We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
I was a fairly anxious kid.
I spent a long time feeling pretty inadequate compared to the brave, funny and apparently tougher boys in my friendship group. I was emotional, often homesick.
I remember being taken on a holiday by some of my parents’ friends and having to be brought home because I couldn’t stop crying. It was never fully expressed but I felt the embarrassment that this bought to my Dad.
My relationship with my Dad – as I’m sure with most – is a huge influence on me. As a kid I used to hang out with him around garages and scrapyards, amongst yet more funny, tough “men’s men”. He was my hero, really, and I definitely thought that he was how to be a man.
However, I was a dreamer, and often off in a fantasy world of my own.
One summer, aged about 10, as all the other lads did “boy stuff”, I chose to stay in and explore a world of books, cartoons and drawings. If our childhood comes up in conversation even now, I still get reminded of that. Ah, the bants!
But you have to socialise, and from primary school all the way through to our twenties, I started to figure out ways of being part of the group. I joined the junior football team, for instance.
The banter in our group was brutal, rapid and relentless. I personally always found the banter tough, though. Most tough for me was the switch that could occur between a genuine and trusting conversation happening one minute, to an instant piss-taking that came with the arrival of another person.
For example, I remember once being sat with a friend who was always more capable of real conversations – or, “deep” conversations. We were talking about worries about parents, and even talking about being worried by the news (I think there was a nuclear threat, at the time).
This safety was broken by, “What are you two bummers doing?”
A couple of other lads had arrived. We jumped up like we had been caught doing something very embarrassing. The annoying thing was, I knew the two lads who had arrived were equally likey to be in a conversation like this on another day…
However, the change was instant. It seemed not to bother anyone else but I found it difficult. Of course, I got stuck in – survival and all that – but it just didn’t sit well with me.
All the while, I realised that being the “sensitive one” worked quite well for being able to talk to girls. In short, I suppose I naturally found my place and a role to go with it. However, underneath this sensitivity, and the fact I could more easily speak to girls, there were always questions in my mind about gender.
I think having been labelled “a bit of a girl” quite early on, and more and more associating and enjoying the company of girls, I became somewhat confused. I began to secretly cross dress.
I had always had a fascination with “girls things” even as young as 8 or 9. As I got to be a little older I found a real release in hiding in a feminine world. Some of my favourite times were spent hanging out with girls in their bedrooms because they seemed like safe spaces.
I eventually plucked up the courage to steal a pair of unopened tights from my moms room. I remember the sense of excitement mixed with shame, as well as the physical sensations. It instantly changed the way I felt. After that I would try on stuff when the house was empty. I think I sexualized wearing feminine clothes quite quickly, but it genuinely began as an emotional thing.
Of course, this would all come in bouts and be followed by a feeling of incredible shame. It added another layer of not “fitting in”.
Eventually I found my way to Art School and began changing as a person, moving from “one of the lads” into an art student.
This was a slow painful process fraught with fitting in neither social group: I could be with my new Art friends and bump into my old mates, who were doing leasure and tourism and I would be questioned by both groups…
“Nice weird posse Dean!” from the lads and “Who the fuck are those knuckle draggers?!” from my new friends, again giving me a sense of being “not quite right”.
I also had to contend with the very local notion of art not being a proper job and the implications that I had ideas above my station. Or that I thought a bit too much of myself. This usually comes in joke form too. It came from parents, parents of friends, people in the pub, etc. My nickname was “The Thespian” and the line “Why don’t you draw us a picture of it Dean?” became a regular occurance.
However, supposedly against all odds, I settled into the life of a working artist while holding down various jobs, becoming a husband, homeowner and father.
Time ticked on, I worked hard, and I began to experience more and more success with my painting. I finally started to feel vindicated for my decisions. Of course, I couldn’t compete financially, and I always felt that I was behind. I didn’t ever want to care about that shit, but you know, sometimes living in our first house in a rougher bit of town while others were onto second houses got to me. But hey, I was on the cover of the Express and Star Weekender Magazine.
Then, after some family trauma and some high pressure months of work, I had my first breakdown.
The anxiety that had bubbled along within me my whole life just exploded, and I collapsed in terror. After the opeining night of my first big art fair in London and having sold a large painting, I woke up in a hotel room in Earls Court unable to move. I still cant remember how I got home. I was just… terrified. I couldn’t stop shaking and crying and it felt as if reality was simply falling away. Back home, I stayed in this state for about 6 weeks. Not eating, not getting out of bed – in a state of constant fear.
I had had my first serious six week, full on breakdown aged 37.
I would say that I have three in the last five years, with each one seeming to increase in severity.
The most recent one, during September 2018, after another bout of five weeks of not eating or sleeping and being in constant fear, I went for a walk that I hoped I wouldn’t come back from.
Well, that is to say that I had a wave of sudden realisation that I “had” to end my life. With that came a huge relief and a sense of control again. I decided to walk and make a plan. Knowing that, psychologically at least, Dean would not be coming home.
I called a friend and asked if they would take care of my wife and daughter financially, if they needed help. I decided that I needed to make everything right with people and I would be well and happy around them for a month or so and then I was going to “have an accident”.
After a usual morning chat with my best friend, she noticed that I was strangely chirpy and saying a few out of place things. She talked me to going to a café, where I sat outside in a happy stupor.
In the meantime, her husband had called my wife and said that she needed to go and get me.
In the heated exchange that followed, my wife spelled out to me the horror that I would be leaving our daughter with, and that was the only thing that I couldn’t square in my mind. I couldn’t find a way of making that ok. The result was a sense of loss: I now had failed at even this, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough to really die.
It was decided I would move out to recover at my parents for a little while, to make sure I did not distress my daughter.
I think I started to accept that I was unwell at this point, and realised that I had to just rest and hope that I would recover. I stopped fighting. I let the process happen to me. I sat in my parents conservatory for at least a week, merely sleeping and being fed. It was hard seeing the look of helplessness on my parents’ faces. They found it really hard to understand, but crucially did not judge me and instead gave me unconditional love.
Amazingly, some of the people that reached out the most authentically and lovingly were those same lads that I had not seen for 20 years.
All explained that they had struggled too and that they themselves had various forms of medication and therapy. They all offered to meet and talk. I physically couldn’t at the time, but it was amazing to hear them tell me about very similar experiences given that I thought we were so different.
Some confessed to drink problems, anxiety, gambling addiction, bouts of depression… I realised that this was something that my generation were experiencing and that meant that there must be something wrong with the world, the system, as much as there was something wrong with me.
Maybe I wasn’t to blame completely for my own condition. Accepting that I was going through something profound – perhaps “unique” or “fateful” – and to just try and bounce back and carry on as before was no longer an option.
I committed to going back to psychotherapy and to maintaining my medication.
As of writing this I’m 10 months into recovery.
It’s still brutally hard on many days but I am hopeful and on the right path. My biggest trigger now is money. I have developed a highly acute sense of fear around it. Both in the shame that I feel at not earning at the moment and in the practical day to day living. I can find it hard to by lunch or a coffee on many days. I have a small pot of savings that is going down, and this feels like a ticking time bomb.
I feel a huge sense of shame that I couldn’t maintain the success in my painting career. I think I felt completely humiliated. I find it hard to remember all of the things I have done and learned while I’m in a state of fear, and I rely heavily on a few close friends to repeatedly remind me of the long list of things I have achieved.
My pattern of anxiety is that I wake in fear every morning. I have bad dreams often, and in the first few seconds of consciousness before I have even opened my eyes I can slip into a panic that will take me hours to climb out of. By evening I usually feel much better.
I think it’s important now to explain to you the things that help me:
I take more care of my diet, I sleep a lot (I have a bed in my studio), I have some very good friends that understand me deeply, and I have tried to set myself healthier goals. Right now, I am building a business of coaching/support to share with others what I have learned, and I am finding my way back to my art in a healthier way.
I now understand that the drives and motivations of the first “half” of life don’t necessarily translate into happiness in the second. As I get to know myself again slowly, I am starting to remember what I liked about myself. I am finding balance.
Dean Melbourne, 42, is an Artist and Advisor. Outside of art, he has a fascination with small-capacity motorbikes. He also has a charity shop hunting habit, collecting books and handmade ceramics. His favourite movie of all time is Top Gun (really), and he listens to an eclectic mix of music - from John Grant to Lizzo, to Ancient Roman music. He plays acoustic guitar, he says, “regretfully badly”.
If you want to talk, and/or find out about how Dean can offer expert advice and insider industry info for your art, you can contact him via his website www.deanmelbourne.co.uk
To see more of Dean’s brilliant work, visit his website at www.deanmelbourne.com