Life & Arts

Finding contentment: One man’s battle with anxiety

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Andrew Munt gives an honest account of the debilitating anxiety which marred his experiences and relationships and the path to mental health.

CONTENTMENT is defined as “a state of happiness and satisfaction”.

It is something that took me many years to achieve and looking back now, I realise that for much of my life, I was looking in the wrong places.

My parents came from large working class families and had no real opportunity for education. They worked very hard running small businesses including a pub and a newsagency to be able to put their three children through private schools and tertiary education. I believe many of our values are programmed into us from an early age. My parents instilled in me, a very strong work ethic that has helped me to achieve my goals but has also been the source of many of my challenges.

I had a very carefree childhood and really drifted through my schooling without putting too much pressure on myself. The focus was always sport and mates. I thought I would study accountancy but when I moved to Brisbane after finishing boarding school in Rockhampton, Dad’s solicitor was looking for an articled clerk and suggested I come along for an interview. I didn’t know what an articled clerk was but found out it was like an apprenticeship where you worked full time and studied part time. Those jobs no longer exist (I think that the Law Society eventually realised that slavery had been abolished long ago). I got the job.

Striving for "success"

My earliest recollection of a fear of failure was in an early 'Introduction to Law' class when the lecturer said,

“Look left and right, by the end of the year one of the people you see will have dropped out”.

I took his warning very seriously and almost immediately, I transformed from the laid back school kid to the stressed out young adult. Looking back now, it wasn’t only the fear of failure that was driving me. I started striving for academic and professional success.

I threw myself into both my work and my study at the expense of everything else.I wasn’t happy to just do the photocopying and court filing duties I kept pestering the solicitors to give me real work to do, real files and real clients. They were happy to oblige — after all, they had to get value for the $122 per week they were paying me. I wasn’t happy to just pass my exams, either and wanted to get an Honours degree. I would work 10 hour days before studying for hour after hour every night. By the age of 19, I was doing the same work as the solicitors, with the same pressure but combined with studying every night. I wouldn’t have changed a thing I was striving for "success” and that is all that mattered to me.

Once I became a solicitor, I decided to broaden my horizons and travel to England to work in a big firm. As a solicitor, your goal is to become a partner. Now that I was no longer encumbered with study, I could really focus on my work and that is what I did. I was made a partner at the age of 24.I was told that I was the youngest in England. I don’t know whether that is true but it is what I was told.

I thought that reaching that goal would give me contentment. I had met my wife, Joanne, shortly after I was made a partner and I remember telling her that I was gutted that I now had nothing left to strive for. Jo still remembers the conversation 24 years later.She told me that there was more to life than work and money and that those things weren’t enough to make a person truly happy. Instead of taking her advice, I decided that maybe setting and achieving another goal would give me the contentment that I was craving. I enrolled in a three-year, part time MBA.This put me straight back into the position I had just escaped from, except that the work demands and the study were much harder and I also had to find time to share with Jo. I am sure she was overcome by my romantic gesture of taking the MBA text books with us on honeymoon.

When the MBA was finished, I still felt unfulfilled. The firm where I worked was old and traditional. The other partners weren’t prepared to change and so I became very frustrated and disillusioned. Time for a new challenge.

Dissatisfaction and mounting pressure

I decided to go to the Bar and this is when things got really dangerous for my mental health. With my work as an articled clerk and as a solicitor, even adding in part time study, there were always limits on the amount I could do.Looking back now, as a barrister, the only limit I had was that there were only 24 hours in the day.

Jo and I were married by this time and knowing that we wanted to have children, we decided to move to Australia as it was a much better place to bring up kids. This meant that Jo had to leave her own family.As it turned out, I was hardly going to be much company or support and this had big consequences for both of us.

I had always practised in the areas of commercial law and insolvency. I had some old contacts in Brisbane and hoped they would sling me a few briefs. As a barrister, you don’t choose the area of work, it chooses you.

My brother was a partner of a personal injury law firm representing injured claimants and offered to introduce me to his contacts.Things really took off for me very quickly. My plaintiff personal injuries practice comprised appearances in settlement conferences, mediations and trials. Of course, there was also a lot of preparation and paperwork to do. I would happily fill my diary so that every day was taken up with appearances. After all, night time and weekends were always available for the preparation and paperwork.

The Bar is a very dangerous place for someone who is driven by a fear of failure. You are only as good as your last job. I was scared that my advice wouldn’t be good enough and the solicitor wouldn’t brief me again. I was scared that if I said “no” to anything that was offered to me, then I would never be asked again. I was scared that the government would change the law and pull the rug out from under me just as I was starting to get somewhere .Basically, I was always scared.

This is when my anxiety really became disabling.

My anxiety consisted of a combination of an overactive mind coupled with a constant sense of foreboding. I simply could never switch off. The work and my obsession with it completely overtook my whole life. All I did was work. When I got home at the end of a long day, I would proofread stuff on the couch. I was constantly on the mobile phone. I might have been physically present but was never actually “there” as I would be thinking about everything I had to do the next day. I worked sevendays a week. Weekends and public holidays were no different from Monday to Friday. Nothing could interfere with work. I was drinking heavily to get my brain to switch off long enough to get some sleep. Even then, I would wake up at two or three o'clock with illogical thoughts about things that seemed ridiculous in the light of day. Since I couldn’t get back to sleep I would just go into my chambers and start work. The more work I did the busier I got. I was massively overweight and not exercising at all. When we (rarely) went on holidays, I was always on the mobile phone to solicitors and my secretary. I could never switch off.

Our first son Angus was born when I was 32. I don’t remember much about his birth or his early years. Work was more important. We didn’t realise it at the time but Jo was struggling with post natal depression. This wasn’t helped by her family being on the other side of the world. I was absolutely no support and put my work far ahead of caring for or even about her. Even when I was physically with her I wasn’t mentally “present”.

I am very ashamed when I look back at that time in our lives. Things could very easily have ended tragically and I would have played a big role in such an outcome. Working with injured people all day, I should have had more insight into Jo’s condition. Instead, I just regarded her problem as an intrusion on my busy life. Quite simply, I just resented the fact that she was couldn’t do her "job”. After all, I had no-one to help me with my job!

The shock

Things came to a head for both Jo and I when Angus was two. Jo was heavily pregnant with our second son Hamish. She suffered terrible morning sickness through each of her pregnancies, not that I was there to notice. Her depression was severe but still unidentified and therefore, untreated. We were living in an apartment at New Farm while our house was being renovated. It was a public holiday and I was at work, of course. Jo went to the park with Angus and was surrounded by two-parent families.

I got back at 9pm and she told me that she was leaving me and taking Angus back to England. She could no longer cope all on her own and needed her family around her for support. I was totally shocked. Didn’t she realise I had no choice but to work? Wasn’t she grateful for all the money I was making for us? How could she be so selfish?

We talked for hours. She told me that she still loved me but couldn’t watch me work myself into a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. Looking back, a nervoud breakdown was just around the corner. She started to get through to me. What was more important, money or family? What was the point of being rich if it meant being so unhealthy and just working all hours God sent? How much money did we really need? Was it so important to keep all my solicitors happy even if it meant tearing our family apart? I didn’t have to work that hard all the time. Surely the solicitors would understand?

Her points made sense but at first I couldn’t see any way out of the situation I had gotten myself into. How could I possibly turn away work? What would the solicitors say? What if they all stopped briefing me? What if the government changed that law how could I forgive myself for missing the chance to get rich?

It took a week of us talking about it before I realised she was right and that I needed to make big changes. We also realised that she needed to get medical help and we made an appointment for her to see a psychiatrist, Greig Richardson. The things Greig told us about her condition helped us both to deal with it much better. The fact that she needed me to be there to help her made it easier for me to make some changes in my own life.

Even so, men of my generation find it hard to show weakness. Luckily, I had become quite close to most of the solicitors who briefed me so I decided that I would just be up front and honest with them: “I am not coping, I can’t take so much on, I have to slow down or I am going to lose my family”. They were all very supportive.

I ruled out days in my diary to devote to paperwork and preparation. We booked family holidays well in advance. I made the physical changes necessary to start fixing the problem making the mental changes, however, was an entirely different proposition. It meant accepting that my contentment was not based on professional and financial success. It also meant resisting the extremely strong work ethic that had been instilled in me.

Even though I knew Jo was right and that I simply couldn’t go on as I was, I found it almost impossible not to make exceptions. The solicitors were supportive but would still talk me into making exceptions and booking settlement conferences on “paperwork” days. They would say, “Mate, we really need you on this one, can’t you squeeze it in?” When I agreed, it was a double whammy as I lost a preparation day and also had to find time to prepare for the extra conference I had booked in. Jo didn’t have access to my diary but she could still tell when I had let myself get talked into taking on more work. I would start getting up early and sneaking to work before she woke up. I would have to do “just a little bit of work this weekend”, then work all weekend. Over the next few years, things were better but she would still regularly have to pull me into line for my own sake.

I was still not contented. Even though I wasn’t working such long hours and was taking a lot more holidays, I still found it very difficult to turn away work. When I wasn’t working, it was impossible to turn my brain off and I was still haunted by the constant sense of foreboding.

Seeking help

Andrew with his family

It was then that I decided to see a psychiatrist for myself. It was the best thing I ever did.

I was told that I had classic anxiety and surprisingly, also traits of ADHD. I was placed on a couple of different tablets and quite quickly, my life started to change. For the first time in my life, my mind was “quiet”. It was only after I had started the medication that I realised that I had always had “white noise” in my head like a radio that is not quite on the station. I stopped having racing thoughts entering my brain and interrupting my concentration.

In the meetings with my psychiatrist and by talking to Jo, it became clear to me that the things that were going to give me contentment had nothing to do with my professional or financial success. I had always strived for what society made me believe was important. Like many other professional people, I had been very worried about what other people thought of me and whether they would think I wasa success. While that might very well be the thing that gives some people contentment (and I am not saying everyone’s journey will be the same), it just didn’t work for me.

My focus turned away from my work and towards my family and friends.

We now have three sons who are in years 10, nine and five at school. We live on acreage out at Bridgeman Downs. I sold my chambers and decided to work from home only coming into the city when I have a meeting or court. I sold my Aston Martin and bought a ute. I sold my carpark in the city and now (to the great amusement of many of my solicitors) catch the bus when I need to come into town.

I have the best relationship with Jo and our kids. I have breakfast with the kids every morning and am there when they leave for school. Most days I am there when they get off the bus and they will come straight into my office and tell me about their day.

The kids have different interests and I take each of them away separately for a few days every year doing the things they want to do. Jo and I go away by ourselves without the kids a couple of times each year. We have lots and lots of family holidays. I love nothing more than relaxing on the beach with a book.

Jo and I go out for dinner by ourselves at least once a month and we love to just sit, chat and laugh.

I have an amazing friendship with each of my sons. It makes me extremely proud when they openly tell me how much they love spending time with me and that their friends are jealous of what a great dad they have. No client or solicitor would ever be important enough to make me miss a soccer game or a school event.

I also have great friends, most of whom have nothing to do with the law and who don’t care what I do for a living.

People have told me I am “brave” to speak about my mental health issues. I don’t see it that way at all. I feel very lucky to have received the help and support that I have both from Jo and my psychiatrist which enabled me to escape from the hole that I was in. I feel very sorry, though, for the many people I come across in my profession who are stuck in the same sad situation I was in for so many years. I firmly believe that there is a still a real stigma in relation to mental health and I try to do whatever I can to help break that down. I also want people to know how important it is to look out for colleagues and loved ones and when you see that they are struggling, encourage them to get professional help.

For help or information phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit beyondblue.org.au.

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