Man up!

How many times have you heard this in your life?

“Man up, boy!”

“Be a man!”

“Men don’t cry.”

On and on. I always felt I lived up to those expectations. Played the “manly” sports. Chose a macho career as a Firefighter. Had lots of fights. Stood my ground. Didn’t let anyone intimidate me. Took on the protector role at a very young age as I had to look after my mother, and look after myself at times. Can’t crack me, I thought.

Well, guess what? I’m here to tell you — I cracked. Of course I denied it for a time. Pushed through like I felt I needed to. Tried to hide it. Why? Why hide it? Was it ego? Somewhat. Can’t let anyone know I was damaged. It was more than that though.

My family relies on me to be there for them. I am expected to look out for them. To be there when they need things. I had to be the funny guy, the guy to play with. I can’t be in need of help, what if they need me?

At work I was expected to be Iron Man. I’m expected to lead my crew at chaotic scenes. I can’t have them doubting my toughness, can I?

Well, that’s all bullshit. Why do I say that? If I’m broken, I can’t help anyone. If I hadn’t admitted I had a problem, and reached out for help, I would have continued to spiral down and become the burden I was afraid I would become. I had to depend on my family and friends. I needed to get well. Not just for my sake, but for theirs as well. It was selfish of me to even hesitate.

I’m going to share a bit about what happened and what steps I took. I know many of you reading this are struggling as well. All for different reasons. All in different situations. I can only share my own experiences. What I went through and what I think helped. Am I cured? HA! No, but I am on a good path. Day to day. More good days than bad, which was my goal. I believe healing is a lifelong process. So here goes.

First, a disclaimer. I was never officially diagnosed with PTSD. I was treated for presumed PTSD/Anxiety and depression. I didn’t care what it was called. I just wanted to be better. When did it start? Good question. I was born in 1966, so….I’m kidding! I thought it started in the fall of 2019; however, now that I have taken the time to look back, I’m quite certain it started earlier. Perhaps much earlier. Because of the issues I dealt with as a pre-teen and teenage, I always thought I had toughened up so much that nothing would hurt me. Wrong. Trauma is trauma and our cups can only hold so much unless we find a way to drain it. I wasn’t new to the issue of mental health. My mother was diagnosed bi-polar, and other family members suffered from it as well. I watched my mother change from the woman I knew to a complete stranger and then magically she would come back, until next time. I was sure I understood what it was like to live with a mental illness. I was wrong.

During the summer of 2019, I started to feel anxiety. I was getting heart palpitations a lot. My mind was always on overdrive. I had a few projects related to the band I’m in (part time rock star), so I assumed that was it and it would settle on its own. I lost a very close friend that summer as well. There were some other incidents that also brought me down a bit. I started to realize I was experiencing mild depression. I pushed through it as best I could and things seemed to get back to normal. I was still getting palpitations at times but I chalked it up to nerves.

I did have a conversation with my wife, Tracy, at this time. She asked if I was experiencing depression, and for the first time I admitted that I thought so. That was a bit of a relief. No more secrets. In early December they were getting more frequent. They were strong as well. Like a poke in the chest. They could take my breath away. I started to even have some chest pain, so Tracy took me to the ER. They ran multiple blood tests; I had an echocardiogram; and they checked for blood clots. Couldn’t find anything wrong so off I went home. I did feel a bit better knowing my heart was good. Anyone who has experienced anxiety or panic attacks knows it can feel like a heart attack. Having that worry removed helped ease my mind. Within days I felt pretty good again. The palpitations continued but I tried to ignore them.

I continued to feel good until January 15th. I won’t get into all the details but I had to have my youngest son drive me to the ER again. This time was different. I literally felt like my body was shutting down. I had no chest pain this time, but the palpitations were constant. I couldn’t breathe; I was extremely tired; and I just wanted to sleep. In my mind, I was dying. That’s honestly how bad it felt. I could barely speak to the triage nurse. When they hooked me up to the ECG, the tech said they don’t usually find palpitations on the ECG. Not only did mine show, but there was a run of them. I had cardiac blood work done, twice. I had 2 more ECGs. The Dr. was positive there wasn’t anything physically wrong with me but he would refer me to a cardiologist just in case. Back home I went.

This time I didn’t bounce back like before. I started to notice that every time I left the house my heart would start to dance. Even taking the dog for a walk felt like I was climbing a mountain. I experienced nausea. I had stomach bloating so now I thought I had an intestinal issue. Night sweats were common. Sleep wasn’t. I was sure it was an anxiety problem but I had so many physical symptoms that I was convinced they had missed something. Anytime I tried to do anything I felt like crap so I just sat on the couch wrapped up in my hoodie. I knew I needed help. I reached out to a friend who is a counselor and told her I needed help.

I forget when my first visit was, but it was such a relief to speak to someone. I engaged in talk therapy and EMDR therapy. EMDR is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Sounds scary doesn’t it? It’s not. I researched it beforehand. It is widely used, with very high success rates. The US military uses it on the majority of their soldiers. I won’t go into detail about what it involves, but I can say it works. It was explained to me that my mind and body had developed a complete fight or flight response to almost all daily activities. Going for a walk? Danger! Bang, adrenaline dump. Going to my band practice? Not safe. Adrenaline dump.

Picture the rush you get when you almost hit a deer. Now picture that feeling happening over and over again. Sometimes for hours. That’s what was going on. Of course I wasn’t in danger walking the dog but my mind was on constant alert. I could calm myself a bit to try and ease it. I discovered that if I altered my stride while walking (I would exaggerate my arm movements and such) it helped. When I told my counselor, she said that was actually a recognized technique to help with anxiety. Who knew? I got in to see the cardiologist. He ran more tests including a stress test. “Your heart is great”, he said, and gave me medication to help with the palpitations. That was a bit of a relief.

I was making decent progress and then…COVID! I wasn’t so much freaked out over the beginning of the pandemic, but my sessions had to be cancelled. I had also made some progress in getting back out in public, and now I was told to lock down. Stay home. Part of me loved that, as I had become comfortable just staying home, but it wasn’t healthy for me. I was off work, so I didn’t even have that. My oldest son began to work from home, so he wanted to walk the dog on his lunch. Great. Now I don’t ever have to go out.

I started to spiral back down. It’s hard to describe, but I had a “dark” feeling in my chest. Wasn’t eating much. Wasn’t talking much. I lost 17 pounds. I decided I wanted to go back to work. Tracy thought I was nuts (wife knows best). I was cleared for work but had to wait for some paperwork to go through. A few days later my anxiety went through the roof. I was trembling. Nauseous. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think straight. I had to call work back and explain I wasn’t ready.

I will say that I was never pressured to get back to work. “Take your time and get well” is what I was told. It was then that I made the decision to call my doctor to discuss medication. He agreed that we should try it. I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, or Happy Pills as I call them. I wasn’t happy that I was in need of medication, but relieved that I had something to try. When I picked up my pills, the pharmacist warned me, twice, that the most common side effect was temporary increased anxiety. Oh, well how much worse can it be, right? Anyone who is taking or has taken these meds can probably tell you the same thing. The answer is much worse.

I took my first dose that afternoon. I woke up around 5:00 am in a total sweat and vibrating. Not shaking, vibrating. I crawled out of bed and took an Ativan. Then I took another. Nothing changed. I felt like I was going to have a seizure. Another Ativan. Threw up a few times. More Ativan. By 1:00 pm, I had taken five and finally began to settle down a bit. I spoke to people online who were on or who had tried the meds. Some said the effects lasted a few days, some said a few weeks. Some had to stop taking the pills altogether. I was determined to see it through. Fortunately for me, the second day wasn’t as bad. I still felt like complete shit but better than day 1. Each day was a slight improvement. I was back to counseling as well. I had a fantastic support network. My family; friends from work; a few complete strangers on social media. Talking helped. I know not everyone has a support network, and it’s not easy to admit you need it, but trust me — accept offers of help. Please.

One of the first things I noticed that led me to believe I was healing was when my senses became stronger. Sounds strange doesn’t it? I was noticing colors more. Grass greener, sky bluer, birds more vibrant. Smells were stronger. Good ones and bad ones. I have hearing damage but sounds that I could hear were clearer. It was weird to say the least. I was told it meant I was “living in the moment”. People who dwell on the past or worry about the future tend to see things in grays, or black and white. Dulled senses. I went for a walk with the dog one day. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. The warmth of the sun. The colors of the sky, sounds of birds, it was all so clear. I had not one palpitation on the walk. I felt so good that I actually began to cry. Yep, I did. A grown macho man and I cried. I hadn’t felt this good in so long, that I forgot what feeling good felt like. It also was the moment I realized I must have been suffering longer than I thought, as I couldn’t remember feeling this good. I was eating again. Got myself back in the gym. Put some of the lost weight back on.

I was off work from January 12th to June 5th. It felt like forever. However, I feel very lucky, as some people suffer for years. I can’t imagine. I really can’t. I have a new understanding and appreciation of how awful it must be and why some make drastic choices. Those who are suffering need help and understanding. They need support. They do not need ridicule and “man up” comments. If someone broke their femur, you wouldn’t tell them to walk it off. It’s an illness. An injury. No different than being diabetic or having a broken bone. Stop whispering. Don’t talk behind people’s backs. Have I been guilty of it as well? Yes. We do not know what people are dealing with, and we need to stop acting like we do. It doesn’t make you soft or weak.

Am I “cured”? No. I still find that even minor issues can push my anxiety up. I can’t “handle “things as well as I once did. For the most part, I feel great. What I learned is that sometimes you just have to listen to your body. If it’s asking for a break, take it. Don’t get me wrong, there are days where I don’t feel up to it, but getting off my butt and doing things actually helps. There are days where I just know this is a day to shut it down. I know not everyone has that luxury. Do I expect to deal with this for the rest of my life? Possibly. I don’t know for sure. I do know that I will continue to work and fight it. I will continue to talk about it and not be afraid. I won’t let it control me. I will help and talk to anyone who needs it. Sometimes that’s all you need. Someone to listen and understand. Do not be embarrassed. No matter who you are, no matter what you do. I’m willing to bet more people struggle than those that don’t. I will be forever grateful to everyone who helped. From my family, to my co-workers, to the healthcare professionals. The counseling I received from Nancy Cusack, from Cusack Counselling, was a game changer.

Onward and upward.

It’s a beautiful day.

I may add a Part 2 to this topic as it relates to my job in Emergency Services. We will see.

Take care of yourselves.