This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Last week I received a press release about a new Young Adult novel called The Sword that Saves. What struck me as much as the story, was the author. The release mentioned that he had written the book after suffering a nervous breakdown following the pressures of a successful job and busy family life. Mental health issues aren’t restricted to those who are at the bottom of a pit of despair, and it was brilliant to see someone willing to talk about their issues in such a positive way. I spoke to the PR agency representing Ambrose and asked if he could write about his situation in a little more detail for Mental Health Awareness Week and I feel honoured that he did.
The Sword that Saves is out on 27 May from Hornet Books.
Below is the Ambrose Merrell’s story.
Friday 14th December 2001 was the day that really marked the beginning of my descent into the black pit of depression. Two phone calls within one hour of each other that literally left me reeling.
Running a business is stressful at the best of times. I had started probably the UK’s first web development company in December 1995. Within a few years I was turning down an offer of £3.5 million to buy the business.
Then the attacks of 9/11 happened. Not only did the attack take so many lives but it also rocked the world’s economy. Stock markets crashed and companies around the world prepared for a serious recession or even depression. Spending on web development simply stopped.
Two months after the 9/11 attack, I received two phone calls within an hour of each other that cancelled projects worth over £350k. I remember the room spinning as I received the second phone call. It left a hole so huge in our revenue that it threatened the survival of the business.
I struggled on for a few months, taking on personal debt for the first time to bank roll the business. Then reality really set in. I had a team of twelve and I only had work for six, at best. Everyone who worked with me I considered a dear friend. Now I was faced with the choice of who to make redundant. It was a dreadful experience for me: like deciding what friend to throw off a cliff.
I really began to struggle. I cried a lot. I learnt to cry in the shower in the morning, so that my wife would not see my tears. Then I would sit on the sofa with my son and watch Bear in the Big Blue House, dreading going to work. Eventually I’d get on my bike and cycle across the fields into Cambridge. Halfway I would stop and cry before collecting myself and continuing to work. At work I would go down into the basement and cry. Occasionally my wife would have to come and collect me because I was having such pain in my stomach.
I was having a nervous breakdown. But I didn’t admit it or even realise it, I think. I told no one. I just kept pushing on. I was a man and I had to be strong. My wife, my family, my team depended on me. I could not let them down.
It was a very bleak time. I had had to take on a lot of debt to sustain the business. Cash flow became a nightmare. Every month was a desperate struggle to scrape together enough money to pay the team. The stress was huge and relentless. I suffered serious insomnia. I cried all the time, though always in secret. Finally, despite our best efforts, the business failed in late 2005. It was a very cruel end to the business, but that’s another story. In many ways it was a blessed relief. The stress was over. But I was seriously damaged.
We decided to emigrate to Bowen Island near Vancouver, Canada. It had long been a dream and I couldn’t wait to get out of England. But when we arrived in October 2006 it marked the beginning of the demise of my marriage. My mental health had been so seriously impacted. I was desperate to avoid anything remotely stressful and sought to build a life on Bowen to enable that. But my wife did not know of my mental health problems.
Prior to leaving England I had been training for eight years in a martial art called aikido. It is called the Art of Peace and seeks to give one the skills to protect oneself whilst doing as little harm as possible to one’s attacker. Through aikido I had encountered a master of aikido and Zen priest called Reverend Kensho Furuya who had a training hall, or “dojo”, in Los Angeles. He had written a book that I had read and he wrote daily messages on his website. I had emailed him and we had become friends. I dreamed of meeting him in LA and once we had moved to Bowen it would be relatively easy for me to visit his dojo, which we planned for April 2007. I also invited him to visit me which he said he very much wanted to do. I felt like I had met my true spiritual teacher, someone who would guide me not only in aikido but also in life. So it was a massive blow when I awoke on March 7th 2007 to discover that he had died suddenly the day before. Everything in my life seemed to be collapsing around me.
The dynamics of my relationship with my wife had shifted enormously, but she wasn’t aware of the depth of that change. I tried to communicate where I was but I didn’t do a very good job. Despite 8 months of intense counselling, I eventually said that I could no longer go on in our relationship, a relationship that had begun when I was seventeen years old.
She decided to go back to England with our three children. I supported her decision. Everything I had read said that if we were ok, the children would be ok. She would be most ok back in England with the support of her family. However, I knew there was no way I could go back. England loomed like Mordor to me, black and full of terrifying demons. So my children went to a place that I could not go.
Then began my plummet into the black pits of despair and depression. I could not be away from my children but I could not live in the country where they were. I was torn apart. So I fell into darkness, tumbling down until I eventually hit the bottom. But the bottom was thick, black mud that sucked me ever further down, swallowing me up. Some months after they left I had to move from our place. I had to go into their bedroom that was just as they had left it and I had to strip their beds. I could still smell them on their pillows. It was a pain that is far, far beyond my ability to describe.
I eventually reached a place where the future was utterly hopeless. Despair was absolute. The future only held the promise of more pain, more suffering. There was no way out. Every fibre of my being, every cell of my body longed for death. My body was craven. I would walk around hunched over and try to only leave the house at night, a hoody pulled over my face. If I did encounter people I put on a happy face, ashamed of the truth of how I felt. Sleep was my only solace.
My own mind was destroying me. I had a voice in my thoughts I called The Judge and it was relentless and pitiless in its destruction of me. Oddly enough it took on the voice of my now ex-mother-in-law, who had never liked me from the start. It pointed out all my failings, my weakness, how pathetic I was, how I was not even man enough to live in the same country as my children. It tore me down piece by piece. I was an idiot. A pathetic, useless, failure. It was utterly merciless in every waking moment.
Obviously I was suicidal. But I loved my children too much to leave them. They were my only light. I could not leave them, I loved them too much.
There is a mountain on Bowen Island which I began running up. I was almost always alone on the trail as it crossed streams and wound up through the forest. I would drag myself kicking and screaming out of the house. I vividly remember being curled up in a ball, crying on the kitchen floor. I just wanted death to take me, but instead I forced myself to get up, leave the house and run up the mountain.
Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, would spend weeks alone in the mountains of Japan. Stories were told of his training with mythical creatures deep in the forests. I didn’t see any mythical creatures but the communion with the mountain, the trees, the streams and waterfalls I believe sustained me. I would seek what Morihei Ueshiba sought, an end to the delusion that we are somehow separate from the world around us.
I eventually attempted to go back to work. I took a water taxi from Bowen to Vancouver. I’d sit outside alone and cry on the journey over. I lasted eight months before I had another nervous breakdown. This one was more clear cut than the previous one. My mind just stopped functioning properly. Perhaps it could be described as psychosis, I’m not sure. I do know that I was in a meeting with two other people and they were looking at me as if I was talking gibberish. It’s a very disturbing experience when you can no longer trust your own mind. That was eight years ago now and I still don’t fully trust it.
So I couldn’t go on living and I couldn’t die. I was trapped in the darkness. But in the darkness I found a gift, a jewel buried in the black mire. There was no way I could go on living as things were. But reality wasn’t going to change. So I realised that I had to. Morihei Ueshiba said, “I am the universe.” What did he mean by that? It wasn’t some arrogant claim. What was it that Kensho had found as an aikido master and Zen priest?
I began to look more deeply into who I was, what “I” was. I began to practice aikido again, albeit by myself. I reread a book that Kensho had recommended to me called, “From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment”. There was a section that really spoke to me:
“Or to offer a more modern-day example, a man’s business fails and then his wife falls ill. His child has a traffic accident, which causes a nervous breakdown. All his misfortunes seem to come at once, and in complete despair, he begins to struggle.
“However, since everything – in this case, even misfortune – is our life, what is essential especially in these circumstances is to meet adversity with an attitude of equanimity. If we fall into hell, then we need the resolve to see hell is our home. When we are being boiled in the demon’s cauldron, that is where we have to do zazen. When we are pursued up a mountain of needles, we should be willing to climb that mountain hand over hand even at the risk to our life. When we throw all our life energy into whatever we might encounter, no demon can help but retreat. What a way to live!”
Slowly I began to change. Slowly I began to drop things that I had always accepted as “truth”. Slowly I began to rise a little through the darkness. Until finally I found myself sitting alone and asking myself what it was that I wanted to do. Not what I “should” do, or “had” to do. But what wanted to be done through me. What arose naturally within me, like a spring of fresh water?
So I began to write a story that arose within me. A story that poured through me, 3,000 words a day. Within a few weeks I had written The Sword That Saves. I don’t know for sure where the story came from. I feel it came from Kensho. I feel like in the writing of this story I will finally find my way out of the black pit entirely and truly know what “I” is. I feel like my friend Kensho is leading me out of darkness as he tells me the story of Sam, Zoe and Sophie and their own journey out of Darkness.