Steve Carter is a Director at Priory Veterinary Surgeons in Reigate, Surrey.
I can honestly say that my life has been enriched by the lessons I have learnt from having mental illness. The aspects of my character and the feelings that I have been made to confront and examine closely have made me a much better and a more grounded person. That has only been true once I had come out of the other side of several pretty sad and difficult periods of depression, spread out over two decades.
Here I am aged 58, owning my own vet practice with over 40 staff members in it, still enjoying the variety of small animal practice four days a week, including the emergency out-of-hours work – I am writing this while being on call – and I am still learning new things to add to my skills. And when I go home I have a wonderfully supportive and stimulating family of which I am very proud. I have lots to look forward to – that has always been the case, but when I was depressed I just didn’t see it that way at all.
I have a family history of depression, not that I understood that until the illness hit me out of the blue. My life up to 2002 was one long line of apparent success up the ladder of education (though I did have an exam anxiety wobble one summer), and a steady professional development, including a partnership in the practice. I have a strong work ethic and take pride in achieving goals. I had a young family and was working very hard.
I went to Devon as part of the veterinary team dealing with the Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak of 2001 – it was like a war zone in many ways, and I think I had a sort of PTSD mixed in with physical exhaustion. My performance in the practice ground to halt in 2002 and I lost all sense of purpose.
My partners were generously supportive – I think they saw it coming before me – and I had two months off work. Gradually my depression lifted and after going to visit my friend’s practice to see if I could cope with being in the thick of it again, I went back to work. That was scary because before this episode I felt no anxiety about work at all, and thrived on its challenges; now it felt more like a burden that could easily tip me into depression again.
My colleagues were very supportive and treated me normally and kindly without any sense of me being “damaged goods” – I was very fortunate in that respect. It was only me who thought that I was damaged, but that view has changed for me, although it took a long time to get to that point.
My therapy over the years has been a mixture of medications, psychoanalysis and other counselling, as well as the self-learning involved in looking after myself properly. I know that reaching for help and talking to others in confidence was key to my becoming well. The single most important realisation for me was that I am always going to be vulnerable and it was necessary to come to terms with that “weakness” whether I liked the idea or not.
I still take medication to balance out my mood, which tend to swing. I now feel that the positive mood swings are the times when I am most productive and useful, and they are when I feel the most fulfilled, but I know that there will be periods of lows when it is hard to get motivated. I have gradually learnt from others, including my wife, how to recognise the signs of impending depression and I then find ways of taking the pressure off myself and making myself feel more optimistic inside.
Not only do I feel more knowledgeable and more gentle about myself, but on top of this I have become much more understanding and empathetic of the states of mind of the people around me. I recognise in others many of the difficulties I have experienced. At work, that has been a great help in improving how I go about supporting the staff of the practice, for example, providing group and one-on-one wellbeing, resilience, and counselling sessions for those who want help.
I am proud that these initiatives have arisen from my personal journey of adversity – I have come to realise that all experiences are learning experiences and there is something worthwhile to come out of the grimmest situations, so that what can feel like an intolerable burden can be turned into a stimulating challenge to be solved, and one can then move on to other things. When something makes me laugh or sing spontaneously, nowadays it has a special meaning for me.