In my conversation with Rob, he explains how he’s coming to terms with his diagnosis as bi-polar and how he navigates through life day by day. Rob’s had what Doctors call mental health ‘episodes’ at various times in his life. He’s lived through some serious episodes in 2006, 2009 and 2020.
There is no one way of dealing with trauma and mental illness, what works for one might not be right for another. By discovering new ways to heal we become participants in our own healing process. Whether it be through therapy, medication, breathing exercises, meditation or simply sharing our experiences with others, we need to find what serves us best. Trying something new might just be the trick to gaining some kind of autonomy in healing ourselves.. and others. Now, about Rob..
Who is Rob?
He’s had what he describes as a ‘portmanteau’ career path: a mass of dissimilar activities and responsibilities, thrown together without clear focus. Amongst others, he’s been a Chartered Surveyor, primary school teacher, tutor and DJ. Rob worked as a producer and in many other roles in English language radio stations on the Costa del Sol for 10 years or so. He now runs an independent (ie: very, very, very small) audio production company, making podcasts and spoken word recordings that become family heirlooms. He is also studying to be a counsellor and plays walking football, sometimes at the same time. He says he’s had ongoing mental health issues since childhood. Looking back now he can see they were indicators of a bigger picture.
I first asked Rob how he felt about the term ‘honour your suffering’ he said;
Not wild, but I’ve been told to embrace new stuff and step out of my comfort zone.
So here we go!
Emily: What was life like before you decided to ‘honour your suffering’ and change your relationship with life?
Blimey, why not start with a hard one! Hmm… … … OK, you asked for it. A serious answer to a serious question. Life was life. You live as you live until something comes along and shakes it up. I think that’s true of many people.
Lucky children get to live safely and securely for many years. I was a lucky kid. I had a happy childhood that lasted for many years, a more complicated later teenage, with lots of angst and acne. University was where I think I started to grow up. Jobs, friends and relationships all bounced along reasonably happily, coming and going as they did.
I’m quite a reactive person so this all worked pretty much ok. I’ve never really had much of a plan. Today is Monday and I’m only just working out what I want to be when I grow up.
Where to start with honouring my suffering?
Emily: Maybe at the beginning…
Our family dog died when I was 11. Mum and Dad had him before me, so he was a constant in my life. Then one day he wasn’t. Mum told me and my brother after school that he’d been put down and gave us each a packet of Polo Fruits. For a long time after I was scared to leave the house as I expected someone else to die. I didn’t really understand this until many, many years later.
To this day I hate Polo Fruits. To me, they are the smell of death. Even all these years after they stopped making them, I feel like I still smell them. In my head I can smell that fruitiness now and it still makes me feel sick.
Emily: that’s a long term grievance
It is. Now I’ve been diagnosed as bi-polar, I’ve been able to blame everything on that! Since that diagnosis in the midst of a serious depression (July 2020) I’ve gone about as low as I hope anyone ever goes. But I was lucky. With a lot of help I feel that I’ve been given a second chance. And now I have a very different relationship with life.
Emily: What made you decide to get medical help?
In one sense I was relieved to be labelled bi-polar. It put a name to what I ‘had’ and made me feel less alone. On the other hand, the doctor/psychiatrist who diagnosed me took only minutes to reach that conclusion. Maybe it was that obvious – but I left the doctors’ practice with five sets of tablets to take and I felt railroaded: railroaded into a diagnosis and railroaded into a set of drugs that I wasn’t sure were what I needed.
You can see that I’ve not made my peace with this yet.
And then I fell down an almighty deep hole. I can’t say what was me what was my body and what was my head versus the pills. I’m not very clear what was going on.
What took me to get medical help was a set of factors. The long term cause of getting ill was my inability to relax when I had a job from which I felt I couldn’t relax. I was living on my nerves most all the time. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
Shorter term triggers included a realisation that I was trapped in the job and a growing belief that my work was largely pointless. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a work task that I couldn’t bear to do. In the past, recording a series of shows with a presenter that I respected and loved working with had been a joy. That particular Friday morning, it felt like climbing Everest.
And the shocking thing at the time was that, even though I was signed off work for a month, I felt no better. My anxiety and depression got worse. Mix in the tablets, the mood stabilisers, antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs and the two others and you’ve got one seriously messed up person.
Emily: So how did you begin to crawl out of this deep hole?
I still had a lot further to go to reach rock bottom. I was first signed off work in August 2020. That continued until December when I tried to go back to work for two hours a day. The anxiety of doing that was extraordinary. Totally debilitating in a way that’s even hard to describe. I shook and cried uncontrollably for hours each day and had to be coaxed out of bed, or shouted at or whatever worked for that particular day. It was hell.
I went back to work in the new year but after a couple of days was diagnosed with Covid. That forced me to take two weeks off. During the whole of the second week, almost the only thing I thought about was what would happen when the alarm went off at 7.30 on Monday morning and I would have to get up, shower and go to work.
I’m not sure how many more days I lasted at work. On a good day, I would go in, do my two hours then come home and sleep for as long as possible, which was usually about an hour. Sometimes I would lie in bed for up to four hours waiting for my wife and our two children to come home. I couldn’t lie still so I’d be shaking and twisting around with my mind completely unable to make sense of what was going on. I just wished I would fall asleep and not wake up. If I wasn’t in bed I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything so I’d just worry about how I could fill my time until they came home. Once they were home I just wanted it to be bedtime so I could disappear again until tomorrow, when it would all start again.
In February the Psychiatrist recommended I go into a clinic so I could be put on Lithium. It would be easier if I could be watched twenty four hours a day while this change was made. My wife and I agreed that we’d do this to try to break the downward cycle I was in. My parents very kindly paid for this treatment.
I was in the clinic for five weeks. My body rejected the Lithium so I was put on something else. By the time I came out I had put on six or seven kilogrammes from overeating and from water retention. My wife took us all away for the weekend when I came out of the clinic and when I got into the swimming pool I sank because of the extra weight in my feet.
My wife was a rock throughout this time, being strong helping me hour after hour, day after day as I shook uncontrollably and talked endlessly about how bad I felt. Apparently I was on twenty four tablets a day when I came out of the clinic. Into the summer of 2021 I was either so beside myself I couldn’t think straight or zonked out, which was far and away my favourite place to be.
Then I had a stroke of luck. I changed psychiatrist. This new doctor had me do blood tests, have some coaching to try to understand what I was going through and she reduced the number of tablets I was taking. In late September she identified that I was deficient in vitamin B12. She recommended a course of five injections in ten days. I did these and within a week all my anxiety had gone and I was well on the way to overcoming my depression and basically being me again.
Emily: Deficiency in B12…wait, what?
I know. Crazy, right?
Possibly what happened is that the B12 may have sent good chemicals round my body, These may have restarted systems in my mind and body or maybe they shut down the bad systems that had been winning since I’d got ill. I don’t know and the doctor never described it in these terms.
Someone told me that the B12 must have targeted my pineal gland. This tiny lump in the centre of our brains is apparently key to rhythms in our body. I’ve since found out that some people have B12 injections in the heart of winter as it perks them up and helps them get through to the spring.
I didn’t really care how it did what it did! Those injections may have had nothing to do with me getting better, but I think they did. For months I was like a religious convert, or someone who’s just given up smoking, you know, one of those people who tells everyone how they’ve suddenly seen the light. I was practically telling strangers in supermarkets they should have B12 injections.
I felt born again, given a second chance. How incredible after about eighteen months of sickness to be cured in a week. I guess you could say I didn’t crawl out of the black hole I was in, I was catapulted out of it.
And by then I was already being helped in non-medical ways by new friends who had come to my aid during this time. They’d done all they could to help me when I was sick. They’d eased my suffering in many ways. And now I was ready for Rob 2.0.
I felt born again, given a second chance. How incredible after about eighteen months of sickness to be cured in a week. I guess you could say I didn’t crawl out of the black hole I was in, I was catapulted out of it.
Emily: Tell us about Rob 2.0
Rob 2.0 is very different to how I was before I was ill. I breathe differently, think differently, stand differently, walk differently, exercise differently, eat differently etc. It really has been a whole body and mind makeover. I’m sure it’s exhausted some of the people around me!!! But at its heart I can now function as a human being again. Our eldest is only 8 but she says she’s got her daddy back.
While I was ill, the mother of a boy I’d tutored started coming to see me every Tuesday morning. She’d say that she was repaying me for helping her son – and her family – by making the boy a happier person because I’d boosted his confidence in maths. I’d say she did it because she’s a kind person. She spent a lot of time when I was really struggling teaching me to breathe deeply and slowly. There were many Tuesdays when I was so distressed that I couldn’t even do circular breathing, breathing in for a count of 4, holding your breath for 4, breathing out for 4 and then waiting for 4 before you start again.
Once I was well again, I was able to do this breathing and my friend encouraged me to look at Wim Hof’s breathing techniques. I’ve done some and they’ve proved to me his claim that we can do so much more than we think we can. I can hold my breath for a couple on minutes now. I couldn’t have done a fraction of that before.
Perhaps more importantly I’ve learnt the value of deep breathing in more challenging circumstances. It’s powerful stuff. I couldn’t do that in my old job. I couldn’t relax at all. Now, at times, I can keep my mind when all about me are losing theirs, as the saying goes. All from something as unconscious as breathing.
I stand differently. I went on a course that focused on chakras, which I’d never heard of. This was part of the change in my thinking where I’m encouraged to embrace things outside my comfort zone. The first thing we were shown on the course was how to stand with both feet flat on the ground. It’s almost too simple to even notice, and I never had before, but standing like this grounds you. I’m sat here now with both my feet clamped to the ground and it’s a good feeling.
I could go on, but I am starting to feel like a zealot already. Embracing these new ways of being has done me so much good. I’m sounding like a hippy now, but so what!
Emily: Indeed! So what! – What changes in thinking have had the most impact on your well-being?
It’s being able to separate the voice in my head from the real me. The voice in my head can say anything it wants, whenever it wants but it doesn’t speak for me. It’s a bit like having a drone above my head. Like a drone pilot, I can look down on the voice in my head and think that it doesn’t speak for me. Does that make any sense? I guess I notice when the voice in my head says something ridiculous or hurtful or tries to undermine me. Then I have the space to think for myself and choose if I agree with it or not. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it gives me breathing room.
The other day I was playing football, well walking football anyway. I was the goalkeeper and I made a David De Gea level mistake (Ed: that’s lost most of the audience) and I gave away a goal. The voice in my head went into overdrive, screaming and swearing at me. I managed to take a deep breath and say back to it, ‘Stop. You wouldn’t talk to anyone else like this. If a teammate had done the same, you’d have clapped them on the back, told them shit happens, forget it and keep your head up’. So WHY IS IT OK TO BE SO AGGRESSIVE TO YOURSELF. I did manage to calm myself down and play on. I let in another 8 goals or so, but in that moment I was calm. That’s progress, although sometimes it gets a bit crowded in my head!
I’m sat here now with both my feet clamped to the ground and it’s a good feeling.
Emily: And what would you say brings you peace everyday?
The friends who’ve been helping me to see things differently have recommended all sorts of writers and thinkers to me. I have a backlog of reading, podcast listening and YouTube videos that’ll probably take me a lifetime to get through. But one key message from various sources, especially Eckhart Tolle, is to live in the present moment. It’s all we have.
There is the past, which was once the present but has passed now and there is the future, which will one day be the present but isn’t here yet. So all we have is the present. While I’ve been saying this we’ve both moved through several seconds of the present and now we’re here again, still in the present. In one minute – if the world doesn’t end in the meantime – we’ll still be in the present. I might not have got this quite right but Eckhart Tolle also says that we give so many stories to the present. We add stories to what’s happened, often worrying about the past or we catastrophise the future by filling it with bad things that we worry might happen. Why worry, as Mark Knopler of Dire Straits once sang.
This is all easier said than done and I’m still not clear on lots of it. Does it mean that I can do anything I want as I will never have to atone for it because I only live in the present? There was a surprisingly short-lived religious sect in the 1650s in England who believed that you had to commit every sin in order for God to forgive you so you could go to heaven. Talk about freedom! Not surprisingly the authorities were completely terrified of them and executed every one of them they found!
Eckhart Tolle says that you don’t ‘do’ a meditation, if you can hear the spaces between the words then you are noticing the world and the moment and that’s a form of meditation. Somewhere in these jumbles of ideas is me aiming for peace. At least my brain can now think for itself. For 18 months I couldn’t do any of this. That makes me happy. And I have a lot more podcasts to listen to, which is something I love doing.
It’s being able to separate the voice in my head from the real me. The voice in my head can say anything it wants, whenever it wants but it doesn’t speak for me.
Emily: How does the ‘real you’ keep you on an even keel, living with bipolar?
Back to the hard questions again! As it’s been explained to me, bipolar people oscillate between two poles, one way up, one way down low. Non bipolar people fluctuate too, but hopefully their highs are not so high nor their lows so deep. My goal is to not go down into the depths of anxiety and depression. To not get so high that I behave ridiculously and thoughtlessly, running on just a few hours sleep, feeling like I’m a superman who can do it all and being totally pissed off with all you mere mortals who just don’t get it.
My doctor, my wife – and me – want me to stay more in the middle. Go up and down by all means but stay in the safe zone. The doctor’s varied the levels of mood stabilisers and antidepressants I take as we experiment towards getting the balance right. Three or so months back I told her – and I was joking, I think – I was her star patient. My jump from the depths of despair back onto solid ground happened in a few days. And I’d kept my emotions, my mind and my body comfortably in the comfort zone. Since then I’ve had wobbles. I’ve gone higher than is good for me – and the people around me. I’ve gone down a few times, too. I’ve had lots more help. I have regular check-ins with the doctor and her first question is always how are you sleeping. The honest answer is at times I can go on 4 or 5 or 6 hours and that’s a red flag.
I know I’ve been snappy and bad tempered recently and I am trying to control that. My wife says it’s progress that I even notice. She says this has been a pattern for years and it’s something she’s just had to live with. Noticing and accepting something is a big step towards being able to change. Ask an alcoholic. I’ve also had these other amazing people who’ve helped me. The other week, a friend who I’m doing some recording with, spotted I wasn’t right as soon as she saw me. She sat me down and gave me a spontaneous coaching session. She taught me to visualise my anger or frustration or other negative emotions by giving them a colour and identifying where in my body I am feeling them. Then I sit with them, don’t let them consume me and release them. It might sound like hippy bollocks, but it works. Not every time but enough to know it’s an idea I want to keep using. And I hope to get better at this and the other things I’ve learnt.
It’s really powerful to live in the present moment, take a deep breath and focus on that. It’s not easy to do and I’m only human. Which is pretty incredible because that means I have an unbroken lineage back to the dawn of time. And so do you. So does the fly that just went past me and the bacteria that’s eating away at my stomach lining even as we speak. So I can see it’s a wonderful world and we’re blessed or lucky or whatever to be here now, doing whatever it is we’re doing. And I’m not an accountant.
Last weekend I knocked over two drinks in a cafe. I was furious with myself and reacted angrily, embarrassed to be seen as an idiot. The woman on the next table laughed in a sympathetic and non judgemental way. That reminded me that someone had told me only a day or so earlier that you can do a lot with humour and not taking yourself too seriously. How many people have said the same thing over the years but I hooked onto that message and it helped me smile and deal with the spillage. Shame about my new white T-shirt but hey, don’t sweat the small stuff.
I wish I could say living with bipolar was easy now with all the things I’ve learnt and the help I’ve had. It’s not. At times it’s still tough on my wife and kids, my mum and dad and other family and friends. I’d say it’s a day by day thing. An alcoholic friend of mine says sometimes just not drinking for the next ten minutes is enough for him to keep on the straight and narrow. Eckhart Tolle would say it’s a present moment and then another present moment thing.
The good ship Rob H sails on, keeping an even keel through all kinds of sea conditions: There’s a captain with plenty of experience under his belt and a crew of salty dogs to back him up and a metaphor stretched so far that it would have been better if I’d not started on it in the first place. I try not to be fearful of the future, that would be giving it a story that would stick to it like barnacles on the bottom of the boat [Ed: turn now before you hit an iceberg]. And I have a checklist of what signs to look out for each day by my bed, in case I need a liferaft.
Step by step, poco a poco, as the Spanish say. And I have to go and apologise to my wife now for being an arse this morning.
Emily: Before you go, would you like to mention any ongoing or future projects that invite self-transformation and well-being for yourself ..and or support for others?
Finally we get to the bit where I can plug my new movie and autobiography! My publicist will be pleased!!! Not really, I sacked her just before lockdown began!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
About four months ago, I was invited into a school for an ‘interview’. They wanted to see if I’d fit into their team teaching special needs. I put on a suit and tie for the first time in years and drove through rush hours to get there and back. The school was wonderful and I could have fitted in and done a job for them. It was a sliding doors moment. That day convinced me that I didn’t want to go back into that world. It felt like such a backward step. The next day I signed up for an online course, learning the theory behind being a counsellor. I’m enjoying studying. The course is going well and I have many years of practical experience to bring to the counsellor’s couch.
I’d already bought a beautiful set of equipment to record audio and make podcasts. I have a few projects going as I can record with anyone in the world. Using this gear and on the theme of counselling, I record a session with someone discussing an issue or problem they have. Then we listen back to what we’ve recorded. It’s amazing the insights you get when you hear back the words and the way they’re spoken. It’s already proved to be a helpful process. ReplayTherapy.com is the website for that.
Another way I use the kit is to record interviews, meditations or other audio. This includes making a wellness podcast with a friend, Tania Mather. When Tania interviews guests I sit in the room ‘producing’ the interview and chipping in with the odd comment here and there. I have the best seat in the house to listen and learn about the topic being discussed. We’re just in the process of starting to post the podcast. It’s called the Spirit of Wellness. It’s a great project to be involved in. You can find it on Spotify, although like I said, it’s at the very earliest stages at the moment.
I have a little business recording older people telling their favourite stories about their life and going through their family histories etc. They give the audio to their family as a memento. One day I hope one of these recordings turns up on Antiques Roadshow and is worth a fortune! But it’s not about that. It’s about creating a unique family heirloom. That’s ReplayStories.com.
As you know, Emily, I’ve been helping two friends record a daily lesson from ‘A Course in Miracles’, a spiritual book written in the 1970s that seeks to help you live a more spiritual life. Earlier today we reached lesson 300. In total there’s 365 to record. It’s been a labour of love for the last twelve months and so much good has come out of it. That project is coming to an end but it’ll lead naturally into the next one, whatever that may be. Today’s Monday and that’s enough for the moment.
I always joke that I could make podcasts for Estate Agents or Accountants but so far (so far) that’s not been my calling…
I’m also a ‘stay at home’ dad and that gives me so much more time with our kids than traditional working fathers ever got. The dad taxi is in full effect and that and the things around it are a joy that one day won’t be wanted, so it’s a case of enjoying that while it’s still an option.
Not bad considering i was hospitalised well under two years ago because I was a danger to myself. Now I’m a disciple for wellness; one of those annoying ones who wants to tell everyone to live a better, happier, healthier life through mindfulness. If I was a woman in the seventeenth century they’d have burnt me at the stake. Or maybe two thousand years ago I’d have been crucified. There’s some happy thoughts to end on 😉