Here we share insights from Derek Baas and Mike Owen about Mental Health. Huge thanks to both of these Somerville Heart Foundation members who spoke to us for Men’s Health Week 2023

Derek Baas

Derek Baas, born with Tetralogy of Fallot

Last year I wrote: As my heart disease evolves over time, so will the mental health issues associated with it. New issues will make themselves known and old ones will likely pop back to mind from time to time. Thus my ability to live and thrive with CHD will continue to be a function of practicing agency and developing capacity around all aspects of my health.

To this I would add: Progress with respect to mental health is definitely not linear. Earlier this year, I felt I’d gone back to square one and that all of my experience, knowledge and hard work had been for nothing. It wasn’t true though, because the amount of time it took to start bouncing back from this very low point, was considerably less than it was in the first instance (months vs. years.) Having good coping skills and support doesn’t necessarily mean you will never fall – it can simply mean being better at getting back up when you do.  

Starting in November 2022, I experienced a cluster of ventricular tachycardia episodes. These were unnerving, particularly when it became clear that they were not one-off incidents. My mental health worsened further in late January 2023. I started to feel light-headed and sensed the tell-tale racing of my heart. Next thing I knew, my wife was standing over me as I lay with my head on my bed and my knees on the floor.  I had lost consciousness from a cardiac event for the first time ever and had received a full-on shock from my implanted defibrillator for the first time since 2001.     

I immediately found myself snapped back to my head space of 1993-94 when major implications of my CHD presented themselves for the first time in my adult life.  I started having frequent episodes of racing heart, I knew that something was terribly wrong, but nobody could figure out what. I became anxious, hesitant, and afraid of doing anything that might set off one of these mystery spells. I felt and acted a shadow of my former self (I was finally diagnosed with life-threatening VT in March 1994 and received my first ICD later that year). These problems slowly abated – with many ups and downs along the way – over the course of several years.   

This January, I knew what I was dealing with and had almost 30 years of experience with arrythmia and a bevy of coping skills under my belt, but none of that mattered. The pass into uncharted territory of actually losing consciousness cut through all that. In my mind, I was 28 years old again, surprised, confused, hypervigilant and afraid of my own shadow. It felt like a complete regression and was very frustrating.

However, over the course of the next couple of months, I started to regain some confidence. Once the episodes stopped (largely owing to new a medication), I was able to calm down a little, draw upon the support of family and friends and deploy some of the strategies that had helped me in the past. Five months after the fateful day and four weeks after a very intense ablation procedure (my second), I am still somewhat mentally shaky. But it has only been five months.  In the 1990s it took me about 3 years to get to this stage from a very similar starting point.          

Mike Owen, born with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome and Atrial Septal Defect

In football, the term “The Red Zone” is used to describe teams that play at maximum capacity just to stay in the game. When they are in the Red Zone, the players over stretch, over commit, lose control, rush their passes, make mistakes and are playing on the edge of capitulation.

Living with a physical or mental illness puts your life in the Red Zone, where your body is working harder just to stay in the game, everything becomes a challenge, and the slightest setback threatens to tip you over the edge.

With a physical illness or injury, we are limited in the steps we can take to reduce the intensity of the Red Zone and we need to rely on the talents of skilled doctors and surgeons to hopefully provide relief from the pain and the suffering.

With a mental illness, the focus turns to you and, although it’s probably the last thing you feel like doing, the onus is on you to take responsibility for reducing the severity of your symptoms.

During my counselling sessions, when I was advised to challenge my anxiety and see the reality, it soon became clear that I’d have to navigate most of the battles on my own. Understandably, as I didn’t have a clue what to do or how I was going to do it, I was filled with dread.

The choice was stark, either stay in that Red Zone for longer, or grab the chance provided by counselling and take steps to gradually change things.

Steps that, on the surface, seem too simple to have any effect, but each shoot of green that sprouts into your life gradually dilutes the depth of the red, making the next step slightly easier and its benefits more noticeable.

You may not be in a stable enough position to change the reasons behind the Red Zone, but with the introduction of deeper greens, the red turns into a calmer orange and breathing space, brought on by prioritised self-care.

Space that not only empowers you to effectively deal with any predicted and unexpected setbacks, but also refocus your thoughts, reframe your challenges, lighten your view and reduce the influence of the red that you felt would never diminish.

The first step only needs to be small and within your capabilities:

Regular gentle exercise, visiting, enjoying, appreciating and getting closer to the beauty of the natural world. Prioritising self-care by improving your diet, sleep and hygiene, providing quality time to rest. Walking, headphones off, listening to the many and varied sounds that surround you, giving your brain time and space to process the thoughts that whirl through your mind. Acknowledge them, expose them, challenge them and rationalise them, reducing their hold, relinquishing their control and pushing back on the anxiety that relies on them.

Small, maintainable and achievable steps in your direction, at your pace and within your capabilities.

And if you are struggling and the fear of failure looms again, keep stepping in whatever way is manageable by you and if beating your Personal Best is sometimes impossible, being your Personal Best, in whatever way works for you, is always achievable!

Keep Stepping.