One of my favourite movies is Apollo 13. The film details the “successful failure” of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission in 1970. Intended as a moon landing mission, it instead becomes a desperate effort to bring the three astronauts home safely after a malfunction and explosion en route to the moon.
After the initial explosion and in the midst of a wild, erratic ride on board the spacecraft, Commander Jim Lovell in the movie says:
Houston, we have a problem.
It was immediately apparent from the explosion that they had a problem, and it was a big one.
In contrast, there was no single climactic event that indicated to me that I had a problem with my mental health.
It crept up on me subtly in a way that reminds me a little of the story of the frog slowly boiled alive. Although modern frog experts will tell you that a frog wouldn’t actually behave that way, the story is used as a metaphor to highlight the potential for small, gradual changes to go unnoticed. Sometimes the small, gradual changes are as much about an organism’s internal environment as external – in my case, thinking patterns. I was a calm, optimistic, hopeful guy with a consistently positive outlook on life – until I realised I wasn’t as much any more.
Of course, in my case the external environment over the past five to six years has been pretty challenging as well. My wife’s severe depression and anxiety has taken its toll on both of us. As her husband and carer I was a little removed from her first-hand experience of it, but often not by much. I have supported her through her ups and downs, sat with her when she was there but not there. I have been ready and waiting to pick up the slack at a moment’s notice each time there was the need – when her depression was so bad that she needed a stay in hospital, or at times when she was home but not capable of being who and what she wanted to be. Not only were the circumstances challenging in a practical sense, but also the reality of daily life made it a challenge to see ahead to a time when I would get back my wife, the kids get back their mum. Those were the key external challenges.
But stress is subjective, I teach my psychology students. It’s not the number or the magnitude of stressors that matter most, but an individual’s perception of those stressors and of their ability to cope. Initially, and for a long time, I coped well. I drew on my faith as a Christian, remained optimistic and focussed on each new situation pragmatically. Work was my refuge in a sense, because it was the one place that everything was more or less normal and predictable. I received enormous support from my colleagues and my employer. I rose to the challenges at home and met each obstacle, my key focus ensuring the needs of my wife and our kids were met as best I could.
Looking back now I see one critical oversight in my approach – in the flurry and busyness of caring for my wife and kids, I didn’t acknowledge the equal importance of also caring for myself. With too few tops-ups to my own fuel tank, my psychological and emotional reserves dwindled lower and lower.
Suddenly I found I wasn’t coping so well any more, and I couldn’t pinpoint quite where or how it had happened.
Initially I assumed it was just a rough stage, and in time things would improve. They didn’t; they got worse. For a long time in the back of my mind was the belief that I had to endure and stay strong for my wife’s sake, and also for my kids. I was her rock. I couldn’t start to crumble too.
I spent over a year struggling with ups and down, mostly downs, wondering if I had depression, praying, thinking I probably did. I was completely miserable, but hoping that with perseverance, effort and prayer I could get through it and keep going. Ultimately I realised that if things went on, I wouldn’t be in a state to be even mildly supportive of those I cared about most – let alone be their rock. It was past time to seek professional help.
I remember the revelation and the irony of the second session with my psychologist. We talked about anxiety as a disorder and a list of common symptoms, many of them physiological. I had just about all of them. A mental jog back over the past 18 months to two years revealed I might have had undiagnosed anxiety for as long. It’s ironic because I’m a psychology teacher and I teach my students about mental illness, including anxiety. I never twigged until that session. Then everything suddenly made sense. Sometimes in the midst of things you’re just too close to see what’s really going on.
That psych session was in early October. I came out of it with renewed hope and a clear plan for managing my anxiety. Things have gotten better and better from there – for a moment discounting my unexpected stroke a month later. Just as small, gradual changes in my thinking patterns got me here, the return to complete wellness is going to require time. But I have already taken some big steps and am in a better place already than even a couple months ago.
My wife’s health has improved and has been stable, and she has been an amazing support to me these past few months. In some ways the tables have turned – but not entirely. We’re continuing to learn how to support each other, and also care for ourselves. My family has also been very supportive.
Near the end of Apollo 13, in preparation for the crew’s successful re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the crew jettisons the service module which was damaged in the explosion. For the first time they are able to visually assess the damaged craft. They’re almost home free, with just one or two more hurdles to overcome – but they’re still awed by the extent of the damage caused to the vehicle. Almost one whole side of the service module was missing.
I kind of feel that way about my stroke. I’m still seeing a neurologist to follow-up and explore possible causes, but the only obvious risk factor was stress. When the stroke hit, I was already on my way to better management of stress and anxiety. For now, I see the stroke as a delayed consequence of a nervous system running at peak-rev for way too long. As I shared in my first post, A stroke of luck, it was a close call and I’m heeding it as a reminder that I need to look after myself too.
The challenges of the past few years have been my journey but that journey is now an upward one. There’s a long way to go, but I’m on the way to again becoming that calm, optimistic, hopeful guy I once was.
I’m looking forward to sharing the upward journey with you over the course of this year.
For the first time in so long, both my wife and I are excited about what 2016 holds for us. We’re only going to get better.