Life was perfect, except he was miserable. Until a medical crisis forced him to get help and rethink his priorities.
I stood against the bathroom vanity desperately trying to catch an unimpaired breath and caught a look of panic in my eyes. Something wet and thick was on top of my tongue and was severely impeding my airway.
The look of fear was doubtless exacerbated by my accelerated heartbeat, somewhere in the region of 140 beats-per-minute at a guess, brought on by the turbo-charged partying I’d put my body through over the past few hours and the six hour run / hike I’d taken in the blazing sun the day before. With no water.
That expression spoke volumes; for the first time thoughts that I might die here, alone, on the cold, hard bathroom floor with nobody for company except the dog (who didn’t seem unduly concerned), were racing through my mind.
It couldn’t really have come to this, could it? I’m just a normal guy: decent education, good job, physically fit and healthy.
Scrambling around for the one relatively easy breath in four I jumped on the computer and Googled “blocked throat” and “unable to breathe” and was hit with all manner of random suggestions, none of which seemed to offer any immediate insight.
Fast running out of ideas I dialed triple zero.
Once I got through to the ambulance service I tried to explain my symptoms but the blockage seemed to be raging again and I couldn’t make myself understandable to the operator. Gagging and gasping, I finally managed to get my address out.
Ten minutes later I made my way outside to the ambo, relieved that help was on hand and desperate to get some kind of diagnosis. In the back of the van, the paramedic shone a torch down my throat.”
“Oh. My. God,” was not what I wanted to hear. “Dave, can you get back here please?”
“Sorry, I’m fairly new,” she said, apologetically, “I’ve just never seen anything like that before.”
Dave was clearly more worldly-wise and had been around the block a few times. He stepped into the back of the van and had a look.
“Wow,” said Dave, “let’s get down to the Emergency Room.” And with that, we were off.
At the hospital it was more of the same. The Registrar had a look at my throat and called over a couple of colleagues for a gander.
“That’s amazing,” they all cooed, “I’ve never seen one so big.”
My pulse lurched into overdrive. I couldn’t even manage a crude innuendo.
I was quickly escorted to a bed and hooked up to various machines and pierced and prodded in various places. A screen above my left shoulder showed my racing heartbeat in all it’s addled glory along with my blood pressure and various other data.
Breathing and speaking was still a real struggle and I was wretching, spluttering and choking constantly. Some kind of steroid was administered and slowly, interminably, things eased off.
I was released the next morning but not before a device had been forced into my nose and down into the back of my throat to ensure everything was as normal “back there”. This was an especially unedifying experience that almost caused the nurse and I to come to blows. She was a doughty-looking campaigner and I didn’t fancy my chances in a fist fight.
What the hell had just happened?
Looking back now with the lucidity that hindsight brings, it seems so obvious and cliched, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. So much so that I couldn’t even grasp that what I was feeling and my behaviour wasn’t normal.
To say it should never have come to this is a massive understatement but, really, it shouldn’t.
I was in my mid-thirties and married to my soul-mate. We had a beautiful baby and a dog that looks like an Ewok. We owned a property in one of the nicest parts of the Eastern suburbs of Sydney; nothing fancy or grand but a lovely home.
So far, so good.
But there’s more.
We had two good jobs, generating in excess of $300k a year [this is neither a brag or a humble-brag. $300k is a decent sum but nothing special for Sydney. It is, however, more than enough to live somewhat comfortably]. I’m reasonably competent in my profession which gives me some degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose. It’s safe to say it’s not my raison d’etre but I enjoy aspects of it.
There were other assets, European trips, savings, a place for the baby at an assuringly expensive daycare centre.
And we had our health, plenty of food and the knowledge that if we ever faced extreme hardship, there were doting parents with the resources to bail us out for a few months.
So why was I so miserable?
Because despite everything positive in my life, I simply couldn’t see how we could move forward or progress. I couldn’t see how we could afford another baby. I couldn’t see how we could stump up the extra $500k required to trade up to a 3 bedroom house in Clovelly or Coogee or wherever.
And I blamed myself not being able to facilitate this and provide for my family in the way that my mind was telling me I should do. Once I was done blaming myself, I’d look for others to blame for my ‘unfortunate’ situation, regardless of whether they had anything to do with it.
Mostly, though, it was the people closest to me that I lashed out at. My wife recently told me that I’d once let fly at her because the labels on the tins of tuna weren’t lined up in the pantry properly. What’s fascinating is that I have zero recollection of this. It sounds pretty funny and it would be, if there isn’t the chance that it could well be true.
I have no idea what was behind this inability to appreciate what I had and just assumed that it was part of being a new parent. Speaking to anyone about it wasn’t an option, firstly because there wasn’t anything to speak about, right? And, secondly, because it would have meant admitting that I was struggling, and I didn’t know it was okay to do that.
You see, I’ve always gone alright at life: always been okay at most things and never really faced a truly significant trauma. Academically I’m okay without being a genius. Sports come naturally to me. I’ve forged a career of sorts being an “expert” in what I do. This meant I had no barometer against which to measure my current state. Whilst I knew I was finding life more of a struggle than it should’ve been, the idea that there could be a medical explanation for it never once entered my head.
And so things trundled on, punctuated by more outbursts and ensuing troughs which then typically recovered to high peaks. As my anxiety grew so to did my reliance on various chemicals, which at least provided temporary respite from my dissatisfaction and feelings of failure and despair.
An element of addiction tends to categorize the way I pursue various interests: five hour tennis sessions as a teenager; twelve hour revision days as a student; grand marathon and ultramarathon ambitions as I’ve got older, again, backed by nothing more than a piqued interest and some dedication.
Generally and unsurprisingly I’ve always seen a huge correlation between hard work and results, especially when working with my limited supply of natural talent.
But this was something less wholesome.
Newly minted, back on two good incomes with no plan in place and no light at the end of the tunnel. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Despite maintaining external high function in work and physical health, I slowly poisoned myself from the inside out without ever acknowledging or owning what was going on. This continued to the extent that it became untenable for the person I was closest to.
And in a nine-month blink of an eye the perfect life I’d managed to construct was ruptured beyond repair.
It’s much easier to be wiser after the storm has finished raging but if I knew back then what I know now in terms of outlets to support and help deal with issues like this, my circumstances could be so different. And that’s the really painful part.
Men aren’t generally comfortable discussing problems or demonstrating vulnerability, especially with their friends. So if this isn’t an option there are a number of charities who specialise in providing this kind of counsel.
Paying to speak to someone who is clinically trained at teasing out and exploring the things you’re struggling with is another option, as is considering medication designed to temporarily adjust any chemical imbalance in your brain. Increasingly, groups are being formed for Dads to get socialise and spend time with other people who “get it”.
These options can all be wonderfully cathartic but they only work if someone knows they have a problem, becomes comfortable admitting that things may have got away from them a little bit and knows that these support outlets exist.
The first time I sat down over a beer with my friends and ‘fessed up that there was trouble in paradise was, perhaps, six months after the first cracks emerged. This was one of my best friends and someone who had been through something similar himself.
Six months is a long time to be waging an internal war and not knowing quite why you aren’t as content as you should be. It feels like an eternity.
During that chat I wasn’t judged, called out as a failure or made to feel awkward. I came away feeling lighter, unburdened. I also felt completely ridiculous that it had taken me so long to open up.
Then, finally, I was dragged, protesting, to the doctor. He gave me some tablets. The impact was immediate and positive. The term “different person” was bandied around our house and not always by me; proof that in some scenarios the drugs really do work.
Sadly it was too late for us but imagine if I’d administered these tweaks three or six months earlier. It’s heartbreaking.
I don’t consider myself an especially materialistic person but do recognise that my definition of success wasn’t a healthy one. In the absence of awareness of any other metrics, I relied on the linear achievement of extrinsic goals as the basis of my success or failure as a person.
Ticking off the next item on the ‘list’ became the holy grail and once that hit the buffers (in my mind), things began to unravel. Not being able to afford a three bedroom house in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you normal.
And instead of worrying about what you don’t have, it’s so much more fun to be grateful for what you do have. Whatever that may be. It feels so much better to appreciate things rather than lament what you don’t have.
I have a close friend whose wife died before her fortieth birthday. Other friends who have given up on having children after five years of trying. These are things to agonise over and be haunted by (for a time), not whether you can afford a smarter car or a bigger house.
Note: I was found to be suffering from acute uvulits. The uvula is the small piece of tissue that hangs in the back of your throat. Uvulitis is usually caused by an infection, an injury to the back of the throat, or an allergic reaction.
Photo: Getty Images