become a real possibility, she is going to have to work and work in order to polish her skills at passing examinations…extremely well. You see, there is a point when knowledge alone counts for nothing. At crucial times, it’s about demonstrating what you know and applying it to certain questions. After you have done well in A Levels, you can forget what you have learnt so that you can learn some more. There’s only so much one can be expected to regurgitate at any one time.

And yet what impressed us about Durham University was its standing as a pre-eminent gate-keeper. Saint Bede’s remains are there in the Cathedral. Eminent scholars fill the lists of alumni. The doors opened to those who were willing to go that extra mile and would then lead onto doors that led to endless possibilities. They were gates that my wife and I had never passed through, but our children are now doing so. Yet there was something else that Durham had that was unquantifiable; it was the ‘love of learning’. And what best exemplified that was the study of Archaeology; the study of the past for the sake of discovery, for the sake of learning something new.

So the question that this all gives rise to is whether or not education and knowledge should be in need of an end-product. My response is, yes. We learn to make sense of the world around us. We learn to move forward. We do learn from our mistakes as much as we learn from our successes. It has to be applied.

Nevertheless when explorers risked their lives to chart a new ocean or continent or planet, are they doing so to provide valuable information that can be used by later generations or are they lost in the moment of discovery, of being the first one there, of leaving a footprint or fingerprint on something that was previously pristine and unimagined?

From The Telegraph  Friday 16th February 2018. By Allan Massie

Professor Andrew Hamilton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has spoken up in defence of “apparently useless” study. He points to research done by the university’s Department of Earth Sciences estimating the body masses of 426 species of dinosaurs. They concluded that those with the lowest body mass had the best chance of survival. Accordingly, those did survive and became birds. “Now,” he said, “unless you are a budgerigar wishing to trace your family tree, that information is of precisely zero value. But it’s brilliant research, and somehow I feel better just for knowing it.” 

images-484

As Aristotle knew, a hunger for knowledge is a hunger for life.

images-482

And sometimes life can be enjoyable…