Shaun spent years in and out of hospital, until he finally received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and autism spectrum disorder. But it wasn’t until he discovered the power of exercise that he found the outlet he needed to get his health back on track

My recovery has been several years in the making, with many traumatic moments along the way, but I believe I’m beginning to get to the other side of suffering.

Growing up, I experienced countless bouts of depression and anxiety as a teenager, but never sought any real help until I finally spoke to a counsellor at university in 2005. I had one hour a week of one-to-one therapy over four months.

It wasn’t then until 2010 that things really started to unravel. I was living in Sydney, Australia, as a graduate in computer science. Although I was good with computers, my severe social anxiety hampered my ability to work with colleagues, and assert my needs. When I was in a high mood, my productivity and creativity would get me noticed, and even rewarded. But the trouble with performing well is that it leads to even greater expectations. This would be fine until my depression hit, and I would fail spectacularly. As a result, I assumed that there was a conspiracy to get me fired. Unfortunately this resulted in me moving jobs every six to 12 months.

By 2011, I just couldn’t work anymore. Severe social anxiety and depression had led me to attempt to take my life. I had stopped enjoying my work, and felt lost as to what I could do about it, as every other career seemed to require people skills (of which I had none).

It was in 2012 that my psychiatrist diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder (schizophrenia and bipolar. The consultant explained that I wasn’t just experiencing anxiety around people, but that I was often having subtle, but paranoid, delusions about them. By the end of that year, after several hospitalisations, I was struggling with even basic self-care.

Shaun running

I arrived back in Essex in 2013, as a new patient to the NHS and I didn’t feel I was being taken seriously, despite my symptoms. Living with strangers was hard for me, and I desperately wanted to live by myself, so I went back to work in IT. I managed to rent a flat in Southend-on-Sea, which helped my anxiety, but my severe depression continued to linger. My symptoms and the medication I was on, resulted in my weight ballooning.

By summer 2015, I had reached the end of my tether. I’d been working for almost 18 months straight, separated only by multiple but brief stays in hospital following suicide attempts. I sat at home contemplating what to do. I came to the conclusion that I should take an overdose.

I was woken by my mum. She’d travelled 50 miles after worrying about me, and had phoned an ambulance. But seeing her made me panic, and I immediately ran off to try to hurt myself. Thankfully the paramedics and the police looked after me.

No physical harm had come to me, so I was assessed by a psychiatrist to work out the next steps. Personally, I didn’t see any point with life anymore. I had tried a dozen different medications, yet I was still no better. It was at this point the consultant agreed I could have electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I stayed in hospital for three months where I underwent 12 rounds of ECT, which involved passing an electric current through my head while under anaesthesia. After nine treatments, my mood started to lift. The only side-effects I had were some memory loss.

Once I was back home, I didn’t know what to do with myself, until I found out about the charity Rethink Mental Illness, who ran some services in my area, and attended two of their courses – one on depression and another on building self-confidence. I was then signposted to the Rethink Employment Service where I met Jo, who supported me in getting into volunteering, and I started challenging my social anxiety by working in my local Mind charity shop.

I am not alone, and I am confident to use my own experiences to empower others

Around four months later, my reduced income from living off benefits meant I was struggling to afford my rent. The effects of the ECT had also started to wear off, and I was beginning to feel very down again.

But Jo helped me to write a CV, and I was able to gain a part-time job at a supermarket. I started going to the gym, and found that I enjoyed running, so I signed up for the Southend 10K later that year.

Unfortunately in August 2016 my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I worked even harder to take care of myself – exercising, losing the weight, and by September my mum told me: “I’ve got my son back.” When I would enter her room in the hospice her face would light up. But sadly, she passed away in October 2016.

In my grief, I didn’t feel able to do the 10K, and also lost my job. I did manage to get another part-time night job, but still didn’t have enough income to make ends meet. My mood was up and down throughout the year, and working nights was severely affecting my sleep. Yet I continued with my running, and fundraised for Rethink Mental Illness by doing three 10K races, and a half marathon in 2017.

I was keen to help others, and so that spring approached Rethink Mental Illness about starting a local peer support group, which we planned to kick off in November. But unfortunately I became extremely unwell...

Sean with his family and friends

From September to December I was in and out of hospital due to the severe psychosis. I began hallucinating and experiencing delusions. It ended with me stopping all the cars on a busy road believing I was in The Matrix. I was detained by the police.

I left hospital in January 2018, and was eventually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. I finally accepted the need for my medication, but I still struggled with side-effects.

But the good news was I was in a place where the peer group I had envisaged could now become a reality, and the friends I made there meant my anxiety dropped considerably.

In the summer of 2018, my medication was tinkered with and I was able to start running again, and began training for my first marathon. I also started a part-time Masters in Mental Health Recovery and Social Inclusion at the University of Hertfordshire.

With my own love of exercise, Rethink Mental Illness helped me to support our peer group with scheduling rounders, table tennis, cycling, and circuit training. I also ran the Manchester Marathon last April in 4 hours and 41 minutes.

Running is a meditative as well as a physical activity for me. I have learnt to be able to push past suffering, be it physical or mental. It has also helped me feel gratitude for being present as I run along Southend seafront, appreciating the dawn of a new day. Our peer support group has shown me I am not alone, and I am confident to use my own experiences to empower others.

I would suggest to anyone with mental health challenges to seek knowledge and support in managing their condition. Not just from health professionals but from peers (such as support groups) with lived experience. Try to develop a growth mindset, so you can build resiliency when adversity comes your way.

Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) UKRCP

Shaun struggled with his mental health for many years, until reaching out for help and treatment offered hope. He took strength from the support of the people around him – including his mum, charity, and peers. – and in time, he made progress. The support allowed him to see that he’s not alone, and to believe in himself and his experience. Often when we’re ill, the unknown is both frightening, and isolating, so connecting with others, and caring for ourselves is an important part of recovery.