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Stigma Fighters : The Anxious Fireman

Dear all,
First and foremost my love to you all. My name is Jonny Ward, or the ‘Anxious Fireman’ on Twitter. I am 5’11”, I’m strongly built, a fire-fighter. I enjoy strongman training, travel, adventure, the outdoors and working with my hands. I wear jeans and white t shirts, boots, I sweat!
Oh and I also have a panic disorder!
I started my journey into the world of mental ill health roughly two years ago. I loaded myself with stress, self-doubt, fear and a huge inability to accept I couldn’t cope. This eventually resulted in me having a black out whilst with friends.
Coming round on the floor with a paramedic stood over me, I was different. I could feel it. I was no longer the strong, independent, rough tough boy I was accustomed too. I was still me of course but, mentally, I had weakened.
Weakened? Maybe that’s not the right word. But that’s how I felt at the time.
And so I began to have panic attacks. At work, in lectures, whilst eating meals, whilst exercising. Anytime I wasn’t on my own or feared I would make an idiot out of myself, my parasympathetic nervous system would kick into high gear and perceive a threat that wasn’t there. Thus releasing the fight or flight mechanism and causing me to panic.
It consumed me, leaving the house became a game of whit’s against myself, trying to convince the voices in my head that I was safe and didn’t require to fight or flight! It took me a long time to accept it was psychological; I was desperate for this feeling to be a physical illness, something I could understand, but more importantly something I could accept.
It of course wasn’t, it was very much in my head.
A turning point came when a new GP at my surgery met me, I told him my symptoms and he rolled his chair over to me, tapped me on my head and said –
“Jonny, this is in your head, and you’re very ill”
These two concepts came as a surprise, it was in my head and I was ill? How could that be? How can I be ill if it’s in my head? The head can’t be ill? Plus my head is fine, it’s strong, I’m strong! GRRRRR!!!!
Fast forward two years to today. I have learnt to accept my panic disorder and it’s very much controlled. I am still taking medication; I have used CBT and counselling to help break the negative thought patterns in my mind. Most importantly I have learned to accept myself as a man.
It’s this I want to focus on; I have been tweeting about my mental health for a year or so. What I have noticed more than anything is how willing people are to open up about their personal mental health. Well…when I see people, I mean on the whole, women.
I have only a handful of male followers and even less who are willing to accept or open up about their mental ill health.
So I’m trying to become in some small way, a role model for men. I’m no hero, which I can assure you. I’m just a guy.
But I am in a unique place as I have a job that would place me in the masculine, hardy man category. The quintessential stereotype for men who can cope and are robust.
But yet, I have a panic disorder.
I am a fire-fighter; I have rescued people from burning building, pulled them from vehicle wreckage, and dragged people from freezing cold water.
But yet, I have a panic disorder.
And that’s ok. It doesn’t define me, it’s a part of me but it’s not all I am. For men we define ourselves against our weakest parts. I see it all the time in the gym –
My arms are small so I will work on them; My legs are small so I will hammer them.
It’s ok to have a weakness. It’s normal, natural and ok. In fact I alluded to a big realisation earlier, when I woke up from my black out I said I felt weakened. I was, but its recognising this weakness, learning to manage it and accept it, which eventually has made me mentally stronger than I have ever been.
I thought telling the guys at my station I have a panic disorder would mean they would lose faith in me, loose respect for me and not treat me as equal. In fact by being honest, opening up about my illness, it has gained me more of their respect than I could ever have imagined.
By showing my weakness I allow people in and to become much closer to me. They in turn have shared their own and a new, stronger bond that I ever thought possible has started to emerge. One which I feel privileged to have accessed.
I still have panic attacks, but I know what they are and they don’t scare me anymore. I just let them pass then move on.
So I hope this helps, well, anyone. But I hope some men read this and decide to take a leap of faith to a new level of strength. The strength to accept yourself, warts and all.
My love to you all
The Anxious Fireman

*   *   *

f36706273I am Jonny Ward
30 years old
Manchester England
I am a fire-fighter of 8 years
I have a panic disorder

Jonny can be found on Twitter

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  • Mint

    Excellent post. Firefighters are very brave just by the dangerous nature of their important jobs but this shows a different kind of bravery. Little boys and young men especially need to be exposed to more of this kind of bravery. To know that nobody is perfect, even their heroes – that is is okay to have flaws and fears. Keep talking about it!

  • Lismat

    Great to hear about this on Radio 4 Male Room 19/12/16.