Mental Health, Or… How I Learnt to Love the (C-) Bomb
This is a hard one for me.
I’m planning on getting deep and meaningful. Possibly exposing my soul to the world.
I’ll be painfully frank: I am nowhere near a mental health professional. Please bear this in mind.
Most of this will be simply my own experience and outlook. It may not be the best solution recommended by mental health professionals.
Our tribe – military, emergency services and the hard industries – traditionally do pretty badly at recognizing and acknowledging mental health and the impact it has on us, our lives and our families.
This is at an individual, collective and institutional level.
Mental health issues cover a wide ranging spectrum. Starting from stimulus (ie. Causal factors) moving to depression, and thence onto suicide.
This is a very simplistic description, I don’t claim to be any sort of mental health professional.
According to The Blackdog Institute of Australia (https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/) there’s a few contributing factors for mental health issues.
Stressful life events
Drug or alcohol abuse
Poor living circumstances
All of these factors can lead to the next segment of the continuum – depression. Spend too long depressed, and one can fall into the more extreme end of the continuum: suicide.
Especially when combined with a loss of hope.
Depression is one of the most insidious tricks our bodies can pull on us.
A combination of biological, psychological and social causes of distress that may cause changes in brain function, chemistry and neural circuits.
These changes in brain chemistry can drag us into a downward spiral.
Depression doesn’t just affect mental health, it’ll affect your physical health in some really bad ways.
Depression can take years off your life and suck the joy out of so many day to day pleasures.
Depression and other mental health maladies has a wider ranging impact than just the person affected. It won’t just affect you, it will affect everyone around you. That’s your spouse, kids, mates, parents, siblings and workmates at the very least. I believe it can spread like a virus, and can be as difficult to counteract.
A lot of these factors can be major stressors.
In simple terms, people lose hope.
Take hope away from people, and there’s not a lot worth fighting for.
I did a lot of far ranging reading when I was young bloke in my early teens. I read about people dying from a broken heart.
While I understood that such things can happen, I just couldn’t really get my head around it.
Now as a grumpy old fart, I can understand to the very depth of my soul that people can and will die from a broken heart. It is an injury just as real as anything inflicted by shot, shell or physical/chemical factor.
Spend too long depressed, or have too many of life’s negative factors stacked against you can lead to the ultimate solution for many: suicide.
In Australia alone, 3046 took their lives by suicide in 2018 (Blackdog Institute, Australia).
Men account for three times the number of women.
That’s a staggering number. Especially when you start realizing that every one of those 3046 have left behind family, loved ones, mates, and the myriad of human contacts that we experience in our lives. It’s that bloke in Accounting you always used to see at work and give a wave to and ask about his weekend. It’s the young lass at the shops who always had a smile and a kind word whenever you paid for your bread. It’s that mad rooter from 23C that’s always the life of the party.
We are a gregarious species, and we thrive on these small human moments.
I’ve already lost a couple of good mates to suicide, I don’t care to have anymore join that list.
Even worse, 65000 Australians in that time period mentioned above (2018) reached such levels of despair that they attempt suicide. That’s a lot of people who have lost hope for this world.
So, what can we do to mitigate or hopefully avoid such issues?
I’m not going to sit here and bullshit to you about having a teaspoon of cement to harden-up.
Such “strategies” simply aren’t useful.
What I’m going to do is outline my personal mental survival strategy.
It’s not for everyone. It’s not meant to be. You need to nut out and analyse what’s going to work for you. Like many of my how-to articles, I’m simply going to outline “my” way, which is “a” way… but not “the” way.
I can’t, and won’t even dare to make sweeping statements about other people’s pain.
But first, I’m going to give a brief outline of my life and why I’ve found what works for me.
In early 2013, I received my first job redundancy. I was working in underground coal mining as a consultant for a specialist mining contractor, a dream job where life was pretty good until the industry took a turn for the worst. I was one of the last to be let go due to seniority and general usefulness. When I finished in the role we moved from Townsville to Brisbane to be closer to family.
We were expecting our first baby, a gorgeous little girl who arrived into this world a couple of months later.
There was a lot of stress in our household due to me not being able to find any meaningful work and our baby not sleeping . If we were lucky, we’d get hour to hour-and-a-half long intervals before she would wake up. This ran for about two years.
In order to keep the bills paid, food on the table and the lights on, I took whatever work was on offer.
Labouring for a party hire company, traffic controller, and a bar tender, amongst others. It was all a far cry from what I’d studied and trained to do. And it was light years away from what I wanted to do.
Whilst job hunting, I submitted over a thousand job applications. I drove around industrial areas dropping my CV and a “brag sheet” to any business or company that I thought could use my skills and mindset.
The sheer amount of rejections I received was a real morale drainer. Even worse is when a job application goes into the ether and not even an automated email comes back.
It’s a hell of a hit to the ego.
Early in 2014, I started working a new job, back in food manufacturing – my original industry that I had professional qualifications in.
It was a hard slog to even be looked at for any serious professional role.
By the end of 2014, the food manufacturing facility I was working in was closed down by Corporate because of a restructure and re-focus on capabilities.
My second redundancy in as many years.
The running joke between myself and many friends was that I was The Grim Reaper, woe betide any office or worksite I entered.
I was fortunate, to gain work in the fire safety industry, inspecting and servicing fire equipment.
Let me tell you, the fire safety industry is one of the most boring and morale sapping industries I’ve ever worked.
As a former consultant in change management and continuous improvement and other cool stuff, it drove me crazy to look around and see easy fixes to efficiency that I’d instigated in previous industries – to have my suggestions be ignored because I was just an entry-level numpty according to those who had never achieved anywhere near what I had.
But… I tried to convince myself it was a working holiday. An opportunity to keep some cash coming in, with no real stress or pressure to perform at my former level.
I spent five years in two fire companies, continually applying for other jobs in the meantime. But for all of it’s faults, it was at least regular income and an opportunity to showcase my stuff.
In mid-2016, my second beautiful daughter arrived in this world. We thought her older sister didn’t sleep much… this baby was something else. 30-40 minute wake-ups for a very long time added its toll of stress to my family and household.
I’ve spent the best part of seven years absolutely dreading the prospect of dragging my backside out of bed to go to work. I had not truly enjoyed going to work since early 2013.
My sin is that I’m a proud bloke. Proud of the hard slog I’ve put in to achieve as much as possible. Sometimes, I have problems allowing myself to stop and rest.
Fear (of failure) may drive my feet, but pride pushes me forward.
After a long period of decline and breakdown, my marriage imploded in mid-2018. I’m not completely innocent in that, I added my own complications to the equation.
It was one of the saddest and hardest moments of my life as I had to leave my home, and my children because of relationship breakdown.
I have been fortunate that my family, loved ones, and tribe all gathered around.
They were pretty dark days for awhile.
If my parents hadn’t been living in town, or hadn’t space for me, I’d be in a half-way house or homeless because of the support payments I was making for my children.
Due to financial difficulties the last few years, I still live with my parents. I absolutely love and adore my parents, but as a very strongly independent bloke, it’s chafed me not having the luxury of my own space.
After my separation and being forced to leave my home, the sense of dislocation of not seeing my beautiful little girls every day, and doing all those usual “Daddy” things at the end of the day (reading stories, singing lullabies and lots of cuddles) hit like a freight train.
I’m not afraid to say that there were long periods where I truly just wanted to lie down, curl up and die.
Custody arrangements are such that I have my girls every second weekend, and a week on/week off arrangement during school holidays. I would absolutely kill for more time with my girls, but my domestic arrangements and industries I work in generally prevent this occurring.
To this day, not seeing my little girls run to me screaming “Daddy!” when I walk in the door from work every day is a huge kick in the balls.
Another kick in the balls was not having the budget to fully utilise modern technology like video calls or FaceTime. My girls were young enough that talking on the phone to a disembodied voice during the week was uncomfortable for them. Video calls were easier since they could see and interact with me. Not having sufficient data plan, or easy access to WiFi networks added another challenge to simply communicate with my kids.
I’m not ashamed to admit to the whole world that I end up bawling my eyes out, just about every time I drop my girls off at their Mum’s place.
It is an absolutely shitful and devastating experience to drive home with an empty truck after having so much animated monkey chatter for a few days.
The main reason I’ve really kept going when all I’ve wanted to do is lie down and die – has been my girls.
But indomitable spirit, sheer bloody mindedness, stubbornness and endurance has persevered.
I like to joke that I’m so thick that I don’t know how to give up.
I’m not going to lie though, there were some long, dark periods back there.
There were many serious moments where I honestly couldn’t tell you how much more I could take before complete and utter breakdown.
In early 2020, the Dark Gods smiled on me when I started a new job returning to the coal mining industry as Sales Lead for a specialist mining services company.
For the first time in years, I enjoyed waking up to go to work again. My prospects were looking so good, that I would have been able to achieve my goals for my own tiny house concept with space to accommodate my girls within two years.
Alas, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that new job opportunity evaporated after a couple of months.
Mid-2020, I commenced a new job, a return to manufacturing as a Quality Assurance Supervisor. Unfortunately, that role only lasted a week for some inexplicable reason – I suspect I dodged a bullet from an extremely toxic workplace.
All up, I spent twelve months unemployed, thanks to COVID-19 – staring down the barrel of long term unemployment or a return to hatred and loathing to drag my backside out of bed for work in an entry level role that just bored or frustrated me to tears attending.
I’m was running through depressive cycles. Some days were bad. There will always be bad days when morale is low. But most days are pretty damn good.
Time on Scotty’s Surf Team (here in Australia, it’s something of a joke to refer to being on unemployment benefits as the current Prime Minister’s surf team, after an infamous media report when I was a kid) advanced to early in 2021, where I finally found employment again returning to a Research and Development role in the food industry. I’m now celebrating the first year’s anniversary in this role.
Life is finally starting to look up.
Whilst delayed and extended a great deal, my tiny house concept is back on track.
My kids are in a great place between two homes.
I’ve even managed to find happiness with an amazing, beautiful and totally incredible young lass. A partnership that is actually supportive and working as a team again. She’s actually been a part of the editing team for this article, and suggests that this explanation and description should be expanded further.
I don’t give this outline as a call for sympathy (I can find that in the dictionary somewhere between shit and syphilis, thank you very much), but as an indicator that bad luck can run for years. Even despite our best efforts to maneuver or get around those bad circumstances.
I’ve certainly had it much easier than some. It should be noted though… that we all have our limits. Add in enough stress and despair, and even the mightiest will falter.
Thanks to industries I’ve worked or served in previously, I have a much better idea of how I react under long term stress.
So, what it is in my mental health toolbox?
Some basic classifications with further explanation are outlined below.
Sunlight and simple easy exercise for brain chemistry.
You don’t need fancy kit or exotic locations to start training, start with the basics:
Walking and weight lifting.
Then build up so you can do more. Self improvement is always a reward in and of itself.
Most of us who have military experience have a basic template to start with.
There’s lots of good programs to start available online if you’re a complete tyro.
For me, I have a routine of upper and lower body workouts, some light running (old knee injuries prevent long range running), pack walking (because I like the meditative zen state of being under pack harness) and stretching.
I need some more yoga in my life though.
2. MINDSET – Dr Feelgood (Ying)
Perhaps because of my Asian background, I have a very Zen influenced approach to life. Where there is Ying, there must be Yang. One must have balance in life.
I make a conscious effort to have a positive mindset every day. The more you do it, the better life gets. You can eventually make a positive change to your brain chemistry – providing it’s not too far gone.
A positive, cheerful mindset influences everyone around you as well. Sometimes, that positive outlook can inspire others. Sometimes it just annoys others that I can be so happy. I’m ok with either option…
This isn’t to say that I ignore the bad things or disregard how I’m feeling – I make sure to give myself time to go and grieve through those needed moments.
I have certain, essential quotes that remind me of how fortunate I am, to be mindful and grateful for this world.
- It could be worse.
- Be grateful for what you have.
- Tomorrow is a new day.
- If you’re not laughing – you’re crying. So you may as well laugh.
- Stop and smell the flowers.
- Remember to be kind to yourself.
3. MINDSET – The Angry Grunt (Yang)
Where there is Ying, there must Yang. Life must have balance.
So where most of my mindset tools are calming and inspiring for motivation, sometimes I need to vent anger and frustration.
Obviously, this venting of anger and frustration needs to happen in a controlled manner, in controlled environments.
This phase also has some essential mindset quotes, but they’re not quite as nice as the Ying phase:
- Get some c#nt about ya (generally directed at myself).
- Feel free to f#ck off c#nt (generally directed at others).
Sometimes, that old line from the service was entirely appropriate:
- Mag on, pack on, march on. March or die.
- Keep moving Forward!
It’s this phase that can be used to push myself forward when times get tough and morale flags.
There’s nothing wrong with unleashing that angry part of your personality providing it’s in a useful, disciplined fashion. However, there is no point to blindly striking out at innocents around you.
4. RELATIONSHIPS, External/Others – The Tribe (Ying)
I’m a very social animal. So I make sure to spend serious time with my mates, family and other support network.
A problem shared is a problem reduced. Plus, it’s nice to just hang out and forget about things for a little while.
There is also significant benefit to not concentrating on yourself all the time and focus on others.
The wonders of the interwebs has been a life saver – literally saving my sanity. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a great many of my tribe, from the military, old work colleagues and online communities (such as Lightfighter, Fire Support Base, The Australian Military Community and the Primary & Secondary Network) to talk to at any time of the day and night.
I also spend a bit of time as a scout leader nowadays, passing on what I’ve learnt to young, rambunctious striplings.
Helping an old platoon mate move house was also a good course of action. Although volunteering to move his 200 kilogram rifle safe with only improvised tools and equipment by myself, perhaps wasn’t one of my best ideas.
5. RELATIONSHIPS, Internal/Self – Alone time (Yang)
On the flip side of that coin, are the moments I need by myself. I need solitude to gain some deep thinking time, to conduct internal analysis and meditation.
Make sure you get the time you need for such things.
Sometimes, it helps me to get out scrub by myself and just scream or howl at the moon. Since I’ve been doing a bit of solo walking in the national park overlooking my place, it’s been bloody good to do that.
Although sometimes, I wonder what anyone in the AO thinks if they hear me…
That brings me to another point:
Don’t be afraid to unpack and closely examine those icky things we boys hate – emotions, I think they’re called.
When life goes to shit, have a cry. Sometimes it helps.
6. ACTIVITIES AND HOBBIES
I make sure to have a collection of hobbies and activities that keep my mind and body occupied and that I can lose myself in.
These also have a range of budgets and scopes such that if my budget or employment status doesn’t allow for them, I still have a repertoire of stuff that will distract me.
A. Music, singing and dancing:
I can barely carry a tune in a sack, and the only reason I have any semblance of tone and rhythm is due to the practical skill of delivering drill commands many moons ago.
I also dance through my house whenever I get a chance. Just dance. Dance like no-one’s watching.
Sometimes, the neighbours have been caught watching me sound like I’ve butchered a baby seal and dancing like Peter Garret (lead singer of Midnight Oil and former Federal Member of Parliament) on acid…
I’ve also been teaching my girls some basic ballroom dancing.
It’s a soothing routine for me to pack all my gear, and work on my zen meditative breathing whilst concentrating on being accurate and repeatable.
Long range solo walking for me is a combination activity. It’s just me, that damned pack strapped to me and that next f#cking hill. I can get all my feelings of self loathing, and anger out of my soul.
There are entire worlds to be found within a good book.
Whether it a good military history, science fiction, professional or self help.
For me, there’s nothing like sitting down with a good drink (alcoholic or a hot brew) and enjoying a good read.
A related activity is scouring used bookshops, hunting for additions to my collection.
E. Tabletop Wargaming:
I like geeking out to science fiction wargaming.
Since most of my mates are history geeks as well, the slagging and historical references can get rather high end.
F. Packs and Beyond:
Another outlet has been the networking and work for this website.
Talking to like-minded mates, busy work to keep my mind and hands occupied via writing of trip reports and equipment reviews.
On the professional front, Packs and Beyond also allowed me to keep my hand in a few different pies. Since my professional life was so lackluster being stuck in entry-level roles, P&B allowed me to keep practicing a lot of my high end skill sets:
- business coaching
- product development
- training of small teams
Such things like business coaching for a mate who expanded his business from a one-man-band to contract bulk manufacturing of his product line.
7. SEE A PROFESSIONAL
Seriously, go and see a mental health professional.
They can provide an impartial, trained opinion on everything you’re experiencing. Or even just a sympathetic ear.
They can even provide some quality coping tools to aid in moving forward.
They are also capable of providing medical assistance if your brain chemistry is a little bit too far off. It all helps.
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.
I’ve started using the Employee Assistance Program offered by my employer. I’m still looking for a good counselling service for continuing sessions that understands my mindset at the moment.
We’ve all lost too many mates and loved ones to depression and suicide.
Check on your mates. That RU OK campaign is alright, but oftentimes it’s only the superficial start of a conversation that’s truly needed.
I implore any of you suffering these maladies, or life experiences to do something – anything.
Sometimes, it may not be appropriate to share with just anyone and everyone. Given how badly mental health issues are received and handled by many industries even in this modern age – discretion is often the best option.
But… remember that a problem shared is a problem reduced and often solved.
Find a way that suits you to get the problem sorted – without going down the path of self-destructive behaviour that will add further complications.
So that old line about losing oneself in hookers and blow may not be the best course of action – although it can be fun for extremely short durations.
You need that self awareness to reach out for assistance. The tribe will move mountains for you, but they need to know what’s going on.
And you need to be entirely honest with them and yourself.
We have lost way too many of our tribe.
We’ve had way too much negative impact from this.
We need to get ourselves sorted, and give our mates a hand.
Just remember the first rule of self care as a casualty:
You need to sort yourself out for further treatment up the chain.
You need to start the self-care protocols that prevent you from becoming a casualty.
Because you’re not much use to your family, mates and loved ones as a casualty.
Get onto it team.
Posted in Blog, Civilian by 22F with 2 comments.
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