I’ve always tried to be open and honest about my mental health issues, and I probably should explain how it came to a head for me.
Always smiling

They say smile and the whole world will smile with you but often there is so much hidden behind a smile.

As the clocks go back and the darker evenings draw in ever more quickly it’s easier to look for excuses not to get out and do the things you normally would. However as anyone who suffers from mental health issues knows it’s even more important to don’t.

Although I know it’s easier said than done!

I’m an early riser and not always by choice. I commute to work daily with an hours drive there and back, so my 08:00 start at work means I leave home at 06:45. Most nights I toss and turn unsettled in bed but still manage 5 or so hours of sleep which is a blessing compared to were I was a few years ago.

It all started with anxiety at work and this then escalated into my home life. Simple things became difficult to do with the uncontrollable anxiety that I was experiencing and even just the kids asking what was for tea could cause me to panic beyond belief.

My relationship with my wife and kids became strained and my mood was so low I couldn’t take any positives from anything or anyone.

On days off I didn’t want to do anything and I dreaded going to work. Work at that point was a rolling shift pattern of 5 night shifts and then three days off followed by 5 day shifts and then straight back into nights. It was crucifying me!

At the time I didn’t know it but it was the start of a battle with insomnia that would rage for almost a year.

After night shift I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake and not be able to get back to sleep again. I’d get up do some stuff around the house, watch tv and then try to have another sleep, which was usually unsuccessful.

Collect the kids from school, do homework with them and make their tea and try again to sleep

but it rarely came

Thirteen years of rotating shifts had destroyed my sleep patterns which resulted in anxiety, insomnia and severe depression. I was at my lowest and contemplated many times that I’d rather not be here and at least then I wouldn’t be a burden on the people who love me so unconditionally. Fortunately after a massive breakdown and the support of my family and friends I got the help I needed.

First they needed to get the insomnia under control, and after 4 weeks of being on the strongest sleeping tablets they could prescribe me I managed to sleep for more than a couple of hours. Initially the Dr only gave me enough tablets for a week and a half and he was certain that would be enough, but that came and went and still nothing more than an hour or two. After another prescription for another two weeks and recommending that I take them for the whole of the 1st week and every other day the second I finally managed 4hrs of uninterrupted sleep. It was about then when I started with Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) a series of phone appointments with a councillor to discuss coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety and depression. The councillor soon realised that before I could deal with those I firstly needed to get my sleep in order. It’s a true saying that without sleep you struggle to cope with even meaningless tasks.

Sleep Hygiene

Like most things people give everything a label and when I first heard the councillor mention sleep hygiene I thought what’s all this nonsense!

Actually it’s a pretty accurate way to describe it and when you have heard of people saying to count sheep it’s not to far away from that concept.

Before going to bed you need to have a routine just like you would use when getting a baby ready for bed. So I started with a bath, followed by some light TV watching and no caffeine or interaction on my phone in hope that I would become tired (sleepy tired)

After getting into bed you visualise things in the room, be it shadows, light coming through the window or a noise and then repeat them over and over again.

Then as I closed my eyes I had to think of all the things that I could sense through touch and hear trying to get a list in my head of about 5 things and repeating them over and over again in my head in sequence. Should I forget or get them in the wrong order then I had to start again.

I would repeat this for up to 20 minutes or until I feel asleep which ever came first. If I got to 20 minutes I had to get up and do something but not to stimulating for a bit until I became tired again (sleepy tired) and then repeat stage 3 over again.

The first night it seemed to take forever and it was difficult not to become frustrated when it didn’t work at the 2nd and 3rd attempt but after a week or so it started to work and usually I could get myself to sleep after 2/3 attempts and then eventually it clicked. Not every night but more frequently than not.

Fast forward to now and it’s still a technique I use to get to sleep and then back to sleep again if I waken through the night.

Combine that with the exercise/running I now do and I pretty much have my anxiety and depression under control. I still take medication but alongside the coping mechanisms I’ve learnt, it’s at a level were most days it doesn’t affect me.

The best peace of advice I can give you though is don’t suffer, speak to someone and seek the help you need. And trying some exercise.

It’s ok to not be ok

written by

Brian Bowden

Team leader @ Network Rail from Berwick-upon-Tweed

Age group: 40-49
Club: Tweed striders

10k Strength Training obstacle race half marathon marathon