Episode 13: Farewell Sir Humphrey

Sir Humphrey and Me
9 min readApr 9, 2021

It was around this time that I, too, began to become unwell and had to take some time away from Sir Humphrey.

One of the most insidious things about mental illness is its slow, creeping nature and looking back I can now see the traces of its presence snaking back far into my youth.

My tendency to experience low mood, anger and guilt, as well as the physical symptoms of crushing fatigue and lethargy, were established as far back as my teenage years and a constant feature of my life as a student in the late 1990s.

The human consequences are terrible. It fills me with great sadness to think of all the friendships thwarted, relationships ended and potential suppressed through my twenties as I withdrew from people, from life and from hope whenever the black dog called.

I want so much to say sorry to those people I’ve lost along the way. Alas, I know deep down that they’re gone, and that even if these relationships could be rekindled they’d never recapture their glorious potential of our youth. But I’m sorry all the same.

And so too to my wife, my children and my parents, who have endured the worst of my illness and moral failings[1]: the brooding silences, the sharp words, the sudden burst of inexplicable rage. They are my life, my reason for being. My promise to them is to do better.

Yet as things deteriorated through the summer and autumn of 2019, I tried to pretend that nothing was happening.

We were busy as a unit, putting out fires on multiple fronts while coming under huge pressure from above to deliver promotional campaigns that would be “helpful” ahead of the approaching election.

My own team, worn down by a succession of failed restructures over preceding years, were tired and tetchy, understandably so.

But the environment was getting worse not better, and there’s nothing more draining than knowing you’re partly responsible for the tears, whether of anger of despair, that would spill on people’s sofas or dining tables when they spoke to their loved ones about their day.

For a long time I tried to carry on. But there’s only so long that the human body and the living soul can endure the crippling symptoms of restlessness, insomnia, fatigue and self-loathing.

I was worried too about my professional performance, recognising that my standards and motivations were slipping and that I wasn’t as on top of things as I needed to be. At times, I felt I was fading away, both professionally and personally, like the dusty print on a tatty newspaper.

And yet, crucially, I still didn’t see this as mental illness. I saw it as a character flaw, a weakness, an expression of cowardice.[2]

It took a throwaway remark by a senior colleague to shake me from this inertia and help me to confront the truth.

My colleague and I had been having a slightly tortuous conversation about the lack of progress on a particular plan of work for which my team was responsible.

I was taking this personally, as usual, and had asked if she was simply being polite and shying away from the professional dressing down I felt I deserved. She doesn’t know it, but her tired, exasperated response changed my life.

“Come on,” she said, “I’m not remotely worried about your performance.”

“I’m far more worried about you, your emotional wellbeing, your state of mental health.”

The conversation didn’t go any further than this. It didn’t need to. Enough had been said: the idea was sown, assumptions shattered.

That afternoon, I rang my GP and asked for an appointment[3] and later that week, I was pacing up and down in the surgery waiting room, nervously listening for the beep that would summon me in.

I was worried, of course, that the GP wouldn’t take me seriously, that she’d simply say it was a case of executive stress and that I simply needed to man up a bit, get more exercise, drink less, maybe take up a few hobbies outside of work.[4]

All of which would probably have been sound advice, but was never going to solve the problem or help me out of the pit I’d fallen into.

But I was lucky. I got a good one.

She sat there, studiously, as I tried to explain the problem. I could only describe the most immediate issue, which was that I’d stopped sleeping.

Whatever I tried, whether it was hot baths, reading, drinking excessively, working myself to the point of exhaustion, or slamming my iphone away at 8pm, I still dozed fitfully through the early hours only to awake, bolt upright and shattered, at about 5am. I looked and felt like shit.

And then I did something I hadn’t done for over a decade[5]. I broke down. I cried. Sobbed, in fact, heaving like a child who’d lost their toy. I learnt why all GPs’ offices have something you rarely notice when you step inside: a box of tissues.

After the howling had subsided, and I’d recovered at least some composure, the Good Doctor set out the plan. She told me — in no uncertain terms — that I was not to go back into work that afternoon, and that she wanted to sign me off for an extended period to help my recovery.

I protested at this. My team was on its knees. It was impossible, I said. But she insisted and I eventually relented.

She told me that she felt I’d probably been “poorly” (such a kind and disarming way of putting it) for far longer than I’d realised, and that it would take time, but that we would get there together.

I was sent away with a script for some anti-depressant drugs, a leaflet about counselling[6] and an appointment to see her again in a fortnight. And from there, the healing began…

I walked miles and miles each day across the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside. I watched the kites and buzzards swooping down across the barren fields. I swam in the local community pool, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid yet strangely missed. I read voraciously and snatched guilty drinks with friends I hadn’t seen for ages.

And slowly, as the winter eased and the warmth of spring returned, I too began to thaw.

My friends noticed it first, as I became more communicative, peppering them with texts and phone calls where before they were met with extended silence.

Then my sleep improved, to the extent that I had to plug in an alarm clock again to wake me in time to get my little boy ready for nursery — a job that my fizzing, overactive synapses had taken care of before.

Gradually too the dreadful gripping sensation in my throat eased, and the eternal fluttering of butterflies in my stomach quietened. A new calm settled inside of me, and a new feeling: hope.

Of course, there was still the obstacle of returning to work and seeing Sir Humphrey again after our trial separation.

While my bosses at the department had been angels, true models of compassionate leadership, I fretted that people would see and treat me differently when I returned, that they would tread on egg shells around me and that I would be marked out as problem goods, someone who “couldn’t hack it”.

In hindsight, I’m not entirely sure if this was the case or not. Given my heightened sensitivity as I stumbled back into 79 Victoria Street in early January, it’s no surprise that I felt some people were more distant, uncomfortable even, around me. It could very well have been my imagination, and certainly if they were, I hold no grudges — indeed I’m really sorry for making them feel that way. [7]

What I found instead though, is that I had changed. My perspective was different, and my tolerance of the unrealistic pressures and expectations that had been heaped on me had dissolved. I lasted three days before I girded up and prepared to have the “difficult conversation” with my director, a person I’d worked with pretty much all my professional career and had unswerving loyalty towards.

She smiled as I stuttered my way through the words I’d prepared. She told me she’d expected it, that she was relieved in a funny way because, though she would miss me, she felt it was the right decision for me.

And so, a few weeks later as my notice period ran down, I found myself picking my way through the many scattered files and documents in my locker, some of them dating back as far as the first decade of this century.

As I did so, the office buzzed around frenetically as it sensed the arrival of an approaching storm: a new virus, originating in Wuhan, was on the march in Europe. Sir Humphrey’s work goes on.

I said a series of sad goodbyes to my friends and munched my way through the last of the cakes that were bought for me[8].

And then I hit the lift button, preparing to leave Sir Humphrey for the final time.

Notes:

[1] I say “moral failings” because I still believe this to be true. Despite the well-established physiological basis of depression — the repressed chemicals, misfiring glands and lurking modules in the brain that were blunting my faculties — the truth is I still had complete agency and choice throughout over how much I let it affect other people. That I didn’t control it better and insulate the people I love still haunts me.

[2] There is terrible irony in that one of the things that passed over my desk during this period was a proposal for what was to become Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters campaign, a publicity drive to encourage more people, particularly men, to recognise the signs and symptoms of depression and seek help.

Having been scissored by Matt Hancock for their supposed failings during the COVID-19 outbreak, the talented staff at Public Health England now face an extremely uncertain future. I hope their important contribution to efforts underway to improve the nation’s mental health isn’t a casualty of the manoeuvres underway to control the political fallout of the pandemic.

[3] “Is it urgent, dear?”, the receptionist asked kindly. I struggled to answer. Is a pattern of feelings and emotions that had been going on for the best part of 30 years an urgent medical issue? I prevaricated, saying that I just needed to speak to my GP whenever they could fit me in.

[4] One interesting thing Matt Hancock has done during his time as Health Secretary is to throw his weight behind what is called ‘social prescribing’. This is the practice of getting the NHS to link people with depression or anxiety disorders to sources of community-based activities like arts or theatre or sport clubs. The wonderful Isabel Hardman, for example, has written powerfully about the role of cold water swimming, among other things, as a remedy for low mood. I’m sure this has considerable merit, but the prospect of dipping my Edwards into water as cold as my fridge didn’t appeal: I went with the drugs.

[5] The previous occasion being in 2008 when, extremely intoxicated, I watched Arsenal throw away a last minute lead in the Champions League quarter finals against Liverpool.

[6] Another irony was that I’d worked closely with Andy Burnham on the speech which announced the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme I was now being referred to. Hampered by budget cuts, one in six people now wait more than three months to access the free counselling support on the NHS, a dreadfully long time to wait for people in deep emotional pain.

[7] One early encounter, on reflection rather insulting, should have put my mind at rest. A close colleague greeted me warmly on my first day, immediately launching into a discussion about the latest communication issue he wanted to bounce around. He was staggered when I said I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about as I’d been on sickness leave for nearly four months. “Oh sorry, I had no idea,” he said after a pause. “I honestly didn’t notice you weren’t around.” Our ego is so often our enemy.

[8] One of the happier traditions that has survived many upheavals in the DHSC communications team is the “bird table”, a strategically placed shelf at the end of the office which is always groaning with cakes, sweets and chocolates bought by press and communications officers to share. I’m assured that it takes a huge amount of sugar to bark and growl so relentlessly at the impertinence of the nation’s media, and the DHSC guys are among the best at this in Whitehall. As such, it’s considered extremely bad form to pollute the bird table with anything resembling a healthy snack, though slabs of cheese and biscuits are acceptable.

--

--

Sir Humphrey and Me

A former civil servant sharing light-hearted stories about life in the UK’s civil service