My story – By Dan
Not many people live to tell a story like mine and those that do probably keep it to themselves as it isn’t something that someone wants to admit to or tell the world.
There are only a handful of people who know what I’ve been through and although I still have reservations about sharing my life story publicly, I feel it’s time to do so in the hope that it will inspire at least one young person to speak up or reach out for help before it’s too late. If my family, friends and I had known more about mental health, and if I had been able to speak up, a lot of pain and suffering could have been avoided for everyone involved.
Essentially, I have had a very tough 4 years or so and I’m extremely lucky to still be here, a few times over. I was often described by my mates as seemingly ‘having it all’; amazing family, friends, wife, fit and healthy, house, cars, successful career etc. But slowly things started changing for me. My thoughts and emotions were different. I felt unhappy, uncomfortable, like I wasn’t good enough, like things weren’t right. Ongoing struggles within my marriage began to really affect me and I wasn’t talking.
The rest of my life started to become difficult; sometimes I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was struggling to be the person everyone knew me to be, the person I wanted to be. My family and I had some hard battles to face (as many do), but as life’s challenges presented themselves I wasn’t able to cope like I used to. Due to the separation of my marriage (and eventual divorce), I moved out to live with my parents. This was a difficult change to accept given that I had moved into my own place in my early 20’s.
As you now know, I suffer from anxiety and depression but at the time had no idea because I didn’t know anything about mental illnesses. Slowly my life unravelled. I fought these feelings alone and told no one that I was struggling to face the day. I pretended I was OK, trying to convince myself I was OK. But I wasn’t. I had come to feel completely worthless and helpless. I felt I was a failure. Self-loathing was like poison running through my veins.
Constant negative thoughts corrupted my mind. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, I struggled to smile and laugh but continued to put on an act, a brave face. I didn’t want people to know I was weak and vulnerable. I was worried what people would think of me if I told them I hated myself and I had lost my love for life. I kept hoping it was just a phase and I’d soon return to feeling my happy, confident and fun loving self again.
Constant negative thoughts corrupted my mind. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. At times life became so difficult that I’d stay in bed for days. I couldn’t face the world, inventing excuses like stomach bugs, food poisoning and migraines. I couldn’t socialise like I used to. I couldn’t be in the office for long periods because I was so anxious I would have panic attacks. The longer I kept it inside, fighting alone, the stronger the sadness and anxiousness became.
My friends and colleagues jokingly gave me the nickname, ‘The Ghost’ because I would always disappear from social occasions early without saying goodbye, or just not turn up at all. It was true… I had become a ghost, a shadow of my former self. I couldn’t feel much at all. Sadly, I was ‘ghosting’ home to sit by myself, crippled by my depression. I would often cry and drink myself to sleep, praying that I wouldn’t wake up. The pain was overbearing. I was drowning out the back of the surf, my head every now and then dipping below the surface.
Thoughts of my family and friends would give me enough strength to fight back in just enough time to gasp for air. I needed to put my hand up; I wasn’t going to miraculously stop drowning on my own…I needed help. I needed to speak up. I didn’t know what was going on. I was literally struggling to survive but I hid it very well. I became a master of disguising my pain – seemingly still functioning daily, working etc, maintaining that I was okay. The depression and anxiety continually got worse and alcohol and drugs started to become my escape. I was completely consumed by this beast. I had become hopeless and my mind was plagued with suicidal thoughts. I felt I couldn’t continue living though this pain any longer, I was giving up. I began punishing myself for feeling the way I did; self-harming through substance abuse.
After a really horrendous lengthy period of darkness, loneliness and self-destruction, I eventually I hit rock bottom. At 5:45am on the 4th of December 2014 I was spotted by the Sydney Harbour Bridge security guards, tight rope walking a thin railing on the other side of the tall barbed wire safely fence. There was nothing stopping me from falling. My life literally hung in the balance.
I had somehow walked heel to toe along this railing for about 300m, from the start of the security fence almost to the first big bridge pylon. I was heavily intoxicated and in a world of my own. All of a sudden there were sirens coming from every direction, police, fire, ambulance, police rescue. The Harbour Bridge was shut down and traffic was at a standstill. The realisation of my predicament hit me. The fear and shock that rushed over me was unimaginable. What was I doing? What had my life become? Was I going to jump? I know I’d thought about it before. Maybe I was safe now. Maybe they would help me find a way to stop the pain and suffering. In an instant there were police everywhere, urging me not to jump.
At first I told them there was nothing to worry about, I was just there to watch the sunrise (as stated in the police incident report). My excuses weren’t going to work here; I wasn’t fooling anyone or myself anymore. Following their insistence, I stepped over a gap between the railings, my body was pressed up against the outside of security fence. 5 or 6 police then all reached through the fence, grabbing my suit pants and shirt where they could to stop me from falling or jumping.
After a petrifying 15 minutes or so the police rescue lowered a harness over to my side. I had to put it on myself, it was deemed too dangerous for them to come over and rescue me. Once I got to the safely of the pedestrian footpath I was extremely shaken up and confused. I was in shock.
The police and ambulance offices advised that I was scheduled under the mental health act and I was rushed to hospital, restrained to the ambulance bed for my own safety. After receiving initial medical treatment in the emergency department, my family were contacted.
My mind was replaying over and over all the awful events of the past 12 months or so – my chaotic, secret downfall. I was traumatized and scared, but relieved. I rested in bed under police guard until I was well enough to be properly assessed by a psychiatrist. I was then admitted to the psych ward and spent the next couple of days there. Following ongoing assessments, I was released from hospital. On my doctor’s advice I checked myself into a private hospital rehabilitation centre for further intensive medical care.
I spent the next 3 weeks over Christmas until New Year’s Eve in hospital, working with doctors on my recovery from the recent traumatic events. I was slowly piecing my life back together, trying to work out how I would ensure to never be in that position ever again. During my tough times and even at the start of my recovery process many people, including some professionals, suggested that substance abuse was the root cause of my problems. Rather, it was a toxic by-product and escape for me. This was a frustrating misdiagnosis that contributed to a delay in recognising and discovering the real issues behind my struggles. Sadly, this is not an uncommon misdiagnosis (especially in young men) and only makes it more difficult to identify the real issues.
I hope that through creating an awareness around mental illness, common misconceptions and confusion will be reduced. It’s been a real fight the past 18 months – there have been plenty of ups and downs. Living with anxiety and depression isn’t easy, but being honest with myself and talking about it definitely makes it easier. I’m still taking medication and seeing my psychologist and psychiatrist regularly. I write a lot and talk to people about how I’m feeling, rather than keeping it inside and being worried about what people might think. Communicating honestly and openly with my family and friends is the best medicine there is.
Now here I am; the happiest I’ve been in 5 years!! The best version of myself I ever could’ve been. I love life and myself again. I’m so grateful to still be here. I now have a healthy balance of all the key things in my life; family, friends, partner, work, fitness, and importantly, relaxation and time to myself. Mindfulness meditation is a popular, simple and effective way to deal with the stresses of everyday life, regardless of whether you’ve been affected by a mental illness. This shift in mindset to live in the moment, to be positive, to live with gratitude and self-love are all so profoundly important.
This, in my opinion, is the key to happiness. I want to turn my struggles into a positive experience, and I have realised through opening up to my family and friends that there are a lot of insights to come out of my journey. My hope is that my story will help people to develop a better understanding of mental health issues, as well as help anyone who is struggling with their own battle. Suicide is the greatest killer of Australians between the ages of 15 to 44, with Indigenous Australians having the highest suicide rate in the world. In 2014 there were 2,864 deaths due to suicide in Australia; that’s one death every 3 hours.
Mental illness and suicide are problems we can beat by uniting in love, support and understanding. To raise awareness and help break down the stigma that is attached to mental illness last October I rode 900km from Sydney to the Gold Coast in association with LIVIN. LIVIN’s mission is to connect with young people by supporting and inspiring them to talk about their feelings and issues because as long as you’re talking, you are never alone. For too long mental illness has been perceived as a weakness.
LIVIN aims to increase awareness and encourages the community to work together to combat these illnesses. LIVIN want young men and women to know that they are not alone and that ‘It Ain’t Weak to Speak’. They believe that education about mental illness in young people is an integral step in changing societal perceptions of mental health.People with mental health issues should feel as comfortable talking about their illness and how they are feeling as someone who is fighting a physical illness, such as cancer. If a person battling a mental health issue is talking, that person is no longer alone. They will feel a lot safer, more comfortable and can receive the help they need. Mental health education and communication WILL save lives.
The other amazing organisation who helped make the ride happen is Society&Co Apparel. Society&Co help provide education to at risk Indigenous Australian children through innovative scholarships funded by their fashion apparel. Proceeds from Tour de l’Est will be used to expand Society&Co’s Indigenous Scholarship project. This is another incredible cause that I’m very proud to support. I really hope reading this has enabled you to appreciate how important this message is for our society, and most importantly, our young people. It Ain’t Weak to Speak!
Cheers and Big Love, Dan x
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