My journey into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression starts with a odd bit of the anatomy. The umbilical cord.
This flexible straw is vital to get human reproductive life off the ground carrying essential nutrients from mother to baby.
Each year in the UK up to a million babies are delivered. In 2010, one of them; just one of them had a faulty umbilical cord. It was on the thin side. It was big enough to allow the baby to grow to a perfectly good size, practically ready to be delivered. But it was thin enough so that when a small clot travelled through it, it got blocked, like a pea getting stuck in a straw.
And that’s where my son, Theo, comes in. Because Theo was that one-in-a-million baby.
There’s an equation that we all have in our heads that helps us deal with day-to-day risks. It sits there in our subconscious and works all the time. And it is this.
Every time we engage with some activity, we gauge the risk – what’s the probability of something going wrong? And if something does go wrong, what will the impact on me be? If it’s within your risk appetite, you’ll go ahead. If not, you’ll stop. It’s an astonishing bit of biology – and possibly the single most important thing that makes humanity the successful race that we are.
My son Charlie engaged this equation recently, when he burnt his finger in a candle. I’d rather he hadn’t – but he’s now wary of a flame. And on balance that’s a good thing. After his candle-experience, his brain rewired itself and now that’s a danger that, forever more, he’ll remember to avoid.
In the weeks and months after Theo’s cruel death I did the equation over and over. Risk equals impact times probability. Yes the probability was tiny. But it had happened. I had lost something . . . Someone . . . That I loved very much.
It was sudden. His heart just stopped as the nutrients being delivered to his body were blocked.
It was traumatic. It happened when I was staying in London for work, and my wife was at home in the Midlands.
It was tragic. His heart had stopped for reasons we didn’t then understand and couldn’t have anticipated.
It turned our lives upside down. In the following days I was with my wife when she delivered Theo. We had just four hours with him before he had to be taken away for a post mortem. Four hours. That was our whole life with Theo. The impact was shockingly severe both for me and of course, for my wife.
I have two caring paternal interactions with Theo in my memory, which I treasure. The first is getting home from London one night after being away for a few days for work, bending down to my wife’s pregnant bump and talking to Theo. I then placed my ear against the bump, as if Theo was going to talk back to me. It was just a piece of comedy to make my wife smile.
But the last laugh was on me. Because as soon as I pressed my ear against the bump I received an excitable kick in the head.
I cannot begin to explain how thrilling that interaction with Theo was. It was a joy and a delight. It makes my heart leap now, just to think about it, as it does every time I think about it.
It was my only ever living interaction with Theo. In some moments of madness, I am even jealous of my wife for having the pleasure of such interactions on a daily basis. While I got just this one chance.
My only other caring paternal interactions with him were after he died. I stroked his cheek. Held his tiny hand. And stroked his hair.
Seven weeks later I gave his eulogy and carried him in his little white coffin down the aisle of the church, into the funeral car and on to be buried. I had to do this, because I realised that it was the only thing I was ever going to be able to do for Theo. I recall one moment when I realised that this sight of me was upsetting my family. I felt guilty. It felt like my fault. Quite a loopy way of thinking.
Shortly after the funeral I returned to work. I didn’t realise it until the day I went back to work. But that day I realised I was different. Over the coming weeks and months I came to understand that my brain had rewired itself.
The equation in my head. The one that got me through my working life. The one that helps us learn from the bad stuff that happens to us, so that we can avoid it happening again. That equation had gone a bit mad. And so, apparently, had I.
Risk equals impact times probability.
My brain wanted to protect me from feeling the same hurt that I had felt when Theo died. And so it went into overdrive trying to fathom the unfathomable. To apply logic to the illogical. Every day – both awake and asleep – I relived Theo’s death. The delivery. The standing in the garden at 3 in the morning with my wife because neither of us could sleep. The funeral. The drive I made from London to the Midlands when I got the phone call that there was no heartbeat. Seeing the lifeless Theo on a scan. Going to a sectioned off bit of the maternity suite reserved for the parents who would be delivering dead babies rather than live ones.
Trawling these memories in this way is called getting flashbacks. And over time these intrusive, involuntary flashbacks form part of the diagnosis that is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Flashbacks aren’t just about remembering something. Flashbacks aren’t like reading a book. Flashback’s aren’t even like watching a film.
Flashbacks are full-on, real time, re-living the experience. When I get my flashbacks I experience the events surrounding Theo’s death and I can see what I then saw. I can hear what I then heard. I can touch what I then touched. I can smell what I then smelt. I think what I then thought. My heart-rate returns to what it then was. My body temperature returns to what it then was. My whole being is transported to what it then was.
This is a normal. It is my biology at its best trying to learn from my experience and find a way of protecting me from the risk of this happening again. Charlie probably had a dream once before he learned the lesson: don’t put your finger in the flame, and you wont get hurt.
For me this experience recurred and recurred. Searching for the answer that couldn’t rationally be found.
And so my brain rewired itself in a rationally irrational way. It discovered that my equation didn’t work. It concluded that risk does not equal impact times probability. After all, I had experienced a highly, highly improbable event and it had had a devastating impact on me. My brain decided that, based on my experience, improbable things do happen. It realised that it would fail to protect me if it ruled out the risk of improbable things happening. So, my brain rewired the equation to ignore probabilities. Now my brain would just focus on protecting me from the most impactful of events.
So now my equation was this.
Risk = Impact.
And this is where things got much, much . . . worse.
So far I was having flashbacks. But now I started getting flashforwards to some highly improbable but awful events. My brain started to anticipate the most impactful of events to help me escape or evade them.
My other children are particular candidates for these flashforwards. I have watched, heard, felt them die hundreds of times – from household accidents with knives, tools, falling furniture, broken glass, car accidents, crushings, drownings. Countless times I’ve given them the kiss of life, watched their lives ebb away, felt their warm blood as they bleed out until their lifeless bodies are cold.
This is awful stuff. You’ll think this is insane. These things are so improbable that I’m nuts to be wasting time worrying about them.
But don’t forget. I don’t do probability any more. I’ve experienced one in a million improbability. And it hurts.
This is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A mental health condition.
And all because I’m normal. My normal brain has sought to learn from a bad experience so that I can avoid the risk of it happening again. I don’t burn my finger in a candle. And I’m on high alert to protect me and loved ones from some awful outcomes.
Imagine, as a PTSD sufferer I’m always, always hyper-vigilant. Constantly scanning my surroundings for anything bad that could possibly happen. My sleep is disturbed. And, at its very worst, I suffer additionally from depression.
Now, let me deal with a misconception. Depression – it isn’t sadness. Depression is a feeling of utter, utter worthlessness. Like life isn’t worth living. Like I have no purpose or benefit. Like the world and my experience of it is entirely negative and oppressive.
And while I’ve contended that this is normal stuff. That this is biology at its best – helping humanity learn from its experiences and avoid bad outcomes. I accept one thing. That this rational solution, is after all, irrational. Risk does not equal Impact.
Once I realised this; I had to re-learn how to be normal. This has been a massive struggle – and it exposed the fact that I need support from those around me at home and at work.
My experience has led me to gain an in-depth understanding of what life is like in the workplace for people like me, with a mental health condition. If you want to learn more about that experience read more here. And if you want to discover the solution to what I believe is the greatest organisational failure of the present day, read here.
If I can help you and your colleagues understand more about mental health, how it has affected me based on my experience of child bereavement, drop me a line. I am available to give a workplace speech on my experience, and my take on how we can tackle workplace mental health challenges. To see more about my speech go here. And to book me email firstname.lastname@example.org