Continuing ill-health and countless surgeries sent Auckland businessman Dave Burt spiralling down into the depths of despair and hopelessness. Something had to change. With a mate he enrolled for a 10-week ‘ultimate body transformation’ regime at his local gym, and so began his journey to better mental wellbeing.
Lengthening the Shadow is a thoughtful, insightful book charting the remarkable story of how with a wonderful woman at his side – and the right support – a Kiwi bloke fought back against ill mental health.
We caught up with author, Dave Burt, who shares insight into his ten-week diary that will make you laugh and cry, but above all it will provide rare insight to those struggling with depression.
How does an electrician come to write a book about Mental Health?
The truth is, I never set out to write a book. It happened by accident. One of the activities of the ten-week gym challenge I’d signed up to was you had to run 3km every day, apart from Wednesdays when you had to run 6km. I hadn’t run for the best part of 20 years. I held the view that if anything was so urgent that it required you to run between point A and B, well, you might as well take the car. Obviously, that didn’t do me a lot of good.
On the first day of the gym challenge, I went for a run in the dark of the morning. No music. The only sound was my feet on the pavement and some early bird song. In that environment, my brain fired up. When I arrived back home, I wrote down a few things that were bouncing around in my head. Over the first week that list grew. So, I took out my laptop and started writing, for no other reason but to see where it might lead. At the end of the first week I told myself I would write every day of the challenge. And I did. Apart from about six days towards the end. It was a period where the depression bit back. It does that sometimes. In the quiet of the night, someone or something, unlocks the cage and lets it out. I just have to deal with that. I guess the difference now is, I have belief that I can deal with it. Now, I have hope. I’d have to say hope is a word I will never take for granted again.
Tell me a bit about your own Mental Health Struggles
I think looking back I can see mine started with a few health issues. Around five years ago. I became physically quite unwell. I lost my energy, my appetite, and within matter of weeks I lost over 15kg. It took them a few months to find out what was wrong. Over the next few months I couldn’t tell you how many tests and procedures I went through, but it was a lot. Eventually they did find the issue, I had the surgery and I got my life back. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. Soon after, things just seemed to be breaking regularly. From that point five years ago, I’ve have had nineteen surgeries for one thing or another. I guess it beat me up and dragged me down. Depression slid into my life. Slowly at first so you kind of don’t notice it. Then it gets so big it really affects your life, and that of the ones who mean the most to you. For a period, existing in that dark world was incredibly tough. Thankfully now I generally have it under control. I accept it may well be part of my life going forward but I’m OK with that. I know what I have to do now.
Before you took up your Body Transformation challenge, how did you manage your mental health struggles – why was this unsuccessful.
I wouldn’t say prior to the gym challenge the other treatments were unsuccessful. They certainly helped and none of them on their own was a ‘fix all’. Initially I found my way to Jess my lovely GP. The truth is, my wife actually dragged me there. I’m grateful for that. She was marvellous. We’ve been married 36 years. I’m pretty confident I’ll keep her on! Jess put a bunch of stuff in place for me. Some worked, some didn’t. But she didn’t give up on me. She got me talking to some people, some helped, some didn’t. When someone didn’t work for me, I kept on trying. I really wanted to be well again. Over that period, it’s fair to say my life was still a dark and challenging place to exist in.
I do think the ten-week gym challenge came at a perfect time in my treatment. For me, it made a considerable difference to my mental wellbeing. The physical activity and running will be part of my life going forward. As good as the physical challenge was for my body, it’s what it has done for my mind that has been a revelation to me. I genuinely couldn’t tell you why. All I know is, it really makes a difference.
Who did you turn to for support?
Initially, for a period of at least two years I hid my depression. I wouldn’t acknowledge depression was an issue for me. I think I didn’t want to be that person with a mental illness. My wonderful wife Jo would say. “I think you’ve got depression. I think we need to get that sorted.” I’d tell her nothing was wrong. That I was just having a bad run, and that once I get the next surgery out of the way I’d be fine. But then the next thing would come along and life got increasingly dark, to the point that living was challenging. I guess the ones I turned to for support were Jess my GP and a physiologist who helped rationalise a bunch of things for me. Even when I was getting treatment, I never told anyone else. In fact, I was scared they might find out. I’d go to great lengths to be my old self and hide how I was struggling. Through all of that, I’d have to say my wife was my biggest support.
I think I was part of the problem; like many who suffer from a mental illness. Often, they don’t reach out for help. I do think as a society in general we do let those people down. There aren’t services to help, especially if you don’t have financial resources. I guess we could all be a bit better in that sphere, and really take the time with those we know and love, including our mates, to really find out. “What’s happening in their world.” There’s nothing we wouldn’t do to help a mate in need. I think the first step is just knowing.
How did the Ten-week Challenge come about?
I’d have to be honest and say, standing on the scales and seeing three digits flashing at me. I was kind of used to two. So, three – that was confronting. But not as confronting as the full-length mirror in front of me. I remember looking at myself and thinking, ‘you fat bastard!’
I decided I should join a gym. It was a good time to start doing something about my physical fitness. I’d just managed to go five straight months without a surgeon sticking a knife in me so I was physically stronger.
A new gym had opened down the road from my office, so I walked through the doors of the ‘Ultimate Body Transformation Gym.’ I met Dene the owner. He showed me around and talked me into signing up for the gym challenge. I figured he knew a thing or two about fitness and eating well as he looked like he’d been chiselled out of a solid lump of granite.
Initially the prospect of challenge scared me. I knew it would hurt. But I suppose it’s like anything, if you don’t try, then don’t be surprised if you don’t get results. Not only did I try, I got good results. Physically and mentally.
Did you know of any links between depression/ill mental health and exercise before you took on the challenge?
Not really, I knew that physical activity was advisable. I remember one of the first people I spoke to – a councillor who had experience in mental health for men. I told him that I hadn’t been doing any exercise and it was something I thought I should be doing. He told me exercise was over rated, and that basically we were only given so many breaths when we were born, so don’t waste them on exercise. I didn’t pay for a second appointment and found someone else.
I just stumbled into physical activity as a treatment. I’ve read a lot about it since. Now I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. It’s such a big part of my life now going forward. I can really tell when I can’t get to the gym for a few days. It affects me.
In what ways did the challenge help you?
I think we all have a time in our lives where we know with complete certainty that if we keep heading down this road – it won’t end well. I was a long way down, almost at the end. If the ten-week challenge is a change in direction, then it’s a big change. It gave me confidence to do things that I thought a couldn’t do. Cross fit for one. I’m a guy who barely coordinate chewing gum and walking at the same time let alone what the rest of me has to do.
I do it every Friday now, at six am. There’s never a morning when I’m doing it – sweating profusely and breathing hard, when I’m not thinking, ‘how lucky am I!’ At 57, I think I’m fitter now than I was in my 20’s.
Walking and running are my happy place. It’s a place where my mind is free to roam and not be distracted by the pressures of business and the world in general. Mindfulness they call it – for me, I call it running. The challenge was life changing, not just physically, which it was. From a mental wellbeing perspective, the challenge couldn’t have come at a better time. I will always be grateful for that. So far, we have sponsored four employees through the challenge and will continue to do so.
How did writing the book contribute to your own mental wellbeing?
A number of years ago I did and MBA. I was a sparky, I still am. At that time, I knew I had a few gaps in what might be required to run a successful business. One of the teaching methods for the MBA was case studies. Essentially, reading a story about an organisation or situation, then identifying the issue, or issues as the case may be. From there, working out the solution or fix.
I suppose in some ways, on that first morning when I wrote in the notebook by the bed, what was in my head, and subsequently started tapping on my laptop; I was writing my own case study. The process of writing, then reading it, made a bunch of stuff clear. It helped solidify what I needed to do to keep mentally well.
You know, there’s something about dealing with a really tough situation and seeing the other side that makes me feel tougher and more robust. It gives me hope that when the world gets dark again, as it does from time to time; that I have some tools to help. As I said previously, hope is word I will never take for granted again.
How do you hope it will inspire others to take better care of their own mental health?
When I was really unwell, I sought out stuff to read, some helped, some didn’t. Some was quite dark, and when you are in the middle of your own struggle it can be challenging to read some of that. As I said at the start. I never set out to write it as book, it happened by accident. When Jo, my wife read what I’d written, she thought maybe I should do something with it. I gave it to an editor I’d previously worked with. He said the same.
This posed quite a challenge for me. I’d spent five years hiding all this stuff from the world and now I’d be doing quite the opposite. When I thought about it – if there was anything that I’d been though and helped me, that could be of assistance to others; then I figured I should share it. If anyone judged me, so be it.
I tried to keep the book short, with short chapters so it’s an and easy read. Because my story of living with, and dealing with depressions is intermingled with the gym challenge, it’s quite light hearted at times. I didn’t want it to be a dark read.
I’m an ordinary person, leading an ordinary life, just like so many who daily with depression. I’d like to think it could give those existing with and dealing with depression a degree of hope that their world can get better. Also, for those who have no understanding what depression is like, possibly some insight as to what it’s like for sufferers; that maybe they might take the time to find out from those close to them, “What’s happening in their world.”