Welcome to our annual Mental Health Awareness series where we proudly introduce you to Vale employees who courageously share their own personal struggles. In speaking their truths, these champions of mental health wellness give the rest of us the invaluable gifts of comfort (we are not alone), education (get the help we need) and strength (quash the stigma). In this story you will meet Peter Vaters, a senior Process coordinator at our Newfoundland & Labrador Operations. Please read on…
Peter didn’t know what was happening. His heart was racing. Sweat was dripping from his brow and he was gasping for air. “I thought I was dying,” he said, as he thought back to that day at work in 2015. It’s one he has never forgotten because it’s the day that everything changed.
Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.
Peter wasn’t dying. Instead, he was experiencing a panic attack and when he left work that day, he wouldn’t return for another eight months. “It was like a switch just flipped,” he recalled, “and everything went out of whack.”
For weeks after, Peter was gripped by fear. Two months before, he had fought in a kickboxing match but now, he couldn’t even face climbing the stairs to leave his basement.
Finally, a diagnosis
A diagnosis took six months. Peter learned that he had bipolar and generalized anxiety disorders. What followed was years of treatments – some successful, some not so much. “We tried so many medications,” Peter remembered. “It was a horrible thing to go through.” With his symptoms not responding to medication, his doctors suggested electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT involves passing a small, controlled electric current through part of the brain and though why it works is largely a mystery, it’s believed that the current, by affecting chemicals that transfer messages between nerve cells, corrects biochemical changes associated with mental health disorders.
“I lost about a year and a half of my life to ECT. I don’t remember any of it,” he explained. “I went on vacation during that time but even now, I don’t remember going on that trip. I couldn’t remember what happened from one day to the next.” When he stopped ECT in 2018, he had gotten to a healthier place, and he spent the next eight weeks with an occupational therapist rebuilding his memory and cognition skills.
This past June, Peter reached a personal milestone. It marked the first time in six years that he had worked a full year, and as he reflects on his experiences, he is grateful for the support he had from family, friends and work.
Support at work
“My bosses and manager were so understanding,” he said. “They made everything so much easier. If I wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t have to hide it. I could tell my bosses that I’m not mentally well and they understood.”
Also upon reflection, Peter has noticed that he’s a better person now, than he was before he got sick. “Sure, it was a negative situation,” he said, “but the silver lining is that I’ve become more empathetic. I’m also more disciplined and self-aware. I look after myself. I can take the good out of what I’ve gone through because my disorder doesn’t define me. It’s just part of who I am.”
Peter manages his diet and exercise carefully, and continues with therapy and taking medication. If he has a bad day, he does what he can to keep that day from turning into a bad week or a bad month. He knows progress is never a straight line but that the key is to keep going. He admits that there were moments where he felt discouraged. and questioned if he’d ever progress, but as he looks back over the last six years, he can see how the incremental and glacial change that accrued first over days, then weeks, months and years, is monumental.
You are not alone
Peter is sharing his story because by doing so, it might encourage others to reach out and to draw strength from his experiences. “I love this quote. ‘Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.’”
He knows that what’s critical for anyone wrestling with their mental health is perseverance. “It’s about holding on. It’s about trying to get a little better every day. It’s reaching out and talking to someone.”
Peter credits Vale for playing a role in his progress. Employees at Long Harbour are required to take mental health training. These programs aren’t there just for the sake of having a program. There is true support,” he said.
“I put myself out there because if sharing what I went through can help someone else, that’s just great.”33