It was the summer of 2014. I had turned 40 just a few months earlier. I was alone in my flat in Berlin at the end of yet another 80-hour working week. That night I had drunk three or four bottles of wine and had spent several hours googling the most effective ways to kill myself.
What makes that memory so powerful is that none of my friends knew about my desperation. I had spent years pretending to everyone that I was fine; I’d perfected the art of the charade so that I could even kid myself sometimes. And although I could have picked up the phone and shared my crisis with a friend, it just didn’t feel like the kind of thing even good mates do. Like numerous men who reach breaking point, I arrived there alone.
When I look back now, I can see it had been a long time coming. To all appearances, my life was a success: I lived in a great neighbourhood, had a career in advertising and was also a published novelist. Yet, like many men secretly dealing with depression, I used success as a cover for an overwhelming sense of emptiness and isolation. The sad truth is, many men manage to slip under the radar when it comes to their mental health.
It is impossible to know for sure how the interplay of nature and nurture influences a person’s vulnerability to depression. In my case, I had come from a family in which serious mental health issues had been a constant problem, exacerbated by their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. In that highly manipulative environment, the church and its teachings were always considered more important than the advice of doctors and psychiatrists. We were also discouraged from making friends outside the church, to the point that I was even dissuaded as a child from living with my father because he was a non-believer.
After dedicating every aspect of my life to the church, I finally came to my senses aged 21. Recognising the illogicality and hypocrisy of my upbringing, I chose to walk away, even though I knew it meant having to start my life all over again. I was effectively saying goodbye to my childhood friends for ever and I knew almost nothing about how to navigate life as a freethinking adult.
The first few months were tough but, in typical male fashion, I didn’t confide in anyone about the challenges I was facing. I simply told myself to get on with it. Like many people in my family, I had often struggled with feelings of sadness and worthlessness, but from that point in my life the lows started to become more pronounced. By then I was living in Hong Kong – under British rule at the time, and an easy choice for someone escaping their family’s self-inflicted dramas. I found a job with a well-known publisher and started building a new life. In Hong Kong’s heavy-drinking expat culture, superficial friendships were easy to make, and release and oblivion were always within reach. It was a classic male response to depression: mates, booze and denial. And that’s how it continued for years.
By my late 20s, I should have seen the telltale signs. I had been on a number of dates but still hadn’t formed any significant relationships. More than once I’d been told I was impossible to reach emotionally, and behind my back I sensed that some friends and acquaintances were quietly telling one another that I drank too much. But still no one said it to my face. In fact, I was the go-to person for a fun night out, guaranteed to keep going until the very end.
Then my father died. I had only started getting to know him in my mid-20s, by which time we were living 6,000 miles apart. But the relationship grew slowly through regular phone calls and occasional visits to England. We were planning our first-ever holiday together when he told me that he hadn’t been feeling well, and his doctor wanted to send him for further tests. Not long after that, he was dead from colon cancer.
In the year that followed, two of my close friends died in separate accidents. The combined grief was overwhelming. There were many times when I felt I couldn’t even breathe, yet I responded by keeping the emotions in; quietly adding my grief to a long list of things that I didn’t want to think about. I pretended that everything was fine even when it clearly wasn’t, and the result was a numbness and detachment from the world around me that only heightened my growing sense of isolation.
I can still recall the yearning to connect with other people, to do all the things that seemed so easy for everyone else – the physical contact, the companionship, the emotional intimacy – but I didn’t know how. It was as though I didn’t have the emotional software to let people close; as if I was wired differently. By that time, the depressive episodes were becoming worse and I handled them the only way I knew how: I spent more time alone. Drinking, anger and overwork became familiar friends.
After more than 15 years living in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I moved back to Europe, to Berlin, in the summer of 2010. I still hadn’t told anyone about the growing pain inside me, instead immersing myself in yet more work. I began writing my first novel, juggling that workload with the heavy demands of my career. It wasn’t long before I was having to start work every day at 4am, pushing through a weekly schedule that was so intense there was almost never an opportunity to think about myself. It was the perfect cover for keeping everyone else at a distance: ‘I’d love to see you but I’m just too busy.’ My personal circumstances – living alone and working from home – made it easy to hide my darkest moments. When I did go out, I knew through years of practice how to prepare myself for social occasions, always putting my best face forward. I’d become a grand master at hiding my problems. Partly because I wanted to, partly because I felt I needed to.
You can keep that up for only so long before it goes horribly wrong. Every day became a struggle: I was waking up each morning wanting to die and my inner critic, who had always been a harsh taskmaster, was screaming at me that the world would be a better place if I were dead. Which is how I found myself that night in 2014 pondering the final details of my suicide. As practical and organised as ever, I had already prepared a shortlist of cemeteries and even budgeted for funeral costs. And still my closest friends had no clue of the trouble I was in. If I didn’t get help, my life was over.
According to the Office for National Statistics, men still account for three-quarters of all suicides in the UK. Reading between the lines, it is easy to imagine that many, like me, downplay their problems, choosing not to reach out for support until it all becomes too much and they simply snap.
Personally, I disagree that men don’t want to talk about their problems. Perhaps they haven’t found the right person, or perhaps the other person isn’t ready to have that conversation. I recall that on one or two occasions I attempted to let others know that I was falling apart – it wasn’t much more than replying ‘Not great, actually’ to a ‘How are you?’ – but on each occasion the other person let it pass, probably not even noticing this small attempt to ask for help.
I could have discussed my problems with my doctor but the irony is that I enjoy excellent physical health; my doctor barely knows who I am. So in the end I decided to find a therapist. I knew I didn’t want someone who would simply prescribe pills. I have no doubt that medication is an important response in some cases, but I had reached a point where I knew I had been through a series of experiences that needed to be examined. After searching online for skilled psychologists in my area of Berlin, I found the therapist who would save my life. A fluent English speaker with an empathetic manner that immediately put me at ease, he specialised in psychodynamic psychotherapy, which aims to achieve lasting change by focusing on a patient’s experiences and relationships rather than their symptoms.
From our first meeting, I knew I had found the right therapist for me. In weekly sessions over about 18 months, he helped me re-read and make sense of my life story, both in terms of my complex family background and the religious fundamentalism that defined it. There wasn’t a single eureka moment of change, nor was I expecting one. Instead, over many months, I could see that my world was gradually becoming a lighter, brighter place. It was often only in retrospect that I noticed little changes: things that had previously weighed on me no longer felt like an issue.
One of the key ways we achieved this positive outlook was through hypnotic visualisations, which helped me explore my subconscious beliefs about myself and others. It was a visually engaging process that was perfectly suited to the way my mind works as a writer. That slow process of transformation continued until one day it was clear to both of us that I no longer needed his help; that I now had the understanding to complete the rest of life’s journey on my own.
Today, when I look back on the hopelessness and desperation that led me to therapy, it feels as though I’m remembering someone else’s life. That experience of recovery doesn’t make me immune from the risk of future depressive episodes – none of us can claim that – but I believe it equips me to face the future with greater confidence. I now have a healthier perspective on the issues that used to overwhelm me and a greater sense of personal mastery over them. In that respect, finding the right therapist didn’t simply save my life, it gave me a quality of life that I have never had before: friendships have become closer and stronger and I finally feel good about myself just as I am. In practical ways, too, I’m much more attuned to my needs: taking time for myself, getting enough sleep every night and not using alcohol to self-medicate.
As my recovery became more apparent, part of me wanted to keep the whole dark episode a secret. Let’s face it, many men find it hard to stop and ask for directions on the street, so you can imagine how difficult it is for them to admit they have lost their way in life. I had spent so long under the radar I could have easily kept up the pretence. But until more of us speak freely about mental illness there will always be a sense of shame surrounding the issue.
We’re very accepting of physical ailments – we take it for granted that our bodies are susceptible to wear and tear – yet when it comes to mental health, we expect lifelong perfection of ourselves and others. With the right help, we can genuinely be patched up and made whole again, and that’s something we should all encourage.
During the darkest days of my depression, while I was still battling to maintain a mask of normality, the one work project I let slide was my third novel. I eventually handed it in to my publisher more than two years late. Looking back, it was only by making sense of my own story and being able to imagine a happy ending for myself that I was finally able to do the same for my characters.
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, please remember that help is out there. No matter how impossible it seems now, the sun can shine again, I promise you that.
31 Days of Wonder by Tom Winter is published in hardback by Corsair, price £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99 (a 20 per cent discount) until 3 December, visit you-bookshop.co.uk, or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15