People are always banging on about superheroes, or sporting heroes, or heroes of the arts, or the heroes that keep our streets safe and...

A Whole Different Set of Heroes

   People are always banging on about superheroes, or sporting heroes, or heroes of the arts, or the heroes that keep our streets safe and treat us when we’re sick. Except for the fictional among that list, I think we’d all agree that all of those people are heroes. Of course they are. But they’re not my heroes. I have a whole different set of heroes. I’d like to tell you my friend’s story, so that you’ll see who I mean.
   Two years ago, my friend was a completely normal, confident, carefree young man. He had issues with commitment because he took a break-up disproportionately badly a year before that, and probably various other small issues too; but as I’ve often discussed, too often all that makes each of us unique is the different emotional baggage we carry around, and how we choose to deal with it. What I’m trying to say is that I felt like my friend was a fairly well-rounded individual, albeit damaged to the same degree as anyone you’d give a polite smile to as you passed them in the street.
   But then, something snapped. Up in his head, something short-circuited, and everything started to grow gradually darker. At first, it just felt like a niggling worry about driving. Was I caught speeding on that journey? He’d start to wonder as he parked up. Did I tap the wing mirror of one of those parked cars I passed? Small worries with small consequences, I’m sure you’ll agree. But as the weeks went on, he noticed that these worries were starting to mingle with his lively imagination, creating new concerns that any ordinary driver never even considers. I passed a motorcyclist on the way here – is there a chance that I could have hit him, and not realised?
   I remember a woman crossing the road with a buggy as I passed. I hope I didn’t hit that buggy. I don’t want to be responsible for killing a baby.
   These thoughts would play on my friend’s mind until he managed to fall asleep, or he revisited the scene of the imagined crime to check that there was no blood on the road. This happened on numerous occasions; he even sometimes had to take strange, convoluted routes when driving me and others places, just so that he could pass a particular location that had played host to one of these events. It ended up that most of the time when he was not driving his car, he spent fearing the next time he had to drive his car or fearing the imaginary consequences of the last time he drove it. Something was starting to take hold of him, but it was only just beginning.
   He thought he could control it alone then. He Googled it, and found terms like OCD and Anxiety Disorder and Intrusive Thoughts so widespread that it seemed to him that half the world felt the same way, although simultaneously he felt like he knew that he was completely alone. He felt like by knowing what it was, he had it under control. He knew what his mind was up to, so it couldn’t get past him anymore.
   But soon enough, this gradual darkening spread from his driving to other areas of his life. He started to fear strangers who looked at him in peculiar ways. Why, if they were complete strangers, were they looking at him as if they knew him? Or as if he had done something wrong? Were they following him? Had they been following him for a while? How on earth could he escape their pursuit of him? These all sound like ridiculous questions, but my friend would have conversations exactly like this one with himself in his head on an almost daily basis. He would even regularly change the routes he took when walking to destinations regularly visited, for the sake of throwing off those who were out to spy on him. He refused to keep a steady routine, out of fear that it would be learned and mimicked by those conspiring against him.
   Then he started to question why he thought people would be after him, and his only answer was that he was somehow evil, and deserved to be punished. His paranoia was so intense, so real to him, that the only logical conclusion was that he deserved it. He knew that it was all in his head, this conspiracy of the world’s against his mental state, but it had wormed its way so deep that he thought it must be based on some mistakes he had made in his past that he can never take back. So he began to turn on himself.
   It must have been something he did on the Internet, he concluded. So he forbade himself from visiting the Web. When he couldn’t use social media, it must have been something he said via text message, or something he said in a phone call. So suddenly, he wasn’t allowed to use those either. In fact, messages received from either of these media would arouse suspicion in my friend almost immediately. Who just sent him a text? Why would they want him? Are they out to get him? Why can’t they just leave him alone?
   His friends couldn’t be trusted. At some point in his years of knowing them, he had wronged each one to some degree, just as we all have; and in his head, they had coordinated their revenge so that they would all strike at once. As for contact from people who weren’t even his friends anymore because of some disagreement long ago, contact from them would cause him to lock himself in his bedroom with a turned-off phone and covers over his head for a whole day.
   He wasn’t safe anywhere, was his warped conclusion; and the most punishing part for him was that he knew just how warped it was. The old him still existed, trapped inside of his mind, whispering to him that this was all ridiculous, and that these fears that had grown out of nowhere were without basis and shouldn’t be taking so much of his time. There was a battle raging in his mind every minute of the day, a crippling battle that his rational side would never win alone. At the point when he couldn’t confidently leave his house without feeling scared of being murdered, just after the stage where he began to fear that people he made eye contact with could read his thoughts and would see the darkness in his soul and hate him for it… that’s when he decided to take action.
   And now, just twenty months after all this started, my friend is very nearly back to his old self. He can drive long distances, and leave the car with only a niggling worry nibbling at his mind. An hour later, it’s out of his mind. He can make eye contact with strangers, even smile at them, without even giving it a second thought. He is changed in subtle, irreversible ways; but he is stronger than he has been in over a year, and the only way is up. He still can’t keep a girlfriend (they become too close for comfort), and he still has to check seats or patches of floor where has recently been sitting or standing before he leaves them, to ensure that he hasn’t dropped anything with his address on for his future murderers to pick up; but these things will bow to him once more. He has a long way to go, but the way he has already come was much longer, so he knows now that he can make the journey.
   So who are my friend’s heroes? Who are my heroes? They’re the people who were there for my friend. They’re my friend’s family. My friend’s network of nearest and dearest (even those that he feared to be working with the enemy, in those darkest days). His counsellor, that impartial ear that was just there to listen, to provide perspective, to help whenever it was needed; to her, he owes a great deal. But most of all, my biggest hero is my friend himself. He found the strength to face that demon, and although he still has some way to go to beat it, he knows he can do it, and I know he will.
   If you ever needed proof that these things can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, then my friend is that proof. But he’s also proof that with support, love and strength, it can be overcome.

   World Mental Health Day is every October 10; but that doesn’t mean we should forget mental health issues the rest of the year. It’s time for all of us to educate ourselves and support those who are suffering.

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