Survivor

I consider myself an extremely lucky person- a true survivor of life.

I think that way because I have triumphed over some major setbacks.

Of course luck plays only a small part – it’s mostly down to my own efforts to get the best from the worst and it has not been easy.

Believing I am lucky and in doing so and being grateful for the opportunities I have had, it puts me in a great position to succeed – but in truth it’s also nearly broken me and pushed me to my limits.

Here,  in brief,  are some of the events which have brought me to where I am in my life right now and will hopefully reassure you that I am no stranger to pain and tragedy.

The hope is that my story will remind you that you can overcome anything in your life through a positive mental attitude and the will to overcome it.

Parental suicide

One of the most painful experiences of my life was in 2002 when I discovered that my estranged father had killed himself. I had not seen him in 5 years following my parent’s divorce and following years of emotional abuse and uncertainty – at that time it was actually welcome news and closure to a turbulent time in my life.

That said, although my dad was already dead to me, the finality of suicide, the social stigma attached to it and my own fears of repeating his errors have played a large part in my life.

Once my anger at his actions eventually began to subside – which took about 5 years through counselling – I began to understand more that he was a man who sufferred with the same depression, low mood and anxiety which I have inherited/suffer with.

The difference was, he drank to cope with it, didn’t take medication or seek help and ultimately this led to his demise.

Having grown up to such terrible parenting on his part has made me determined not to repeat history and has helped to bolster my own resolve to take responsibility for my own depression and anxiety.

This has led to me giving up alcohol, maintaining a prescription to SSRI medication, maintaining counselling sessions and continuing to learn as much as possible about how to get the best from what has been a devastating and life changing situation.

I’m not the first person to lose a parent, nor to “survive” a suicide and sadly I won’t be the last. My hope is that by truly understanding why he did what he did and the events which led to this point, I will be able to deal better with my own dark moments and not repeat his tragic story.

The 2004 Asian Tsunami

With an inheritance in my pocket and the deep desire to waste the money as swiftly as possible (I was still very angry at the suicide and the injustice I felt as a result) I decided to travel for 6 months or so to get some time alone to clear my head and make sense of recent events – I was still only 21 at the time.

It was 2004 and in December I found myself on Phi Phi Island in Thailand – soon to be one of the worst hit islands in the largest natural disaster the world had seen in recent times.

This is part of my story which I emailed to friends soon after my rescue –

On Christmas day night I went for a few drinks to celebrate and was having a great time. It got to about 1am and the people I was with wanted to stay up and drink while we watched the sun rise; although this sounded great I was completely exhausted, broke and way too drunk so made my excuses and went back to the bungalow we had rented for the next month.

I fell asleep fully clothed on top of my sheets the moment my head hit the pillow.

The next morning I woke to the sound of screaming – at first I thought it was people just being loud and messing about – but then I realised this was screaming like I’d never heard before.

Dazed, confused and still a little drunk I opened the front door to see people running past my bungalow and there was some water on the floor. It was very windy and felt like a bad storm was coming but I couldn’t make sense of it.

I shook my friend’s leg to wake him and as I did so there was a large explosion and everything went black.

Instantly I knew I was in water- there was no question of it -so what little breath I had in my lungs I held on to. I began to instinctively feel around for pockets of air as I was at the ceiling of the bungalow floating in the water.

Struggling to find any air I panicked and began to thrash around- aware that I would die very soon if nothing changed.

Thrashing around when drowning exhausts you and speeds up the process so it wasn’t long before I took my first breath of water- I could feel the debris as I swallowed knowing that one or two more breaths like this would be fatal.

After some more thrashing and struggling, I took one more breath and was certain I would die -thoughts of my mum and brother not knowing what happened to me filled my head.

Then all at once, the panic began to subside and I felt extremely peaceful – almost ready to die – the best way I can describe it is you know when you need to eat or drink or use the bathroom – I needed to die and it was the most natural feeling in the world.

At this point I’d been underwater for the best part of 2-2.5 mins.

The next thing I knew, I had fresh air on my face and I was gasping at the air. As it happens the multitude of debris and sheer force of the water had caused my bungalow to collapse under the pressure which had in turn sent me shooting upwards to safety.

After my return home the large haematoma on my thigh and nerve damage on my lower back were traced back to being hit by this debris as I made my ascent.

As I looked around I felt like the world was ending- nothing but rushing water, destruction, wind, bodies, debris, screaming and the unmistakable fear that I was in mortal danger. 

Beneath me I could feel things rushing past and hitting me – I became aware I was rushing through the water and held out my hand for anything to stop me being dragged to the sea.

I grabbed on to a tree and as if by magic a sheet of metal hit the tree and bent around it which effectively formed a shield for my legs against the mutltitude of objects rushing by.

Eventually the water subsided and I climbed down from the tree to take in the devastation- no buildings were standing and there were bodies and screaming people as far as the eye could see (approx 2000 people died on the island I was on)

Still trying to work out just what was happening and if the world was actually ending someone shouted “its coming again” – Although I didn’t know what a tsunami was, nor what was happening, I instinctively knew that if I stayed where I was I would almost certainly die.

Half naked, cut to shreds and totally shocked I ran barefoot across the piles of wood, glass, bodies and luggage to reach a hilly area only 100 metres or so from where I stood. From there I launched myself into the stinging nettles and undergrowth- pulling myself to safety just as the second wave swept in.

I had survived.

This is of course the cut down version- if you want to get a real idea of the destruction of the tsunami then the film The Impossible is extremely realistic and the first few minutes of destruction echo almost perfectly my own experience.

I’ve had extensive counselling to keep the panic attacks and night terrors at bay, but still have to manage my anxiety and fear on a daily basis.

Having nearly died and seen how easy it can be to die, I have a renewed appreciation for the fragility of life which will stay with me forever.

By focussing on how lucky I am to survive, rather than how unlucky I may have been to actually be there, I have put a positive angle on what was a truly devastating situation.

I was not seriously injured, nor did I die – despite being underwater for over 2 minutes and being part of the largest natural disaster in modern history – and that makes me the luckiest person I know.

I had the polo shirt I was wearing that day framed – it hangs on my landing to remind me how precious life truly is.

Depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Long before my father killed himself or I found myself drowning on Phi Phi Island, I have always struggled with low mood and a constant feeling of emptiness- this was mostly met with “why are you miserable” or “what’s wrong” which of course I didn’t know the answers to and only made things more frustrating…

It was only after returning from Thailand that I sought professional counselling and medication for what is ultimately an illness but which is sadly perceived negatively by society as a form of weakness or inability to cope.

I have spent days and days in bed, avoiding people, not going out, not eating, not washing, not really doing anything and totally withdrawing from life in my bid to cope with the feelings I have.

When you suffer depression you develop strategies to help you cope – mine is avoidance – when my mood drops I withdraw from all contact with people and all activities – entering a strange existence of inactivity until the feelings pass I am “dealing” with it and minimising the damage – this  can take anything from a few hours to a few days.

I used to drink to help “relax” and distance myself from these feelings but as I am now a father myself I have decided to quit alcohol altogether and concentrate on handling these difficult situations and emotions without the aid of anything temporary such as alcohol. (My father used alcohol to “relax” and I think this aggravated his own feelings of frustration and depression rather than helping him to cope with them)

I still suffer to this day with depression and GAD – I am sure it will never truly pass and like a long term incurable illness I simply need to find the best way to manage it.

These experiences do not make me special, unique or worthy of your sympathy.

What they do is provide me with the first hand experience of overcoming adversity and seeking positive solutions from negative situations.

It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it.

Whatever may happen to you; remember that maintaining a positive and pragmatic approach (whilst trying to avoid a victim mentality) will put you in the best position to overcome anything in your way.