Three days after my heart attack in September 1999, a senior heart specialist in the coronary care unit read my notes and remarked, “You’re a newspaper journalist. Why don’t you give it up?”
He didn’t realise what a massive relief those words were to me. It wasn’t just me making the big decision to chuck it all in, even though I really had had enough; here was a coronary expert recommending that I quit on health grounds. A few days later, I gave in my notice.
By then I had moved away from my mother’s bungalow and was living in a housing association flat in the same village.
Becoming independent again was a major factor in feeling “normal”.
However, I had to come off my tricyclic anti-depressants for a while after the heart attack. Something to do with those particular pills possibly affecting the electric impulses of the heart. This caused me temporarily to slip into a deep well of gloom.
I saw a psychologist, who proved to be a significant help. She mentioned that a new organisation called Project 18, an employment development set up for people with mental health problems, was looking for someone who could help produce a newsletter. Given my background, she thought it would suit me. I agreed.
I was interviewed by the founder, Sylvia Chesney, a remarkable, hard-working and dedicated woman. She had been a journalist and a psychiatric staff nurse.
Hundreds of service users like myself had passed through her hands. Many had started back on the path to work again. Courses included office computer skills, dramatics, gardening, creative writing and assembly work. There was also a large polytunnel where plants and vegetables were grown. Many exhibits were entered into local shows. And there was the newsletter which I edited on two mornings a week for five years until I felt well enough to leave in autumn 2005.
While I was at Project 18, I had taken on the job as a cleaner in the corridors and staircases of the flats where I lived. This was permitted work sanctioned by a government department as I was still receiving Incapacity Benefit. I dearly wanted to come off this benefit, but every time I tried to increase my hours my stress levels soared and the panic returned.
Four years down the line, I gave up cleaning, substituting it for a one-morning-a-week gardening job at a nearby dentists’ practice. This I loved and still love 10 years later. It also makes sense to befriend your dentist.
I recommend gardening as a healthy, therapeutic activity both mentally and physically. My wife and I have an allotment which we have tended for six years.
When I reached 65 and qualified for my state pension, I was overjoyed and relieved – I felt normal again. Yet, when you think about it, it’s stupid feeling guilty about being on benefit when you genuinely aren’t well enough to return to full-time work. That’s what it’s there for and you’ve probably put enough in the pot over the years.
A new social life
I was presented with membership of Pyrford Social Club as a birthday present in 1989. Little did I know what a huge difference this gesture would make to my recovery and social confidence!
At first I went there about once a month, keeping a low profile but trying to make friends. My love of sport, especially football, was a big bonus. I became chairman of Pyrford Social Club FC, and watched their matches every Sunday morning for a good 10 years.
The players and their families were a great bunch and, despite the big difference in our ages (I was about 25 years older), they made me very welcome. All this boosted my self-confidence.
I virtually lived there. I was a regular five nights a week, but it was the convivial company that I yearned for, not escapism through alcohol.
Many years later, shaking like a leaf, I plucked up the courage to join in the karaoke. To my great surprise, I did alright and received generous applause. This made me rather big-headed, so I went up again and again and again. It’s strange that I can sing in public yet nearly faint at the thought of public speaking. The nearest I got was announcing the results of the Friday meat draw, which isn’t quite the same.
At about the same time, I started watching the local cricket matches, which I found peaceful and relaxing. On two occasions I was asked to play as they were one man short. I was very nervous as there was no realistic escape route, but I revelled in it. I even took a catch and ran somebody out. I later joined the committee and am still a vice-president.
Chris Trevor-Wilson, a 68-year-old retired journalist, shares with the reader how he has lived for 30 years with episodes of panic attacks, fear of crowded places and depression and gives encouragement to anyone who feels their life is devoid of hope and their future bleak.
Happily married to his second wife, Sandra, Chris has spent the last 18 years as a part-time gardener following a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 50.
Chris is at pains to point out that he is totally unqualified medically; he merely hopes that his coping strategies and experiences documented here may help and comfort fellow sufferers.