It’s people that can make the biggest difference to us when life reveals its darker side, when we grieve and when we hurt – and I’ve definitely seen life’s darker side.
Having suffered with crippling bouts of depression in both 2006 and 2013 I’ve wondered whether the darkness would ever lift, whether the ‘me’ that I once knew would ever find his way back.
The ‘me’ that I had been was gone, replaced by a broken shell of what once was, a mass of pain and despair, and the terrible, terrible fear of what would become of me and who would still be there at the end of it, if indeed an end would come.
But my oldest friends were there for me throughout, and I’ll never, ever forget that and I can never thank them enough.
Craig, my oldest friend who I met at nursery, has been there to pick me up when I’ve been let down, when I’ve been dumped, when I’ve been angry, when I’ve been dumped, when I’ve been hurt, when I’ve been dumped (you get the picture).
He was there for me as my Best Man on my wedding day.
He was also there when I wondered how I could face another day, when getting out of bed was the limit of my achievements, when the chatty, fun Matthew was replaced by one for whom smiling was an impossibility.
He was there every week to take me out and just be there, reminding me of who I really was beneath the illness and letting me know that somebody believed in me, and that however bad things were I could always count on him being in my corner.
Craig's advice for helping a friend with depression
‘I really struggled to know whether I was helping or not during his really dark times, but now I know that I did (because he has told me!).
For me, it was just about spending time with him, going for a coffee or a drink, letting him talk and get things of his chest.
I think he knows me well enough to know that I would not judge him no matter what.’
Simon has been my friend since I asked him whether he was a boy or a girl on our first day of primary school.
A man so popular it’s only a matter of time before he has a lounge named after him in his local (or a poker table at least).
At times over the years I’ve lost touch with him as our lives took us in different directions and to different places, but we are always able to pick up our friendship as if we’d never been away.
He’s the friend that took me out to play darts every week during my second illness even though his Dad was terminally ill.
At a time when others less understanding could have – and maybe would have – thought, ‘what have YOU got to be depressed about?’, he was there, giving me brief respite from my waking nightmare whilst reminding me that ‘trebles are for show but doubles are for dough’.
It’s hard to overstate just how much their support meant to me.
Simon's advice for helping a friend with depression
‘I’d suggest bringing up things from your own personal life that the person may not know.
It doesn’t have to be anything major – but being a bit more open about things, especially as a man, can often encourage a good friend to do the same.
You never know when that moment may come when they just need to talk to you, or share something with you.
The more open you are with them, the more likely they will be to confide in you rather than keep it hidden away.’
One thing that mental illness teaches you (or taught me at least) is just how much inner strength and resource you have, but in the midst of it nothing could seem further from the truth.
Between them, my friends reminded me that my illness wasn’t me, that I had a lot to offer and would one day be me again, and that just for an hour or two I could escape from my broken mind and focus on the ‘now’ of a pub quiz or throwing a dart.
It is only from the safety of recovery that I can truly appreciate just how much of a difference their support made to me.
It helped me to recover at a time when recovery didn’t seem possible.
There is so much stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds mental illness and this is acutely felt when you are in its fog.
For men in particular it can be difficult to admit to, especially when ‘being a man’ is associated with being strong and tough.
Men aren’t ‘supposed’ to admit they need help from anybody, whether it’s for putting a shelf up or admitting that your life is falling apart around you and that you’re scared and you can’t cope.
Sometimes we can’t admit this to ourselves, but what we can all do is look out for our friends and be there for them when they are struggling.
We need to notice when they’re not quite themselves and could use a mate in their corner.
We don’t need to understand mental illness to do this, we just need to understand that our friend needs to know we’re there for them, whether to talk, to listen, to tell bad jokes or to give them an affectionate punch on the arm.
Mental illness can strike anybody at anytime – believe me, if it happens to you you will be left in no doubt that you are very ill and that you can’t get through it alone.
Nobody chooses mental illness, and from experience I can honestly say I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
But like most difficulties in life it teaches us things too, and one of the biggest lessons you learn is who is there for you when you most need them to be.