Being open about Mental Health has been a revelation. It has prompted more understanding, valuable conversations and new and deeper connections. One of these has been with someone I have known, respected and liked for a long time, He calls me a colleague below, but I feel more like friends since our recent conversations, being open is good for that too.
Below is his guest blog, a powerful, emotive, inspirational, brave piece of writing that I am immensely grateful he has shared.
The challenges of developing true empathy - Paul Burrows - 16/10/17
Paul has inspired me to do this blog. Whilst I am now an open sort of chap and have used the short-burst mechanisms of Twitter and Facebook to share things that have been going on for me, I haven’t had the courage to share a longer story for fear of not being inspirational enough… silly gremlin that…
Paul is a colleague of mine and we used to work together quite a lot until about 10 years ago where our career within the Environment Agency took different paths. We met again recently at a conference and I was humbled when he opened up to me about his mental health challenges but also felt guilty that for so long I had no idea.
We disconnected in 2007 after the death of my daughter Eve which followed soon after major life changing surgery for Crohn’s disease when I was really struggling to come to terms with my disability and my new colostomy… not physically but mentally cope particularly in terms of my body image and feeling like damaged goods…. That struggle meant I didn’t make the most of the 14-months we had with Eve and that is a guilt that I just can’t shift to this day.
No doubt about it, whoever deals the cards of life has given me a couple of poor cards – and it has taken a long time, ups and downs, trials and errors to turn this into more of a winning hand. I now appreciate better what I’ve got, am better able put things into perspective and to value the personal capabilities and resilience that those extreme experiences have provided me with.
Now that is not to say that I don’t still have moments of bitterness or wish that Eve was still here or that I was healthy… but life doesn’t work like that and I know from experience that being in that place does me no good.
Undoubtedly I’ve been to very dark places and have been depressed … have I had depression? I’m not sure, but I can certainly empathise with some aspects.
I get the ‘Sliding Doors’ feeling a lot (you know the film directed by Joey from Bread?!)– especially triggered by the news or hearing others’ stories – the tragedy of Robert Enke was around the time I was in a dark place… why hasn’t my life taken a different path? What is it about me that hasn’t led me into depression? With suicide such an issue for men my age, why haven’t I? How the bloody hell are Lynne and I still together?!
I’m not sure – I wish I did – What are the ingredients that have made me resilient and why can’t I bottle them and give to others to help them? Or is that just arrogant?
Being able to talk openly to your colleagues and your boss, trusting them to listen and support you is the first step to managing your mental welfare at work.
In the aftermath of losing Eve, I felt I wasn’t a very good boss. However I recognised that fact relatively quickly and chose to change path. Indeed it took me 6 years to get back on the line management horse.
Why? It became all about my issue. I didn’t appreciate that the loss of Eve had an impact on my team. I struggled to deal considerately with others’ issues which felt trivial in comparison. It took me a number of years and some crucial emotional intelligence training to move out of an unhealthy feeling of judgment when listening to others’ issues to one much closer to empathy.
Openness is now one of my inner leadership values that I’ve developed (I used to think that I should show no weakness), and it leads to people being more open in return, which is great, but has created its own challenges for me.
I often get the “but it’s nothing like what you’ve faced Paul” at which point I feel bad that my experience may inhibit people opening up to me or that I come across still as judgemental…. But I can only provide support, advice and empathy from my own experiences. There are no top trumps in mental health, everyone’s experience and resilience is different and deserves respect.
One of my challenges now I find is that because of my experiences I am so sensitive to issues, particularly around sick children. Stories such as Charlie Gard trigger an emotional response within me that often brings back dark memories; taking me back to that helpless place within ICU at Alder Hey hospital; or the moment the consultant took us to ‘that room’; holding her, feeling the true weight of her little body as the oxygen was turned-off; or carrying her coffin into the crematorium.
How can I provide caring support without taking on the emotional weight of other people’s issues? I’m getting much better at it now but boy it needs constant energy. Whilst I had my moments, I’m really proud at how I handled my last Crohn’s relapse, surgery and recovery. Part of this was allowing close colleagues to see me at my lowest, something I probably wouldn’t have wanted in the past.
So I now have improved measures in place (swimming, diary management, safe spaces, lunchtime walks and even Tranmere Rovers) to enable me to better manage my mental health, this in turn makes me better able to support my team and my colleagues.
Now it’s this part where my gremlin jumps out and says Paul “where’s the inspiration in this story Paul?!”… I leave it there. Thanks for reading...
Mr Paul Wyse