Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let's Talk

With today being a time to speak up in support of mental issues I thought I would add my own voice to the discussion.  This is a topic especially relevant to people here in Fort McMurray given the trauma of last May.   Compared to most people though I think I've been pretty lucky.  Other than the huge inconvenience of being out my house and my regular routine for 5 weeks, I've managed rather well.  (These days my biggest concern tends to be staying on top of all the economic uncertainty that has been floating around our industry for the past couple of years.)  Looking back on the past 8 months, I've felt that one of the reasons I've managed so well after the fire was the I've been through some pretty tough experiences (which I wouldn't wish on anyone) that have helped me to cope and while it's easier now to look back through the storm there certainly were times when things just weren't so easy.   This is really a post I've wanted to write for some time now.  There's a stigma out there about males sharing their feelings but the hell with it.  Obviously, it's painful and uncomfortable to look back on things but if my story can help just one person in some small way, it will have accomplished its goal.  Here is my story...

Mental issues were never something I ever imagined I'd have to deal with personally.  Sure, I was the quiet kid in school but by the time high school hit, most people people just accepted me as someone who experiences the world through observation and thought rather than by necessarily interesting directly with it.  Mental issues were certainly something I never thought would effect me in my work life.  After all, in my former teaching career, I was used to giving advice and council and support.  I never really considered that I might one day need it myself.  In my view I was on top of the world.  Not that I was connected or anything, far from it.  But at the time, I was confident I had life figured out and that mental health issues were just something that  happened to other people.  In my late-20's perhaps this was something I can be forgiven for thinking.  I was the first person in my family to graduate university, I earned 3 university degrees and was well read,  I was making a very good salary compared to most other people in my peer group, I had travelled to or lived in almost every province and territory in the country, had been the US several times and twice to Europe. 

The two biggest mistakes you can make, in my view, are to believe the fiction that it can't happen to you and the pretend that you don't need help.  "I'm fine" was a refrain I repeated a lot at one point.  Like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, it crept up on me.  In early 2009 or so I hit a particular rough patch during one teaching assignment I had.  I had been assaulted a couple of times and a couple of students I cared deeply about committed suicide.  Once assault late that year resulted in a cracked knuckle, a splitting headache and an expelled student who was also to commit suicide a short time later.  

The day after the funeral I had a debriefing meeting with the community mental health nurse who I knew on both a personal and professional level and she advised me that I might want to take some time and step back from work.  In her professional opinion, she informed me, I was suffering from symptoms of PTSD.  I remember just staring at her when she told me as I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing.  I wasn't sure if she was joking but was quick to see that no, this isn't something that she would joke about.  She had a habit of being bluntly honest and that was what she was doing by telling me. 

I asked her about symptoms and a light came on for me.  I was becoming an angry person with an ever-decreasing fuse.  I didn't want to be around people and when you have a job where you are dealing with people on a daily basis AND you live in a small isolated community on top that it doesn't take much to see how this can lead to some real problems.  I wasn't my regular joking self and was told I didn't seem to smile as much either.  I actually real very clearly describing my situation to the mental health nurse as going in to "bunker mode".  So overwhelmed I would feel at times that I would dig a hole, shut down and hunker down just so that I could get through my day.  I had my coping mechanisms of music, good books, a good game of poker with friends or perhaps a hike.  But none of if seemed to be working.

So I knew there was a problem.  But hey, I'm 34-35, I'm a professional, I have a basic background in behavioural psychology because of my teaching degree and hey, this was something that happened to OTHER people.  And so I pretended or convinced myself that I didn't really need help.

I took one last teaching assignment when, looking back, I would have been much better served by taking a year (or even a few months) off.  Things didn't get better.  At that point in my life I was in a common law relationship and I was able to take the edge off with a few drinks.  Definitely not the best coping mechanism.  I never drank to excess as I don't handle hang-overs well at all but my body grew accustomed to having a couple mixed drinks on a daily basis.   It's entirely conceivable that my intake would have increased as my body grew increasingly accustomed to it.

Without going into a lot of details my relationship was fraught with difficulty at times as I tried to balance the reality of being a father with my professional life while still making time for myself.  Not so easy.  Eventually the situation became untenable and the relationship feel apart.  There was fault on both sides but I was angry.  I yelled.  I felt like I was in a nightmare I couldn't escape from.  Not addressing some important issues cost me my professional life, my relationship and that time and most importantly my relationship with my son.  I have no doubt that a few people that have known me since my school days but who haven't seen me in a number of years will read this and perhaps be shocked by just how incongruous this seems with the person they knew.  

To make a long story short, this was a wake up call for me and I did seek help....from family, a couple old friends people I know locally here and yes, a little professional advice as well.    The biggest help for me was getting myself out of the physical environment I was in.  That meant my teaching career was at an end of the time being and my relationship was over.  It also meant being honest with myself and discussing some very serious topics that I would normally find embarrassing.  It's tough to discuss things like erectile dysfunction even with a health professional but I'm sure if I hadn't my son would likely not have been born.  I rediscovered my passions.  I discovered new ones.  I met new people.  And most importantly for me, I never stopped talking.  This doesn't mean I went around telling everyone about my issues.   My blog notwithstanding, I've always considered myself a pretty private person.  If you're in my confidence it means I really REALLY trust you.  I like to think this isn't really that different from the majority of other people.

So am I "cured"?  Does this sort of thing go away or is there some sort of invisible line that I've crossed over in the intervening years?  I don't know.  I still carry an aversion to loud noise and feel awkward in social situations at times and I suspect this might not ever completely go away but I am better able to cope.  I won't pretend to be an expert on this topic, but I do know that things have gotten better.  Hell, I just feel better overall.  

I still have stressful days of course but when I look back at the person I used to be and the journey I've travelled to get to where I am today, I feel empowered.  What I have gone through and experience has, in sum, made me stronger.

Mental health issues don't mean you are in any way "stupid" or deficient or an idiot.  It's one small part of your being you might some day have to deal with...but it is NOT a summation of your entire character.  It can be addressed and positive change can happen.  You are not alone.  


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