BATTLES WITH THE DARKNESS

10 October 2019 Katherine Smyrk

BATTLES WITH THE DARKNESS

I was always a jumpy kid. I was always just a little more afraid, a little more overly sensitive to things than everyone else around me. Early on, the feeling that the world was going to end was very real. On a beautiful sunny day in Adelaide, where I grew up, I would think the world was going to end. I’ve lost count of how many psychologists and psychiatrists I’ve been to. I think I went to see my first one when I was five.

The short version is that these kinds of anxieties built, as they do. Somewhere in my mid-teens I discovered that alcohol was a pretty handy way to make all those feelings go away. Because, you know, like a solid red-blooded Australian male, I was dealing with my anxiety issues by numbing them with alcohol, because it’s a completely fine and socially acceptable way to do it. It’s an incredibly unhealthy way to deal with it, but it’s a way that a lot of people choose, a way certainly I chose.

But for many people with a drinking  problem, alcohol isn’t the problem. Alcohol was the solution. But the amount I needed to drink to feel anywhere near functioning, the ability to just have all those fears and thoughts turned down enough just so I could sit, was too much.

That’s something I want people to understand: it’s very noisy when you’ve got a brain riddled with anxiety. You end up not being able to get anything done. The thoughts just loop around and you’ve got no time to think about anything else. People wonder why folks with mental health issues don’t look after their personal hygiene. Honestly, having a shower is the last thing on your mind. Your brain is just too full with noise.

Eventually I got diagnosed with generalised anxiety and social phobia, which means that I’m afraid of everyone and everything, which is a pretty awful way to go through life. But because I wasn’t dealing with what was really going on, things got worse. A few years ago I ended up having a brush with psychosis.

Neurosis is when you feel pain because your mind doesn’t like what’s happening in the world. You may have lost a job, or broken up with someone, or got a divorce. So, you feel pain in your body because of something external to you. Psychosis happens when that pain gets so great, your brain decides to protect you from it by just reinterpreting the world. It shifts the reality to protect you. That’s the way it was explained to me. But if you didn’t realise what’s going on, everything would appear as real. Because the very same way you perceive the world, the way you look at it, smell it, touch it, feel it, taste it…the filters through which they pass is distorted. So, if you don’t understand that something’s going wrong it can be very, very frightening.

I was really lucky, because when the delusions started I knew that something was wrong.
I certainly knew I was in a lot of trouble when I sat there and my doctor told me what was going on, and my first thought was, well of course you’d say that, you’re in on it. I thought he was part of a big conspiracy, and I believed that 100 per cent to be true. But I knew enough to then think, that’s really dangerous if I’m believing that. I was very, very lucky.

I’m also very lucky in that, through sobriety, I learned to question those automatic thoughts that come through, and that’s a big part of getting sober. Through learning how to do that, I was able to see that something was wrong.

That’s why I want to talk about it. These things don’t happen with the click of a finger. It’s a long process.
It took decades for me to get to that point. Unfortunately, these things tend not to get better by themselves, they tend to get more difficult.

So, if you’re reading this and any of this resonates with you, go talk to your GP. Let them know. It’s also really important for people to understand that when you’re in it, you can’t believe that it would ever feel better, or that there’s ever the possibility of life on the other side of that horrible pain. But there really is. There is a much more peaceful and fulfilling life available to you. 

Interview by Katherine Smyrk (@KSmyrk)

» If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

» Article first published in ed#538.

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