What is it with particularly bad, black times? Sometimes bad things come along like buses, everything is going nicely then suddenly out of nowhere the pressure cranks up, things you thought you could always rely on start crumbling away. It was a particularly bad time then. My gran had died peacefully in March, followed by my cousin very prematurely a few months later. I was working, but the job(s) were stressful and my employers expected too much of me. I kept quiet and got in with, as many of us do. But it was when my fiancee’s dad died from a protracted battle with cancer by the autumn of that year that things got too hard to hold together.
Friends and family knew my story, or enough of it anyway. They asked if I needed help and largely I said “No, I’m alright thanks” and brushed them off. I can get on with it. Simple. The cool, confident type. He’d been a heavy alcoholic, which probably masked other problems, either way he’d been a huge and negative presence in her life and hence in mine. I was organising the funeral, I just needed something to get through whilst working, whilst keeping together our lives, myself, and everyone else.
In these times of difficulty you start taking on the burdens of the whole world. And so I’d heard about St John’s Wort, a herb recommended informally for mild-moderate depression and sleep problems. A coping device without having to explain my life-story to a sceptical GP. St John’s Wort is pretty common. Reasonably priced, popular in Germany, comes in pill, available in many health food shops, backed largely by anecdotal evidence, e.g. friends who told me to sort my head out when I kept getting wasted and losing it. I was drinking a lot but got through it. Three times a day, bottled up.
But the job didn’t get less stressful – they were impressed at how well I coped under pressure and piled on more responsibilities. Money problems increased for lots of small boring reasons which added to the pressure. 18 months later I was still bottling it up, three times a day. I’ve heard that one in five Londoners apparently suffers from a mental health problem, and that these days you can find traces of prozac in the tap water, but you always think it happens to someone else. It seems like the easier and safer option at the time though to keep quiet and get on with it, don’t bother anyone, I’ll be alright in the end, I’ll get through it. We’re all cool. How many more people are doing exactly the same thing? I have no ideas. But either way, the causes and circumstances of what makes life feel so hard go unaddressed. It bottles it up, but doesn’t really solve anything.
So 18 months later, I’d tried making positive changes in my life – drink less, exercise more (10k runs etc), leave my job and try one of my life ambitions for a year with the money I’d saved from working. I stopped the heavy self-dosage without telling anyone (I hadn’t even told anyone I’d started taking the stuff, and had been hiding the St John’s Wort inside innocuous pots of cod liver oil tablets). Very quickly life got very tough again – I was losing my temper, finding it pretty difficult to do normal things and ‘get on with it’, and so I was drinking a lot, getting wasted a lot, going out of control.
You’re probably wondering where the solution or moral of the story kicks in. Well St John’s Wort is routinely self-prescribed to manage rather than resolve feeling down. Until we (and that means me too) start learning how to lean on our mates when we’re feeling down, and let others be there for us in the way that we’d always try to be there for a bro, then the circle of problems will continue. Stuck in the cool self-sufficient superhero mould, secretly messed-up. I know what advice I’d give myself. In trying to keep in control and keep it all together, we’re slowly unravelling. I’m going to try though. St John’s Wort bottles it up, takes the venom out of feeling bad. For a few months, it’s very effective. I’ve used it throughout my teens sporadically when stressed out or fed up over exams, or being skint and feeling like life’s going nowhere. It’s better than other things. But St John’s Wort shouldn’t be taken for life, not to mask other problems.
Kenny Augustus is a musician from north London.
If you’re also taking St. John’s Wort, be sure to check any side-effects and get advice before you do so. If you think you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, alcohol problems or anything else Kenny mentions, talk to CALM, and consider getting support from a medical professional.