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What do mental health injuries look like? Not what you think.

September 2017

The death of Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington on 20 July 2017 hit me in ways that I never thought it would.  I had never really been a fan of Linkin Park or Chester, including his tenure with Stone Temple Pilots, although I’ve been watching his videos on You Tube since then.  Before then, I only know one Linkin Park song, “In the End,” mainly for its haunting piano riff.

This of course is in the wake of the suicide of Soundgarden singer-guitarist Chris Cornell back in May and comedian Robin Williams three years ago (how could someone so funny be suicidal?).  How many other deaths related to drug overdoses were actually suicides?  We may never know.

In the days that followed, Chester’s widow Talinda released photos and a video of Chester laughing and smiling with his family in the days and hours before his death.  He looks perfectly happy and certainly not suicidal.  This is fairly common, especially if these photos were taken after he had finally decided to take his life. He may have finally been at peace because he knew the pain would soon be over; or he simply may have just been keeping up the facade he always did for the sake of his family and friends.

The worst thing about mental illnesses like depression is that you can’t see it. If someone breaks their arm, you can see the cast.  If someone is stabbed or shot, you can see the blood. There is none of this with depression. You only see what the person suffering wants you to see and besides the fact that we get very good at hiding things for fear of being judged, often these signs are dismissed as other things.

Just because we smile, laugh and joke around doesn’t mean we aren’t in terrible pain inside.  I certainly have done my fair share of the above.  Want proof?

On 21 June 2017, I was among 40 other recipients of the Canada 150- John Graves Simcoe Medal of Excellence, presented by Alex Nuttall, Member of Parliament for Barrie – Springwater – Oro-Medonte.  This award recognizes important contributions and achievements of ordinary Canadians to their community and country.

I was presented this award for my volunteer work over the past 30 years, including my work on this web site.  I have worked hard on this web site in my spare time, unpaid except a small amount of money for a handful of articles on this web site that appeared in the Barrie Advance between 2003 and 2008.  This project has been a labour of love for the past 19 years and I receive lots of e-mail commenting on the content and providing additional information.

Receiving an award is usually a happy occasion, but when someone suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, specifically depression and anxiety, it can really suck the life out of the event.

In the above photo, I’m smiling.  However this is only hiding the fact that I was having an anxiety attack.  I don’t normally like being the centre of attention and “on stage”, but after having my self-esteem battered over several decades, I find it hard to accept that someone is saying that something I’ve done deserves to be recognized and admired.  I’m more used to being kicked in the head (metaphorically).

My self-confidence has been so badly damaged from the trauma I’ve endured over several years that I can’t enjoy this moment.  I just put on my smile and pretend that nothing is wrong.

I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or more specifically Complex Post-Traumatic Stress, the result of years of traumatic events in both my personal and professional (police constable) life that culminated in me finally walking into a room full of other people and saying, “My name is Bruce and I’m an alcoholic.”

I have almost 19 months of sobriety at this point.

It’s also kind of ironic that this award came one month after my career came to a sudden end, with my police service basically washing their hands of me instead of ensuring that I got help.

While I was waiting for my name to be called to come up and get my award, I was dreading standing up there and being told how much I deserved the award.  I was fidgeting with my tie and felt some sweat forming on my forehead.  My heart was pounding and I was struggling to keep my breathing under control.

I kept telling myself over and over again, “Don’t trip, smile, shake Alex’s hand, pose for the obligatory picture and return to your seat.”  I think I pulled it off quite well.

Getting back to my seat without making a fool of myself was just one challenge for me.  Once back in my seat, I still felt like I didn’t deserve this award.  How could I possibly be worthy of such praise?  Alex Nuttall told me that he had been quite impressed with my accomplishments including this web site.  He said the person who nominated me for the award wrote a glowing nomination letter.  As is protocol, the recipient isn’t informed who nominated them.

By the way, my friend Natalie Harris (Aka Paramedic Nat), who also suffers from PTSD, was also there that night accepting the same award.  I had no idea she was experiencing similar emotions.  I remember thinking she looked very happy that night.

Then of course there is the social aspect of this night.  I used to feel comfortable in social situations like this, but now I dread them.  I used to feel comfortable socializing with complete strangers but now I feel very uncomfortable, not wanting anyone to notice me.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but frequently enough that I never know when my anxiety is going to become too much for me to handle.

Fortunately I’m OK with people I know, so social events aren’t a total loss.

Going to social events can still be tough enough but if I have my daughter with me, it can make things worse, especially if she is having a great time playing with the other kids. More often than not, I’ll be wanting to leave before my anxiety attack becomes a full-blown panic attack, but she tells me she doesn’t want to leave because she’s having so much fun.

Then when you finally get home, you run to the bathroom so you can throw up, while listening to your daughter ask what’s wrong.

This is an improvement over the times I either attempted suicide or simply began planning my suicide in detail.  I have my daughter to thank for my renewed will to live.  I finally realized I just couldn’t leave her, although for a long time afterwards, I still harboured a sense of, “I don’t want to kill myself, but if I happen to die anyway……..”

Not everyone is able to fight that urge to die.

Only those who have suffered from mental illness can understand how you can feel alone in a crowd; how you don’t want to be alone, but don’t want to interact with anyone.  You withdraw from things that used to make you happy and spend most of your time trying to avoid situations and people.  Things you used to enjoy aren’t fun anymore.

First you isolate yourself to protect your psychological well-being, then you need that isolation just to make it through the day because often it’s easier than having to pretend everything is okay.  You learn to mask a lot of things.  Nothing is more important to you than how you’re going to get through the day.  You avoid things as much as you can because you know you’ll be in a full panic if you don’t.  Many people take this the wrong way, which further erodes your self-confidence and self-worth.

Some days I don’t leave the house or I wait until I absolutely have to. When I have my daughter, I have to stay strong for her, which can be exhausting.

I hid my alcoholism from those close to me.  Many have expressed surprise when I told them I’m a recovering alcoholic.  People knew I drank, but no one knew how much because I isolated myself in my home and numbed my pain with alcohol, putting on a “brave-face” mask when I did have to interact with people.  I used humour, usually self-deprecating humour, to mask my true feelings.

I’m trying to get better but unless you’ve been there too, you can’t judge why that person can’t just “get over it.”

Mental illness can rob you of a lot of the joys of life and make it hard to enjoy the things that you do manage to enjoy.

If Talinda Bennington ever reads this article, I wish to offer my condolences for your loss.  I really don’t know what else to say except I’m fighting every day to beat this disease and generate better understanding of and compassion for mental health issues.

Having depression and/or PTSD doesn’t mean we’re dangerous.  It simply means we have a disease that can be fatal; just like someone who has cancer.

I’ll be hugging my daughter tightly tonight, thankful that I’m still able to fight this horrible disease.

Read the blog post from my friend Natalie Harris, a retired paramedic who struggles with PTSD, who was at the same ceremony and wrote about her struggles getting through the ceremony:  www.paramedicnatsmentalhealthjourney.com/2017/06/21/feeling-lost-in-a-crowd

Buy a copy of Natalie’s book “”Save-My-Life School: A first responder’s mental health journey” here: www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/save-my-life-school-a/9781894813914-item.html

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/what-do-depression-and-anxiety-look-like-not-what-you-think/

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