This week is mental health awareness week, and I am struggling.
I say this with both feeling and knowledge. Feeling because quite frankly I am emotional, knowledge because I have been here before, twice. I know that having had two episodes my risks of more are significantly higher than if I had only suffered one.
With the benefit of experience I can see too, that I am the steady, almost imperceptible, downward spiral to a further relapse.
But I am not there yet. And I want to write about my experiences to inform and encourage others, because I view this as a positive story.
To be clear from the outset, I don’t suffer from PTSD. I have experienced stress and depression. To my somewhat frustration PTSD is seen as the SAS of the mental health landscape. It is glossy, seemingly everyone wants to write about and yet the vast majority of us will, if we suffer from anything, will suffer from stress and depression. PTSD is seen as acceptable, the curse of the brave. Stress and depression, the unsung stalwarts who are the backbone of mental health statistics are not quite so empathetic. I am one of those.
I had my first episode in the mid ‘noughties’ after an intensive period of operations and far too little leave. I broke, suffering a catastrophic breakdown just before Christmas. The doc gave me some pills, the boss, sympathetic though he was, told me not to talk about it (“it will impact your career you know”) and after two weeks Christmas leave and three appointments with the shrink I carried on as normal. To be honest I wanted to carry on as normal and career wise I was in a good place and enjoying my job.
But I was not better, and I wasn’t actually in a good place. Over the next four years I inexorably drifted back to the same hole, only bigger and deeper this time. This time the system was better. I had three months sick leave and then a graduated return to work over a period of nine months. More importantly I had access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and could start to undo some of the very bad habits I had picked up over the previous 10 years.
I had to relearn how to enjoy life, how to relax. I had to diversify my interests and rediscover my hobbies. I learnt how to walk away from the desk. I learnt that the ringing of the telephone was not a harbinger if doom, and I learnt to calibrate my responses by looking at those around me.
I promoted too, and deployed again, several times. Life does not finish when your mental health fails, you just learn to walk at a different pace.
So what have I learnt?
Firstly, that prevention is better than cure. I am struggling once more, but I am not broken. I have the tools to manage my mental resilience much better now. I recognise the warning signs earlier and pace myself better. The military’s mental health awareness campaign is excellent, but mental health issues are insidious, manifesting gradually over months and years. I need to look back to 12 months ago and compare then and now. I ask myself when was the last good day that I had, for not every day should be a grey day. I ask myself why does the ordinary every day, seem to take the most extraordinary effort today? And so I check; am I connected? Am I active? How is my prayer life? Am I still volunteering and am I still learning? We all need to be doing these things. The balance for each of us will be different, but the ingredients are the same. I can manage myself better now than in the noughties.
Now, compared to 6 months ago I am less active, less communicative and my prayer life is superficial; but two weeks ago I was painting the walls in a women’s refuge and that gave me such a boost! So I am recalibrating and consciously changing my behaviour. That is hard, it takes effort and it is immensely draining; but it is possible. Changing patterns is possible, but like the incremental spiral down, so too is it an incremental spiral up.
I will talk to people too. My padre knows, family and friends too. I have never been shy on my experiences, it is part of my initial patter when I report for duty. There remains a stigma over mental health issues, but there needn’t be.
So what can people do?
Be supportive. It sounds trite, but actually in my experience and struggles, having shoulders to lean on has been the best support. Depression is often called ‘the curse of the strong’, and none of us want to be a burden, but we are not all strong all the time and sometimes we need support.
Be aware. These changes manifest over time, think back, not now. Worry about the person who is working harder to stand still, for these are the people for whom the ordinary is becoming extraordinary, and when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and life becomes grey – then you are at the tipping point.
Lastly for those who see a glimpse of themselves in where I am, take a knee, take that condor moment, and reach out.
Remember that stress and depression is what can happen to you, but it does not define who you are. We are all better than that.
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