Matt Gemmell


personal 6 min read

It’s mental health awareness week here in the UK. Every week ought to be, of course, but one week is a good start. So let me talk to you a little bit about that topic, since I think it’s my responsibility to do so.

At the beginning of this year, I finally did something I’ve wanted to do since I was in my late teens: I started therapy. I have a session for an hour every week, just like in the movies. I’m just about to turn 42 years old. I really should have done this a very long time ago.

Like most things, therapy is both what I expected it would be, and also not at all what I expected. I thought that it would mostly involve me talking, and that a lot of it would be about the past, and that there would be releases of pent-up emotion. That’s all been true.

I also thought that it would be cathartic just to tell someone all these things, and that I’d feel better afterwards. That isn’t true, not at first. The starting portion of therapy — for weeks, or longer — is more like tearing open an old scar, again and again. To begin with, it gets more difficult, not less. But it’s a necessary part of the process.

I have some assets in this area. First, I have absolutely none of the traditional-masculinity baggage that could otherwise make me hesitant to talk about my inner emotional landscape with a comparative stranger. I just don’t care about any of that. I’m fortunate. Second, while my tendency towards ceaseless introspection has been a curse, it also gives me a reasonable starting point for insight. And third, not to blow my own trumpet, but I’m articulate. All of those factors work in my favour. And pretty much everything else about me is an obstacle instead.

I don’t think I’ve ever really been at peace; not in the last thirty years, anyway. I had my big collision with mental health services in my late teens for several years, and I came out the other side of that, but I could never truthfully claim to have been happy inside for any decent length of time. I have very positive elements in my life, of course: my wife, my canine son, and now my human son whom I’m slowly but surely learning how to integrate and internalise. But there’s also always the sadness, and the darkness, and the fear. It’s never not been there.

The past few years have been bad ones for me, emotionally. I was already in a precarious state before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19. Personal and external factors overlapped, and then the world also changed around me: a pandemic and a pregnancy at the same time. And then this long, amorphous March that’s lasted for fourteen months and counting.

I’m so grateful for the little flashes of vestigial panic. Sitting there at night by lamplight, in another room while my wife slept, scrolling through screen after screen of crisis hotlines and information, it’s those infrequent and strangely muted stabs of self-preserving panic that tended to break through the haze. Their logic is grim but incredibly persuasive: you can always kill yourself tomorrow, so why not try something else first?

The truth is, I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts all my life.

That’s a large admission, as you can appreciate, but it’s no longer a particularly difficult one. It is self-honest, and that’s the bedrock of useful truth. The only word that I’d tend to mark for a future editing session is “struggled”, because of course you don’t really struggle with those thoughts; not really. That’s the problem. When they arrive, they come like honey dropped into hot tea; heavy and viscous, spreading, and then covering everything.

The first lesson I learned is that therapy is exhausting. The movies didn’t teach me that part. There, the characters leave the plush but calm office unburdened; lighter, and re-energised. That’s not how it is for me. Therapy actually leaves me emotionally stunned and physically drained. Switched off for a while, and in need of more sleep than usual. It takes me a day or two before I can consciously revisit the session.

The second lesson I learned is that progress is change, rather than healing. Healing would also be progress, but it’s not the only type. Starting to feel differently — even if that means temporarily worse — about things you’ve long felt static about, is definitely progress. A lot of therapy is about shaking things loose, and breaking the status quo.

My third lesson was that I’m the one guiding the whole process. I expected a lot more structure imposed by the therapist, and prompting. I’m sure it’s like that for other people. But for me, it’s… me. My therapist asks a judicious question now and again, and reacts to what I say, and offers thoughts for me to consider (sometimes as devil’s advocate, but only rarely). The rest of the time, it’s me. I belatedly realised that I would find it frustrating and infuriating if the structure was imposed rather than discovered organically. I assume that the therapist makes that assessment early on, and tailors the approach. In fact, I’m certain of it.

The fourth lesson I learned is that revelations show up surprisingly quickly. There were significant insights from the second week or so, and almost every week thereafter. The biggest changes come in how you reassess things, and particularly in the ways you give yourself permission to do that. To put new labels on what you believed was written in stone, and to at last start to see the things of the past through the eyes of now, instead of then.

I’ve come to learn many specific things about my own problems, and I hope that eventually they can become the beginnings of solutions, but those are for me alone. Time will tell. I’m committed to the process. So the last lesson I’ll mention here is one that should have been obvious, but which I had to learn anyway: my therapist is on my side. It was a surprise to me, honestly. I sort of expected to be gently told to get a hold of myself.

The process has already changed me in some ways. I think I’ve moved beyond the preliminaries, and into a stage that I’d characterise as being in flux. It’s a delicate point. I’ve become that person who encounters one of the many challenges we all face from time to time, and immediately thinks that they want to talk to their therapist about it. I previously would have judged that as weak and dependent, and perhaps it is in some cases. Perhaps it is in my case too. But what I think is that I’ve taken some things apart, and there are now many pieces lying on the ground, and I’ve yet to discover how to reassemble them. Fragility in that context seems natural enough.

And then there’s the anger.

It’s difficult to travel this path without encountering regret, which is a close cousin to resentment. I think often of the life I might have lived, if everything wasn’t tainted by despair and fear, and the siren call of self-annihilation. I’ve done many things in my life so far, but they’re a fraction of what I think I could have done if I had been less damaged. I’ve become so very accustomed to sadness that it was a shock to me — such a beautiful shock — when sometime in my second month of therapy, I suddenly gained access to an underlying feeling that has been buried for decades.

It’s like I was exploring an underground cave system — but of course that analogy is ludicrous. I would never do that. I’m too afraid; of everything, all the time, always and forever. I wouldn’t go into the cave in the first place. So let me restart.

It’s like someone was exploring an underground cave system. Down and down, and across and around, and down, and down and down. Until something fell away, and revealed a deeper expanse, vast beyond the reach of feeble electric light, but then… what’s this? The telltale smell of petrochemicals. The chilled realisation. A vast reservoir of combustible fuel, hidden for geological ages, now uncapped. And the merest slip — the merest spark — would bring consequences dire beyond contemplation.

Melodramatic words, certainly, but they fit.

It’s not something I’m pleased about. It’s a dark thing. Maybe it’s not even productive; not really. But it is different. And different, I’ve learned, can be good.

My goals for therapy started off being vague and wildly optimistic: to be truly happy within myself; to be normal, whatever that means; to be at peace.

My goal now is more specific, and perhaps even attainable: to be less broken, above all; to want to live, rather than to endure living; to at least de-magnify the manifest darknesses of life.

Therapy isn’t a cheap option, but it’s the one that got things moving. The cost also keeps me focused, and simplifies my attitude to the whole thing. And my therapist helps. Sometimes quiet, sometimes cajoling, and always attentive and supportive. She doesn’t hesitate to curse, and nor to show that she’s moved by something I’ve said. That was a surprise to me, too.

I’m not better. I’m not sure I can see the road to better. I suspect I wandered from it a very long time ago, and have become impossibly lost, and that I’m incompatible with feeling any other way. I try not to focus on that idea. I have a long way to go.

But I am further along, and that is something.

Help is always available for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be reached at 116-123 (24 hours).

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours).

Search online for similar services in your country. Your doctor can also provide confidential advice and assistance.