This article discusses psychosis and may be distressing for some readers.
It was a morning in February, 2014, as Osher Günsberg sat in a Los Angeles cafe with a coffee and a copy of the New York Times, that a terrifying thought descended on him.
The then-39-year-old, who had hosted the first season of Australia’s The Bachelor the previous year, was unemployed and living in LA as he waited to hear whether the show would be renewed.
He was in an intense relationship (his first serious relationship since becoming sober), his father was very ill, and he had been off his anti-anxiety medication for about nine months.
At that time, on that day, and without warning, he started to lose touch with reality.
The article Günsberg was reading on that Friday morning in February happened to be about climate change. In an interview with Mia Freedman on the No Filter podcast, he recalled how “something popped into my brain”, and to this day, it hasn’t entirely gone away.
In one moment, he became “100 per cent convinced that the full, catastrophic ramifications of the worst possible case scenario projections of full climate change were happening, and they were happening today”.
It was as though all of a sudden he knew “the seas are going to rise 15 metres, the earth is going to warm up 10 degrees and all food storage and food transportation and everything, our whole way of looking after ourselves and looking after our lives and the lifestyles that we live, will vanish”. Günsberg was certain he was the only person who had full knowledge of, and cared about, this imminent danger.
Listen: Osher Günsberg joins Mia Freedman on No Filter to talk about his book Back, After The Break, where he writes about his life.
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As Günsberg ruminated on the thought, he decided to go for a run – a coping strategy he’d always relied on when he was experiencing anxiety. But as he started to run, he says he got an “overwhelming urge to run up to people and warn people,” to shout at them and tell them the world was ending and they needed to get home and protect themselves.
As he ran, he started to see himself running underwater, as though the sea levels had risen. “I’m looking above me and the palm trees are over my head… and they’re now kind of weird water lilies,” he told Freedman. “It was very, very hard to tell the difference between am I imagining this, or is it real?”
Then there were the physical symptoms. The TV presenter says he felt as though someone was running up behind him about to flick him, and he was flinching away in anticipation.
Despite his steadfast delusion that the impacts of climate change were in the midst of happening, bringing disastrous consequences to mankind, Günsberg could sense he was “very, very sick”.
Years of cognitive behavioural therapy had taught him to question his automatic thoughts, and he could see that no one else around him was terrified.
Simply the weather, the sunshine, was a trigger for him. At the time, he was terrified the rest of his life would be like this.
What if he felt this way forever? And was always in this state of panic?
One skill Günsberg had mastered while going through sobriety was the idea of being accountable to other people. He knew that when his thoughts became too overwhelming, he needed to reach out to friends and family and mentors. In the depths of his psychosis, he said he Facetimed, Skyped and called people for “14 straight hours”.
The benefit of this support, he told Freedman, wasn’t to challenge his delusion or tell him that everything would be fine.
In fact, he’s adamant that at that point, “the part of my brain that would’ve accepted a rational response was utterly malfunctioning”. Instead, the role of the people he spoke to was to “ground him,” to just be there to talk about the mundane, the parts of life that had nothing to do with the world ending.
When detailing his experience, Günsberg uses the analogy of a billboard. In those first few days, the delusion about climate change was all he could see, as though he was standing directly in front of a billboard on a highway. But as he spoke to his support network, received help from mental health professionals, and managed aspects of his lifestyle like diet, exercise and sleep, the billboard became smaller and smaller.
In a podcast studio in Sydney in August, 2018, he said “it’s about the size of this little coaster here on the table”.
It’s still there every single day, and different factors can make it bigger or smaller.
One of the breakthrough moments for Günsberg came from a promise from his now-wife, makeup artist Audrey Griffen. He said whenever he pictured the logical conclusion of his delusion – that climate change was imminently destroying the world and all the people in it – he saw himself sitting on a mountain alone, watching the emptiness.
But in the early days of his relationship with Griffen, as he was coping with the highs and lows of treating his condition, Griffen gave him a simple piece of reassurance: if he ever did end up on that mountain, she’d be right beside him.
And suddenly, it was just that little bit less scary.
A message from SANE Australia Help Centre Manager Suzanne Leckie:
“For people struggling with mental health difficulties, there are several ways to find help. The path that people choose depends on what they feel ready for. A good first step is going to see a GP who can get a sense of what’s happening and make a referral to a specialist service. If that feels a little daunting, sharing concerns with a family member or friend can be helpful. Particularly if they are likely to respond positively and be proactive in helping to make any necessary appointments. They may even be able to come along to appointments for support.”
“If someone doesn’t feel ready to talk face to face, they can call a helpline to anonymously discuss what’s happening and chat about their options for treatment and support. A service like the SANE Help Centre (1800 18 72 63) or Lifeline (13 11 14) will be able to provide support and guidance on useful next steps when someone is concerned about their mental health or that of a loved one.”