By Dr Christopher Grocock, Head of Classics
On Monday 5 February, I had the opportunity to talk in the Bedales assembly about some serious events which I had to come to terms with and cope with during 2016. These are personal to me, and as a rule, not things aired in public, but I felt it appropriate to talk about them for three reasons. First, a remark from Senior Deputy, Louise Wilson, that we often talk about Mental Health issues these days but do not often hear success stories – and I am one, I am pleased to say. Second, I was absent for a lot of 2016, and again while it is the norm to protect an individual’s privacy, I felt it ok to waive that right and to explain why I had needed help from other teachers to cover my lessons while I was away. Lastly, because it is a cathartic thing for me to do at this point – a year ago would have been far too close, while if I wait too long, the challenge of what happened may become diluted. I was told by a physician in St Thomas’ hospital that ‘it was impossible to exaggerate the scale of what I had gone through and survived.’ Hence the image of Fortuna Redux which we have copied from a classical sculpture and turned into a mosaic for our garden. It might be translated loosely as ‘lucky to be back.’
As a reminder, my name is Christopher Grocock, I am 60 years old, I have been happily married to Sally since 1996, I am Head of Classics at Bedales School (an honourable position in an august and respected institution), where I have taught since 2001, I have a crazy collie dog called Zeus, and over the course of my life I haven’t done badly at all: at University I gained a double first and a Ph.D, I went on to be a successful worker for a Christian charity, then as a marketing executive and product development manager in the printing industry; by 35, I was Project Director of the Bede’s World Museum in Jarrow. I ‘chanced upon’ teaching when aged about 40, and have stayed in the profession ever since then. Alongside this I have pursued a career as an ‘independent scholar’ and I have written six academic books and more articles than seem possible, starting back in 1988 and seeing something appear under my name every year since 2004. I also like to do practical projects, not least of these being major landscaping of our garden in Grayshott, where one of my most notable achievements is our ‘sitooterie’, where we can ‘sit oot’ in a summer evening, or sit inside the attached ‘sitinnerie’ if it rains. This might all seem, dare I say it, idyllic; but for all my life, going back to about the age of six, it has been marred by a complete absence of feelings to go with the achievements.
There was always a ‘Black Dog’ to spoil things. Feelings of despair or pointlessness might come at any time – but more often when I was tired or had just completed a lot of hectic work (I rarely felt this when I was doing something, which is a reason why I kept pushing myself to do things to a level which was decidedly unhealthy.) Being a Christian compounded the situation: Christians aren’t supposed to feel like this are they? Well they can and do.
All this took a lot of energy, but sadly much of the determination and drive came from a really bad source – depression and a very low level of self-esteem. No matter how hard I worked at anything, or how much success I seemed to attain, something was always there to spoil it. The diagram on the right (from the Oxford Guide to Behavioural Experiments in Cognitive Therapy) illustrates the futility of the cycle: the repeated attempts to prove my worth to myself and counter perceived low self-esteem left me exhausted; the inability to ‘feel’ success reinforced the lack of any sense of entitlement I had, so I tried harder only to become more disappointed, and my efforts led either to anxiety (or the right of the diagram) or to depression (on the left), or to both.
In April 2016, I came to terms with the fact that what I was suffering from was a mental illness. No two are the same, but I was not alone by any means, and everywhere I looked I began to see that others – often people in the limelight, like Fearne Cotton and Ruby Wax – had had similar experiences to mine. But the one which resonated most closely with me was ex-England cricketer and coach Graeme ‘Foxy’ Fowler, interviewed in connection with the publication of his own account of what he had been through. In this, he recounted part of a conversation he had had with his GP. ‘Have you ever self-harmed or actually tried to take our own life.’ ‘No. But a lot of the time I just wish I did not exist any more.’ I had had the same conversation almost word-for-word with my own GP not a month earlier. Lesson one, and the most important lesson I learned and wanted to pass on is: don’t bottle things up. Feelings like this are not ‘normal’ but they are ‘common’ and more people have them than we may dare to think.
I received super support and sympathy – from home, family, friends, and work; I was given time and space to recover. But me being me, I did most of the work myself, and made use of facilities online from the NHS and a CBT course. I have gone from being an unbeliever to a convert. The ancient Greeks write the saying ‘gnothi seauton’ or ‘know yourself’ over the doorway to the oracle at Delphi. Working through CBT exercises helped me – without too much pain – to recognize myself and distinguish the me that really exists from the phoney poor self-image I often created.
Lesson two was to ‘recognise the lies we tell ourselves’ – often by listening to others. In the past I had achieved a lot, and recognised nothing. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate my own abilities and achievements but they were, and are not, ‘nothing’. Over the summer of 2016 I got my head sorted out, and spent an enjoyable summer doing more work in the garden and writing – and walking with Sally and Zeus.
I returned to work in autumn 2016 refreshed and with a sensible approach to getting work done at Bedales. The first half of the term went very well, but on top of work I was still writing and had two deadlines to meet, and some more projects inside the house to sort out before winter came; I had resorted to old work-patterns (though I was feeling very good about them). But towards the end of that half-term by beloved mother-in-law, Beadle, passed away aged 91. I said I would take her funeral, and delivered two eulogies on the same day (the first day of the half-term holiday); and then we found that my dear friend Dave had died, and he had asked in his will if I would do his funeral too, and it was then that we found out the hard way that I had an undiagnosed blood disorder. This time it was not my mind but my body which reacted madly to the stress I had put it under. Click here for a fine illustration of the kind of reaction I had at the end of October 2016. It satisfies an interest I have in steam trains and it is worth watching to 1:37 (ironically the slope you see from Exeter Central to Exeter St David’s is 1 in 37).
In summary, my liver released more sugar to give me energy and went into overdrive; my pancreas couldn’t cope; my blood thickened till I had a ‘massive embolism’ about the size of a small lemon which squashed my pulmonary artery and stopped my heart. Fortunately, I had already made it as far as the ICU at Guildford’s Royal Surrey County Hospital when my heart stopped – four times in all, the longest for 15 minutes.
Lesson three, is knowing that when people say ‘stress is a killer’ they are not lying. The ICU was an ideal place to have it as it turned out, because their CPR kept the oxygen supply going to my brain until the embolism could be dealt with. Later when I was back in Guildford, I decided that the record label was the ideal thing to put on to T-shirts and a sweatshirt (the irony of the show’s title ‘One Dam Thing After Another’ made me laugh too. In hospital, I learned that one of the best strategies to face down a really serious situation – and I faced several over the weeks to come – was to laugh at it or spit in its eye). Lesson four: CPR really works when it is done properly!
I was not out of danger. My heart had-re-started but my lungs were full of the bits of clotted blood and my liver and kidneys were not happy, shall we say (everything shut down at one point or another). This link illustrates what happened pretty well. At any event, I needed a treatment called ECMO provided by a remarkable team of medical personnel at St Thomas’ Hospital led by Dr Duncan Wyncoll (right). In short I had eight days in an induced coma and then a slow and very steady recovery with numerous hurdles to get over before I was transferred back to Guildford on 20 November and then came home on 8 December. My condition is stable if I do as I am told (which I do) and take all my meds (which I do) and avoid stress (which I do). This is another lesson: a patient should be patient. Oh, and ‘medicine is not an exact science.’
I fought hard to get back to work during the term after Christmas and I am more pleased to be back at Bedales than I can say. Even when tired I have lost the feelings of wanting to be ‘nowhere’. I most definitely want to be ‘somewhere’ – at home, at school, or watching the glories of sunsets on Hankley Common just north-east of Grayshott. What else have I learned? Well, sometimes it is ok to say ‘no. ‘Being’ not ‘doing’ is the key to enjoying what we do. And sometimes it is better to take longer and pull half the train up the hill at a time! (You may need to look at the first hyperlink to understand!).