Today marks a strange anniversary for me.
13 April 2015 is a date which will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. One might consider it the culmination of a series of life-challenges all which acted together to pull the rug from under my feet.
A quick explanation
So what is covered below is a very high-level overview of what happened. I’ve always written about stuff because it’s the only way I can get it out of my head where it’s building up pressure trying to escape; indeed the blog writing was a key element of my life following Mark’s passing. For what is an emotive journey, I’ve kept it to the bare minimum and it’s obviously from my point of view. It’s aimed to be more thought-provoking and about promoting discussion rather than about pointing the finger of blame, as quite frankly what’s that going to achieve?
Anyway, grab a drink, sit down and have a read……
Inappropriate use of the term ‘nervous breakdown’
We use the term ‘nervous breakdown’ very glibly in this day and age without really having any concept as to what it actually is. Indeed I’ve already seen a ‘comedy’ post online in the last week about the subject. It’s a phrase that tends to get rolled out when people are flapping around a bit and stuff isn’t get done any time soon. It’s usually coined in a semi-humorous tone as if watching somebody else flailing about and making a general mess of things is a form of entertainment.
In fact there is no medical condition of a ‘breakdown’. It would appear to be more correct to consider it as ‘burnout’, essentially going beyond the point where the mind can operate. It was described in many ways as the mind realising that unless it pulled the plug, serious harm could result.
Too much baggage
I’ve always realised that since 2006, I was probably carrying a few extra cases of baggage than I might have been had life worked out differently. Supporting Mark through his daily battle with Multiple Myeloma and Amyloidosis meant that there was always a third element in our marriage which needed to be factored in; knowing where the nearest medical help was, yet accepting some of the aspects of the illnesses within everyday life meant that our ‘normal’ was far removed from any ‘normal’ I experienced before meeting him. Yet having this as a background kept us realistic and grounded as well as keeping the world in total perspective.
As a result one continues through life with all these extra bits on. In many ways no different in principle to the many factors that weigh on other people; families, kids, money issues. The only difference with the Multiple Myeloma was that it was in effect a terminal illness. Most of the others above don’t tend to lead to that level of sudden finality.
Can anyone see me?
Even though I thought I had done all the ‘right things’ following his death in 2012 it became ever more apparent that despite my best efforts I’d buried my feelings and carried on. There was a big feeling of being let down; a job which promised so many opportunities yet delivered none. An organisation which was so worried about how it was seen to be protecting everything outside of it, that it ignored its obligation to look after it’s own staff. And when one works in an environment which assumes that it can keep adding and adding conflicting work and pressures onto it’s staff without any support it’s easy to see how that happened, in retrospect. For reasons I’ve never quite grasped, I’ve always been the outsider at work, seemingly being allowed to be stuck out of the way and occasionally forgotten about.
Two months before it all came crashing down a feeling of family interference pushed me to the brink. A month later, the impact of two suicides in my life, within days of each other really didn’t hit home. And I realised it; I couldn’t take in the death of my father-in-law and there was nothing I seemed to be able to do about it, except to carry on ever forwards. In fact it was at this point I asked for help as I realised that I was struggling. it was promised, but as ever the help never came.
On all levels I felt that the trust I had in the world around me had been betrayed. I spent my life trying to help other people and make the world a better place. Yet at the point when I needed help myself, I was left high and dry.
My memory of the final weekend remains in many pieces and generally consists of disembodied feelings of loss of control and alienation, with those around too busy or dis-interested to see my final slide into the abyss. I just remember being sat in a meeting, unable to process anything, unable to speak, unable to know even why I was there. I don’t even think I knew who I was at that point.
I got home in the evening, and cried all night. I could go out and work to look after and look after other people, but I couldn’t look after myself, and it was painfully apparent that if I couldn’t, nobody else was going to do that (why should they?). I felt a total failure, no idea how I’d got to that place. I sat in a doctor’s room unable to control my emotions and at the same time feeling I was letting myself down for doing so.
At the same time was an un-nervingly strong emotion of anger which seemed to be flowing through me, almost like an electric current. I was running and cycling long miles just to rein in this flood of emotion as nothing else seemed to come close. To this day I have to shield myself away from anything related to my old work in order to prevent an anxiety attack; something innocuous can quickly lead to flashbacks and panic attacks, and it’s not the way I want to have to live my life.
All fall down
After a wave of different healthcare support I was eventually seen by a psychologist through work who was fantastic and, session by session began helping me reassemble my mind. Somebody I felt I could trust to help me pick through the wreckage and begin to reclaim an element of dignity. And to try to find where I – me as the person – had actually gone to.
Indeed it took over 4 months before I ‘woke up’ from the semi-conscious mental state I had gone into following the breakdown. It was September 2015 before I could even start to think about life outside of the horizon of my house and the car journey to the psychologist. For someone who always operated at full throttle, it was odd to think I’d had 4+ months of basically doing nothing, yet not feeling bored by it.
I was finally becoming frustrated that doing anything as little as as reading for 10-15 minutes had the effect of wiping me out for the rest of the day. Having decided to tackle an online course in practical petsitting, it took me many weeks to complete the reading which I would have normally boxes off in a number of days.
I’d accepted by this point that returning to my old life was unlikely to be a suitable idea. My heart was open to it; despite the isolation that I experienced within work, I had a great fondness for many of the people my direct team and I genuinely felt that I could still make other peoples’ lives better..
However whenever I considered the work aspect, I was cast back to the time in the meeting when I didn’t know who I was, knowing that there was nobody that was going to fix things. I had regular vivid nightmares about being back at work, unable to operate and being criticised for it. If those weren’t bad enough they were interspersed with violent gorefest dreams which were extremely disturbing. People died in them, horrifically and violently. Apparently these flash-back type events are what PTSD sufferers contend with. My respect for those from the services with PTSD has increased massively as a result of a tiny glimpse of what may haunt them.
Outside of the world of dreams, I was unable to talk about ‘that weekend’ without physically shaking by the time I’d got about half-way through my tale.
By October I was feeling that work were beginning to pressure me into going back. ‘Returning to Work’ and ‘Action Planning’ were all words which left me feeling that the organisation just seemed to feel that ‘I’d had plenty of time off now, that’s enough’ despite the fact the psychologist remaining concerned about my mental health.
Several days later, and during a regular health meeting with work I handed in my notice. It was an emotionally draining experience but by that time both body, heart and mind were finally united and I knew there was no choice in the matter. It was time to go.
Whilst it might have seen a strange way to do it, this allowed me to take the first-hand emotion away. Those that needed to know would find out immediately from the health update report and crucially for me, as it was provided as a fait accompli it meant that the message itself couldn’t be altered in translation.
The road to recovery
What is strange to me is that I really haven’t looked back. Setting up a business is far from straightforward and being self-employed has many new challenges, not least that one has to go out and get work, else one doesn’t get paid! Gone are bank holidays and paid time off. Yet that seems a reasonable trade off when getting control back into my life is the upside. No more turning up to work to find that all my priorities have been overwritten by someone who isn’t actually interested in what I’ve got to do, until of course it all goes wrong (and then it’s my fault). No more working for an organisation that doesn’t value it’s workers, or doesn’t look at them for what they can do as individuals or even look at how it could develop them to benefit everyone.
In my new world, each diary appointment has been added by me, I know what it is and why it is there. And for someone ‘labelled’ as a ‘control-freak’ and a ‘perfectionist’ this is a good thing. Especially as I can give each client the level of service they deserve, rather than feeling I’m short-changing them because somebody else believes their job is more important than the one I’m dealing with so I have to go.
From a health point of view, the medication helps. I can manage about 3 hours in a day now without it leaving me in a heap for the rest of the week. I’m receiving help with managing the anger and I’m getting fewer flashbacks than I was. I saw some people from old work last month who commented that I looked well, so that’s positive (although it makes me wonder what I looked like before!).
The anniversary of the culmination of it all is clearly playing on my mind; My dreams are filled with my being in work, everything is going wrong around me and I feel it’s me that’s responsible. At least over the last week, nobody has died in them them.
It’s taken me a full year to get to this point. I’m not fully fixed, but I’m working on that, day by day. 1 year older, several years more cynical and wiser.
But I’m still here living my life to my tune now, and nobody else’s.