Posts Tagged ‘internationalmensday’

For International Men’s Day (November 19th), I am interviewing a few other men I know who, similarly, have mental health issues. I’m trying to get a perspective on male-oriented mental health needs in our society today. I have edited this interviewees comments a little for clarity, readability and grammar.

Q1: Please tell us a little about yourself. How old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

I’m 48 years old, from Wollongong, NSW Australia. This is a moderately large city just south of much larger Sydney. It was a steel town but since that became less profitable in recent decades it’s basically a university town these days, with some tourism thrown in.

I’m on the dsp (disability support pension), and have been for going-on ten years. As such I’m extremely fortunate, but one of a dying breed- the govt seems intent on phasing it out for mental illnesses. It has its downsides too. I’m basically institutionalised at this point.

I’m bipolar and have had a whole swathe of former life phases.

I’ve been a Green Peace canvasser, a kitchen hand, apprentice chef, bindery hand, printer, musician, serious drug addict (lucky to be alive, many friends didn’t make it and an) art student. I’ve started, done well with for a time, and eventually abandoned degrees in English, Creative Writing, History, Ancient History, Archaeology. I’ve done aged care work, online research and I used to busk a lot, but no longer.

I have two sons (one 10 one 17), but have been separated from my partner for almost 8 years. Somehow we’re friends still, and I’ve seen her and my boys almost every day in that time. That took serious insight and effort, but I’m also extremely fortunate, because she is extraordinary and never deleted me

Q2: What mental health problems do you suffer from, and how long have you been diagnosed for? Do you attribute them to any particular cause?

These days I have much less trouble, personality wise. I no longer have regular panic attacks either, but I’m still cycling through hypomania and major depression, just differently to before.

My mental health issues are complex, layered and interact with each other.

Where to start? Well, my mother has serious depressive and anxiety issues, so there’s a genetic component to it all. Whilst pregnant with me she suffered severe depression and spent 3 or more months of the pregnancy on Mogadon (a benzodiazepine), a drug she had severe reactions to including aural and visual hallucinations (8 years later when pregnant with my younger sister they wanted to put her on it again, by which time she was more forthright and told the doctor what had happened earlier. They tested her and found she was allergic). So I no doubt steeped in her genetic issues and that potent chemical, which I suppose had an impact.

I spent the first days of my life (having nearly died in foetal distress due to a chemically induced labor) in Gladsville psychiatric hospital with my disassociating and suicidal mum, in an open ward. Mum underwent many brutal sessions of ECT and somehow saved me by bribing a nurse to call my father to drive 2 hours to collect me. I spent the next 4 months in the care of my dad’s aunt. I suspect any useful bonding with mum never occurred, and this too had an impact on me.

My earliest memories are of taking care of my, by now, alcoholic mother. Dad was drinking a lot too and never home. She used to praise/coerce care from me, told me I was a good boy who would always look after mummy etc. This, obviously, is an excellent method for brewing personality disorders.

At four I fell from a ten foot viewing platform whilst dad was buying a horse, fracturing my skull, breaking my nose, and I was in a coma for a week. Many years later I saw a psychologist who’d spent her career dealing with brain injury clients. She tested me and found cognitive impairment from this and other head injuries. This explains my odd dyslexic moments and panic when filling out forms etc, as the impairment triggers fight or flight responses with those tasks.

So yeah, brain injury is a factor.

We travelled a lot. I went to seven schools in 4 years, which left me unable to make friends and cripplingly shy. Eventually I did make a friend at a new school. In hindsight he’d been coached to procure other boys his age, but I at 8, had no idea – obviously. So there was the sexual abuse, with a group of men. They drugged me a bunch of times,- a lot of it I thankfully have no clear recollection of. Eventually I abandoned my ‘friend’, saving myself from further abuse of that kind.

Another friend abandoned me at around the same time, which affected me badly. Years later I discovered he’d been abused by the same ring of people.

With any support at all, I may have been able to somewhat put the abuse behind me. I got none though, and worse was to come. At school, someone or other who knew what had happened spread it as a rumour, and the bullying started.

The wors thing that ever happened to me was the institutional abuse that followed.

My female teacher, as it happens a friend of THAT family, made it her project to torment, humiliate and brutalise me for a year. She egged the other children to bully me, beat me with blackboard rulers daily, and utterly demolished me socially. This harmed me so much worse than the sexual abuse. I have no idea how I survived that year.

So by 10 I was really, personality wise, a write off. I won’t mention too much about my teenage years. D&D completely saved me there, though.

Alcohol, cigarettes and pot from 13 or 14. Years later in my early 20s I was a daily amphetamines user, for perhaps 2 years. I used heroin but circumstances saved me there. My friends that fell badly into that world are all dead. I had easier access to speed so I lived, I guess. Numerous psychotic experiences in this phase caused further psychological issues.

Well I’ve gone on a lot. Basically, severe childhood anxiety (first treated at 10). Borderline Personality Disorder developing from that time too. I was diagnosed with that in my late 20s. Bipolar 2, some years later, after many serious bouts of major depression, self harm, hospitalisation, poor outcome with medication. So, heading towards 2 decades with 3 separate serious diagnosis. I’ve had aural abberations and whispered voices etc since the mid 90s- generally at the tail end of long hypomanic phases.

These days I have much less trouble personality wise. I no longer have regular panic attacks either. But I’m still cycling thru hypomania and major depression, just differently to before.

Q3: What, overall, has been your experience with the mental health system in your country? What resources have you accessed?

My experience with the mental health system in Australia has been mixed, to say the least!

I had a wonderful, calm and caring family doctor really early on, who helped me somewhat with my crippling anxiety, night terrors, sleep walking etc. I was maybe 9?

He died.

His replacement, who I recall confiding in when I was maybe 15 (suicidal), as it turned out, was a drinking buddy of my Dad’s. He accused me of malingering and told me to wake up to myself- then told my father the same thing.

He was embarrassed and resented me for it.

During my writing myself off on drugs phase I saw a few counsellors. They told me to stop using drugs!

The first excellent help I got was when I got clean. I went into rehabilitation at a drug crisis centre. The matriarch of the place was a no-bullshit, former junkie who had seen the worst end of things in the Cross. She was brilliant, courageous, tough-loving and bullshit calling. She’s the first person who got through to me with the idea that I’d better save myself, because let’s face it nobody else was going to. That whole phase of intense group therapy helped me a lot.

Of course getting clean didn’t fix my mental health problems. I had a really brilliant golden phase at art school, then hit the wall badly a few times. Intrusive voices, panic attacks, extremely discreet self harm. I saw a bunch of psychologists in this era. They were universally unhelpful. After the twentieth time being complimented on how intelligent, self aware and articulate I was, I got over paying $40-$60 for compliments and stopped bothering for a while.

Tried a bunch of different anti-depressants in this period. They exacerbated things. Somewhere in there I saw my first several psychiatrists and was hospitalised for the first time.

I loathed my psychiatrists. I still have a dim view of them:

“How have things been since last week? Sleeping? Thoughts of self-harm? Any other intrusive thoughts? What about those voices? Well, I’m putting your dosage up. Try that and see me again in a fortnight…”

I had a really excellent psychologist for almost ten years. He was a University crisis counsellor but liked me and never played the “you’re so clever” game. He was extremely observant,reassuring philosophical and insightful. He helped a lot and twisted his limited reach to help me more. One frustration I’ve had at other universities is the counsellors not being allowed to offer an ongoing service beyond one off crisis sessions. He finegled things to arrange for me to drop in weekly for a “that’s not real, but this is…” session. He really helped me in that regard, in terms of timely, friendly, gentle and pointed intervention.

I’ve been on the psych ward three or four times. I absolutely hate being hospitalised. It’s a limbo state, basically, powerful sedatives, sterile environment, nothing to do. It’s been years now but I’m glad I do Everything possible to avoid those places. I’ve avoided being scheduled each time due to my polite, friendly, manner and ability to think on my feet. If there’s one place where my risk of suicide multiplies, it’s locked up in a psych ward.

Q4: Do you agree that the mental health approach needs to be more tailored to both the individual, and to men as a group? If so, in what ways?

Yes to both.

There’s so much more that I could mention. As I’ve pointed out, I spent decades feeling generally frustrated with psychologists’ apparent expectation that everybody was unable to articulate their issues and with psychiatrists’ being interested basically in what dosage and whether to schedule me or not. I found that very few indeed of either had much patience for my reluctance to just submit to a lifetime of powerful medications.

As for the male issue: it was bad and now is worse.

I’ve caught the end of the stiff upper lip, grin and bear it phase, where talking about my dark thoughts was obviously triggering for doctors, and now we’re at another extreme, where I feel generally unable to express myself for fear of being exposed as ‘toxic’.

One issue I’ve found in clinics and community centres is a generally negative attitude towards males. Whenever I’ve mentioned behavioural issues with my teenage son there’s been an expectation that he’s been violent. This was also assumed of me on a number of occasions when assisting my former partner with accessing care herself- once it became apparent we’d had arguments it seemed a given to them that I’d been violent, when in fact my partner had at times been physically abusive towards me.

Water under the bridge now, but galling all the same.

Whenever I’m in those circles I’m very aware of being seen as a potential postal case. That’s totally tied to me being a dude. I understand why they perform the protocols they do, but I often feel like they’re gaslighting me, trying to get me to admit to being somehow a threat.

So now I avoid them like the plague. It’s been 2 years now.

Q5: How do you feel the mental health system in your country currently fails men?

I answered this somewhat in q4.

Well, I guess there is more to be said.

Personally it seems they have a problem with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. On the one hand it sucks to be perceived always as a potential threat. Thing is, I’m polite, I listen, I don’t abuse staff in any way. This, within their binary framework, merely serves to remove me from the “perceived as a threat” category whilst also removing me from the “needing care and intervention” category.

It’s a squeaky wheel issue.

An old comrade with similar issues but a very different personality has created endless wreckage for others, regularly abuses any worker within earshot, misses appointments etc, yet whilst I’m on the edge of eviction in a decaying private flat (howdy homelessness!), he’s on his 4th dept housing flat, 3 of which he abandoned without notice, one of which he left with fire damage.

Is he more mentally ill than me?

Not really. He’s more criminal. He’s also still using drugs.

I guess my point is the system seems tailored towards ‘fixing’ the obvious problems and ignoring anybody with a complex case that can be delayed without immediate repercussions.

Q6: Why do you think it is that men access these services less frequently, despite being the majority of suicides and other negative outcomes?

Good question.

Not for the reasons they used to.

It’s bizarre and topsy turvy. Where once an earlier ideology invited men to be open to seeking help, let their guards down, now the whole social environment actively discourages that. Men are aware they’re seen as a potential threat. Malfunctioning men much more so.

I’ve stopped calling Mensline in recent months, for fear I’ll have the police at the door and end up either scheduled or dead. Australia has a long history of police shootings that started out as poorly prepared mental health interventions.

Q7: What do you think could have helped intervention, or seeking help, earlier in your illness?

A number of things would have helped.

Relating to the abuse, well, socially it was a fail on every level. I feel very confident that, with the same circumstances today my school would have identified the issue and staged some form of intervention. I feel like cultural factors in the late 70s/early 80s made it simple for me to be revictimised.

Obviously my parents really were no help. Not even 15 years later where, having gone through rehab I confided (not accusatively) in them about the abuse. I was chastised for upsetting my mother. It’s never been discussed again.

The key phase of my D&A recovery should have been a great opportunity for professionals to step in, but it didn’t happen that way, beyond the rehab I went to.

In this phase I was hounded by drug squad detectives seeking dirt on my former dealer, threatened, coerced, forced to make a false statement and then to move away when said dealer put out a contract on my life. In that predicament I failed to meet social security requirements and was kicked off the dole.

Homelessness yay!

None of this was a useful response to a troubled, self-destructive young man who was trying to get well, and very visible within the system.

Somewhere in that phase I did a work for the dole program, restoring the old military harbour defences at Port Kembla, clearing out bunkers and tunnels. This was fascinating work and made me feel useful at the time. The private agency that ran the program were crooks who gave us zero resources.

The supervisor, a lovely Christian man with a real interest in helping this group of lost misfit lads, brought his own tools to work and taught us some carpentry, concreting etc. My interest in a career in archaeology stemmed largely from the real desire of that one guy to help me. More of that kind of thing would have helped me a lot.

So yeah. I guess interested parties who were unwilling to let a young man slip through the cracks, and who offered a pathway to making me socially useful again- that would have helped the most. Very grateful not to have been left to starve, but more help with reentering society and getting work whilst managing my illness would have been better.

Q8: What have been the positives in your treatment through the mental health system?

There have definitely been positives.

As I mentioned earlier, having a good counsellor who I was able to see regularly, at times for long stretches, had a big stabilising impact on me.

The odd professional who was willing to be very honest with me helped a lot here and there. I have no use for a counsellor who, basically, seems to want me to think well of them first and foremost. I’ve had too many pandering psychologists so the straight dice ones were precious.

I’ve had the most success with intensive CBT (weekly sessions for a year) and group therapy around personality issues. Also I picked up many useful awareness tools with an intensive program using theories of Internal Family Systems (basically identifying splintered off aspects of identity that manifest: the abandoned child, the angry child, the punitive parent, the mediator, the medicater etc, and attempting to manage these parts of one’s self by accepting and validating their various conflicting motives whilst imposing a new responsible parent identity to intercede.

Sounds nuts, helps me a lot.

Q9: What would your idea of a perfect mental health system look like?

OK, I don’t believe there could be a perfect system but let’s see if I can make a list of things I’d like to see.

1) Being Useful. A focus on reactivating patients, paths to getting back on your feet rather than a welfare limbo. I’m not against welfare. I do feel I’ve benefited more from people believing in my potential than I have from people feeling sorry for me.

2) Housing. A stable and secure home base is a necessity but one which seems a rarity now. Oh well- only 6-8 more years to wait, if I’m lucky.

3) Routine. I felt a lot of benefit from small things that seemed to foster structure in my chaotic world. Drop ins and call backs from the suicide callback service, weekly sessions of group or individual therapy.

4) Removal of frustrating issues of red tape. Lack of access to medication I’ve been subscribed but which is only on the pbs for schizophrenics, leaving me forking out hundreds of dollars a month for meds (guess what? I went without).

5) Funding.

6) Maybe the odd program focused on responding to the issues many men are facing in the community. That’s not a high priority lately.

7) Maybe a tobacco ban need not be deployed on every square metre of every psychiatric ward in the company.

Q10: What has given you hope and pulled you back from the brink? 

My kids are my strongest protective factor.

Good company and being of use to people really saves me ultimately.

The fact that people have always wanted to be in my game has been a constant source of timely weekly validation.

Also just being a curious bugger. Boredom isn’t a thing for me. Whatever else has occurred, it’s true I’ve had a lifetime of daily reading, and I’ll never get to read everything.

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