Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mental Health 102 - My experiences

There have been for me, three real difficult and traumatic events I've had to deal with that have caused periods of depression in what (for the first two) I'm told was post-traumatic stress.

Childhood Abuse …

As a pre-adolescent 10 year old, I was subject to a series of events, which I found incredibly distressing.  At the time, I couldn't come forward and talk about them, because I was so ashamed of what had been done to me, and felt guilty by association.  Later off I thought of them as possibly a form of ritual humiliation to “put me into my place” and I was just being an overly sensitive cry baby.

But I never really “got over it”.  I hated what had happened to me, how powerless and frightened I felt, even when I was no longer that dis-empowered 10 year old boy, I still felt like that inside.  I felt silly, but at 30 I ended up getting worse and worse flashbacks to event, that I ended up going to see a counsellor about it.  That’s where they gave it a name – “sexual abuse” – something I was uncomfortable with.  Something that I felt until then couldn't describe what happened to me, because things like that only happened to women.

I like many were touched by Justine’s account of a recent event of sexual abuse that had happened to her at a technical conference.  I felt such a strong flood of empathy there, and respect for the courage she took just in voicing what had happened.  I’d spent 20 years finding the courage to talk about what had happened, and even here, I can’t bring myself to discuss it in detail.  This of course is unusual for me, but indicates just how completely out of my comfort zone I am discussing it.

Many people say “she should have done X or Y”, but I got it.  The whole paralysis that happened to me, the fear of people knowing what they did to you, the shame associated with it because you feel you've let it happen to you – a shame which of course is totally unfair and unfounded.  And yet as unfair as it is you feel it.  You don’t need other people telling you “oh why didn't you handle it differently”, because in my case I’d spend 20 years asking myself just that.

What happened to me almost feels out of the pages of the Abu Ghraib prison.  Only I was a junior Scout, and it was inflicted by older Scouts, and perpetrated by Girl Guides for added humiliation.  It was done to bully me and keep me in line, with the follow up threat of what would happened if I told anyone.

I still feel physically sick when I see Girl Guides/Scouts.  A man my age with a phobia about Girl Guides should be hilarious shouldn't it?

To be honest, being able to see some humour I'm told (through therapy) is an important factor in my mental health.  My sense of humour, although off the scale weird (and gets me into trouble), is part of how I cope with a lot of things.  Humour allows us to escape and laugh at times when really all we want to do is wail.  To be frank - the sexual abuse isn't comic though, but the phobia it’s set up, I can see the funny side to that.

The problem with sexual abuse is it’s a crime unlike any other.  When I had my car stolen in 2010, within hours everyone knew about it.  It took me 20 years to talk about this – and then only in private.  It’s a crime where the victim feels tarnished and responsible – and a lot of therapy around it goes to the heart of that.  And it doesn't just happen to women – as this very powerful piece showed me …

Witnessing someone getting killed

This was probably a much harder event for me to deal with – which ironically meant I got help that much quicker.  Although again, not soon enough.

This is the problem with many traumatic events – they smoulder away in your mind and cause long term harm to us emotionally.

The day after I finished exams for my first degree, I travelled over to my brothers to (so the plan went) have a massive bro’s weekend of drink and dumb stuff.  He met me at the train station, and in the evening, walked back to his place.

As we went by a pub there was a large fight going on.  A gang had punched a man to the floor.  We were stunned, and too far away to do anything but witness.  On orders from one of the gang, someone in a car revved the engine, driving the car over the prone man, snapping his head back in one of those horrific moments that plays in your mind repeatedly for the rest of your mind.

It felt for a moment that everything went silent – then all hell broke loose.  People were yelling, screaming, crying.  We just ran – we felt terrified, vulnerable, confused – and we just wanted to run to somewhere that felt safe.

I just remember trying to put the kettle on when we got in, but couldn't because I was shaking so much.  We tried to tell one of my brothers flat mates what had happened.  But though the guy was really very calm and sensitive, we just started to cry.  It was so senseless.

In the end – we just found ourselves calling up our parents because we just didn't know what to do.  They were 40 miles away, but came to fetch us.  We were just a gibbering mess.  We were no use to the Police – we’d only seen a fraction of what was going on, we could describe the victim but no-one else.

For myself it was a difficult thing to “get over”.  For years I wondered if I could have stopped it.  I hated the feeling of being complicit by just being a spectator.  I hated that my instinct was to run.  I hated that I just cried and cried.

It took me years, and indeed counselling to accept those things.  I had frequent flashbacks, which actually got stronger as the years got on.  Initially I wanted to just move away from cities and those kinds of problems.  Ironically I looked to moving to Germany to just get away, and that would lead me to meet Beate Zschaepe, who is currently undergoing trial for her involvement in a string of racially motivated murders.  The fact that I was so scarred by seeing someone killed, but later was attracted to someone who was involved in murder, is almost a trauma point in itself

In a really tragic footnote whilst writing this article, I heard that Ian Fisher, my brother's flatmate who had been such an eye of calm on that terrible night, had been killed in a suicide bombing this month whilst he served in the British Army in Afghanistan.

Trying for a baby

My wife and I have a son – he was a happy accident.  One day, we were carried away, and forgot our birth control.  It was no big issue though – we both wanted children, the timing wasn't superb, but we were happy to go with it.

Two years later we decided to put away the birth control again, because we were ready to have another child.  After all, if we’d conceived from forgetting contraception just once, how hard was it going to be?

A year later - twelve months of failure - we were wondering what was going wrong.  Every month was the same cycle of trying, hoping, and then disappointment.  Friends kept telling us to just keep trying and something would happen.

In the end we went to the doctor about it, and both had to be referred to specialists with long waiting lists.  This meant scans for my wife, and me making emergency dashes of sperm samples to far off pathology labs (between set hours they were open for business, as the samples died off quickly outside of the body).

It turned out of be a little bit of both of us.  I was suffering from immobile sperm, and my wife from irregular ovulation.  She was put on fertility drugs to increase the number of eggs she’d ovulate each month, and I was put on a strong course of steroids which I was told would reduce my immune system, as my antibodies were attacking my own sperm, killing them.

The steroids did do their magic making my sperm function much better from pathology tests.  But there were side effects – the drugs (and possibly situation, it’s impossible to tell one from another) made me incredibly irritable and emotional, as well as causing large weight gain.  It was equally emotional in its own way for my wife.  Then add to this that the act of intercourse went from being one of emotional engagement between us, to one of obligation.  Yes, trying for a baby was killing our sex life.

After just under a year, we had to come off our drugs regimes.  It had been soul destroying.  The only option open from here was costly IVF, which we had to be blunt and admit we didn't have the money for.

I would like to say that I’d found work supportive, but over that one year I'd had 10 changes in team lead.  Originally I laid my cards on the table about what was going on, but it became increasingly humiliating.

For the first time in my life, I consulted with my doctor and admitted I was in a huge emotional low.  I went onto some anti-depressives, which helped me cope a lot, but alas had a side effect of even more weight gain.

People ask me what being on anti-depressives is like.  Some people wonder if it “robs you of your soul”.  Before taking them, I was in a very irate and wound up state, partly from my situation, the steroids effect and the lack of support from work (except for some close friends).

Most types of anti-depressives take a while to work – typically up to a month to build up in your system.  And I was lucky in only needed on a relatively low dose.  I remember a conversation with my doctor asking how I felt and my reply was “well things still go wrong in life, and they can hurt, but I don’t feel like I fall to pieces anymore when it happens, like I can cope and weather them”.

Again, long term counselling helped reduce my dependence on the anti-depressives, which I was on for about 18 months before slowly cutting them out.

In each of these trials, counselling helped me to move on … I will be talking about that in my next piece.


  1. Thank you for sharing such traumatic events and how they made you feel and affected many aspects of your life. It reminds me not to judge people, we never know what someone else has been through, or whether they were able to get help. I suppose every generation of humans has had its problems to deal with, but I wonder sometimes if we are wired to be able to cope with everything modern life throws at us. Apparently so, but only with a lot of personal effort and help from others.

  2. Wow dude, just wow.

    Like Lisa said, thank you for sharing such personal information about yourself. A great deal of courage was summoned I have no doubt... good for you.

  3. Mike - I think it is courageous for you to be so open - I believe this will help other people. Yes, you have been through so much - but you are successful in so many ways. A beautiful family, a successful career, and well-respected around the world. What hope that will give others who are struggling.

  4. You’re such an inspiration! Sharing your experiences is not an easy step to do. But it only shows that you recovered well from all the bad experiences you’d been through. Counselling is really a huge help for your fast recovery. And I hope it will continue to be that way.

    Vesta @ Zalkin.com

  5. It's really good to read your blog because your honesty is very touching & demonstrates how such difficult life experiences can be so traumatizing & you explain so clearly how hard it is coming to terms with PTSD, especially fro early childhood trauma which as you show can take many years to come to terms with & to even talk about. Therapy is very helpful I think, thanks for writing about your experiences so vividly, they are very interesting to read despite the sensitive nature of the topics.

  6. That's a very brave post Mike, thank you. You're setting a great example and the next person will find it less difficult to tell their story as a result of your courage and generosity. I'm telling you this as a fact :)

  7. Thanks Mike for sharing your experiences. It's very brave of you.