Bishop's Waltham man's journey through dark days inspires South Pole trek

Hampshire Chronicle: John Dennis will trek the South Pole for charities Young Minds and Combat Stress. John Dennis will trek the South Pole for charities Young Minds and Combat Stress.

“I was as dark as a man can get. I have been to the depths of some pretty dark places.”

As he looks across the garden of a pleasant semidetached house in Bishop’s Waltham, which he shares with a loving wife and two children, you’d think life has been pretty good to John Dennis. So where exactly has he been?

John doesn’t mean dark places in the geographical sense – those will come later – he means an inward, private place, potentially as deadly as anywhere on the map.

“You just do not have control of your body and your mind. I was a wreck. You’re just saying ‘Hang on, what’s going on?’” he says.

As John was to find out the hard way, depression is what was going on.

According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, one-in-ten men will require treatment for it during their lifetime.

They can also be reluctant to put their hands up and ask for help.

“You do a good job of hiding the way you’re feeling,” he confides.

“My wife knew but I didn’t tell her exactly the way I was feeling. I couldn’t talk to her. I didn’t know what to say.

“What you’re most scared of is letting people down. There is a feeling of worthlessness. You feel like your dragging people into it. It’s a vicious, vicious circle.”

If you wanted to dispel any lingering myths about depression, that it’s just a case of toughening up and ‘pulling yourself together’, 39-year-old John could be the poster boy for that campaign.

An avid sportsman (Flamingo Cricket Club is where you’ll find him in the summer), the New Zealander is a solidly built 6ft+. He has a laidback frankness which is the Antipodean’s stock-in-trade, describing the peak of his depression thus: “I didn’t get out of my jammies for a couple of weeks.”

He began feeling unwell in May last year, and within months the self-employed design consultant had stopped taking on new work.

“A good friend of mine tried to drag me out of the house one day and that was a mistake because I had a full blown panic attack. By then I was pretty bad,” he says.

It was in August that he eventually sought professional help, but he wasn’t going down without a fight.

“My wife, Heidi, dragged me there kicking and screaming,” he says.

But medical support helped him to begin making sense of the puzzle that lay beneath the turmoil – including a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The stats for depression and suicide in men are very, very high. I didn’t quite have those thoughts, but there is nothing to say I wouldn’t have (had such thoughts) if I hadn’t gone to the doctor.

“My dad committed suicide when I was 17, so I think very differently towards that because I know the aftermath. I was diagnosed with PTSD due to the death of my dad.

“I think in hindsight he was depressed. My dad was a hard man in rural New Zealand. He was a pretty large bloke as well. I didn’t know depression was hereditary until quite recently.”

Wife Heidi, 42, who met John when she was working as a stable hand in New Zealand, believes it’s this kind of background – where men are men – that held him back at the start.

“It was really tough because initially he didn’t want anybody else to know. He wasn’t doing anything or going anywhere, but I needed to offload, too.

“He thought it would be a weakness to admit anything like that. I think a lot of men are like that.”

By John’s admission, Heidi “took on everything” and he says they did “a good job of sheltering the kids from it”. That’s a pretty understanding wife. Which is just as well, because he was about to drop another bombshell.

In December he intends to trek to the South Pole, single-handed, in a record time.

It should take him around 37 days to cover 1170kms.

That is quite an undertaking for a family that have already been through the mill. “My wife was pretty concerned to start with, but now she is a driving force. The expedition is forcing me to put my head above the parapet,” he says.

He will raise money for Young Minds and Combat Stress, both causes close to his heart. Having spent time as contractor in Afghanistan, he caught “glimpses” into the stresses of combat, and of course his own experience of PTSD is the basis for a certain kinship with the troops.

John concedes that a solo South Pole trek is “extremely serious”, but you’d be daft to bet against him – they make them pretty tough Down Under.

John Dennis is still actively seeking a sponsorship. To contribute, visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/expeditiond2e

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