By Bryan Peck
This is a 3 part story about a terrifying mental health experience of a normal everyday guy, that lasted about 4-5 months.
Part 1: The Nightmare
Short Back Story
I am a 41yr old husband and father on the Sunshine Coast in QLD Australia. For most of my life I have had periods of depression where I would feel like I could hide under a rock for a short period of time, a s many people around the world do. In 2012 I experienced a worsening of this after attending the Lifeline Telephone Crisis Supporter course. Mixed with a number of stressors at the time, topics within the Lifeline course suddenly triggered memories, feelings and challenges, relating to adverse experiences I had in childhood, to a higher degree than I had experienced previously. So started a battle with depression that has continued to the present. I have ups and downs that I would characterise as greater than most people I know. I would have more significant relapses about once per year. I have spent many days in bed, and quite a number of full weekends hiding in the bedroom. I have mostly successfully shifted medications as needed and have almost always had a psychologist that I would try to visit regularly within the limits of the mental health care plan funded 10 sessions per year. I have a good home life with my wife and son, purposeful work and study; and I have kept physically active in a number of water sports.
All things considered, I was travelling well. But something started to change early 2019. In January, and more so in February, I noticed mentally things weren’t going well. At times I was feeling what I called ‘fired up’, not angry or agitated, but very difficult to describe. At other times I was feeling really overwhelmed, like many of the simple daily tasks were too big a mountain to climb. It’s easy to look back now and notice that thoughts and feelings just slowly continued to increase and overwhelm.
Early in March, difficulties were becoming quite noticeable, and I was experiencing what are called emotional flashbacks. I was starting to struggle, but it’s important to state that I didn’t know what was going on, so this was when I decided to go back and see a psychologist. I made an appointment, which was a couple of weeks away in late March. I can look back now and see that the nightmare had started, but I was still just trying to get through the days. I was always chatting to my wife letting her know I wasn’t completely well. I had doubled my medication dosage and tried to take quiet time.
By the end of March, just before the first session with the psychologist, I had 2 days that really destroyed me. It was like a 2-day long emotional flashback. I could only best describe it as being completely terrified. Not anxious or stressed where you would have the racing heart rate, sweating, fast breath. There was none of that. There was just this overwhelming feeling of terror; but I also felt numb; I almost felt paralysed; like I was empty.
At the end of that first day, terrified and crying in kitchen to my wife, she asked me what I needed, to which I said just get me some wine. Many people dealing with the effects of trauma find relief in alcohol. For me at that time wine was a magic pill. Wine calmed the terror, and helped me to be able to navigate the complex experiences I was having. In no way do I recommend alcohol as a remedy for emotional flashbacks and overwhelming terror, but as many in similar situations, it can be a real emotional saviour. In terms of drinking wine, there came a time later when I noticed I didn’t I was recovering, and didn’t feel the need to continue the wine – I’ll talk about that in later posts.
In terms of our health, there are many factors that determine whether you are well or not. But it’s not black and white. Somethings can be great at times while others are crappy. I want to list out the challenges that were happening in different parts of my life. From early March to late May
Overall Functioning: A 10-12 week period early march to early June was now a point where I could hardly leave the house; seeing people was more and more difficult; I didn’t want to be seen. I felt terrified; like I was a piece of shit; worthless, disgusting, untouchable; like I was a piece of dirt on someone’s shoe; an outcast. I spent most days at home; feeling shame, terror, and numbness. Overall daily functioning dropped significantly.
Sleep: Sleep was one of the biggest challenges. I wouldn’t have issues getting to sleep (usually between 9.30 and 11pm), but I was having extreme issues with dreams, more than I ever had. The dreams would wake me up during the night, or early in the morning. I wasn’t having a solid nights sleep at all, and this is certainly not helped by drinking wine up to 9 or so in the evening. There were many mornings where a dream had woke me up and I was in the middle of an emotional flashback. The dreams were always topic specific, could be about anything, but they were almost always disturbing.
Diet: I tried to keep good nutrients coming in, while there were many days where I ate potato chips and drank wine. The wine was never a morning thing. It was always an afternoon and evening thing. We have a pretty good diet habit at home, so no massive changes.
Social: Very little to say here, but for the fact that my social life pretty much stopped. It’s simple, I didn’t go to gatherings I normally would. However, I still did school drop off and pick up. I am quite reserved so no huge challenges at the school. Also, our son does Jiu Jitsu a couple of times per week, and again I kept to myself when I took him. My wife and I talked everyday. She would message me daily while she was at work to check in. There were times when she was really worried, and even expressed to me she was scared she would come home to find me dead. We really talked about this stuff, and made sure we were both up to speed and on the same page. She is always a great support.
Work: Pretty much all Brave Face work stopped. I hadn’t organised or conducted a workshop all year. We still had the Mental Health Stand Up Paddle program going in term 2, but the weather postponed many sessions. Unfortunately, at this stage I wasn’t arguing. It was hard to leave the house, let alone interact with people. Coming to the next program start in June, I made the decision to cancel it.
PhD: Study also ground to a halt most weeks. I stayed home. I read and wrote when I felt I could. But I couldn’t hold attention for long, and mostly study was mentally overwhelming. At some stage after not being at the institute where I study for some weeks, I tried to go in to do some work. I wanted be able to get back to a schedule and be productive. One week I went in one day and lasted about 15 minutes. I tried again the next week one day, and lasted about 20 minutes. It was too overwhelming. One of my colleagues there remarked that she hadn’t seen me in a while, and she asked the all important question, ‘R U OK?’. At that moment I couldn’t talk, I was just so overwhelmed. In later weeks when I had recovered enough we were able to have longer conversations about what had been going. While I was already getting the help, it was so important to have that social support (there is a big difference between getting help, and social support, which I will cover in a later post). Later again, I spoke with other colleagues who asked and were a great support. When I felt well enough, I raised the previous month’s challenges with my supervisor, who was absolutely 100%. I’ll talk about that conversation, later in Part 2.
Exercise: I tried to continue physical activity. I was getting on the water less than once per week now. Being on the water wasn’t helping like it normally would. I would still feel terrified, or lost, or numb after a session. Previously, when stressed etc, I could go for a paddle or a surf, and feel the shift in gear after a short while, and get off the water in a far better head space. These weeks weren’t that way. Previously, with depression I would find it hard to get motivated, but once there it was nice. At this time, I wanted to go, to shift mood etc, but many times I was just too scared.
Mental Health: I know it is strange having this topic as a section, but there is so much to mental health. This is specifically about my mental environment. I found it very difficult to be me, to think, to feel like me. It was a mess in there (the mind), when you are just constantly scared, and can’t work things out. In the worst times, there were thoughts of ending my life – in the context of what I was experiencing, the emotional flashbacks, the extreme overwhelm, the feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. As time went on, thoughts were more present that if this was to be my life from now on, some days were so bad that I would not want to continue. Suicide as a significant public health issue is part of my work with Brave Face, which definitely helped me try to stay aware of feelings of worthlessness/hopelessness, and their connection to thoughts of suicide. I spoke to my wife a number of times about it when it came up, kept it open, and chatted with psych about it.
Working with the Psychologist
The first session with the psychologist at the end of March was categorised by tremors and physical shaking. I couldn’t control them. I could hardly think; I could hardly talk. My psychologist calmly explained that my past, the demons, were bashing at my front door. Between the first and second session with the psychologist, I did some research based on a hand out she gave me from NICABM – this was when I came across Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or Complex Trauma (another term in this area is Developmental Trauma). Complex Trauma is a mental health condition similar to PTSD, but can have a different cause/event. Complex Trauma as caused by experiencing more traumatic events over a longer time period (months to years), where the individual has no escape; and generally involves a strong interpersonal relationship component. But by this time I could see, and feel, the symptoms of Complex Trauma made sense with what I was experiencing, and had been experiencing for a number of years. The symptoms included emotional flashbacks of feeling terror and fear for no apparent reason; feelings of numbness; nightmares; an extreme inner critic; and chronic physical pain. Complex Trauma, the causes, and the symptoms I experienced were the basis of what the psychologist and I discussed from this point on. In around 12 weeks I had 10 sessions with the psychologist. During this time, I tried to learn as much as possible, but often I found myself triggered and in an emotional flashback from what I was reading. I could research for about 10 minutes at a time, and then I had to stop. There were even times when my wife and I were discussing where I was at, and after 5 minutes I had to stop the discussion as I was starting to feel overwhelmed. I had started understanding just how much we suppress adverse events from the past, from our memories; that you gloss over it all; until a point comes that you can’t avoid it anymore and it catches up with you. You suppress the most painful things and hope they go away. But as I keep hearing, these experiences catch up with you.
In April I made an appointment with a local Psychiatrist that specialises in trauma-based issues such as PTSD. This appointment was helpful for me to get good advice about what my best options are moving forward – basically, am I doing all the right things, or is there something we can try. At the end of the day, there were no changes to be made to my medication; continue with the psych; watch the amount of wine I was consuming; keep good nutrition coming in. One change that was suggested to try to help with the terror was valium, which I took when needed. That was a real saviour at that time, as it did exactly what I needed – to calm the fight/flight.
My wife and I had conversations about many things over this time, but for her the amount of wine was a concern. I got it, we all get it, drinking a bottle or more a day is never ideal. I heard her, and also let her know that at that time, wine was the least of my worries, and was focused on learning, journaling, and working with the psych to heal what was happening.
End of Part 1.
- Part 2 is about The Plan: There has to be a plan of attack, like in any serious health condition that significantly affects your functioning. A plan gives you, and those close to you, a sense of control when you are lost and feel out of control
- Part 3 is about The Recovery: There is a time where the bad starts to decrease, and the good starts to increase again. There can be a light at the end of the tunnel.