First things first - a little bit about me. I’m a 44-year-old male living in a northern industrial town. I’m usually one of the most easy-going laid back people you could wish to meet; “if you were any more laid-back you’d be horizontal” is something I heard quite often as I was growing up!
As I got older and my circumstances changed, life got more stressful. We live in difficult times and I was thrown a few challenges. My stepson has autism and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. As he developed through his early teens he found life unbearably hard and confusing. I don’t feel selfish or a bad person for saying “so did I”.
There were some days when putting one foot in front of the other took a huge effort. Eventually, I knew I had to 'man-up'. This didn’t mean getting pissed and hoping everything would go away. It meant holding my hand up and saying "you know what, I’m struggling".
I started to actually talk about my feelings. It wasn’t so hard and I went to see the GP. I was prescribed some medication which just helped me see things clearly again. That was all it took to start feeling better.
I have an amazing, supportive wife and a fantastic and special family unit. As a family, we got through some very tough challenges and I felt that the laid-back, easy going me had returned, older and wiser.
Just over 12 months ago, our lovely family unit started to go through another series of challenges that would turn our lives upside down. My step-daughter who had been living with a series of migraines and headaches was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour.
Following a series of scans and visits to Newcastle, this was finally recognised as Fibrous Dysplasia, a very rare bone condition. Although she has avoided brain surgery, she has still had to live with pretty much constant pain and a lot of hospital appointments and experiments with different medications. This was at a time when she was trying to prepare for her GCSEs.
Exactly a week later after this diagnosis, our beloved family dog died. Ok, ok – if you have never had a dog this probably doesn’t seem like such a biggy. If you do have had a dog that has been part of your family and your lives for a long time, you will recognise the grief and pain that we all felt at this loss.
Then, on the 3rd July, I went to the hospital for what was meant to be a very straightforward operation. As my wife dropped me off at the hospital we made plans for me being back at home that evening, I was even joking about making the most of 2 weeks recuperation! I didn’t go home again for another 6½ weeks! The operation went very badly wrong.
I woke up in the Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) after 10 hours of surgery and I was transferred to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle – you know you’re poorly when they send you there! Whilst in hospital I had another 3 surgical procedures, I developed sepsis and spent a week in ITU.
As I started to recover family and friends would often say – “this is going to affect you psychologically” and “this will hit you later”! To begin with, I managed to focus on taking each day as it came and I appreciated and recognised every small bit of progress that I was making, but they were right.
After returning home and once I stopped getting so many visitors (and nice food and drink) it did hit me. I started to think – wtf just happened?! I was meant to go in for a simple routine procedure and I woke up after 10 hours of major surgery full of tubes, covered in bandages and with a scar the size of a shark bite!
I started to get flashbacks which weren’t great and I spent just about all of my time going over events and trying to make sense of it all. Through no fault of my own, I have had to pretty much cut out all alcohol. Although this hasn’t been as hard as it might have been 20 years ago, it has still been a struggle and I have had to re-evaluate a lot of things.
Then in October, something amazing happened. A friend of a friend reached out to ask me how things were going and to see if I wanted to meet up for a coffee. I had started to avoid social situations, so I was a bit hesitant. If I was in a room full of people I would start to get a sensory overload.
I would be able to pick out dozens of different noises and conversations. I would struggle to focus and I would just want to get out as quickly as possible. Catherine is a therapist and was able to sense what I was going through. She made an offer for which I will be forever grateful. She offered to see me as a client to help me try and make sense of what I was going through. By this point, I was aware that I needed to take some action and I very gratefully accepted.
Going through therapy has been one of the most life-affirming and positive things I have ever done. Catherine has helped me recognised that I have been through a major traumatic event and that the emotions I was experiencing were perfectly natural. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried, what is the point in having tear glands if we don’t use them!
I have also been able to evaluate my life, values and beliefs all of which has led to me becoming more confident, more positive and more aware of everything else that is going on in the world. It also helped me focus on the things that are truly important and to appreciate those around me.
I have had my last therapy session this week (as I write this - June 2018). I feel great and ready to be able to deal with whatever life chooses to throw at me. Does this mean that my mental health is perfect and that I’m never going to suffer from mental illness again? Of course not, that’s like saying I’ll never get a cold again!
What I do know is that I now have a toolkit of resources and people that I can call on if I need to. I won’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help.
I now have a passion for improving mental health awareness. I am a qualified Mental Health First Aider (MHFA). There is lots of support in the workplace if somebody falls and hurts themselves. I would love to see support in every workplace for people who just need someone to chat to and need a bit of guidance.
I also found out last week that my hometown has the highest rate of male suicides in the country. There are lots of reasons for this but one of the main ones is that we still have a culture where admitting you’re struggling is seen as a sign of weakness. It should be seen as a sign of strength. There is so much support out there and things are getting better but there is still a long way to go.
Please get in touch if you need someone to speak to or you need signposting for support. I would be delighted to help. Thank you and good-night!
The whole 'life' stuff can take its toll, usually when you least expect it but it's a credit to James and those around him that he's found a way of dealing with it and pushing on. Has a physical illness manifested itself into a mental illness like James? How did you cope? What got you through? Let us know in the comments below.