Two years ago, I had just about organised myself into a state in which I felt things could be OK. I was a few months into teacher training, having taken the momentous-feeling step of completely changing my career and the direction and purpose of my life. I was a few months away from the lowest point of my life, from feeling utterly hopeless and powerless. I was a few months away from believing that ending my life seemed a reasonable solution to everything.
Today, I walked into work feeling I could do anything. I had just conducted an opera for the first time in three years. I had just gone back into the life I had left behind and triumphed. I had just gone back and not felt the same fears, the same powerlessness, the same desperate pressure. I had just gone back, done a good job, enjoyed the process and been massively rewarded psychologically and emotionally.
What was remarkable to me was that I felt calm and rational about it all. At climactic musical moments, I retained clarity of vision. At the end of the show, the moment when adrenalin and emotion combine to most potent effect, I felt relaxed and open. I was able to accept congratulations without feeling that they were platitudes and feel proud of my achievement without being concerned about anyone else’s opinion.
When I was asked to conduct the performance I thought hard about whether or not to accept. This was many months ago and I wasn’t sure I had yet developed the strength of character that would allow me to engage with this part of my old life without suffering significant psychological or emotional consequences. Of course, the context was different but I was stepping back into a situation which had led me to the depths of despair.
What I have always had, however – despite my many other flaws and failures – is an iron will and a determination to not bow to anything. I decided to take on the performance to prove to myself that I could do it; to prove to myself that I had developed mental strength enough to revisit parts of my old self; to prove to myself that I had grown and healed, and not simply run away.
The fact that I was able to do this successfully did surprise me. Not only that, I was able to enjoy it and feel an enormous sense of pride at achieving such a good result. The immediate result is that I feel my life as a performer isn’t over as I had assumed, there is the option to return in the future – whether or not I decide to take it. And that has opened up a part of me that I had thought was gone. I am fuller today than I was a week ago. The repair I have effected on myself has not only rebuilt me but added to me; where I might have felt loss, I feel renewal.
I have spent a large part of today thinking about what has changed in me that I feel so different now. The change is significant but it is hard to pin down exactly what is different. Perhaps most of all, it shows just how much incremental change can be significant. Investors talk about the power of compound interest. A 5% change every year over a decade becomes a decent increase. But a 6% change is considerably more over the decade. Go up to 8% and the differences are even starker.
Perhaps this is the power of the work I have done on myself. I try each day to be better at the end than at the beginning. My goal is to be a little fitter, a little more knowledgeable, a little more patient, a little more skilled, a little more organised, a little more grateful for all the things that I do have. Just as with my weight loss and fitness journey, there is little to be seen at the end of a day. There is not much to be seen at the end of a week. But gradually, over months, the changes build up and become significant.
I am more patient now; I am less concerned about failure; I am more able to live in the present moment than in my imagination. I am more organised in myself, able to ensure that I devote enough time to those things that are of true consequence to me – being with family, staying fit and healthy, working, even the simplest of all things: sleeping.
I don’t know what, if anything, my experience is a testament to. I want to say that it is a testament to the power of little and often, the power of discipline and directed practice. I am better at being myself because I have practiced being myself. That sounds idiotic in isolation but in the detail, it is true.
My worst depressive phase led to a significant change of direction in my life and to my taking an entirely new approach to myself. Instead of allowing things to happen to me – and, indeed, working in a world in which much of what can be achieved is actually reliant on other people deciding what you can and cannot do – I practiced becoming the person I wanted to be. I made decisions about what I wanted and set out to achieve them.
Most of all, I decided that getting to any point would require time. Each day I would try to be a little better. There were no magic solutions; no one was going to come and miraculously make things happen. Things would take grit and determination.
This is all still true. Am I where I want to be in all facets of my life? Absolutely not. Have I made progress? Yes, I bloody have. And I am hugely proud of it. And that pride makes me want to do it all again tomorrow. In taking on the challenge of conducting in this way again, I have shown myself just how far I have come. It was a risk, but it has been a colossal personal success.
And tomorrow morning when I am in the gym as the sun is rising, that success will drive me forward into the day.