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Delving deep for recovery
It started with the click of a pistol. In the moment that followed which felt like an eternity, Matthew Fredericks* ran for his life. It was later found that a bullet had been fired through a window. Matthew was left shaken, but alive.
As a young father working at a boarding school in an idyllic quiet suburban community in the 1990’s, Matthew could never have imagined the long journey of trauma and recovery his life was going to take after the events that unfolded on that fateful day.
Being woken up early one morning by the news that there were intruders heading towards the girls’ boarding house, Matthew had no hesitation in putting himself in the face of danger. Before arriving at the boarding house, Matthew learnt the men were armed. Despite this, he calmly approached the intruders and asked them to leave, to protect the almost 300 student boarders. To Matthew’s surprise, the intruders seemed to accept his instructions to leave and headed towards the exit.
As a strategy to watch the intruders leave and not to irritate them, Matthew bent over to do his shoe up as the intruders walked away. Unfortunately, Matthew’s relief was short lived as he heard a clicking sound coming from the men. He looked up and saw a gun pointing at him. The next thing he knew, Matthew was running for his life.
In the days and months that followed the incident, Matthew became increasingly anxious and stressed at work, which was compounded by distress at his employer’s immediate abuse and criticism of Matthew’s brave intervention. He was also under strict instruction to not disclose any details of the events, forcing Matthew to pretend nothing had happened when asked about the incident by staff and students.
Feeling as though the world was on his shoulders each time he returned to work after having time off, Matthew also began to experience physical health issues and intense panic attacks with stroke-like symptoms. These attacks led to a dramatic drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness with Matthew regularly passing out up to 20 times a day.
Matthew’s daily fight with his mental and physical health caused him to struggle at a job he was previously very good at, leading him to seek further medical help. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, three years after the incident took place. To add to the stress of his situation, his employer then made him redundant.
At home, things weren’t going well either as Matthew’s wife’s behaviour changed; he experienced abuse and untrue allegations and witnessed his wife’s gambling problems while at home trying to focus on his recovery.
Matthew’s wife later left him, and although this brought some relief after the abuse he’d received, it did lead Matthew to reflect on the blur of the past ten years and the depression and anxiety he had experienced since the incident. With his children now young adults, Matthew reflected on his struggles alone and started to experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
When Matthew was at a loss, he took himself straight to the nearest hospital emergency department and later called LifeLine. After doing this, he spoke of his feelings and experiences with his GP and learned of local services he could connect with. These services included a psychologist for Matthew who could provide appropriate support, to work through the strong thoughts and feelings he was experiencing.
As he worked with multiple psychologists over a period of several years, Matthew then tried to simply live life and adjusted his focus to his abilities and strengths prior to the incident, rather than focusing on the trauma.
After gaining weight over the previous ten years and then coming off anti-depressants, Matthew decided enough was enough and aimed to get back to his original fitness level prior to the incident. Planning to get himself fit enough to play rugby again, a sport he loved, Matthew initially started with 4 sets of 3 sit-ups and push-ups each day for a week. He then worked to build this up over time, adding an additional repetition each week per set until he got to 200 push-ups, 460 sit-ups and 90 chin-ups each day. As Matthew got fitter, he also added new activities to the mix, including regular walking, running, swimming, cycling, motocross and road racing, sailing and kayaking.
After learning from the psychologist how to identify and catch negative thinking and triggers associated with his trauma, the power of sport opened a new avenue for Matthew’s recovery. With his regained fitness and success in rugby, Matthew found he thought less and less of his previous trauma, anxiety and depression and started to think ‘it’s good to be me’ and his thoughts took a positive turn.
With his new found lease of life, Matthew also started to delve deeper into his recovery and started attending a local men’s support group. It was in this group that he was able to openly share his feelings with other men and seek their help and opinions. He was able to identify the connection between his thoughts and behaviours and successfully started to separate his past experiences from his thinking patterns. Matthew’s involvement and enthusiasm eventually led him to co-facilitate the group. This developed into leading the group some weeks - all to help other men in their recovery.
Reflecting on his journey, Matthew came to the realisation that his wellbeing was far more important than any material item, as he identified how strong and caring he was as a person. He also now knew how crucial it was to prioritise his wellbeing to ensure he got the help he needed. Matthew realised there are better things in life to live for, which has allowed him to let go of his stigma. Matthew is now happily remarried and a great father and friend. He is going on to study psychology and hopes to continue to provide strength to help men living with mental illness.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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Matthew’s story is a part of the Tackling the Challenge Project, a collection of local men’s stories about resilience and recovery. If you have a story to share and would like to know more, contact Brendan Bennett on Brendan.Bennett@health.nsw.gov.auor 8738 5983. If you need support, call Lifeline: 13 11 14 or the Mental Health Line - a 24-hour telephone service: 1800 011 511.