My experience managing mental health in 2018

Talking about mental health used to be taboo. In some ways it still is. I recently had an episode and I talk about it openly. However, I still see an uncomfortable look appear on some people’s faces.

Mental health is like any other illness.

If you have a sore tummy, people say, “aww!” and they advise you to stop eating too many bad things. If you break your leg, they plaster it and people come to sign it. So for mental illness, why can’t they say “aww!, what can I do to help?”, or “I’m just going to take away the chocolate cookies, but I’m here if you need to talk.”

Mark Meany (Senior Developer at Mercury1) says, “Take toothache; it can be prevented by following good oral hygiene. So is stress one of these things that needs to be mitigated to prevent mental health issues? Stress is part of most people’s lives. How we deal with that stress is the key. If we don’t deal with it, in the end its a big POP!”

Of course, people suffer with their minds in many different ways. I’m not a doctor. I’m a software developer and a business owner, so I can only talk about my experiences. For me it’s food. I don’t mean to say that food stresses me. I mean that when I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, I don’t go hungry!

I run a digital agency in the UK, but live in Spain. In the last two years we’ve grown 400% and taken on some really challenging projects. Last year a client, who is no longer with us, left in a messy way and threw a few undeserved insults at me because they didn’t want to pay their final bill. I took this really hard. My personality includes ‘people pleaser’ and ‘problem solver’, so a bad end to a professional relationship is like poison.

Moving to Spain, although incredible, also came with it’s challenges. I didn’t speak Spanish for a start and I’m dyslexic, so languages are my nemesis. The really tough bit, though, came when we tried to navigate the resident status, tax situation and the realities of having a UK business but living in Spain. This was a real nightmare and I still shudder to think about it. If we got it wrong, we risked paying a fine of hundreds of thousands, which of course we couldn’t afford. The worse part was that the rules weren’t that clear and the first six lawyers we talked to gave contradictory advice or said, “don’t worry about it – do nothing”. We run our business and our lives on the principle that integrity and honesty are key.

We couldn’t very well act dishonestly or put our heads in the sand.

Fortunately, in the end we found a great company who could help us – and whilst we pay a lot more in taxes and expenses than we would if we’d stayed in the UK, our conscience is clear. Plus, we get to enjoy year-round sunshine and a great social life in a friendly culture.

I love my team at work. They are all smart, hard-working, honest and nice. However, running a team of 20 can feel overwhelming. For a while I kind of ‘checked out’ and just operated on auto pilot. I guess, to those I work with closely it was obvious. I knew I was stressed but I don’t think I knew how bad. One day one of my colleagues took away all my tasks and said, “Please take the day off.” I was surprised and a little annoyed to be honest.

I thought, ‘Hey! Whose company is it?’

Later I realised that it’s not just my company, it’s everyone’s the staff’s, our clients’ and our suppliers’. Thinking about the business like that gave me a new perspective. What my colleague was trying to do was to help me.

It wasn’t until after my 38th birthday that I really did something about the stress. We were on a two-week rock climbing holiday in the UK. I was spending this time with some amazing friends and in a beautiful place, but all I wanted to do was sit in the caravan and play Candy Crush. There was a recent article I saw that said playing games like Tetris can help with stress. I can tell you that, in my case, it didn’t improve anything. The only thing it succeeded in doing was to annoy my partner and some friends because, let’s face it, if you act like you prefer to stare at moving coloured pixels on a small screen to spending quality time with people it tends to offend.

The day after my birthday I took a good look at myself in the mirror. ‘Is this who you want to be?’, I asked myself. The mirror image didn’t reply, but I realised that no it isn’t! At this time, I hadn’t worn makeup or anything except comfortable shapeless clothes for six months. For me, being depressed was a bit like spending all your time with a veil over your face. I couldn’t just be with people naturally. I thought of myself in such a negative way, like I wasn’t worth effort. I had no energy and no interest in doing anything. For me even Netflix was boring. I wasn’t bad at my job, but it was so hard and I was processing things a lot slower.

I was getting fatter by the day, so the first thing to take control of was diet and fitness.

This was my solution: Freeletics!

It’s a super intense but short workout app, a bit like Cross Fit. However this one sets you tasks, it times you, and it uses your time and technique feedback to give you a suitable next workout. I set the app to give me three sessions a week. The starting ones were less than ten mins in duration so it wasn’t hard to fit into my schedule. Boy was it tough though!”What do you mean 20 burpees?” I shouted at the app a number of times in that first few weeks. The people behind this app are definitely sadistic. However, it really works. I’ve recently set it to give me four sessions a week and have started a nothing to 5K running plan from Paula Radcliffe.

It’s also hard and a bit demotivating because I used to be able to run – now it’s more of a stagger. I know, however, that it will come, so I will keep on it. I have also returned to the indoor climbing wall. This is a real challenge for me because, although my husband is a great climber, I’m scared of heights. I’ve gone from previously climbing 6c+ to barely touching a 5a (it doesn’t sound a lot if you don’t climb but, trust me, it is a big difference). This process of returning to sports or things you did before but in much worse shape is humbling. I try to remember that there are so many people in much worse situations and I stop grumbling. I know that if I keep going – I will make it, if I stop, I’m 100% sure I won’t.

Like sport, mental health is a continuous effort – but it’s worth it.

For the really tough sessions, I’ve discovered Fearless Motivation. It’s cheesy and it’s American – but it really works. I first heard it when we spent some time in Bordeaux, France. There was this workout space with great fitness equipment full of strong people. They played Fearless Motivation and, although it initially made me laugh, I found that I smashed my PBs that day.

The power of the mind eh!

I was really lucky that I didn’t need professional help or medication, but if you do, or someone you know does, don’t be ashamed of it. If I hadn’t started my commitment to myself I would have gone to see a psychologist. If you’re not sure what you need, ask your friends or colleagues. Chances are they know there is something wrong before you do.

Agency Collective’s Daniel de la Cruz has a passion for helping agency owners overcome tough times and moments of mental instability. If challenges are coming at home with your partner, then he recommends this book. It’s sometimes good to understand what your and their attachment style might be.

If the source of stress is work, talk to someone outside of the situation but with some experience, like a mentor. They can help you see things in a different perspective and put you on a path to improve things. Daniel has also put together a document with many helpful resources for those suffering with their mental health.

Of course, sport and Freeletics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. The thought of a 5KM run might send some people into depression. In that case find the thing that works for you. Taking a walk or going on a drive somewhere pretty could also work – as could reading a good book, watching a comedy, chatting with friends or quiet time alone. It’s your life; you pick your solution.

For me, the great thing was that although I was missed, the company and projects all carried on fine without me. So, if you’re not giving yourself time, it’s OK to take a break.

I hope that by sharing my experience, it helps others to feel more comfortable sharing theirs and getting the help they need.