When a mental breakdown blindsides you

In December 2016 I was crying on a park bench in Brisbane botanical gardens. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the physical trigger that my body was using to show me I was having a mental breakdown.

At the time I felt I was just angry with life, I was bitter at my family, annoyed at my co-workers and despised general society. Through the tears, I shakily picked up my phone and called a friend who had been with me on the paratrooper selection course, deployed to Afghanistan with me years earlier and moved across to Australia 18 months before I did. When he answered the phone and heard my mess of a voice, he quickly and calmly said to me ‘I knew this was coming, where are you, I’m coming to get you’.

That moment marked the start of a journey that would take over 2 years to break apart and rebuild my mental health and well-being. For anyone who has experienced a similar situation, the journey may have been shorter, longer, or still be going.

Personally, I do not know if the reflection and rebuilding will ever be over. What I do know is that I will never be the William I was beforehand, nor should I expect to be. It marked a point in my life where things had reached breaking point, and something needed to change.

In rebuilding my mental health, I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the contributing factors and also what I needed to do to build a foundation that would help me improve moving forward. Four years on, with Remembrance Day marking a particularly poignant part of my life and signifying the end of the Great War that caused the mental destruction of millions, I felt it worthwhile to skip a week of leadership insights and instead provide some mental health ones.

In the run up to that December day, there had been multiple events occurring in the background. Each one was relatively significant, but none necessarily stood out as ‘the one’ that would cause the break. My uncle had recently passed from cancer, my sister was suffering from post-natal psychosis on the other side of the world, Remembrance Day had been a few weeks earlier and hit my hard that year, my marriage was in a complicated and stressful period, my work was easy yet depressingly mundane leaving me feeling like I was wasting my working life, and I was not training following a torn MCL causing a build-up of energy and rage.

The signs, on reflection, were in plain sight - hence my friends’ swift response - yet I was blindsided by them. I was a former British Army Major, trained paratrooper with combat experience leading high preforming teams in Afghanistan, had successfully transitioned to leading teams within the corporate space, yet now I was crying on a park bench.

In rebuilding my mental well-being, I identified three resilience principles that have provided me with useful reflection points:

  • Emotional intelligence - what was noticeably clear as part of my recovery, was how little I knew myself in the run up to that day. I had forgotten what made me happy, sad, angry or relax. As part of the recovery and to this day, I undertake daily reflections on what went well, what didn’t and what I have learned from each experience to ensure I could respond more effectively in future.

  • Self-care - as part of the EI reflection, I realised I needed to ensure I made time for me. This meant making the most of time with my son when I was home, and gradually led to my increased role in the local rugby club. This season just passed I would three training sessions a week to ensure all boys could make at least two, plus coached games on Sundays. Morning dog walks (with a weighted vest) are now a stable part of my diet, and alcohol is cut back to weekends only.

  • Relationships - and by this, I mean genuine ones. I purged Facebook of all ‘acquaintances’ and started calling genuine friends to arrange catch ups whenever feasible. I have also cut out people who only ever want to engage on their terms and will politely (in a very English way) tell people to bugger off if I find them either wasting my time or draining my soul. I would thoroughly recommend a good clean out of your social media if you get the chance. It is most invigorating. Meaningful, genuine relationships through a network of family, friends, colleagues, and other social groups help us feel connected and valued.

As we continue to weather a global pandemic, juggle isolation and physical disconnection from friends and family, risk redundancy, face financial hardship and have no certainty of when everything will end, I encourage you all to reflect on your own mental wellbeing. There is no shame in asking for help or reaching out to those who are closest and talking – about anything. You would be amazed to see how good it can feel to just talk. I have been the listening ear to multiple soldiers and friends who have faced mental traumas, and I have been the voice asking for help. It could be the step that stops you from being blindsided.

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