My name is Fiona and I am 25 years old. I have struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Today I live with anxiety disorders and recurring episodes of major depression. This week is the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week and they are encouraging people to #GetLoud about what mental health really is. This is my story.
As a child I was always one of those kids who was more sensitive than anyone else. I was generally a happy kid but I could be provoked to cry or throw hissy fits much more easily than others. Probably for that reason, I was also a huge target for bullying which inhibited me from developing a positive sense of self. I was often very low and felt misunderstood when I was young. No one quite knew how to handle my big emotions. For many years it was assumed that I was intentionally attention-seeking and over dramatic. My outbursts and moodiness must have seemed like I was just being difficult. When my emotions were beyond my control I would pretend to have a cold or the flu so that I could stay home from school, a habit I kept for many years. Because my mental health problems were not seen for what they were, I went a long time before finally getting any treatment for them.
As a pre-teen I began experiencing panic attacks. However at the time I assumed they were asthma attacks because they felt startlingly similar to the asthma attacks I had when I exercised. Whether panic or asthma, I experienced shortness of breath, a sense of losing control and dizziness, but the panic attacks were far worse. One of the first times I can remember having a panic attack was at an away camp during the summer. I was so confused when my inhaler wouldn’t help me recover from what I assumed was an asthma attack. From then on I had panic attacks on an irregular basis, always assuming they were caused by my asthma until part way through high school.
In my teens I sought out romantic relationships as a means to feel better about myself. I thought that if guys could be interested in me than I must have some redeeming qualities. I had one relationship that turned toxic. The dynamic in the relationship was way off and it began to eat away at any sense of pride I had in myself. It’s hard to leave a toxic relationship, because it’s easy to tell yourself that you are getting what you deserve. When your self-esteem is low, it can feel like a blessing to have a boyfriend, even if they aren’t treating you with kindness. So I presented the relationship as a good thing to everyone I knew, I hid my suffering and the pain I was enduring. For all that anyone could tell, I was as happy as ever. But this was really the time in my life when I first knew that my mental health was not where I wanted it to be.
I first went to see a psychologist before moving away for college. A lot of changes were happening in my life and my worsening moods were apparent to my family. My mom helped me find a psychologist and set up an appointment. I met with her a couple of times and it helped me gain some understanding of what I was going through. Through various assessments she was able to tell me that it seemed I struggled with mood disorders, specifically depression and anxiety. She helped me put some of the more troubling events of my life in perspective so that I was more at peace with them.
I moved away to college when I was 18. I was looking forward to this fresh start. However, when I moved away, my ex-boyfriend moved to the same school and lived in the same residence. It felt as though my past was following me everywhere. Not long into the school year I experienced my first suicidal episode. With the encouragement from a friend from back home I approached a couple of my new friends at school about what I was going through and they brought me to the hospital. After a few hours in the Emergency Department I was sent home with an appointment to meet with a psychiatrist at the hospital a couple of weeks later. In the weeks leading up to the appointment I began to self-injure for the first time. When I went in to see the psychiatrist at the hospital I was frank about my state of mind and behaviours, and he immediately admitted me to the inpatient mental health ward.
Being in a psych ward at 18 years old, far away from home, was terrifying. I wasn’t prepared for feeling caged up with a worn-down nursing staff, very ill patients and a frankly power-hungry and vindictive doctor. I was in the psych ward for over two weeks and I can say without a doubt that was the worst time in my life. That experience taught me to fear mental health care, which is really too bad because now years later I have interacted with several other hospitals, therapists and services and have never experienced anything even comparable to the toxicity of that psych ward. The only good thing that came from those two weeks was my first formal diagnosis which at the time was major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and insomnia.
After my stint in the hospital I moved back home with the intention of seeking mental health care before returning to school the following year. Well, it turned out that because I was hospitalized in another city, I wasn’t eligible for the outpatient psychiatric services at my local hospitals. I returned to see my psychologist but didn’t receive the kind of intensive therapy I really needed at that time. It was a desperate time, I remember feeling lost and hopeless. However about four months after moving home I started dating my now husband Tom, which was the start of a whole lot of healing. Tom helped me dispense of baggage and regain trust after negative relationship experiences. With time and effort I learned how to navigate a healthy relationship and begin to see myself in a more positive light.
I started school back up again the following year. For the past year I had been on a wait list to see a psychiatrist but only after moving away was I invited to go in for an appointment. I travelled back home to see the psychiatrist and was shocked when it was just a quick appointment to give me a diagnosis, with no follow-up plan. The whole time I was in college my mental health continued to deteriorate. My episodes of depression became more frequent and my anxiety more acute. I tried to call offices of psychiatrists and psychologists but none were taking on patients and I had no family doctor in that city to help refer me to them. Given my experience during my hospitalization I wasn’t inclined to try too hard to access services, I was petrified of receiving the same kind of treatment as I had in the past. So for the four years I was in school I didn’t receive any treatment for my mental health. I began to use maladaptive coping mechanisms as a way to get by like self-harm and an increase in overeating. Outside of my mental health my life was starting to take better shape, I was in a great relationship, had developed a really wonderful group of friends and was succeeding well in school.
After school ended I tried but failed to land on my feet in the work place. My confidence was shaken and I was at a loss about what to do in the future. Tom and I got engaged right around this time and decided to move back to our home town. Initially upon returning home I continued to look for work, but soon it became apparent that I was not well enough to work and I had to seek mental health treatment. My anxiety was starting to manifest in ways I was unfamiliar with (severe agoraphobia and social phobia) and I entered a depression that was lower than I had ever experienced. I started to struggle to see friends and family or leave the house. At my lowest I wouldn’t get out of bed, even to go to the washroom, unless Tom was home to accompany me from the bed to the bathroom. At the height of my anxiety I wasn’t able to sleep and I was having as many as 8 panic attacks in a day. I wouldn’t go downstairs because there were windows without dressings and there was a chance someone could see me, and even if not I would have to deal with light. I was so desperately low and so easily provoked to panic. In my room I didn’t have to worry about interacting with the world. If the blinds were pulled shut and I stayed quiet no one needed to know that I was home. I ignored phone calls and texts. I panicked any time I heard a knock at the door or even just someone walking by outside. It was hell.
After being followed by my family doctor for a couple of months I got an appointment to see a psychiatrist through a friend of a friend of my mom’s. I was so lucky that I got to sidestep the waiting period that would have accompanied normal referral processes, it is seriously messed up how long someone has to wait to receive necessary medical attention for mental illness (but that’s a topic for another day!). Finally after basically my whole life of struggling with mental health, I was being followed by a competent and kind psychiatrist. It was extremely difficult at first because I carried forward such strong anxieties from past experiences with mental health professionals, but it was well worth the effort.
That was about two years ago now. The past two years have been messy, difficult and uneven. I have seen tens of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. I have struggled with self-injury, suicide attempts and more panic attacks than I could hope to count. I have tried out a wide variety of medications. I have been hospitalized several times and visited Emergency a handful more. I have progressed in some ways and regressed in others. Getting married and watching some of my friends succeed in their personal lives has been a real highlight amongst all the messiness. Most importantly, I am working with a compassionate team of mental health professionals and I have an amazing network of supportive family and friends. Slowly but surely, we are finding solutions that work for me.
Last year during a hospitalization I decided to be open on social media with my friends about what I was going through. For years I had touted the virtues of speaking out and sharing your story, but mine was kept somewhat private. As soon as I started sharing about my anxiety, depression and experiences in mental health care I received responses from people saying it was helping them. On such a core human level, we don’t want to feel alone in our struggles. I continued to shed the facade that I was doing great and replace it with a more honest account of how I was doing, my successes and my failures. That led to me starting up this blog. It hasn’t always been easy to be so open and vulnerable. But each time I receive a message from someone thanking me for being open about my experiences with mental illness because it helps them with their own challenges, I feel a renewed energy for it.
Given that mental illness has been a part of my life from the start, I expect it probably will be until the end. But now that I have access to treatment there is a far better chance that my life will continue for many years to come. If there is one thing I wish I could shout from the rooftops, it would be for no one to ever take their mental health for granted. Don’t wait to seek mental health treatment, the longer you wait the more your issues will compound in to a bigger mess that is harder to manage. I believe as long as I continue to gain the skills and strategies I need to live with my illnesses, I will be okay. I still struggle with guilt and self-stigmatizing over my mental illness, but the more I share and am open about my experiences the more accepting I am of what I am going through.
It’s mental health week friends, time to #GetLoud.