While my story starts some 20 years ago, I’ve taken several attempts to write this, and I’ve found myself getting like a stuck record on the negative aspects such as the number of suicide attempts which no one needs to know about. That said, I write this to provide support to those who may feel that they’re not right but have yet to be diagnosed with a mental injury or illness, or to those currently enduring and who may benefit from any of my words here now. So with this, my story actually starts from the point of my most recent crisis; approximately 18 months ago.
It happened at work. I was a senior manager for an insurance firm and a colleague suggested we should go get a coffee. Something I’d do regularly with lots of colleagues. I love my coffee. This time, the dialogue was different. Rather than talking about strategy or technology or operating risks, this time he asked ‘Chris are you OK?’. As quickly as he asked, I responded ‘Of course I am'. He asked the question again, but this time more deliberately and with a look on his face that easily confirmed that he knew something wasn’t right. Despite the anxiety and fear of going into overdrive, I found myself unable to contain the stress of day-to-day life. The recurring nightmares of seeing my kids death, or reliving scenes from when I was a soldier, or wondering how I’d ever find enough money to somehow curb my families insane ability to spend it, or the intense guilt from having to put my dog down and the sense of failure that came with it, the intense desire to feel valued at work, and even how I felt my wife no longer loved me. I was a mess; unable to control myself emotionally and realizing rapidly that for all of the efforts I’d given to try and be something in life, I’d done the exact opposite.
My friend looked at me with that look. That look. The look that describes all the emotions of a rescuer who is unable to assist the victim. “Chris, I need to talk to work about this. You’re scaring me’. Despite my protestations and anxieties going sky high (plus some silly actions on my part that we don’t need to discuss), he approached the conversation with his trusted allies, and a few days later was off to see a psychiatrist, paid for by my employer.
The 2 or so hours of undergoing psychiatric assessment were surreal. I was in a numb state, coherent but not really present. I don’t remember much about the experience, but I do remember towards the end when he indicated his preliminary diagnosis of major depression, PTSD from my time as a soldier, and a question mark around bipolar disorder still to be resolved. I distinctly remember listening to his words but for them not registering. That would come later. While waiting for a taxi to return home, I felt a sense of profound relief that finally there was something wrong with me that could now be resolved. I called my wife with a sense of exhilaration. I can't quite remember how the conversation went, but I do remember that she was being quite supportive. That was a good enough start for me.
It would be later that the dawning realization of what had been said would hit home. It definitely was an ‘oh what have I done’ moment. Relief was replaced with a reckoning of coming to terms with being - what I’d term – a fruit cake for all of my adult life. I had so many questions – if I’d been suffering all this time, were my friends, friends with fruit-cake Chris? Would they still be friends when I’m normal Chris? Who is normal Chris? How will I know when fruit-cake Chris is gone and normal Chris has arrived? What if normal Chris is too deeply buried under a lifetime of trauma to be achievable? It was pretty accurate to say that I was scared of the unknown.
To try and come to terms with the diagnosis I began to tell my friends and family. I knew I’d need to have the support of people I could trust, and the best way I could trust people would be to tell them and see how they reacted. Thankfully, only a few people reacted negatively to the news, and I can say that we no longer see each other. Within the group of those who did take the news well, they were able to recommend and suggest other professional groups who could help me and my wife come to terms with the diagnosis. Meanwhile, the psychiatric assessment had led to medication and sessions with a psychologist. I found that the medication alone wasn’t sufficient. Sure it helped to take the edges of the extreme moods off, but I was still swinging wildly between deep highs and lows multiple times per day. For the first few weeks, I really struggled to focus on them too and felt like my creative ability had really taken a knocking.
The psychologist had a tough time with me. I was adamant that I was not there to talk for the sake of talking, and that for each session there had to be practical things that I could take home and do. We both clearly understood that while we didn’t know what ‘cured’ looked like, where I was right now wasn’t it. He too was equally tough. He insisted that if I were to make him provide practical strategies to take home that I would be committed to attempting them and provide feedback at the next session. If I didn’t, or if I were to miss consecutive sessions without prior arrangements he’d strike me off his list. We made a contract with each other and shook on it. I know it may sound a bit daft, but it was something that was important to me, in that he held me accountable for my recovery and was committed to my wellness as much as I was.
Sometimes our sessions were in his consultation room, other times we’d be walking around the office block. We focused heavily on addressing PTSD, as this was affecting my life most through recurring nightmares and hyper-vigilance. We went through a variety of self-help techniques, such as grounding, breathing, and various types of exercise which mostly were techniques that at times of stress, would enable me to recognize my surroundings and that un-peel me from the ceiling of adrenalin dumps. He also gave a number of suggestions for apps, books, and videos to consume and see if any of them were useful for me. At times, he’d ask me to talk about things that would trigger hyper-vigilance, as well as recount the nightmares I’d have and what it was like to relive scenes that had played out as a soldier. These were arguably the hardest moments; attempting to induce a state of stress through reciting the traumas would often turn me into a wreck afterward. Sometimes I’d just sit on a park bench using the techniques that I’d been shown to try and un-fuck myself.
Thankfully though, over time and with a lot of repetition, my ability to unscramble myself became faster and more natural. While we hadn’t found a ‘cure’ to prevent the nightmares or other triggers of PTSD, having a management strategy was proving to be useful and my confidence in believing in myself that becoming normal was looking more promising I found that my recovery started to gain speed, to the point whereby I even suggested to the psychologist (much to his insult) that perhaps I was OK and that I no longer required his assistance. (I should point out, that by this point we’d developed such a rapport that we could talk quite freely, and he was somewhat annoyed that I could “discredit his years of professional experience and time in university” with an ‘I think I’m cured statement’. I’m sure it was tongue in cheek. Mostly…) Overall this took about 9 months of fortnightly sessions, to give some perspective.
The touching of hands, the bumping of fists. A small recognition of respect for each other, resilience for what happens next and the deepening trust for one and other. Martial arts provide a special means of creating a safe domain, despite it sometimes not being a safe place! The potential for injury and harm is there, and so learning to trust others enables conversation to take place both on and off the mats. For the next few minutes there will no doubt be intense focus of your opponent and of self. The noise will quieten, and for a brief moment, there will be peace. #tkmnz #mentalwellness #recovery #suicideprevention #fitness #martialarts #fistbump
Since that moment, I’ve continued to practice the techniques I’ve been shown, and in doing so have somehow managed to slow my mind down and appreciate things more.
+ Being active through Brazilian jiu jitsu.
+ That first coffee of the day has to be a good one.
+ Taking the time to enjoy the weather, regardless of what the weather is doing.
+ Being creative through woodworking and enjoying the fruits of my labor.
+ Valuing my friendships more, and being more communicative about how I’m feeling.
I’m still on the meds, and I still have bad days, but like clouds on an otherwise sunny day, I remain with the belief that they too shall pass. To answer the questions that I raised to myself after diagnosis, nothing really about me has changed in terms of the diagnosis. Like drug or alcohol addiction, I believe that my PTSD and depression shall remain with me indefinitely. The only difference is that now I have effective strategies to manage the extremes of my moods, along with the knowledge that I have an army of friends and family who will support and fight my battle with me, side by side. I am absolutely not alone. They are friends with me for all the good and all the bad points that make my character. I take the affirmation of my value from those most important to me; my wife and children. My other dog, who despite his drool and smelly bum is the first and last living being I see each and every day. My children amaze me daily, and irrespective of how bad a day I’ve had at work, their genuine smiles and love make everything better.
Of this journey, the things which I’ve learned are:
Medication or therapy or exercise alone didn’t help. I need all three.
Going to a professional therapist is worth the investment of time and money.
Being ‘labelled’ is necessary for getting the proper support and attention. If you’re not a squeaky wheel, you won’t get no oil.
Being ‘labelled’ doesn’t change anything about you. It is not something to be proud of, nor hide behind.
While external support can show you the way, all change occurs within you. Like quitting smoking, you have to truly want it to happen.
Being ‘normal’ means you get to experience all emotions, not just being happy. Whereas, being ‘abnormal’ means you may only get to experience a subset of emotions.
What you feel will determine what you think, which then determines the actions you take. If you feel like you’re in trouble, tell someone and hang out with them for as long as is necessary.
Doing martial arts is a surprisingly good way of calming the ‘noise’ in your mind. Being choked is a great way of creating intense focus on the ‘here and now’.
When you start talking about it, you display a vulnerability that is actually addictive and reciprocal by others. The more you share, the more they’ll share, and the more trust in each other will grow. For those who use the info you share against you, they were douche bags to start with and you’re better off without them.
Almost everyone over the age of 30 has a ‘story’ to tell. You are not alone in this battle. You are stronger together.
To this end, I’ve established Tango Kilo Mike, an organization that helps people like me who’ve served or are serving in the emergency services or military forces, to meet others with stories to tell and participate in martial arts.
If you want to join in, reach out.
WE are stronger together.