(originally published 28 Oct 2013)
A copy of my recent guest blog from the Mind website, in case you missed it. (by the way, I have no idea who the man is they are using as a photo. I'm sure he's lovely, but he's not me!)
I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I speak to people and tell them I have PTSD, their usual response is "Oh, have you been in the army?". I haven't. I wish I could say I developed this condition through a far more heroic way of life, but I can't. The truth is I became seriously ill a few years ago and ended up having emergency surgery. This resulted in me waking up in the High Dependancy unit of my local hospital with wires coming out of me from every angle and a colostomy bag attached to me, right next to 80 staples running down my stomach. Although, with the amount of morphine I was on, I didn't know much about it. My downward spiral through mental health started that day, of course I didn't know that at the time. I went from being at home with my wife and newborn son, albeit in agony, to life-threatening surgery in the space of 72 hours. What a weekend that was!
The fact is I didn't cope with the bag very well at all. I was embarrassed to talk about it, ashamed to feel it, horrified to see it beneath my ever-increasing layers of clothes vainly trying to cover it and I was disgusted to change it. The whole thing felt like a bad dream but unfortunately it wasn't. Those were still to come.
The next few years were incredibly tough for me and my family. I had the bag for about a year before another operation removed it; but not before the damage, both physically and mentally, were done. I had slowly, gradually, progressively gone from being an extrovert, a joker, the quintessential 'life-and-soul' to a prisoner of my own making. I would make excuses not to go to family events, to a point were they wouldn't even invite me. I even developed a new nickname from my brother ...'Grumpy'; he was only half-joking. I'd go to work and try and be as 'me' as possible but even that had to change. I turned down promotions because my self-confidence was gone. I was self-pitying, angry, short-tempered, nasty and just horrible to live with. The opposite of everything I'd always been. I wore the mask of normality to the outside world but behind closed doors, when I got home with those who really knew me, the deterioration had well and truly started. In many ways, the times without the bag were even worse than having it. It was once the bag had been removed that I started to have the flashbacks commonly associated with PTSD. I could still feel it glued to my skin. I could still smell it. I could see its outline beneath my clothes. It didn't even seem that strange to have those feelings, the sensations of an imaginary object. Waking up thinking it had burst over me and the bed brought confusion, fear, anxiety; the distress was, literally, a nightmare. Through the darkest times I kept it to all myself, alone in my head. I was too proud, too embarrassed, too stupid to think I could keep dealing with it alone. That was my first mistake, but not my last.
Looking back now I can recognise the signs, but I didn't do anything about it. I didn't go to the Doctors as I'd lost faith in them and anyway, I wasn't mentally ill. That's what other people have. I was wrong. Very wrong. I urge anyone in a similar position not to follow suit. Talk to someone, they'll listen. Talk to the professionals, there's no shame in it. I'm currently undergoing EMDR therapy and, so far, is working pretty well.
No matter how often I tell this story I feel very weak. I didn't lose a limb fighting for my country in a foreign field; I just became ill. I know people live with a colostomy bag for many years without it causing them too many problems but, for me, it changed my life. The road back, for me at least, is still ongoing. I've learned to practice mindfulness, go to a Therapeutic Garden and I write more than I have since I was at school. Small steps for sure but they all help me regain my sense of self.
I didn't get this way overnight and it won't get better overnight, actually it will, just not in one go! A few years ago I would have told everyone it ruined my life, but nowadays I like to think the changes it made in me were the foundations of something better. I'm not sure what will grow from it, but here's to finding out.