Mental wellness – a personal journey

Chris Morris reflects on recent challenges during mental health awareness week.

Mental Wellness, I’m ashamed to say, has never been something that I have thought about in any great detail.  I have supported any initiative at work that has increased the availability of mental health resources for our staff, but at a personal level I haven’t thought about what it meant for me. 

Perhaps I have been lucky and have never had to deal with any serious adversity that has tested my mental strength, or perhaps I have developed my own personal coping mechanisms, but regardless in the last six weeks my mental health has been tested numerous times.  I wouldn’t usually share what follows, but it’s mental health week so now is probably the time to do it.

In July 2021 my Dad was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer with only weeks to live.  Having been fit and active his entire life this came as a total shock.  The news couldn’t have come at a worse time.  Auckland was in lockdown and my parents live in the UK.  I was forced to consider whether I leave for the UK, with no guarantee of returning home to my wife and kids, or stay in New Zealand and wait for inevitable news.  I chose to go to the UK to support my Mum and sister, a decision my family and employer backed.

Once in the UK I visited the hospital every day, driving my Mum back and forth and spending what time I could with my Dad.   Dad was never going to recover; his body was failing but his mind was as sharp as ever which made for some good and sometimes tough conversations.  Talking about what Dad wanted at his own memorial was a hard one.  The emotional courage my Dad displayed far outstripped my own.  My Mum and I were with my Dad as he passed away peacefully on a bright September morning only a couple of weeks after my return to the UK.  At the time I held things together well, but I know that at some point in the future I’ll revisit that moment.

Exercise helped clear my head

Grief is one of those things that we will all have to deal with at some point in our lives.  The situation is unique to the individual and everyone copes in different ways.  For me exercise has always been a way to help clear my head.  Two years ago we adopted a dog and since that day I go for daily walks and these walks have become a time where I clear out the attic of the mind and I think this did wonders for my mental health.  In the UK I lacked a real dog and so would take an imaginary one for a walk instead.  Most mornings I would head for the local park and think about the previous day.  In the research I have read an active body is a necessity for a healthy mind.

A healthy body doesn’t just mean looking at your fitness it also means you have to look at what you feed it.  Having been a meat eater for most of my life I became a vegetarian recently and although I can’t claim any particular change to my mental state, I do feel more energised.

walking dog
Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Returning to NZ

I was conscious that my wife and kids were back in New Zealand and that I wanted to return to them even though it meant leaving my UK family.   There has been a lot of stories about MIQ in the news at the moment, what I can say is that from my own personal mental wellness the uncertainty that the lottery system has generated is very challenging.   Fear of the unknown has been described as the fundamental fear,  (Carleton, 2016; p. 39) and I now really appreciate what that means.

In my case I was able to apply under the Emergency Allocation process but even with this system I was provided with only 48 hours notice that I had been allocated a space in MIQ.  Add this uncertainty to dealing with grief and no amount of walking can really resolve your mental state.  Conversations could easily become arguments, innocent comments became loaded with hidden meaning, tolerance plummeted, and sympathy evaporated. 

To get through the worst bits I relied on my family and friends and a fair degree of humour.  I would regularly talk with my wife and kids or meet with friends to try and gain a bit or normality.  I would download my experience, sometimes in too much detail, which I am sure my friends found uncomfortable, but sometimes you just need to share.  My sister and I probably drank a little too much and laughed in ways only siblings can.  These were all ways of coping I guess, and they certainly helped to get through dark moments.

MIQ and its challenges

I’m now in an MIQ facility in Auckland, it’s day 2 of 14.  I have been asked by the staff here about mental health and how I will cope being stuck in a hotel room for the next two weeks.  Mental Health support is provided if required, but for me one of the key mechanisms is exercise and unfortunately opportunities to exercise are limited to 25 minutes a day walking round a small track less than 100 meters long.  I don’t think they even allow imaginary dogs in the facility.

This will be the hardest aspect of the time spent here, but I think I’ll be ok.  I have been forced to consider my own mental wellbeing over the last month, something that I had previously neglected to give much thought, but now I’m here, with little opportunity avoid the facts of the last month, I think I’ll even try a bit of meditation.   

Photo by Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash

Taking the time to consider mental health

Mental wellness is something we can all consider, with a bit more preparation I might have been mentally stronger and been a little more focused in how I dealt with the last month.  Take the opportunity to consider your mental health this week https://www.mhaw.nz/.