Allisdhair has been a vet for 34 years and suffered with depression and anxiety for over 20 years before he sought help. Getting help was the best thing he ever did, it has changed his life. He is sharing his story in the hope that it will help in removing the stigma of mental health issues and show that there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
&me aims to encourage senior people within the healthcare professions to come forward with their stories to show that we all have mental health, and that a mental health problem does not exclude people from achieving leading roles in healthcare. I have previously shared my story at the Wellvet Weekend and more recently at the BSAVA Congress as part of the Mind Matters stream and am now presenting here.
I qualified as a vet in 1985 and have spent my entire career in small animal practice in a variety of practices, including the charity sector, a two-vet practice, a large multi-branch practice and the corporate sector. I have held a number of positions, from assistant to clinical director, but throughout my career I have found the stresses of everyday practice difficult to deal with. I particularly found being on-call very difficult and had a constant feeling of not being good enough and that every other vet knew more than me and was more skilled at everything. However, I felt that it had been my choice to become a vet and that there was nothing else that I could do and just had “to get on with it”.
For me “getting on with it” meant accepting the stresses as normal and my coping strategy was to try to supress emotions. I ignored the fact that I did not feel happy but took on more responsibility in my professional life thinking that was what I should do, but all it meant was that I experienced more difficult situations and more stress. I was also increasingly anxious and my mood was low, but it is only now that I recognise this. Even when I consulted with my GP and found myself crying during the consultation, not knowing why, I still did not recognise that I was depressed.
When you do not address stress, when you suppress emotions and when you do not recognise the warning signs your body is giving you, it is inevitable that something will give. For me it was finding myself shouting in a consultation, pent-up emotions and stress have a tendency to burst out in unexpected and inappropriate anger. It was at this time I realised that I needed help. It had only taken me 25 years to come to this realisation.
So, I went back to the GP who got me to fill in the questionnaire that is used to assess levels of depression. I scored well, but in this test the higher the score, the worse the result, so perhaps the first lesson in recognising perfectionism is not a good thing. I was prescribed medication, signed off work and was recommended to undertake talking therapies. Fortunately, I had health insurance and there was a Priory hospital close to home and I took the decision to get myself referred there.
After an initial assessment, my psychiatrist recommended three half-day sessions as an out-patient. I was asked how I felt about group therapy. I had no idea how I felt about group therapy but approached treatment with an open mind putting myself in the hands of the experts and seeing what happened. Group therapy was interesting, as I listened to other people’s stories I thought “you thought that?”, “you do that?”, “that’s not going to be helpful”. But as I reflected on what I was hearing, I realised that I did the same things and I was able to recognise problems in others but not in myself.
Talking therapies are surprisingly tiring, at the end of the sessions I was exhausted, but I stuck with it and did my homework which was lots of self-reflection and understanding my unhelpful behaviours, how thoughts affected emotions and, in turn, mental and physical health. Through the combined treatments of cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness, I learned how to monitor my thoughts and recognise they are just thoughts as well as how to recognise the voice of my inner critic who would constantly tell me that I was not good enough, that everyone else knew better than me and that my opinion was not worth a thing.
Over time I have learned to ignore my inner critic which has increased my confidence and self-esteem and opened a whole new world to me of new opportunities. I am getting more from my professional life, and genuinely feel that I am a better now than I ever have been. I also have allowed myself to explore other interests as well, particularly in producing fine art photography and poetry, and this creative outlet perfectly balances my work life.
I do not believe that I am cured of depression and anxiety, but with the toolkit mindfulness has given me I can ensure that I remain in remission and get more out of my life now than at any other stage. So if you are feeling low and cannot see how things can improve ask for help, it may be the best thing you ever do.