I always thought people with mental illness were akin to those we see projected in the movies and other media. How wrong I was. I never considered that mental illness could hit me with the hurricane force it eventually did.
I had fallen out of a two level house when I was two and landed on a pile of gravel. Naturally, I survived. At ten years old, I drowned whilst on vacation at our family holiday home on the Tutukaka Coast. Naturally, I survived. After years of asking ‘who am I and where do I fit into this world,’ and challenging my sexuality, I came out – to myself, my family, friends and work colleagues. Naturally, I survived.
Through my years growing up and right through college into the workplace, I repeatedly experienced bouts of depression; to the point of becoming recluse and closing off to people. At school I was bullied quite cruelly; verbally and physically. I’d be last on the bus and head for the library during breaks. I developed my own instinctive protection system – stay in main corridors and always move with the pack. Never go off the beaten track, or become isolated from the ‘good guys.’
As time progressed, various cognitive behaviour and counseling sessions were to no avail. I simply came away more bitter and angry than I was prior to seeing the medical professional. It felt we opened and ‘visited’ some of my issues, but we always ran out of time, so everything was left to pick up on in the next appointment. It wasn’t helpful. It only carved up the past and left it laying there like an abandoned coat in the storm.
As I moved into the workplace my depression followed like a well-trained puppy taught to ‘heel.’ My defense mechanism became a curt and rude bluntness. It falsely gave me validation that people didn’t want to know me, and it gave me unwritten permission to back away and shut down on people I didn’t want to interact with. My attitude and behaviour was often terse and certainly not in keeping with expected personal standards in public interactions. I was not backward in coming forward and bluntly telling people what I thought, of them and/or the situation.
In June of 2000 I went for a ten day vacation in Cairns, Australia. I had decided that this was where I wanted to live, so I returned home to spend the next four weeks finishing up work and getting my affairs in order to depart again in late July – three days after a Concorde crashed, not that that put me off flying.
I stayed in Cairns for three months living on my own, but having made a couple of friends. But I wasn’t settled and jumped between jobs and deep down was quite depressed knowing I was 3,620 miles away from NZ family and friends. Though they had said they would visit, I knew this would be unlikely. I was where I thought I wanted to live, but why did things feel so challenging and why was I so depressed? What was my future likely to be?
I returned from Cairns late October and went back to my previous job of driving buses in Auckland. But I was still unhappy and unsettled. So, I left for Cairns again at the end of February 2001. I flatted with a couple of friends in their home and set about finding work. My gear that I had originally sent over was still safely stored in a storage facility until needed. I got my bike out and at least had some independence.
I was fortunate to score the equivalent of a ‘four-leaf clover’ in the job market – full time in a Government Department, Queensland Transport. It was a dream job. A few days later I went out for dinner with two friends and was in tears throughout the evening. It made no sense. Here was this job just waiting for me, yet I was visibly upset. The next morning I woke to watch the clock ticking towards the latest possible time I could get up and still make it to start the new job. That time passed; I was still in bed. It was over. I rang and left a message and within a week I was back in NZ. I returned to driving buses but the teasing and cruel jibes made at me by work colleagues wasn’t helping. After a week I couldn’t handle the job anymore and left. I looked for other employment and was successful in a position with the Automobile Association as an Emergency Breakdown Call Taker. This was in July 2001. At this stage I was on anti-depressants; Prozac, one tablet, three times daily. Then the dosage was changed to three tablets, once a day. Shortly after this, my moods became somewhat elevated but not sufficiently so as to draw any undue concerns. But it was certainly noticed.
Wednesday November 28 2001. Everything came to a head. TE901 had slammed into Mt. Erebus on this day in 1979; now I was about to experience my personal world slam into its own solid wall. My reality of mental health was about to be challenged to the max. I had spiralled into a manic mindset which moved into a psychotic manic episode. My world had become a blur between fantasy and reality, as if tracing paper placed over the original true picture. I didn’t become violent, but I did a wee bit of property damage.
The Police were called and I was arrested, handcuffed, finger-printed, processed and placed in a cell.
Then the inner torment of my mind took over. My perception of where I really was and what was happening became distorted. The toilet suddenly became a drinking fountain; the sound of keys and doors clanging and the voices, made me believe I was trapped at the bottom of one of the New York Twin Towers which had been brought down merely a few months earlier. I urinated in my trousers where I lay on the squab in my own cell, even though there was a toilet in the same cell.
Three times I was taken and sat in front of a group of six or more people for assessment. “Do you think what happened today was normal?” they asked. I couldn’t answer – either way, I didn’t think yes or no. Everything was one gigantic blur overlapping fantasy and reality into one massive mess.
Eventually I was carried out horizontally by six cops, bound with plastic ties at the wrists and ankles, given sedatives and transported from Takapuna Police Station to Taharoto Mental Health Ward at North Shore Hospital. Apparently I was carried over the counter kicking and swearing and completely naked.
I woke in the morning to find a brown bag beside my floor mattress marked with the words ‘Patient Property,’ and wearing ‘hospital property’ pyjamas.
My stay in the Intensive Care Unit [ICU] was five days and then luckily enough I was okay enough to be released. I stayed with my parents for the next three weeks. No wallet, no keys, and no mobile. The weeks ahead alternated between blood tests and outpatient appointments. I was now on lithium medication, which I initially thought meant “watch batteries” - not “frog-colored capsules!”
I spent the next year not working. Luckily I had a couple of flatmates, so I could survive financially. I got back into part time work – ironically at the same hospital, working on the traffic exit gates from the carpark. I left to return to Cairns again in May 2003 but was back in NZ a week later. This was the first time I’d tried living in the tropics since the mental health diagnosis, and the lithium medication meant it wasn’t going to be anything long-term. The dream of living in Cairns was well and truly over. Certainly until my twilight years anyway!
So, I returned to the parking job and a few months later went to work for a husband and wife couple driving a school bus morning and evening. It suited me just fine. Until more health issues arrived.
Having a bipolar affective disorder was substantial enough to be dealing with – in my eyes anyway.
But in April 2005 I began experiencing double vision and was referred through Greenlane Hospital Eye Clinic. This was the worse case they said they had encountered. Any worse and I would have dropped off the bottom of the measuring scale. I was fitted with a corrective patch over my glasses lens and continued safely with the bus runs until February 2006. It was at this point I finished driving for good and settled back to await surgery. Two days before my 43rd birthday in September, I was in Greenlane Hospital for day surgery on my left eye. Fourth cranial nerve palsy which required surgery on two of six eye muscles. Things healed nicely, but I was never to return to the workforce again.
In February 2012 I was diagnosed with two prolapsed spinal discs – C5/6 and C6/7. Excruciatingly painful. Three years later I finally finished with physiotherapy treatments. Things settled down again with some form of normality. I was doing voluntary work with CONNECTsr, a Mental Health Services, Non-Government Organisation [NGO.] I sat in on a few meetings and other various ventures. I was co-facilitating a Men’s Support Group, and on the editorial team for CONNECTsr’s quarterly publication. We called it MindSpeak and it was a great magazine. Usually twenty pages, posted to close to 500 recipients. But contributions to MindSpeak became few and far between and it naturally ceased through lack of contributions.
In October 2014 my dentist referred me to Greenlane Hospital Oral clinic with concerns over mouth and tongue irregularities. I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis with secondary Sjogren’s syndrome. This is an autoimmune condition which attacks the salivary glands. I have regular consultations with many medical professionals who are almost like friends!
Nowadays I can (and do) look back and reflect on my journey. Despite near suicide attempts in December 1998 and June 2001, I made it through. No matter what we encounter we always seem to bounce back, get through and keep going.
I became involved in working on a mental health weekly radio show once a week. It runs live for an hour and I do a bit of announcing, supply the music, and do the technical production. It’s voluntary and a great way to give something back to society and help others. I’d always wanted to get into radio but it was too expensive and too limited in making it to an announcer role. I got there! Just not quite what I expected; probably better.
As I write this I reflect back on what’s been before with a touch of sadness, but an immense feeling of pride with what I’ve managed to achieve and in what I’ve been able to give back to others who are (or are yet to) follow in my footsteps with their own journey. No two are ever the same, which makes us even more unique. I now spend my time enjoying the simpler things in life; music, reading, and taking in and appreciating nature and all her virtues.
Four years ago I made a decision to make personal improvements in my life; aspects of myself which I felt needed improving. It’s been coming along nicely, and just like a vintage car restoration – it takes time but the changes slowly start to take shape.
A friend once said after he had numerous health issues, that he didn’t feel normal anymore. I said “What’s ‘normal’ anyway? You’re still ‘normal’ - it just takes a bit of re-defining, that’s all”. And when you find your happy place, you’ll know you’ve found your new ‘normal’.