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Marco's story – burnout and depression

This is a personal story about my struggles with mental heath and some of the mechanisms I put in place after reaching out to a number of people I could put my trust in.

I’m an officer in the NZ Army and as such have faced significant pressures domestically and operationally to ‘perform’ over a substantial number of years. I’ve faced personal doubts about my abilities as a professional, a team member, a father and husband. A remarkable number of these self-doubts have resulted from watching my peers progress, not getting beneficial feedback from my superiors on my performance and ‘performance punishment’ and others ‘meddling’ in my career. A number of these doubts transferred to feelings that I wasn’t good at my job and that others’ perspectives about me created more doubt that I wasn’t doing a good job.

A number of frustrations built up to the point where I had significant doubt as to whether or not I could continue; not so much as with the job – with life. I even had it all planned out in my head, how, when and by what means. My Father (also a veteran) saw a change in my personality as a result of spending time overseas on yet another operational tour. He was the first one to approach me and ask “was I OK?” I had to stop and ask what he meant, I then had to face the emotions that followed – someone cared enough to ask and to follow up with a safety net and get me thinking that life was worth living. I had a family that loved me and I still didn’t appreciate that – I wouldn’t for a number of years yet.

This time was (selfishly) all about me, about what I wanted from life and my career and I felt like I wasn’t getting what I wanted. All I saw was that my efforts were going unrewarded, that I was working hard to try harder to get noticed for all the right things, keeping my ‘nose clean’ and doing the right things for all the wrong reasons. What I didn’t realise was that my relationship with my family was being affected and I was heading down a pathway to depression. In fact if I am honest about it, I was pretty much there already. I wasn’t going out and doing the things I enjoyed any more, I wasn’t taking an interest in what my children were doing and I dwelled on a number of things – again my thoughts were dark and drawn to making plans.

Job after job presented with the same results – hard efforts going unrewarded, family being punished because I wanted to progress, depressive states leading to further self-doubt on my abilities, performance punishment and then it all came to a head. I crashed and what I realised was it wasn’t for the first time that I had felt this way.

The year was 2012, away from home yet again and clinically, what I was experiencing was burnout – the serious advice was that if I continued in this manner I would be facing clinical depression before too long. I had been battling with these feelings for over 10 years and thought to myself that it was just me; that I should just ‘get over it’ and ‘harden up’. What I didn’t see was how much my feelings and attitude towards life were affecting those around me, family and colleagues.

On a day that I was feeling particularly bad about myself, I sought advice from a colleague and good friend and I broke down in her office – I was embarrassed, she was understanding and I thank her for that as well as her subsequent advice and continued support. With her help and the help of others who were supportive or going through their own battles with depression (yes, it is quite a widespread issue among the NZDF), I started to make changes in my thoughts and attitudes. It wasn’t enough and soon after I was back in the same thought pattern – only deeper.

It was now December 2014 and I had decided that I needed to make physical as well as mental changes. I had battled with fitness and age-related injuries – for an active person a depressing set of circumstances to be in and only made my thoughts darker. I set out to undertake to do something – what the ‘something’ was, I didn’t yet know. With the support of a number of long time friends I undertook to do the Aumangea programme – while this programme is not for everyone, it did provide me with an opportunity to reflect on life in general, to get away from the pressures of work, think about and identify where I was at in my professional life, family life and overall attitude towards living. The same old feelings were back again; the how, the when and the means were all thought through.

What stopped me you ask? I realised that it was totally selfish of me – an easy way out. I’d be leaving family and friends without answers and without the opportunity to help or, funnily enough, to provide an opportunity to help others.

I had a ‘light bulb’ moment when I was 25 days through the programme, at the depths of personal despair and facing significant (self-imposed) pressures to do the right thing. My ‘light bulb moment’ gave me the opportunity to realise and confirm to myself that:

I am good at what I do personally and professionally,

it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, and

family matters most.

I was still facing burnout and heading toward depression, but as a result of my light bulb moment I saw a way out – that way out was to get professional (clinical) help – not ‘help’ out of a bottle and not ‘help’ from well-meaning friends.

I used the ‘system’ to get external assistance for the issues I was facing. Six sessions later I had a number of individualised tools to progress and develop a pathway to improving how I faced my own personal mental challenges, how I built strength in dealing with the challenges that were to continually being put in my life. The concern that, as a result of me seeking professional help, I would be penalised professionally was a real personal concern – was it a concern in reality? I don’t know and I doubt I ever will. For me it was, nonetheless, a reality and that is why I sought help ‘outside’ the immediate medical support chain. At least I was on a pathway away from self-harm and sorting my emotions (a lot of the time I was tearful or sad for no apparent reason) and thoughts (dark thoughts on how, when and where).

It is now mid 2016, does it get any better? – Yes. Can I manage the dark times better? – Yes. How do I manage this? With the tools provided by my professional support mechanisms, through my trusted friends that check in regularly to see if I’m still OK, through family that cares and remains supportive. Mental Health for me remains a struggle and yes, there are still the dark times, however my journey is getting better and the ability to cope with the difficulties is getting easier. I now feel that I can talk more openly about my personal struggles – most days.

It’s not something that happens overnight and when I do face self-doubt I have a list of people that I trust and that I can contact any time, day or night. It’s important to have such trusted networks as they are literally a lifesaver. My journey continues as I develop further coping strategies – I encourage those with similar experiences to seek assistance as you can’t do it on your own.