The Unscripted - lessons from a tragedy | Health application Therapify

The Unscripted – lessons from a tragedy

There are a couple of stories behind the founding of Therapify. But the core ones would for sure be two stories.

First one was me witnessing the suicide of my very close friend in 2015. Second story is about Damian’s dad who also took his own life in the same year.

Even if we didn’t know each other at the time for sure it was the thing that bound us together 3 years later.

Today I will tell you my story.

Back in 2015, I was a student of AGH University of Science in Krakow. I lived with my godfather Slawek. He was a director of many movies and tv series (in one of the biggest TV channels in Poland) over the previous 10 years which you can see here on vimeo:

He had just broken up with his girlfriend after a long relationship.  Me — let’s say I wasn’t super cool with my flatmates so we decided to move in together. 

I always felt like Slawek was the person in my family who has understood me the most and one of the factors here was also the fact that we have been pretty similar when it comes to character and appearance. The only  difference was Slawek was bald and I’m not. Yet. Slawek was also the kindest person I have ever known. Seriously, he was truly a good guy. Loved by many.

It was April 2015 and it was great in the beginning. We rented the apartment in Kazimierz district in Krakow — the most hipster in the whole city. We were hanging a lot around together, partying, talking, listening to music, watching movies, sharing books and eating a lot of tasty food (many many ribs & steaks, even if Slawek officially was vegetarian at the time — sorry Leo).

I was even helping Slawek  and his friend Marcin who moved into our apartment temporarily in the process of writing a script for their new movie “Snow Story” (a fantasy fairy tale set in a tiny Polish town).

It was a really great 100 days full of fun. And it has all changed in the last days of June 2015.

After two months of writing the script together, Marcin came back home to Warsaw. Slawek started acting very weird shortly after that.

It all began with some “computer problems”.

Slawek was saying that someone had broken into his computer. He stopped sleeping at night very soon after that. He tried to make things better with alcohol. There is a myth that alcohol helps to fall asleep but in fact it only intensifies the problem. And it has.

There was no way to make him go to a specialist or to persuade him that “hacker problems” were not real. Not a chance. Slawek was a very stubborn person his whole life.

After about a week he woke me up in the middle of the night and handed me a piece of paper:
“There is wiretap in the apartment” — and I said to him WTF, Slawek?
I thought it might have been a dream for a while, but that same night I found that piece of paper in the bin. I managed to fall asleep shortly afterwards. But Slawek woke me up like at 7am in the morning — all packed — and he said that he was going to prison — they framed him for the murder of 2 young girls and they had even placed the murder weapon in the apartment. He was totally serious. He said the girls were strangled with a rope. And that was the first — many times — that I noticed a rope somewhere in his belongings.
“Cops are outside waiting for me.” — he said.
He wanted to leave the apartment but I forced him to go to bed. 

Surprisingly, after that, he fell asleep for more than several hours for the first time in many days and I called my father (Slawek’s brother). He came down from Warsaw to Krakow the same day, we took Slawek to hospital and he got Valium along with some other stuff to take home with him. Same night Slawek was practically the same guy as always and he decided it was time to find professional help. 

Several specialists whom we consulted about Slawek’s state said that the hallucinations were a singular episode for Slawek. They were to be caused by a combination of stress, lack of sleep and excessive drinking. 

Soon after the event, I discovered that it was not the first time he was on the edge. I mean mentally.

It turned out that the problems had been growing in Slawek for the previous 10 years.

Slawek was struggling with depression — episode by episode — from early 2000s. For most of this time it was not being treated at all and the people around Slawek attributed it to his “artistic nature”. There were several times that Slawek was disappearing for many days. He also wrote a lot about suicide in his scripts and his poems. Every month for so many years some signals appeared.

There were many reasons behind his mental hardship, including childhood trauma and quite a tough life he had to go through before becoming a film director. Like a really difficult one but that’s not the point.

The point is that he never found nor searched for professional help or the support around the closest friends and family. Even if he was trying to show that he wasn’t ok, it was ignored for so many years. Ignored not because of lack of empathy, but, I believe, the lack of education on mental health. 

Most importantly though, Slawek was just hiding that he was suffering from the world — and you cannot help the person who doesn’t want your help. It’s a vicious cycle.

Slawek came back to work in TV at the end of the summer. Claimed he had no major issues but then we discovered that in reality  his problem became so serious at that point that he didn’t have the energy to do anything. Literally nothing. He also developed huge anxiety about losing his job because of his problems. His daily routine consisted of the following steps:

  • try to work,
  • try to sleep,
  • back to the first point.
But still, he was becoming more and more ineffective at work. I remember when he asked me to read the emails to him because he couldn’t focus for more than a few words of text. Back home he was basically vegetating and waiting for another day of work which must be survived by him. Sometimes I went to bars and had almost no sleep again. He slept only 2-3 hours every night, he was also gradually stopping eating, taking  showers and basically he was not doing any other things than trying to perform at work. He was putting superhuman effort into this. And he was suffering extra because of that.

I was bringing him food, meds, taking him out, forcing him to take a shower and to visit specialists. It seems pretty basic but at some point depression takes those basic skills from you. And at that point, depression hit Slawek ten times more than it would have, had it been treated much earlier.

About 3 weeks later his friend from work called me and said that Slawek left work without saying a word and that he was at the apartment’s door but Slawek wasn’t responding in any way. I was in my hometown that day so we all started to call him. He opened the door 2 hours later. All this time he was lying on the floor unconscious after overdosing sleeping pills. After I came back to Krakow such situations started occurring again and again. I started finding more and more ropes around the house.

I had to look for Slawek around Krakow at least several times when he wandered away because we were afraid that he did something to himself. In October, he stopped showering at all and he barely ate anything. It was the time that we made him take 3 months of leave. There were no major obstacles. It turned out both Slawek co-workers and his boss valued him very highly and — contrary to Slawek’s predictions — had much sympathy for him no matter the illness he was struggling with.

Still, the situation was becoming more and more critical. It was diagnosed as a very serious clinical depression state at that point. Finally, we decided that Slawek should move to my dad’s house in Warsaw.

The aim was to change the environment. There was one condition though. To start taking pharmacological treatment seriously. Slawek was refusing to take pills prescribed by the psychiatrist for almost 5 months already. He agreed and moved in with my dad. 

He also started joint pharmacological therapy and psychotherapy at the beginning of November. For some time it really seemed to go in the right direction. Slawek rested a lot. Every day he was taking small steps for the better and — at the time — we were becoming convinced that the worst stage was behind him. He was even talking about going back to his job in Krakow or even finding something new in Warsaw and building a house together with my father. It really looked pretty nice for several weeks. We met in December in Warsaw. I visited my father and Slawek and stayed a couple of days with them. We had a great time. Slawek was in quite a good shape. He was taking me to Kebab King (kind of our favorite place) every day and we watched more than 10 movies in 5 days.

Nonetheless, Slawek’s eyes didn’t look the same ever again.

They were kind of… avoiding.

And there was one odd thing. I asked him if he needed anything from the apartment. And he told me to take his military boots because he liked taking a lot of walks around Kabaty Woods recently. He said that snow made him feel cold when trekking. So I did it.

These were the same shoes which Slawek wore when “going for a walk” for the last time. Now I know that he was in such a good mood during my visit because — in his mind — he was closing all issues before leaving. Later, we discovered that he was saying goodbye to his closest friends from Warsaw by meeting up with them in the same casual way.

He hung himself in Kabaty Woods in Warsaw on the 23rd of December 2015.

It happened around 2 pm and I remember I was on my way to my hometown for Christmas exactly at that time. Of course Slawek had been invited and I was pretty sure that he would pay us a visit on the following day.

After that I was like… not functioning for more than half of the year. It was a pretty hard time to go through. It was the only time since I was 17 when I stopped working. Honestly, I don’t have a clue how I passed my 2nd year of studies. Probably it was only thanks to one of my friends from university who basically pulled me through the whole semester. And I can’t imagine going through this without my closest family and friends.

There are several lessons I drew from that experience and I would like to share especially everyone facing the problem of seriously mentally troubled family member:

  • Don’t blame — if I regret one thing I regret I didn’t understand Slawek on time. You should remember that depression is a disease and with anger or complaining you are only making the situation worse. What’s more, don’t blame yourself when you fail to help because it’s always the final call on the side of disturbed person. You can only help and support but you will not make any decisions for them at the end of the day.
  • Visit a specialist as soon as you notice any alarming symptoms and if it’s getting out of control. In many cases — like Slawek’s — first symptoms appear many years or months before the disorder fully hits so there is time to react. If you think it’s too expensive to calculate how much it is when the ill person loses a job for instance. You can’t make a heart disease go away by yourself. Depression is an illness like any other. 
  • Be kind to other people. There is more than 10% of the population struggling with mental disorders and it may happen that it’s someone around you. Those people may be a little bit more vulnerable than others, so, just to be sure, be kind to others.
  • Take care of yourself when helping others. Depression negatively influences people trying to help. In some cases it’s a full-time job, so take preventive measures like: go to a psychotherapist yourself, try support groups, eat healthy and practice sports. When there is an emergency on an airplane you have to put the mask on your face not your child to save both of you — it’s really the same in that case, especially the situation may last for many months.
I also have three lessons I would like to recommend to you if you feel yourself that you may be facing some mental health issues right now:

  • Look for help, do not avoid the topic. Start with your closest family or your best friend and they will become your anchor. They love you and they will be happy to help you. YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN to them. Forget this word, Slawek was repeating it all the time but we never felt that way. Even in the most serious situations it’s not how the other side feels if they are your friends. Trust them — your soulmates really don’t care if you are Mr President or the garbage man. There are more important things in your life than job or money, really.
  • Don’t be afraid of antidepressants and other medications. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists are here to help — the same with drugs of those kinds. In many cases they are necessary to survive and have a chance to go back to normal life. It’s not shameful to take them — it’s just responsible to take care of yourself.
  • There is life after depression. I know many people who were on the edge — and they lead pretty cool lives now. It’s not a shame — it’s a disorder just like the flu or a broken leg. A person with depression cannot work as effectively as the others, and a person with a broken leg cannot run as fast as the others, end of story. And always remember — it will get better if you decide to fight with it.

Hope someone will find it helpful. It was kind of helpful to me.

Łukasz Pstrong  

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