Depression and Anxiety: My Abusive Love Affair with Alcohol by Daniel Lester

I guess I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember but without knowing it. From my teenage years onwards I would have episodes where I’d become irrational and reserved. I’d quit eating or sleeping for days and hide from those closest to me. I’d become frustrated by others unreasonably and would regularly self-harm. I didn’t really understand what was happening until many years later when I finished my PhD; I found a job that didn’t turn out well, and hit a wall. Since then I have been more mindful of my episodes of depression and the crippling anxiety that I regularly get when things outside of my control happen in the world.

So how did I get here?

I finished my PhD with great expectations; that it would be easy to find a job, a career and be happy. I was fortunate to find a job and start before I’d even submitted my thesis, however, this did not work out so well for me. I moved to Hong Kong (where I’d never been to before!) as a science teacher and found adapting to a job, different way of life and different country extremely challenging. What followed was a few months of crippling depression and developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol on a different continent. I can’t remember this period of my life too well for various reasons, but I estimate I was only eating 1 or 2 meals a week and drinking 10-15 pints a day. It was my only way to cope with the situation I was in and I found myself getting myself into dangerous situations with zero awareness, until years later, of how bad some of them were.

What were bars in the evenings were restaurants during the day and I found myself waking up on a table in one of these bars next to a family I didn’t know with little recollection of how I got there. I nearly broke a leg falling off a wall on an empty beach in the early hours of the morning and was fortunately found by a passer-by who took me back to his house to care for me. These are just two of many situations that, looking back on, I am not only scared by, but ashamed of.

Although I didn’t have any conscious self-awareness of how low I’d sunk, something must have clicked somewhere in my brain. I had a breakdown and a cry in front of my boss at the time and told them I was moving back home ASAP as I couldn’t go on like I was.

So 2/3 months in to a 2 year contract I moved back to my hometown unemployed, and without a place to live. These were arguably amongst the darkest months of my life.

I’ve heard depression described as a hole you can’t escape from and that is exactly how it felt to me. Alcohol was the only thing that could help me, briefly, escape that pit and therefore the relationship I’d made with it became even stronger.

I applied for jobs daily, expanding my scope to well outside that of my own experience and interests as I was desperate to find employment and escape my situation. I found many around me to be unsupportive and not understanding of my situation, and this made me feel even more alone and even more like this was all my own fault – as if I’d chosen to be unemployed. To compound this, I was claiming Job Seekers Allowance which is crippling in itself, and a truly dehumanising system and process. Looking back, it was at this point that I began to feel lower than human, permanently judged by those around me as a failure at life.

It really hit hard when I visited a friend in Switzerland in December 2013, a few days after my viva – yes, I managed to viva and pass in this time. Whilst in Switzerland I found myself remembering the last time I was there, about 4 months prior with what a good outlook and prospects I had in life and how it couldn’t be more different now. The juxtaposition between what I should have become and what I did become sent me into a spiral. I was drinking bottles of wine just to get out of bed in the morning. On New Year’s Eve in 2013, I’d been drinking since 6am and found myself wandering the streets of Luzern at night; alone and having burned bridges by arguing and picking fights with friends. I somehow found my way to my friend’s bar where he was working the New Year’s Eve shift. He saw my state that night, and from the previous 2 weeks, and sat me down and gave me the hard truth. Coming from a friend who I trust implicitly, and is no angel himself, it finally got through to me and I realised the mess I’d become. It was during this time that I really started to understand how bad my mental health had become. I spent the next few days with him reflecting on my behaviour and my depression whilst trying to wean myself off alcohol before returning to the UK.

January 2014. New Year, new me. I returned to Brighton where I’d stopped drinking completely and had begun the job search again. I got lucky, and in February 2014 I joined the University of Warwick, which was both my saviour and my therapy. I threw myself into my job and found the work something to focus on. The stable routine gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and keep me out of the pub in the afternoon. I quickly built a group of friends and slowly started to recover.

Every New Year I think back to that night in Luzern and how low I’d gotten and look at where I am now. I am grateful for the hard work myself and others put in to lifting me from that hole and it gives me the strength to do my best to never end up back there – I am forever grateful to those that gave me a chance and have supported me at Warwick, both knowingly and unknowingly.

Despite this, for several years after (and even occasionally now) I wake up shaking in cold sweats remembering what happened to me/what I did to myself in Hong Kong, an experience I can only describe as PTSD. However, I finally realised I might be healing when, 2 years after starting at Warwick, I had a conversation with a friend and colleague about my time abroad without breaking into panic. I am also now capable of drinking alcohol, where I do it because I want to and enjoy it, not because it is the only thing that gives me a reason to get up in the morning.

Obviously, it has not completely gone away, and it probably never will. I still have episodes and lapse into bad habits, but these unexpected episodes are less frequent – large stressors still send me into an uncontrollable panic.

For me now my issue is anxiety, usually stemming from situations I’m not able to control or predict. Recent attacks have been from a leaking roof and hospitalisation – the fact that I couldn’t predict these or know when they will happen again causes me great distress and in general leads to episodes of depression. Learning what my stressors can be and seeing the signs of falling into a state of personal disrepair means that I can catch myself early. I can warn those around me what is going to happen or ask for help so that it doesn’t happen. Because of this my episodes are less frequent and, in general, less intense.

The need to talk

I also realised in this time that it is good to talk about my own issues and to others about theirs. I think I’ve always been open about a lot of things to those around me, but not necessarily my mental health.

I had grown up where mental health was unheard of, and stress and depression could be treated by ‘manning-up’ or ‘pulling yourself together’. These kinds of beliefs make it a) hard to talk about and b) hard to diagnose in the first place.

If we can talk about mental health more frankly, it will educate those who think it is not an issue and reduce the stigma, allowing better support for those who need it.

Eventually I grew confident enough in myself and in the trust of my friends, that I talked about my mental health more openly. I am now at the point where I can talk about it candidly with anyone. I have talked honestly when presenting about how my mental health struggles have led me to where I am now and find it cathartic. Of course, it’s not just about talking about your own mental health but listening to others talk about theirs. I realised that my experience and unique placement in the university meant that I could try and help others. I opened my office door and began to talk more honestly with friends about how they are doing and have found it to be therapeutic for both parties.

From my experience of mental health struggles my advice would be:

  • See if you can determine if there are any things that will cause episodes of anxiety, stress and depression. If there are particular things and you know what they are, it becomes easier to avoid them or at least to be prepared for them.
  • Try to find a way to deal with them if possible; maybe it is just having a chat with a friend or removing yourself temporarily from the issue for some personal time. I don’t believe there is one way to deal with all mental health challenges for all people, but, if you can find your own then that is great! For me this means forcing myself to eat at regular times and keeping up a routine. I also personally find getting stuck in at work really helps to focus my brain and keep me going until it passes.
  • Finally, open up. Talk to others. Build a group of people around you to support you. Conversely, be that person for others. Regularly check up on friends and family. Sometimes you don’t need to offer advice, only be an ear to listen or shoulder to rest on. If you have episodes of low mental health try to spot any warning signs beforehand to catch them early and figure out how best to support yourself if you know they are happening. Most of all, be honest and talk about it.

My door is and will always be open if you need to talk to someone. Talking about mental health is absolutely okay and definitely not a weakness of character. I am where I am today, not in spite of my mental health challenges, but because of them.

Dan Lester

About the Author: Dan was born in Brighton back in the 80s and learnt to swim long before he could ride a bike. He attended the University of Sussex earning a First Class MChem before staying on to obtain a PhD in physical inorganic chemistry, working with John Turner and Qiao Chen. After a small sabbatical in Asia he moved to the University of Warwick as a Research Technician before starting a research facility with his boss, of which he is now manager. This research facility is a polymer analysis facility that supports the work of internal and external researchers by providing high quality instrumentation and (hopefully) higher quality staff. This has led to the nickname GPC Dan (gel permeation chromatography), a moniker which he wears with pride. Outside of work Dan can be found annoying his neighbours by playing guitar and sometimes singing, following football devotedly and cooking Instagram-worthy meals.