The Tank of Tolerance
"Over the years, small incremental things were slowly adding up, filling up my tank of tolerance. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t function. So my body finally said, 'Fuck this' and began to shut down."
I’m squinting at the computer screen, reading the EURO NCAP crash test results for a Honda CRV 2006, the annoyingly safe car I own. I’m trying to work out if I would be instantly killed if I crashed into the central reservation of the motorway at seventy miles per hour. As much as I don’t want to live, I need it to look like an accident so my wife gets the life insurance payout.
I may be mental and suicidal but I’m still a practical kind of guy and I want to provide for my family.
The downside of my plan is that the very nature of staged accidents means they’re not fool-proof and I could easily end up alive but paralysed – that would be very bad. If I went faster I think it would work, but I don’t know if the life insurance would be void if I were breaking the speed limit. And there’s no-one to ask of course. It’s a conundrum.
I switch to Google Street View and start looking for roads with a sheer drop to the side and a flimsy barrier, but it all seems like too much hard work right now so I decide to leave it for today and shut down the computer.
I spend the next three hours staring at the hairline crack where the skirting board meets the wall.
That was in November 2014. Thankfully, however close I got to it, I never did try it. I’m sitting here, accident and death free, after a whole bunch of counselling, medication, a lot of pain, tears, exhaustion, apathy, mania, mindfulness meditation, sleep, becoming a LEGO artist and above all else, a whole lot of support.
Rewind to 2011, three years before ‘The Big Breakdown’; I’m a forty-one-year old, pretty successful architect with my own consultancy business. I’ve been married for 12 years and we’ve got two children – one with Asperger’s Syndrome and one with Autism, so our lives are more stressful than normal people’s . . . but we survive. We’ve got Claude the wonder dog, and two cats, we’ve got friends and we live in a nice part of West London.
So far, so pleasantly predictable.
But I’m also somewhere on the autistic spectrum, I’m a perfectionist, and I exhibit various signs of OCD. I’m insanely efficient, single minded and I love preparation and planning. I struggle with social occasions, meeting new people, work meetings, going on trains, elevators, the cinema. I’m what would be known as a ‘serious guy’, not a ‘fun guy’. The list goes on.
I’m also a functioning alcoholic. I have learnt, over many years, to be pretty good at passing for being ‘normal’, but when I get home from work I self-medicate with beer. (Only after six o’clock, though, so that doesn’t make me a real alcoholic, surely?)
Because this is all low-level, “well…everyone has some quirks, don’t they?” and “we all need to unwind now and again, right?” stuff, I plod along. But at this point the anxiety is beginning to get just a bit worse. Day by day, week by week.
That train journey I used to be able to handle, I now find I can't; I keep getting anxiety attacks.
That work meeting I used to manage to get through; now I’m lying awake at night worrying about it.
Over the years, small incremental things, slowly adding up. I’ve heard it described as the tank of tolerance filling up, and unless you give it time to evaporate or do something positive to pour some of it away, it will eventually spill over or, worse, explode the glass tank altogether.
For me, it wasn’t one of the big external stressors – a death in the family, divorce, moving house, money issues etc. It was simply a series of small things that meant my tank of tolerance was shattered. By now I was so anxious I was in a constant state of fight or flight. And I mean constant.
My body was pumping adrenaline into my system nearly all the time. My heart rate was constantly going as if I was running a 100m sprint. I got the shakes a lot, due to all that adrenaline, which meant my muscles were doing a massive workout every day.
I couldn’t work, I couldn’t function. So my body finally said, 'fuck this' and began to shut down.
I would collapse, exhausted and blissfully unconscious - but when I woke up the panic would start again.
I dragged myself to the doctor and he prescribed SNRI’s. I started counseling once a week, did Mindfulness meditation once a day. Cried a lot. Researched suicide. Stared at things. Slept a lot.
Most of all though, I had a wife who ‘got it’. She didn’t judge, didn’t try to fix it, didn’t fuss or flap. Just patiently held on to me whilst I cried for a few hours again, listened whilst I talked about my fears, just got on with keeping everyone safe.
I took two months off the stressful bits of work – meetings, trains, people. At the time I had three clients who accounted for about 80% of my work so I contacted each of them, told them what had happened and all three were absolutely brilliant – totally understanding, totally supportive and sympathetic. Slowly, and inevitably, each day got a tiny bit easier.
As I recovered more and more I started building with LEGO again. When I was a kid I’d been a LEGO fiend; all day, every day, nothing else mattered. LEGO was my special interest. I stopped when I was around 14 years old – the ‘dark ages’, as adult fans of LEGO call it. Just before the ‘big breakdown’ I went to an exhibition in London, The Art of the Brick, by an American LEGO artist called Nathan Sawaya and found it hugely inspiring. During my recovery my counsellor had suggested I try and think about what I enjoyed in life, and I remembered my childhood obsession; I remembered the good feeling at the exhibition . . . and so I decided to pursue the idea of being a LEGO artist.
And today? I’m good. I had the counselling for about six months and I’ve been off the medication since August 2016. Some days are still hard, I still don’t get trains and haven’t done for over two years, but on the plus side I bought a proper ‘mid-life crisis’ sports motorbike so I go everywhere on that. It’s also great for blowing away the cobwebs at the weekend.
We’re not as rich as we could be if I could handle the pressure and take on more intense work but we are okay.
Do I still drink? Yes, but not as much as before. Do I still have OCD tendencies? Yep, but not about everything. I’m still anxious about 50% of the time but that’s a hell of a lot better than 95%. And, importantly, I now understand that I am doing these things and I understand more about why.
Knowledge is power after all.
If I'm honest, I see the breakdown as a blessing. Yes, it was awful at the time and if I could have found this sense of peace without it I would have. But I believe that any life-threatening situation, and anyone who is exposed to that, whether it’s a cancer scare, a car accident or a suicidal mental breakdown, will inevitably be affected by it in some way. And I see it as a real wake-up call about what is important in life, what makes us happy, and what we need to do to stay sane.
For me, I also think the signs were there but I didn’t understand them. Maybe the signs are there for most of us who end up this way. Maybe we should listen to what our minds and bodies are saying and address these things before the glass shatters.
Now, I make art with LEGO. I split my time between architecture and creating LEGO art and I’m planning to do it full time. I’ve recently exhibited at a couple of art fairs, at Park Theatre Gallery space and I’m exhibiting at Clerkenwell Design Week in May this year (2017). My latest sculpture, Leave me alone Don’t leave me alone (Blue) came about after meeting Headcase’s creator, Liz, and talking about writing this blog.
I wanted to try and express that feeling of vulnerability; of wanting to hide but at the same time desperately wanting someone to help. That idea of not quite knowing how to ask for it, not knowing what sort of help, just . . . something. It’s a piece that, on one one level, is full of despair, but at the same time its very ‘LEGO-ness’, and its reason for being created in the first place, I think, makes it a positive piece.
For me, making LEGO art is incredibly calming, but also varied, practical, mathematical and creative. A clear, logical building system. All the parts have a job to do and they do it well. There is even a LEGO Therapy programme for children on the autistic spectrum. The type of LEGO art I make requires detailed preparation and planning. It honestly brings me and other people who see it a little bit of joy in their days. What’s not to like?!
Years ago someone I knew quite well said to me that I would never be happy or content. And I agreed with them. It took over twenty years of the drip-drip-drip into my tank of tolerance, the anxiety gradually getting worse, the low moods getting more frequent, the inevitable breakdown, the wish to die and the recovery to finally find a glimmer of some sort of peace.
And, yes, the breakdown genuinely was worth it.
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Clerkenwell Design Week, Platform, House of Detention, 12 Sans Walk, EC1R 0AS
23 – 25 May 2017