I am not a big fan of five-year plans. In fact, those who know me will be quick to say I am not even a fan of a five-hour plan. Despite this, I still had some designs on what I wanted the future to look like. Obviously, the most important thing was to be a professional football player. Sometimes I was wise enough to remember that I was not good enough and I had to retire from football when I was 19 because of dodgy knees. Still, I had subtle expectations. I wanted to be fit, I wanted to stay optimistic and always be energetic. I expected that my brain would still work fine and I knew that God would still love me. The reality is that the past five years have not been what I wanted, or like anything I could have imagined.
Mental illnesses are a horrible part of life, almost everyone’s life. You might not have a mental illness, but you do know someone who does. You might not realise they do because it is too difficult for them to share, but we need to talk about it. Believe me, you don’t want to wait until you or a close loved one is suffering before you start to talk about these things. By speaking truths about mental illness openly we are breaking down stigma and supporting people who are suffering.
All that to say, five years ago I never wanted to talk about mental health, mostly because it was a bit boring or weird. I was pretty sure there were two groups of people when it came to mental health: normal people and those who don’t like chocolate (crazy people). In my eyes, I was “normal” in this sense (only in this regard I hasten to add). Whilst it was obvious that mental illnesses ran in my family (I come from a long line of Blackburn Rovers fans), I paid it no heed because I wasn’t crazy, and was too clever to become crazy. It was arrogant, but at least I wasn’t one of the mad ones, right?
Things didn’t really change when I went to university. I found it totally weird and different than anything I had experienced before, but I was still relatively normal. Not in terms of my childhood, but in terms of my brain. I got to go to lectures and was stretched intellectually in a way I had never been before. I loved every second of every lecture. Just when my friends and family thought I couldn’t be any more annoying, I was formally trained to argue. If you haven’t studied philosophy yet you should. My mind was blown.
I even devoured every piece of information I could from my history lectures. I was hungry for knowledge and this class temporarily satiated that need, but only enough to keep me coming back day after day. The class was perfect. It was covering the period after the computer game Age of Empires 2. The game was a historical masterclass, meaning that I knew everything that had ever happened in the 500-year period the game covers. The history class took off where Age of Empires ended.
My brain was still sharp and so I decided to go along to the chess club. In Kenya, I was a chess prodigy, having played at the World Youth Chess Championships, the World Youth Chess Olympiad, and the All African Junior Chess Games. The university’s club president asked me how good I was using our chess lingo and I told him. He laughed at me and accused me of lying, then made the mistake of challenging me to a game. After thrashing him several times he stormed off in the middle of one of the games. My mind was sharp and I was one of the normal ones.
One of the best ways I found to make friends was with the McIntosh Minotours football team. This was a great group of guys from my hall who loved to play football. What more could I ask for? Whilst my knees where still weak at that point, it was pre-retiring. As guys, our emotional immaturity tends to prevent us from sitting in a room and chatting very well. However, put us on a football pitch and we tend to be grand. I also got to join the African and Caribbean society football team, the Samba Boys. Whilst adjusting to university was tough culturally, at least I had my health.
The Minotours first match
Five years later I see how naïve I was. The clear demarcations I placed in my life don’t correspond to reality. Everyone is weak and everyone has issues. For some people it is problems with relationships, others addiction, and others the mind. The lines between crazy and normal are totally blurred. As I start to understand the scope and nature of mental illnesses, I find myself feeling more ignorant. They aren’t the problem of the crazy few, but an issue everyone in the world must deal with, either personally or vicariously.
The Monday after Guy Fawkes day was a fairly good one for me this past year, well most Mondays were a good day. Working for a church means that you get the Monday blues on Sunday, so Monday is essentially the normal Tuesday. Not only that, but this Monday was Alpha day. Alpha is one night a week where people from the community and church (anyone who wanted to really) would come together for a meal and then watch a video. The video was on a different spiritual topic each week, forgiveness, prayer, Jesus. Because you were in the same group each week you got to know everyone in the group as friends.
Half way through the discussion on the topic I felt like something clicked in my brain, but not in a good way. It was as if a gear in my head had slid out of position and my brain had stalled. I zoned out and couldn’t concentrate or think. My memory seemed to have shut off. I knew something was wrong; and so instead of walking home I asked for a lift and went straight to bed. Over the next 24 hours I started to feel worse.
I started to become extremely light headed and very dizzy. I couldn’t process anything mentally and started struggling to walk. I could only stand up for a second before starting to fall over. Being around people was excruciating. My Fitbit would register my heart rate rocketing if they were near. I would tense up and start to feel anxious. If I tried to speak it was very difficult. Words would stutter out with immense effort. I was struggling with words, let alone sentences.
Any noise terrified me. Whether it was a car parking outside or my phone vibrating for a text I would jump out of my skin. I became very disconnected from reality. My brain could only deal with a small portion of the world at once. If I was making soup then there was nothing else in the world. If you told me that the house was on fire or that we had just declared war on the EU (too soon?), I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I wasn’t clinically psychotic, but my mind seemed far too small for what was going on (on reflection, this particular symptom may have been a biological response to Newcastle United’s losing streak at the time. It was grim viewing).
Occasionally, I would get inexplicably frustrated at something but for the most part I was too disconnected to be bothered. Although, when I was playing FIFA 18, my coach subbed the player I was playing with, despite him being the top goal scorer and having a great game. Because he subbed me for having a bad game I spent the rest of the day scoring own goals and getting sent off. Don’t sub Alex Hunter.
I went to the GP and he was a bit confused. He diagnosed psycho-motor retardation; but it was out of his jurisdiction. He said that it can be a symptom of severe depression; but is usually associated with schizophrenia or other things. It’s not that he is a bad GP, but that he isn’t trained to deal with these things. After talking to some other doctors, it was more probably brought on by a history of concussions than depression. Hopefully a neurologist can shed some light on that. All that too say, I wouldn’t recommend it. 1/5 stars type thing; probably won’t try again.
It made a mockery of my five-year plan. I was supposed to be one of the normal ones. I was not one of the crazy ones. I played sports and had a sharp mind. How did I end up here?
By the end of university, (mum this is your cue to stop reading) I skipped as many classes as I could and more. I was too ill to attend most of them. I think I had one module where I missed every single lecture. I still loved to learn, but most days I struggled to. It wasn’t worth the effort of going to class. I would feel ill, the large group and noises could make things a lot worse, and I would not remember any of it anyway. Most days my brain was dulled, not great for studying philosophy.
Now my body isn’t exactly strong. After being ill and struggling to walk, things like running take their toll. Although I am a lot stronger than I was a month ago, it still is frustrating to compare myself to what I used to be. It isn’t the same as turning out for the Minotours and Samba Boys each week.
Am I the crazy one now? No.
Life isn’t split into neat categories. Life is messy. Throughout the past five years, I have had a lot of horrible experiences. I have had months where life was so dark I forgot how to smile or laugh. Months that I endured a previously unimaginable torment.
But the past five years are also filled with special memories, and amazing relationships. I love so many of my friends and family that have caringly looked after me and been there for me. God has been a constant as well. My Father constantly caring and providing for me.
The only reason I have made it this far is by holding onto various truths. The most important ones were about who God is and how much he loves his children. However, the ones I want to mention here are certain things about mental illnesses that really helped me get through the tough times. These truths are exactly why I write these blogs. These are things like:
Mental illnesses are normal, like a cold.
Mental illnesses can be treated.
Mental illnesses are not spiritual deficiencies.
Mental illnesses are a complex beast, which necessarily include biological processes.
Mental illnesses are not a key part of your identity.
These are just a few of them, but they are crucial. Each of these help you keep perspective. They help you feel like a human instead of a monster. They help you to not blame yourself and keep your self-worth. They help you to seek the appropriate help.
I didn’t know all of these things when I first became ill. I learned them over time. Sometimes I knew these things in my head but I didn’t believe them. Then as I started to believe them, they helped me understand what I was going through and how to deal with it. Each one seemed like I was learning a new language. Each truth was a word or rule that allowed me to better understand, learn about, express, and fight my struggles with mental illness.
This is why I want to share my story and what I have learned. The most helpful moments in my story were when someone more learned than me shared their insight. One thing I am certain of is that if we talked about mental health, life would be a lot easier for everyone. Please keep talking. Please keep learning. Please share this because it is so encouraging for people suffering to know that others care and are engaging with this topic.
Feel free to get in touch and ask questions.