Disclaimer: This article contains discussions of sensitive topics, such as mental health, experiences of serving in the military and body dysmorphia. If you require any mental health support after reading this article, you can find out what other Health & Well-Being Support is available for our NHS people by clicking here, as well as information on Health and Well-being Programmes and incentives happening across the NHS by clicking here.
It was a foregone conclusion that I was to join the forces, it was a family thing. My Grandparents, Father, Step-Father (his brother) and 2 of my mum’s brothers, all career servicemen. So it came to pass when I was 17 and a half I joined up thinking the next 22 years+ was going to be a linear journey; serving my country and a pension at 40. I already knew at 17 years old that I was emotionally underdeveloped compared to my peers but not so much so that it would transform my world forever. Life happens to us all, there are flashes of gold, light and harmony and on occasion there can be greys, cold snaps and emptiness in contrast. We muddle through the mundane as expected, hoping for more than our fair share of the good stuff… we deserve it right?
To this day I still cannot cope with significant life events, relationships breaking down, conflict within family, bereavement (which is a common denominator for all humans) and elevated and sustained periods of stress. This came to a head in 2004 when I ended up in hospital after making a very wrong choice with regards to my mortality. My young age and physical robustness as a military fitness instructor were instrumental in saving my life. For the next 18 months I was looked after by the mental health team and within that period I had a 5 week residential stay at The Priory near Bristol. Ultimately I was medically discharged from the service; diagnosed with a recurrent depressive disorder, PTSD and an emotional personality disorder. At that point I thought there was no hope and my self worth was in pieces.
Fortuitously I found a role close to home doing the same job as I was in the forces but as a defence contractor. The next 8 years were a mixture of good, great and exceptional. Sure I had to balance mood, medication, bouts of therapy but on the whole looking back across my time on this spinning rock – those were “the days”. There was equilibrium in every facet of my life and I felt proud to achieve this. The human body degrades with age and at 34 I knew I needed a career change but believed my only value was in my body so again I was overwhelmed with despair thinking I had nothing else to offer a workplace. I have never managed to satiate the debilitating needs of body dysmorphia but I have relentlessly pursued an aesthetic that allows me to function; I have been addicted to exercise and diet pills on multiple occasions. Physical activity is my primary coping crutch; everyone in my circle of support knows I am extremely vulnerable and susceptible to relapse when I get injured or am unable to exercise through illness.
The next 10 months involved running away to the US auctioning art on cruise ships, unemployment and nowhere to live. I had lost my body and my identity but luckily not my friends. I was taken in by my soul mate and his partner; they housed, clothed, fed and even took me on holiday whilst I tried to get back on my feet. I met my now wife 6 months later and after a year in sub-optimal job roles, I got a career opportunity at a financial services institute. With this new start it was my hope that I would not have to share my mental health issues with anyone, I could be a better version of me… This was misplaced thinking at best. My role involved moving millions/billions of dollars worth of assets between asset managers daily; referring to my earlier statement, “elevated and sustained periods of stress”. I think you can see where this is going. I ended up reverting to some behaviours that involved inflicting injury upon myself and ended up back in therapy. I hadn’t been this low in many years and it was the first time my wife was introduced to this part of me, a part that I have been ashamed of since my teenage years.
The parts of us that we perceive to be less than ideal are the parts we don’t often celebrate, they spend a little less time “out front”. If we are to be authentic and bring our true selves to work, we have to bring all of who we are. People with health impairments do not often get to choose as to whether their conditions are on display and if they are visible; people won’t let their circumstances define them because it is only one part of their whole. In my experience, the not so apparent conditions are destined to be relegated to the darkness as nobody really wants to see them. If they are invisible they should remain so. They are your burdens, keep them to yourself. It is as if mental health issues actually do define who you are in their secrecy, in your hoped for silence.
I have experienced micro aggressions, impropriety and been made to feel shame in relation to my own mental health issues. And at other times I have also felt support, empathy and compassion. Despite my lack of stoicism and my limited reserves of resilience I am very fortunate to have a role where I feel that I can flourish. I deliver leadership and personal effectiveness training across my Trust to all bands and lines of service, I am a certified coach, a practitioner and a qualified mediator. I have recently been elected as a Staff Governor and am excited to gain further insight into the workings of my Trust and enthused to make impactful and meaningful change for good. I thrive when I am supported and I can only do that when people know all of me. I don’t wear my issues as a badge of honour or as an excuse mechanism. I am still accountable for my actions. But they have to be acknowledged in the psychological safe space that should exist between employee and line manager; this will allow people to do their best work. Leaders and Managers need to be provided with the training that will enable them to suspend their judgements, minimise their bias and allow their team members to let the work do the talking. We do a disservice to all, if this education isn’t front and centre at developing our leaders.
I am fully aware of Op Courage (the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service) and the wealth of veterans support available country wide. But my point is this… At the local level it can be a lottery as to whether your line manager is educated and can/will support you with your mental health. They may not be welcoming of frank mental health discussions and they might shut down any attempts to be vulnerable about mental health. Hints that this will harm your political capital you would think are yester year narratives but are sometimes dropped into conversations. World cup winner Jonny Wilkinson is heralded for talking about his difficulties. He came to my last place of work as a guest speaker to discuss the stigma that still remains on the shop floor, even at his level. You shouldn’t have to be a national hero to be recognised for your bravery for speaking out, each and every one of us who take the step as identifying with our whole selves in the workplace is worthy of inclusion and celebration.
Jonathon Williams (He/Him)
Leadership and Personal Effectiveness Facilitator