We all have crap days. For people with mental illness however, we can do everything in our power to manage the symptoms of our illness, but something can trigger an anxious response in us and crap takes on a whole new meaning. I’ve spent the last two days attending a Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) course in Townsville and was unexpectedly thrown into a tailspin.
I discuss mental illness and suicide almost every day of my life within the context of social media, advocacy and work. I have undertaken ATSI Mental Health First Aid training and have delivered One Day Suicide Intervention Courses on numerous occasions. I do so competently and confidently, so had no reason to believe I would not approach YMHFA with the same level of capability. However, the nature of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is it can catch you completely off guard and you're left cleaning up a splattered-egg-like mess. Let me explain:
I arrived at the YMHFA course on Tuesday morning five minutes late because I’d been doing an interview for Better Access. I NEVER arrive ANYWHERE late! It’s a coping strategy for living with PTSD. I always ensure to arrive early so I can choose a seat in a room where I feel “safe” – this is different in each setting but “safe” to me is about having the freedom to move, to easily “escape” if needed. Arriving late meant I had to take the last seat available which was in a tight corner with “nowhere to go”. I instantly felt trapped and my anxiety levels, already heightened from putting my face on TV as someone living with mental illness, started to rise.
The room was small and with eighteen participants divided into six groups with six tables and eighteen chairs, even to get a cup of coffee or go to the toilet was like negotiating an obstacle course. One of the presenters and I crashed into each other as I was trying to find a path through the maze to get a cuppa. Further adding to my discomfort, the chairs and tables were made from steel, providing a cold, prison-like setting. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get comfortable either physically or psychologically.
But worse was yet to come from the perspective of PTSD Ali. You see, the reason I have PTSD is because of the violent, abusive upbringing I had. As mental illness was ‘unpacked’ within the context of a teen’s life during the course, I could not disassociate it from my own childhood and teen experiences. Each discussion, each PowerPoint slide brought flashbacks; and with it the emotional and psychological distress that accompanies traumatic events and memories. Usually, I can practise 'mindfulness techniques' which enable me to let the memory pass without settling but I was already in a state of hyper-vigilance due to my physical discomfort so I wasn’t able to deflect the memories. Slide after slide after slide and by lunchtime, my anxiety levels had reached the point where I was feeling dizziness, nausea, trembling and tingling.
Ordinarily, I would have taken myself out of the setting to avoid further distress, but I was there for work and had a meeting scheduled following the training, so I didn’t think of leaving as an option. I gave myself a “pep talk” at lunchtime and went in for round three. I managed to make it right through to the end of the day, but only just. We were set a homework task to bring a photo of ourselves as teens to share with the group. At the mere mention of this, my anxiety levels went through the roof again. By the time I arrived home, I was utterly exhausted.
Thankfully, I had a good night’s sleep, however woke in the morning feeling like I’d walked to Perth and back. I determined to be better organised this time, so left with plenty of time to arrive early and get a “better-positioned” seat. I also planned to go for a walk outside during each break to help alleviate my agitation.
Upon arrival at the venue, I went to the cafe next door first to grab a coffee and this turned out to be a huge mistake on my part. By the time I walked inside the venue, I was the LAST PERSON AGAIN! Not only that, the groups had all been changed which caught me off guard and bugger me, if I hadn’t been left with the same seat and position from the day before and now with different group members.
Day Two began with people sharing their teen photos and stories. I’d conveniently forgotten to bring a photo and explained to the group that even if I’d remembered, I would have found the process of going through photos for this purpose very distressing. I explained that I was a “happy-go-lucky” teen, well-behaved and hardworking, who no one ever suspected of having a problem – in reality I was hiding a world of pain.
A morning of discussing anxiety disorders and eating disorders, and by lunchtime I was absolutely done for. PTSD was screaming at me “DANGER! DANGER! GET OUT! GET OUT! GET THE F*CK OUT ALISON!” I had to explain to one of the presenters that the course was triggering too much in me, my anxiety levels were off the scale and I simply couldn’t cope with another session. With much relief, I gathered my things and left. Sitting in my car, I finally felt safe again and the tears began to flow. I cried all the way home.
I wondered whether it was a good thing or not to admit all this in a blog post, but then decided YES! It can never be a bad thing to let the wider community know what it is really like for people with mental illness. You see, most of the time I’m very strong – just like an egg squeezed from both ends cannot be broken. But, as evidenced from the past two days, I am also fragile and must handle myself with care or else … well ... this:
Recommended Reading: How Abuse Changes a Child's Brain