A Mental Health Nightmare – Part 3 of 3: Recovery
Part 3: Recovery
Unfortunately, Recovery is not a straight line. So in that light it’s really difficult to keep this simple. In Part 2 I explained my plan to manage the episode and come out of the nightmare. Recovery is in some part a continuation of the Plan, but in recovery there is a much lower experience of terror and distress. As I mentioned previously, Intensity and Density of challenging experiences in Recovery is far reduced. In the Recovery phase I am no longer Drowning, and aspects of the nightmare are decreasing. So the plan continued, and I started to return to my life.
A Slight Change
As an indication that there was some kind of recovery, after around 12 weeks there was a very light sense that the feeling of terrified was not as intense as it was previously. Hard to explain, but I could just feel a small change – I was feeling safer in my body. At the time I was intensely hopeful that I was going to be feeling better, but I can look back now and see that these were early signs. I was still for the most part hiding at home, but I noticed mentally I could start to entertain the thought of doing normal daily things.
Over the previous months, dreams had been a significant issue. I would have dreams that were so vivid, emotional, intense, and terrifying (maybe you could call a lot of them nightmares). Most times I would wake up during the night, or in the morning, in an emotional flashback. Later on, as I started to feel better, the dreams were less intense, but still there most nights. The dreams were the thing that affected my sleep (and days) the most even months after I was back to daily life. More recently they have almost stopped. I’ll have a disturbing dream about once a fortnight. But the difference is they don’t trigger emotional flashbacks.
The honest reality is alcohol helped – no need to try and sugar-coat it – and, at one point there seemed to be a crossover point where I was experiencing less emotional intensity, and I felt comfortable (and capable) to start reducing the amount of alcohol I drank on a daily basis. Alcohol is a good example of the ups and downs of recovery as my consumption has gone up and down since then. When It goes up a bit I know I’m battling something a little and this is time to ‘overconsume‘ beneficial activities – manage stress – get outside and active – relaxation.
Stress and Anxiety are Relative
When I felt comfortable getting back to study, I went in and started back at my project. There was a quite comical morning when I realised how much work I needed to get done, and noticed I felt stressed and anxious. I remember thinking anxiety was really nice – ‘normal‘ daily stress and anxiety I could handle, and was a really nice break from emotional terror.
Chat with the Boss
In June, back at study and feeling well, I had a meeting with my supervisor where I decided to chat to him about what had been happening over the past months. To say that this conversation was so beneficial is an understatement. We discussed basic details of what had been happening, and discussed best strategies for improving wellbeing in terms of sleep, diet, exercise, and regular mindfulness. All of these were crucial in recovery.
Walking Long Distances
I had this strong need to get back on my feet, and spend long periods allowing my head to churn things over. So, for some reason I asked my wife to drop me off at a location on her way to work, and I’d just walk home. The first time I did this it was about 17kms. By the end my feet were aching, but I felt good. The next my wife dropped me 25km from home. Again, aching feet. Then the next week 34km from home. And finally, the next week I walked 40km home (8hrs). I didn’t use music on my walks. These were a Mental Activity. Parts of the walks were on the beach with the rest on road. I felt like it gave me time to process multiple things in my head, physical activity, and lots of time outside.
6 months after this period started, there has been a noticeable change mentally. Through all my watching and reading material, there had been a couple of things that stuck out to me about how I was reacting to what was going on in my head. When I was drowning in it all, it was really hard to remain unaffected by memories, thoughts, and feelings. But as I was recovering more and more, I was able to sit with my head in a more relaxed way. I’ve done plenty of basic meditation activities over the years since my teens, and maybe that has put me in good stead to notice changes mentally – and maybe the experience I just went through had really motivated me to make sure I knew what was going on in there.
Physical illness and Choking
Around 8 months after it all started, I had an episode that I thought was a severe chest infection. After 6 weeks of seeing GP, blood tests that showed nothing, 4 different antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and asthma medications, there was no relief and I was getting worse. I couldn’t walk to the toilet without being exhausted. I spent most of the day in bed exhausted. The worst part of it was I was constantly feeling like I was slowly choking to death. Long story short, GP, Psychologist and I came to the conclusion that considering all symptoms, this was a psychosomatic reaction to trauma – so we worked on that – and over the next few months there was a real improvement. It is so important to realise just how much the mind and body are connected, and that the body can show serious symptoms of psychological distress.
Safe vs Calm
As I have mentioned before, I only really felt safe at home during this period, and this list included the sofa, bath, and bed. But at some point, I realised I don’t think I have ever really felt truly safe in my life. While there were of course times in my life when I was calm, there was seemingly always a background noise of unsafe. This became a process of reminding myself that I was safe from moment to moment when I was feeling emotional triggers. I think, for me, Safe needs to be the foundation that then supports feelings of calm. It is pointless to try to calm down or relax when in your core you don’t feel safe. So, now I don’t try to CALM, I try to SAFE. This very often triggers calm.
Trauma Bleeding Out, Recovery, and a Message of Hope
12 months after it all started, for lack of a better term, I feel a strong sense of Recovery. I don’t know what triggered this period, but I feel like the trauma spent time bleeding out of my body. Maybe my body and mind had had enough and wanted it out. For most of my life I have battled mental health challenges, and more so since 2012, peaking in 2019. Now mentally – terror and anxiety – hopelessness and worthlessness – and even depression, are far more distant. I feel free of them. There is definitely a deeper feeling of contentment. I feel like I can just get on with my life, though it will be different.
I still take medication for the time being, and I haven’t felt the need for talk therapy for many months. I get on the water 3-4 times per week, and ride bikes with our son. I have days where I have a few beers, and days where I have none. I manage work stress very differently, and make sure anxiety lasts only a moment before I take care of it – and I feel like I am actually capable of effectively managing stress and anxiety now.
Early in 2020 I had this really distinct feeling of ‘it’s time for peace‘. To support this I have started studies in mental development for deeper wellbeing and happiness.
I would like to express my deepest thanks to the people in my life that directly helped my through this time. I had to go through it, and it would have been horrible to do it alone – and in many ways, I wouldn’t have ended up well without them.
End of Part 3.
Part 1 is an introduction to a Mental Health Nightmare: It developed over a couple of months, not a crisis, but a nightmare where I felt I had zero control.
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.