Numb and disconnected: I want to feel something again

Mental health issues cover the full spectrum of feelings. But for many, they can be defined by a distinct lack of feeling.

Growing up in a small coastal town, the ocean has always felt like home to James. It was his love of the water that drew him to work on a ship when he finished school. From day one, James experienced bullying and abuse that left him feeling numb. In a constant state of fear. Suicidal.
On leaving the ship, the trauma followed him.

He turned to alcohol, drugs and gambling. And while they brought a brief escape from his shame, they dragged him further down a path of self-loathing. He began to isolate from his loved ones and the things he’d previously loved.

In this episode, James talks about how he rediscovered beauty when he stopped trying to outrun his trauma.

 
Photo of Cliff with quote, “I felt like I was in this sealed glass box that just moved where I moved.”
 

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Transcription

NARRATION

This season of Not Alone was made possible by Australia Post, proudly supporting Beyond Blue.

CONTENT WARNING

Just a heads up, this episode of Not Alone contains a firsthand account of bullying and sexual assault. If you or someone you know needs support, visit beyondblue.org.au, call our support service on 1300 22 46 36, or call 1800 RESPECT, on 1800 737 732.

NARRATION

Hey there, I’m Marc Fennell and this is Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health, to help you with yours.

And this episode is all about numbness and disconnection.

(Music - show theme, Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

FORUMS MONTAGE

MALE VOICE 1

I don’t feel sad, or happy, or angry. I just feel empty.

FEMALE VOICE 1

Usually what happens is I go on a bender.

MALE VOICE 2

I was drinking for the numbing effect.

MALE VOICE 3

I feel disconnected…

FEMALE VOICE 2

I’m really in a rut…

MALE VOICE 3

…like I don’t care anymore.

FEMALE VOICE 2

…and I don’t know how to get myself out of it.

FEMALE VOICE 3

Is there any way to fix the numbness?

MALE VOICE 4

I feel like I want to walk out of my life, and never look back.

FEMALE VOICE 4

I feel like I’ve kept so much inside.

FEMALE VOICE 5

All I can feel is pain.

FEMALE VOICE 6

All I can feel is pain.

FEMALE VOICE 2

All I can feel is pain.

(Music - high pitch drones)

JAMES

There’s nothing much I really could have done at the time. Like I’ve gone over those events over the years a lot in my head. But, it’s such a corny thing to say or strange, but I think everything happens for a reason. And that’s, I hate it. I used to hate hearing that saying as you grow up, and…but yeah, those events have sort of changed the way I look at the world at life.

(Sound effects - gentle waves)

NARRATION

James grew up in a tiny town on the northern NSW coast. His community was probably only 250 people strong, but strong it was.

JAMES

You’d only lock your door if you went away for like a week. If you went away for the weekend, you’d leave the house open and the neighbours would keep an eye on it. It was a very supportive community. You know, everyone looks out for each other.

Like my uncle lived two doors up from me, my aunt and uncle lived across the road. And then all mum and dad’s friends sort of, you know, migrated from Sydney in their early 20s, and come to the small coastal town just to surf and make a life out of the city. Because you knew everyone and either related or best friends of your mum…yeah, the community felt like an extended family.

MARC

So what kind of…introduce me to young James, right. What kind of kid do you reckon you were like?

JAMES

Yeah, like as a young kid I was quite shy. But once I warmed to people that’s when I sort of would come out of my shell. Like my nickname was Fartin’ Martin.

MARC

(laughs) Okay, okay. There’s a story there. How did that happen?

JAMES

Yeah, so I just used to…I had some bowel problems as a kid. I’d fart a lot with certain foods, so I had to go on a diet.

MARC

No!?

JAMES

Yeah, to eliminate…

MARC

Oh you’re kidding, wow.

(Sound effects- the surf louder; waxing surf board; steps in sand)

(Music - beachy acoustic guitar; Jack Johnson-esque)

MARC

When did you when you first start surfing?

JAMES

It would it been like four or five, I got a little foamy board. When I was about 10, that’s when it…I had some mates and we all got into it around the same time. And from then till I was like 18 we lived at the beach. All day, hey? You just come home sunburn, eat some food, go back out in the afternoon. And we got so many photos from when we were kids like just red. Sunburnt. And you look at them now and you go “wow, that’s crazy.”

MARC

What was your relationship like with the water? What were you getting out of it when you went out surfing?

JAMES

The biggest thing, it’s freedom, hey? And there’s no rules. You get out there, it’s almost like you’re an artist, hey? If you want to surf a certain way, you can. You can ride a different board to the next guy. And you can have as much fun as you want with it.

MARC

It’s also, like, you have to surrender a bit to nature too, don’t you? Like, the surf’s going to do what is going to do and it’s about how you react to it as well. Does that ring true for you?

JAMES

Yeah. You’re definitely vulnerable to a certain degree. Like you…big waves can come. Or you can get caught in a rip, just little things like that. And it maybe that touches on that danger element or that thrill because you’re sort of…yeah, you’re alert, it draws all your energy and your senses to participate. But then at the same time, you’re off in your own little world. Like, you can go for a surf and…yeah, the world stops. You’re just out there having fun.

MARC

You’re pretty social kid when you’re out at the beach?

JAMES

Yeah, we used to…you could hear us before you’d see us. Because we’d be hooting each other and giving each other crap if you fell off a wave or…yeah, and I guess that world, in a small community, especially that had adopted surfing as sort of its main pastime, you sort of become accepted into a little subculture. Like, there’s a hierarchy. You’ve got the older guys who’ll pull you in line if you’re getting a bit too cocky, or, you know, not abiding to that little…code of ethics that exists out there. You know, “pull your head in mate, you can’t have all the waves.”

(Sound effects - the surf fades)

NARRATION

James came from what he describes as a normal family, where the only real issue were the regular sort of teenage arguments he’d have with his sister. But there was always food on the table, annual holidays, and a sense that he was loved and supported.

Then, as he approached the end of high school, James turned his mind to work and his future.

MARC

When you were a kid growing up, what did you want to be?

JAMES

I wanted to grow up, leave school, do a trade, become a chippy like me dad, still play soccer for the local club, still surf. And raise a family in the same environment I was raised in because it’s so loving and safe, and a lot of freedom just to, for kids to be kids. And be safe.

(music - James’ theme; slow beachy tune)

NARRATION

But as the end of Year 12 approached, James was presented with an opportunity to work in the maritime industry, with months spent on the water.

JAMES

Yeah, like a life at sea. I thought, “wow you’re on the ocean. Travel. Good coin, give it a bash.”

(Sound effects - ship foghorn)

(James’ theme fades)

MARC

When you first started working on the ship, when did you first realise that it wasn’t quite all that it was going to be cracked up to be?

JAMES

I reckon the first day.

MARC

The first day? Geez.

JAMES

Because I went from this world of little community where you’re supported and loved. And I wasn’t a very street smart kid because I come from such a sheltered sort of environment. Then I went into this world that was the total opposite. You know, I was 18, and I looked 12. Probably weighed 50 kilos, skinny.

So yeah, I was sort of like…I was amongst all these guys with tattoos and big drinkers, sort of like, your man’s man as such, in that sense of the word. And yeah, I just was in shock. I remember going “wow, this is gonna be different, but I’ll nut it out. And you know, see what happens.”

(Sound effects - ship on the ocean; still of night; sparse; isolated)

JAMES

I was intimidated, bullied and threatened, which led to physical assault, sexual assault. That weren’t one off experiences, they were - especially the physical assaults - they were daily experiences. Sexual assaults weren’t daily, but they were common.

And you’re in an environment where you can’t escape. Like, if I was working at Bunnings or Coles, you could just go “I’m not turning up for this shit. I’m out of here.” But when you’re on the other side of the world, in a small ship, sharing a room the size of a normal bedroom in a house with 20 other guys. And most of those guys were okay, but there was a select few that got off on scaring the shit out of me with sexual threats, physical threats.

And when they come to fruition and it started becoming a reality that’s when you just lose, you lose your soul, hey? You become just numb. You’re just purely existing. You wake up, you go to work, you eat.

(Sound effects - ship’s foghorn)

JAMES

You know, living in that constant vigilant state, like it… you’re on alert, you’re waiting for a tap on the shoulder or…you know, I’d get picked up by the throat, smashed against the wall and be told quite graphically what was going to happen to me in bed that night or…

You know in the end you just live in this…you’re just on edge. Even now just talking about it. You sort of, your body goes back to that hyper-vigilant state where you’re ready to defend yourself.

The worst days? You wanted to kill yourself. That’s as bluntly as you can put it.

(Sound effects - sounds at sea fade)

NARRATION

James didn’t feel like he could tell anyone what was happening to him. And he felt that no one else would care anyway. He was made to feel like this unskilled newbie, while the men who were doing this to him were seen as assets to the ship. He didn’t want to rock the boat and suffer the reprisals.

In the end, James was on the ship for six months with his abusers, before it returned home.

JAMES

I could escape from the environment, which was the ship itself, and that gave me a lot of comfort. But you can’t escape from your own head, hey Marc? Like, that stuff stays with you.

Yeah, I come home one day, to me mum’s house and just broke down, cried for a couple of hours. And she rang up a counsellor. I seen her for two sessions. She wrote a letter to the ship, and said, you know, “he’s, in my opinion, if he goes back to see he might come back, he’s suicidal. He’s not in a good way and he needs to stay ashore to get some treatment.” But I hadn’t told her what was going on.

(music - ominous drones)

NARRATION

James hadn’t told anyone what had happened. It was a secret he would carry for 15 years.

MARC

Looking back on it now, why do you reckon you weren’t comfortable or you didn’t think you could have told them what actually happened?

JAMES

The biggest thing that comes to my mind straight away is just the guilt and shame. Yeah, it’s just embarrassing. I don’t know, how do you have that conversation with someone?

MARC

Yeah.

JAMES

I felt responsible.

MARC

Why do you reckon you felt responsible?

JAMES

I used to say that I was just too sensitive. If I had been a bit bigger, a bit more street smart, then those things wouldn’t have happened to me. And then you think to yourself, “how did I let that happen? How did…what didn’t I do anything? Why didn’t I stick up for meself? Your manhood’s questioned. And I wasn’t even a man, I was just a kid, you know? Like, you become confused. Everything…you just become a mess.

MARC

In that time immediately after getting off the ship? What was different about you and how you interacted with people?

JAMES

The biggest thing was I stopped surfing almost. I’d still surf, but maybe once every two or three weeks. I just lost enthusiasm. I didn’t want to be around people either. Like, I hated lying to people. Like, they’d go “hey, how you been, mate?” And I wanted to cry out, and go “I feel like shit. I can’t cope. I’m depressed, I’m anxious. I’m all this.” But I couldn’t say that.

I went from being a really social kid, like, involved in soccer, surfing, going out with friends, having a barbie, having a party. More often than not the life of the party. And I enjoyed that. So I went to the total opposite end of that scale, where you just lock meself in me room, in me own house at me parents place. I was scared someone was going to come in to me own bedroom in me own home that I lived in all me life.

NARRATION

As the years went by, James’ mental health began to deteriorate even further. He often felt physically weak, like drained of energy, and was filled with this hurt and this anger that he aimed back on himself, really. Then he began to experience panic attacks.

(Sound effects - the din of a medium sized crowd at a party)

JAMES

The first big one, maybe like three years after. I was at a friend’s wedding and I’m with people that I’ve grown up with all my life, safe environment, heaps of love. And I was at the bar and I just remember…I thought I was having a heart attack. My whole body just broke into a sweat. I felt like everything was just caving in on me. Like, literally like the pub was just gonna collapse on me. And I just ran out, the back of the pub and hid under a tree for like two hours and just went “what the hell was that?”

And I loved you know, sitting around a table with some mates and talking. And I can’t remember when it actually changed, but all of a sudden, I’d go into a pub.

(Sound effects - pub sounds; pokies room)

JAMES

And there was all these triggers: might be a person that looks like someone from the ship, or a noise, or a song something just would set you off. But I didn’t know at the time. And I’d become really heightened, hyper-vigilant. I felt scared. I felt anxious, nervous.

So I’d down heaps of drinks to try and numb that. Then I’d go and hide in a pokie room so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I’d find a corner where, you know, I could still be out with the boys as such, but not.

I didn’t even like playing the pokies, didn’t like drinking. I was just like, “this is…I can just hide here.” And then I found sort of comfort in that.

MARC

You described a few times this term of being hyper vigilant. What does that actually feel like?

JAMES

Well for starters, I noticed that my heart beats, I can feel it. Sometimes my vision gets a bit blurry. Yeah, you can feel your muscles really tight and tense and you breathe shorter. And you don’t think straight, you don’t process things as you would when you’re not sort of anxious or alert.

After a while, then the other side of that happens where you become drained. You know, you’ve used up so much energy sort of scanning the room or looking for threats, I don’t know, and you just, you just can’t function.

NARRATION

James continued to drink, take drugs and gamble until it really all just became a routine. He became an island unto himself, losing any care he had for his own wellbeing or really anything else. He would endanger his own life through reckless behaviours, hoping that he might be able to make his own death look like an accident.

JAMES

You know, my mum and dad don’t have to deal with that stigma. Or, you know, “he was just a young guy who pushed the boundaries”, and “what a shame.”

MARC

That big community of people that was around you growing up - that really lovely community - did you at any point feel like you could lean on them in this moment when you’d become this island?

JAMES

Nah.

MARC

Why?

JAMES:

I guess when you’re in that frame of mind, when you’re depressed, you’re suicidal, you’re dealing with panic attacks and all that fear of anxiety, you see the world differently. And you think “I don’t deserve love, I don’t deserve support, I’m a piece of shit, I don’t deserve anything.” And it becomes acceptable in your own brain to just isolate. That’s your friend.

NARRATION

Years passed, and James would often move around the country, sometimes further north along the beach, or out west to a job in the mines; always carrying with him the weight of his abuse. He was treading water, but growing tired.

Then in 2008, he suffered a nasty knee injury and found himself in Jindabyne where he could access a decent specialist. He was barely in contact with his family, but they had agreed to finance the treatment.

JAMES

Yeah, I just, I was in a pretty bad place because I didn’t have much to do. And me only little thing I look forward to in the week was going to the pub to play poker. It’d sort of get me social and…

(music - Lisa’s theme; sweet melody and bass kicks in)

And I’d just see this beautiful smiling girl who just…she’d walk in and everyone “hey, Lisa, how are you going?” And she knew everyone and everyone loved her. And she’d always sit behind me and just ask “how do you play poker? What did you do there?”

We just warmed to each other straightaway. But she warmed to everyone. And I was just like, “wow, this is cool.” And I sort of look forward to seeing her each week, just for that feeling of, “wow, this person’s really positive and happy and vibrant.”

But you know I had…I’ve got no game. (both laugh)

I’ve got nothing, like, and throw in the bag when you depressed, like, the last thing - for me anyway - is to like, “hey, do you want to catch up?” It just wasn’t gonna work? I had no confidence.

NARRATION

And so with his sense of self-worth at an all-time low, the best James could do was to keep in touch with Lisa via Facebook as he moved away from the area.

He continued to bounce around from place to place, job to job, never forming any attachments, seldom holding onto his income longer than it took to visit a bottle shop and a pokies room.

And then, wracked with shame, not just from his abuse but also from his life ever since, he just stopped calling his family.

JAMES

You know, I wouldn’t turn up to Christmas, get togethers, family birthdays. You know my nan was dying of cancer and I rarely seen her. And that to this day, just rips me apart, hey? You know, I was really close to my grandparents and I was so caught up in that world, hey, of just negativity. And I was embarrassed that they’d see me. I’d turn up and you know, have shitty clothes on and be…you know, hadn’t eaten. Half the time, I couldn’t even get there, Marc, because I didn’t have the money. I’d blown it on, you know, grog and gambling or drugs.

NARRATION

Then James found himself without a place to live, and no plan or the money to organise a new one.

(Sound effects - beach in the distance; breathing and body shuffling)

JAMES

I was like “oh, what do I do?” I thought I’ll just crash in me car for a couple of weeks and then yeah, that turned into months. Next thing you know, you’re living in your car. And then I lost me car there for a couple of weeks. You couch-surf a bit. You know I had a couple of nights where I just slept at the beach on the sand. It wasn’t part of the plan as such. Yeah, between the beach and me car, that was my home for probably six to 12 months.

MARC

It’s quite a long time.

JAMES

Yeah. Yeah.

MARC

How did you feel about yourself in that period?

JAMES

It was the lowest of the low. Because I had no food. And as soon as my money would come in, I’d go to the pub, get drunk, gamble it all. And it got to the point where it was like, I’d have no food for the next two weeks. So on that payday, I’d go and buy some tuna, heaps of cans of dollar tuna and just stash it in the car so I wouldn’t be hungry.

Yeah, that was just lonely, hey. Like, being hungry, Watching people eat. And it sends you crazy when you don’t eat, you know, for me it does. Like that ‘hangry’ thing or whatever it is. Multiply that by 100.

(Music - slow, sorrowful guitar and high-pitched drones)

JAMES

I was living off a peach tree that we had down the road on this property I was living on. And I lived off peaches for two weeks. And they were the most beautiful peaches you’d ever see. And I used to have him in so many different ways, it wasn’t funny.

And it was the first time I had a plan, hey?

MARC

A plan for?

JAMES

For suicide. And it was scary, because I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t under the influence of anything. It was the first time I specifically sort of had that intention.

And I rang up this number for mental health support, and I went, “well, I need help, hey? I’m not going to get through the night.” I was in a regional area and they said, “listen, we can’t send no one out. Can you get to the local hospital?”

(Sound effects - car ignition; driving)

JAMES

And I jumped in the car. It was about a 45 minute drive. It was a very lonely 45 minutes.

And I seen a doctor, there was no mental health professional on, but the doctor was amazing. He just went, “right. We don’t have even have a mental health unit here. That’s open. But we’ve got a hospital bed.” I had a really good night’s sleep. Yeah, I woke up the next morning and a mental health nurse come and see me.

It wasn’t even my intention to talk about what had happened, but over the course of a couple of hours, yeah, it all just come out.

MARC

Was that the first time you verbalised it?

JAMES

Yep.

MARC

Everything.

JAMES

Everything.

(Sound effects - wave breaks)

NARRATION

James was diagnosed with PTSD, something he identifies with and actually finds comforting.

He spent some time in the mental health unit at the hospital, started a bit of therapy, went onto medication. But it didn’t last long. Soon he was adrift again, unable to deal with what he’d unpacked, and falling back into his old habits.

JAMES

Yeah, that’s when I had hit another sort of, you know, rock bottom, as they call it. I ended up at a homeless outreach team on the Sunshine Coast. And they identified pretty quickly that the drinking, gambling, drugs was preventing me from healing.

MARC

Yeah.

JAMES

So they sent me a referral to a rehab. And, yeah, a couple of weeks later, I turned up there. That was the beginning of my new life, hey.

(Music - guitar and bass; hopeful, restrained)

JAMES

It was the first time, Marc, that I’d heard other people describe their addictions, their mental health experiences. Like people would say, “I feel like this”, or “I do this to cope”, or…and for years, I just thought I was the only one that was experiencing those negative thoughts or those critical thinking.

Yeah, and to hear someone else speak of their experiences that pretty much match yours, it was eye opening. You go “wow, that’s…I’m not alone.” And as corny as that sounds, you’re just like, “wow, I’m not alone. There’s so many people out here who have been through similar situations, felt the same way, acted the same way. I’m not a freak. I’m not alone.” And I’d felt so disconnected and alone for so many years. And yeah, all of a sudden, I was in an environment that was…I felt connected, I felt familiar, I feel a sense of, for the first time community, hey, again. I felt a part of something.

NARRATION

In rehab, James realised the extent his drinking and gambling had fed every negative aspect of his life. He understood that he had to change, or he would never be able to heal and grow.

And so, he did change.

JAMES

And because I’d stopped drinking, gambling, I was like, “wow”, I had all these new emotions come up that I hadn’t felt for years like hope, faith, connection. I started calling my mum and dad, I started loving things again. I hadn’t felt that since I was 18. And I’m like, “wow, this is all because…if this is all because I’ve just stopped drinking and gambling, okay, I’m gonna stay here. I’m gonna sign up for this for the long term.”

MARC

When came the moment that you did finally tell your parents what actually happened?

JAMES

In rehab, hey, Marc. It would have been, like, two or three months into it. I’d sort of been completely clean. And that’s when they start to really work on why your drink, why you take drugs or gamble.

Yeah, I just remember ringing mum and dad up, and yeah, I think for them, it was a relief as much as it was a a sense of validation for the past 15/20 years, whatever it was. And they could get some comfort as well to go…I guess they wouldn’t feel responsible, because they would have had sleepless nights and…yeah, it would have been a very empowering moment for them to go “wow cool, he’s opened up and…” Because they tried to support me, fix me. And I think they got a lot of comfort out of knowing that, for whatever reason I’ve instigated that.

NARRATION

Soon, James started to notice that his feelings of guilt and shame that had been so prominent for the past 15 years, were beginning to fade.

So he kept up with therapy, continued to work on getting better, and to help him with this James took up yoga and learnt to spot his triggers.

JAMES

And with the therapy I’ve done I go, “cool. I’ve just seen, heard, or felt this”, and I can go “right. I can process it, move through it”. And nine times out of ten it won’t change my day. I move on and you know, but you still have that. It’s still in ya. To have that response or that feeling. But you have the tools and the knowledge of what’s happening and you can repair it pretty quickly if you identify it and go “cool, that’s what’s happening. Sweet.”

(Music - Lisa’s theme)

MARC

So throughout the years, you still had some sort of sporadic contact with Lisa.

JAMES

Yep.

MARC

When did you decide to sort of re-initialise that friendship?

JAMES

Facebook message for her birthday.

MARC

Classic.

JAMES

Classic, yeah.

MARC

And he says he has no game. Come on, mate.

JAMES

It was crazy to me because, like, I sent her a message just saying “happy birthday”. And I do it every year, that’s sort of how we kept in touch.

And she wrote back “oh, what are you doing?” I said, “oh, I’m in Brizzy.” She’s like “I was in Brizzy last week. Would have been good to catch up.” And I said, “oh, well, next time you’re over, like, we’ll catch up.”

And I wasn’t even thinking anything romantic. I just remembered, like, she was someone who has fun and happy, and I was like, “wow, I’d love to just hang out with her.” Yeah, we talked for maybe three months on the phone, because she was in Perth at the time in the mines. And we just talked for hours. You could just feel it, hey. There was just something there that, like, I’d never felt like that. Yeah, we just had to meet up. It’s like, “let’s hang out.”

And when I picked her up from the airport, I hadn’t seen her for maybe five or 10 years. I almost forgot what she looked like. And I’d seen her come down the escalator and I was like, “holy moly. What a stunner.” (both laugh)

I’ve never had that feeling. I just went “I’m going to marry her”, hey. And it wasn’t like my intention. It wasn’t like I went “I’ve got to marry her.” It was like something outside of me, just went “here she is, this is the girl you’re gonna marry.”

(Music - Lisa’s theme again)

NARRATION

Once they were together in person, they became inseparable. And then after four weeks together, James felt comfortable enough, safe enough that he told Lisa all that had happened to him on the ship and since.

JAMES

It probably strengthened our relationship.

MARC

Why do you think?

JAMES

I guess because she maybe could appreciate where I was. Like we met just after I graduated from rehab and on the surface it would’ve just looked like Jamie had a problem with alcohol, or gambling, whatever. But once she knew that there was something deeper going on. Yeah, it was an opportunity for me to be sensitive, I guess. And a bit vulnerable.

And looking back on it I should have probably eased her into it or…I was in a bit of shock when I told her. I was like “I shouldn’t have just said that whole little story.” But she wanted to give me a big hug, pulled over and had hug and she’s crying. And the fact that she’s got that knowledge of me, it only makes our relationship stronger.

MARC

And then, spoiler alert, in February. What happened?

JAMES

Got married on Valentine’s Day.

MARC

(Marc laughs) Oh, you did! How was that day?

JAMES

Best day of me life. The funnest day, the happiest day. There was just 20 of us there. Just immediate family. We were just going to get married on the beach. “Oh, shit, the forecast says rain. We better book somewhere.” There’s no accommodation left, because we organised the wedding four days out. And got this beautiful old dairy farm that had accommodation on it. The sun parted at about 10 o’clock in the morning. We just had this beautiful day with our closest family, hey.

I still just look at the videos on the phone and the photos. I never thought I’d be that person. It’s like “aww look at the wedding.” It’s a good reminder,

(Music - acoustic guitar strumming; bright, hopeful, cheerful and beachy)

MARC

When you first came back from the ship, you talked about feeling really isolated. Like you’d grown up in this community where you felt like you’d always really belonged, but there was a period of time where you sort of retreated into yourself.

JAMES

Yep.

MARC

How different is that now?

JAMES

It’s like 100% different, because I don’t lock meself in me room. I’m not disconnected anymore. Yeah, you have hope, you have faith, you have love. And it’s a feeling that you get, it’s not manufactured. You know, or bought. It’s something that you live and you see and you feel. And it keeps giving, hey.

Just to know that you could come out of it. I don’t think I’d change anything, looking back on it. Like, obviously you don’t want to experience all those things. But the appreciation I’ve got for life and for people like it’s helped me empathise more with other people. Like, especially seeing someone homeless on the street or an addict. It gives you greater appreciation for humanity and for people.

It’s been a blessing. In a weird way, it’s helped. I would never have met Lisa, I would never have…I didn’t think you could feel this good in life, hey, Marc. Honestly, I didn’t think that that you can come back from stuff like that.

(Sound effects - ocean, waves; gentle on the shore)

(music - James’ theme)

NARRATION

James now lives close to the ocean again. And, thanks to Lisa wanting to learn how to ride a barrel, he’s surfing again too.

JAMES

I hadn’t surfed for a long time. And then her keenness and enthusiasm in the ocean just sparked something in me again. Like you never come in from a surf feeling like shit. You always come out just buzzing. Even if you’ve had the worst surf ever.

I think I enjoyed surfing so much because it’s a really immediate form of mindfulness or meditation without knowing it. All your senses are buzzing. Even if I hadn’t even had to surf, you just go for a swim. And something happens where you’re just, “oh, wow, I feel different.” And that’s a good feeling, hey.

(Music - James’ theme kicks off)

NARRATION

Listening to James, it’s clear that recovery from trauma can be a long and winding road. And so to get an understanding of the clinical side of clearly what is a very complex issue, I had a chat with Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser, Dr. Grant Blashki.

(Music - James’ theme ends)

MARC

Dr. Grant Blashki, welcome back.

DR GRANT

Thanks, Marc.

MARC

Listening to James’ story there, I mean, one of the biggest, I guess, themes of it is how much James tried to numb that trauma with alcohol, with drugs, with gambling. And I think that's, you know, something a lot of us will be familiar with. I'm curious, though, about what's going on a little bit under the hood. Like, what is it that alcohol, drugs, gambling, what is it that they are doing to help sate or manage that underlying trauma that the James was processing,

DR GRANT

It's very common. And what I see in my clinic is very often, a lot of people with mental health issues don't go and get professional help. They try and self manage it with alcohol, drugs, or gambling or other what we call ‘maladaptive approaches’. So they might get a little bit of temporary relief, because they're feeling awful. But the truth is that over time, these approaches compound the problem. They make it worse.

Understandable, but if you’re using alcohol to manage your stress and anxiety, it's not a good long-term solution. It tends to cause more problems than it solves.

MARC

Talk therapy, obviously had a huge set of benefits for James, not just with a psychologist, but in a sort of a group setting as well. It kind of almost gets to the heart of this series, why is it hearing the experience of someone else so helpful, do you think?

DR GRANT

Well, you’re right, isn't that…it's one of those classic, “you're not alone” moments, where we say, you know, someone who's been through this absolutely horrible time that James has been through, there's a part of him that just feels like, “I'm the only person in the world that's ever experienced anything like that. I'm the only one who's had this horrible thing, who's having all these sad and you know, nihilistic feelings about things.”

And once they get in a group, and other people start speaking up, it really is just sort of a game changer for them. They go, “oh my gosh, lots of people are dealing with this.” So it's a mixture of them telling their story, and hearing the stories of others that really contributes to their healing.

MARC

Just on a purely practical level, is there specific help and support out there for people battling alcohol and drug addiction?

DR GRANT

Absolutely. So drug and alcohol, common problem. GPs good place to start, they know the local services. If you want to jump on the phone or online, Turning Point have some wonderful services as well. More serious alcohol and drug problems, some times people link in with what we call inpatient, or day outpatient programs to help them get through their addiction.

So there's a lot of help out there. And I think the hardest thing is for people to put up their hands initially. But I’ve certainly seen with my patients, a lot of hope about people that get on top of addiction problems. And so it's well worth engaging and getting the right help.

MARC

Dr. Grant Blashki, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me again.

DR GRANT

Great to chat, Marc.

(Music - show theme)

NARRATION

I want to thank James for sharing his incredible story and experiences with me. I also just want to acknowledge the courage it’s taken. And the same has to be said for all of our contributors in this season of Not Alone. Never let it be said that those seeking help and support for their emotional wellbeing are weak, or that they have failed, or that they have been unable to cope. There is no more courageous person than the one who will put up their hand and admit that they need help. I want you to know from all of us at Beyond Blue, and from me personally, you are seen and you are not alone.

You can join the conversation and share your story at beyondblue.org.au/forums

If you know anyone, or if you yourself needs support, visit our website or call our Support Service on 1300 22 46 36. We’ll put some additional info in the show notes.

Not Alone is a Beyond Blue podcast, hosted by me, Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton and Sarah Alexander. It was recorded by Ryan D’Sylva, with sound design and mixing by Que Nguyen.

This podcast was produced on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, Boonwurrung, Gadigal and Dja Dja Wurrung Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.

Thank you for listening to Not Alone.

Auslan translation

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy and executive produced by Darcy Sutton and Sarah Alexander.

Our theme song Sense of Home is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


Helpful resources

  • You can join the discussion on our Beyond Blue online forums
  • Beyond Blue has a dedicated webpage providing information and advice on coping with trauma and the effects drugs and alcohol have on your mental health
  • 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) is a 24-hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault
  • Gambling Help Online (1800 858 858) is a free 24/7 chat and email counselling and support services providing professional counsellors with expertise in problem gambling
  • Turning Point is Australia's leading national addiction treatment, training and research centre providing 24/7 telephone and online support services for those affected by addiction.
  • Head to Health can help you find digital mental health services from some of Australia’s most trusted mental health organisations

Suicide and crisis support:

  • The Beyond Now suicide safety planning app helps you stay safe if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, feelings, distress or crisis.
  • The Suicide Call Back Service provides professional 24/7 telephone and online counselling to people who are affected by suicide. You can access this service by calling 1300 659 467.
  • Lifeline provide crisis support and suicide prevention services – they can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.
  • If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000

 

Back to Not Alone home page

 

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Season Two of Not Alone was made possible by Australia Post proudly supporting Beyond Blue.

 

Crisis support

If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include:

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