You probably already realised, but I ain’t no Prince Harry. Sorry ladies. I’m just a lanky guy with a stammer about to go and climb the highest points of all 100 UK counties in just over two months.
Now we’ve got that cleared up… today is the start of Mental Health Week, and now me and the royals have something in common after all.
We should be well aware of mental health by now. Every newsroom in the country is talking about it. Every day we see and hear the words, in the tabloids, on social media, the radio, on posters in the street – famous figures are admirably sharing their stories and mental wellbeing is finally being painted in the big letters it deserves. We are waking up to a very real problem.
Embarking on #ClimbTheUK for a mental health charity makes little sense without explaining “why?”. I recently received a message from a follower who, from hearing my story, was encouraged to be open about her own mental health challenges, and is now finding new goals and challenges to find a harmony in life.
We cannot underestimate the power of inspiration in changing a life.
So I want to be open too. Because if you’ve read my book or heard me speak, you’ve only heard half of the story.
You might look at what I’ve done so far as a beacon of strength. Multiple endurance challenges, two (botched) Everest attempts, reaching 7,125m on Cho Oyu last Autumn – the sixth highest peak in the world, overcoming personal challenges like stammering, being caught up in a major natural disaster, 24-hour solo bike rides, competitive running, and so on, without intending to blow my own trumpet. Training in the Scottish winter alone is enough to filter the ‘weak’ from the wild!
Maybe people don’t realise that the guy slogging up the mountain, enduring on the bike and confidently speaking to them on stage (and maybe hundreds of others) fights his own daily battles. He often goes home to unhealthy coping mechanisms, self-doubt, self-criticism and crippling low mood.
Mental illness is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with – far more difficult than high-altitude mountaineering. The earliest signs were of panic attacks, OCD and anxiety aged just ten, triggered by a brief bout of childhood epilepsy. As a young child, it was a frightening and unsettling experience. Anxiety latches onto anything. Having one seizure during a Biology lesson at school meant I could barely step foot into a hospital through utter fear. Even mentioning a body part was enough to send me light-headed and having to sit down. At the age of 17, I remember being at the vets, and the vet talking too graphically was enough to make me pass out and hit the floor. My dog sat shaking his head as I was wheeled into an ambulance with concussion…
Having a seizure in McDonalds meant that even smelling fast food could trigger a panic attack, for many years. Even at Everest Base Camp 2014, I had to run out of the mess tent when some of our team-mates had ECG scans done on their hearts. Being relentlessly bullied throughout school for being different; it was no wonder I was self-critical, a perfectionist, and believed I was born to fail. Luckily, I found my escape in the outdoors and fundraising, and life was good. I found my own approval and didn’t give a monkeys’ backside about anybody else.
But then – bang! From being utterly pants at Sports Day to finding love in competitive running and even coming 2nd in a 10k race – I got injured. My coping mechanism and purpose was taken away, chucking me head-first into the worst bout of depression of my life. Trying to take control, I thought I would work on improving my nutrition whilst unable to do any exercise for almost a year. Unfortunately, being a perfectionist meant this went the other way and I ended up with an eating disorder. First binge eating, and then bulimia. You could call that self-harm – a sometimes daily behaviour that entirely controlled my life and became best pals with depression. I stood no chance; I was back where I’d started all over again.
At rock bottom, the only way was up. Getting back to training and focusing on Everest became my therapy and I restored balance, on my own, confiding only in a few close friends (they know who they are). My experiences of the NHS mental health treatment system didn’t work for me, and I ended up discharging myself. People want to help, and they can, but they often don’t have the resources to do so. By the time I actually got the appointment what felt like half a century later, I’d pretty much sorted myself out anyway. More help needs to be available – and this is where Young Minds comes in.
Thing is, these things never really go away, the brain takes a while to re-wire. When things get tough, the old feelings and behaviours come in swings and roundabouts like a wasp. You just get better at swatting the bloody thing.
After writing Icefall, I found myself lost again. I had ‘coped myself’ without help so far but I decided it wasn’t enough. Vividly I recall being sat in the GP surgery, breaking down, as if I’d just lost my beloved pet Guinea Pig.
… Why was I so damn scared of admitting a mental illness?
Last year I ran a half marathon. Actually, no, I bailed about eight miles in. Mentally I was in a dark place (again). I’d started anti-depressants for the first time just days earlier, pulled out of a major speaking gig, and felt like I’d failed at everything. Racing a half marathon was too much to handle… when I’ve been known to run marathons on my own just for ‘fun’! A few weeks later I went back and smashed my PB, winning my age group. I was fully capable: so what went wrong that day?
Here’s the thing. It’s not about mental strength. That’s utter rubbish. Having mental demons is not a weakness nor a flaw. It does not define us, or who we are.
Talking is great but I’ve always been a believer in doing…
1) OPENING UP – Accepting our mental health struggles to someone we trust is THE crucial first step to getting help, even if that means finding their purpose (their ‘Everest’) or a new balance in life.
2) GETTING HELP – But then we need to take action. Nobody deserves to suffer alone without treatment or support. The actual support is where charities like Young Minds can come in. They:
- Campaign for better treatment for mental wellbeing in young people
- Provide direct advice and resources to young people struggling with mental illness – both the speaking out and the seeking help bit
- Provide support to concerned families through their Parents Helpline
- Provide training for people who work with young people i.e. in education to deal with mental illnesses
A close friend and confidant, Mike, has also started a new campaign called Clearhead. Mike is passionate about helping people find ways to improve their mental wellness – so please do take a look and pass on to anyone you feel may benefit. www.twitter.com/1Clearhead
#ClimbTheUK is about raising as much as possible for Young Minds UK, to help provide support to those who need it. I only hope #ClimbTheUK encourages more people to open up and seek help. Talking is a sign of STRENGTH.
Thanks for listening to my story and to all who’ve donated already. If you haven’t, please spare anything you can here. It could quite literally change a life.