Recently, a sinkhole opened up in a residential street near where I live. Nobody was quite sure how deep it was. There were rumours that a postman had fallen into it, and couldn't get out unaided. Nobody was injured. The road was closed for a few days whilst they filled up the hole with concrete.
This reminded me of events earlier in the year, where I had skated around an emotional sinkhole, and had nearly fallen in.
The geological circumstances that lead up to the formation of a sinkhole are reasonably well understood. Rock or sand is eroded or dissolved by underground water flows. A cavern develops underground. Eventually, the land above has no support … and just caves in. There are rumours that this particular area was formerly a landfill site. The houses in that street are apparently underpinned, but that brings little comfort to those who live nearby. Sinkholes appear in residential areas quite suddenly, and the locals had no idea that there was a problem until the ground disappeared beneath their feet.
The situation is similar with emotional sinkholes. I had moved sideways within the company, into a job that turned out to be a bad match with the things that I enjoy doing. Various aspects of the job were stressful. I had tried for over a year to make it work, hoping that it would get better, or that I would grow into it. And one day, I broke emotionally: something that my kids said tipped me over the edge, I snapped out verbally in anger, and stormed out of the room leaving those I love frightened and in tears.
I believe I was very lucky: this event made me realise that something wasn't right. My wife said she had been concerned about me for a few months. I didn't know what to do about it, but I knew I couldn't sweep it under the carpet. I met up with a good friend a few days later, and opened up to him, not knowing what to do. "You're ill," he said. "Go and see your doctor urgently". My doctor was crystal clear about a diagnosis: "work-related stress, anxiety, and possibly depression". I was signed off for two weeks.
Sinkholes have a lot in common with emotional unhealth. My wife had seen the cracks in the tarmac, I had ignored the signs of ground-movement, and my family had watched the earth opening up around me. Without some dramatic changes, I knew I would fall into the sinkhole. I was lucky to have a good friend who grabbed me as the chasm opened up, and prevented me from falling. But I know that I stood on the edge of that pit of darkness, and I did not like what I saw.
Around me there are people - especially men - who see and ignore the cracks in the tarmac. Some deny that the ground is breaking up, that there is any kind of problem, despite the carnage around them. Others try desperately to pretend that everything is alright when it clearly isn't. Others have been there, in the pit of despair, and they are unable to get out. I also know people who have come out the other side. They give fleeting glimpses past the closed curtains of what it's like: a long, dark, painful journey. Some people have had to fight depression for many years.
When my doctor mentioned the D word, I knew that I must do whatever was necessary to avoid going there, regardless of the cost. My doctor prescribed rest and exercise, and I made a decision that was to most of my friends irresponsible. I knew I had to leave that job before it got the better of me. I resigned before I found another job to go to. In the minds of my friends were possibly the unspoken words "foolish", "stupid", "what about the family". Having seen what it has done to others, I would rather they brand me with these insults than I fall into the pit of depression.
I knew it was the right decision. Some understood. Many didn't. I gave up trying to explain it. I got through my notice period on adrenaline and hope. And as soon as I had left that office for the last time, my body made absolutely sure I got some rest - I spent the best part of two weeks in bed.
I shall leave for another time the story of how I found my new job, and why it is a god fit for me. I shall leave for another time the difference between passion and stress. Some day I might write about the difference between the stress of not knowing how to pay the mortgage compared to the stress of being in the wrong job. But let me finish today with this. Men, we need to talk more. We need to get our frustrations out into the open, and not bottle up our feelings. We probably need to slow down or do more exercise, but as soon as we see any kind of cracks in the tarmac of our lives, it's time to start talking.