Good Morning, Depression

This post may be triggering to some individuals.

9am – My eyes open when I hear my husband rummaging around our bedroom, getting ready for work. It’s harder than usual for him to find clean clothes, our laundry is piling up precariously high in the hamper. My dog jumps on the bed and comes to greet me. My husband says, “good morning sleepy head”, while I unclip my CPAP mask and turn off the machine. He kindly avoids alluding to my break down last night. I know from him getting dressed already that I have slept-in past my goal time of 7:30am. One of my first thoughts is how disappointed my psychiatrist will be when she finds out I haven’t been keeping a consistent sleep schedule. I remind myself that’s irrational, she will know how hard I am trying.

I slowly pull myself up in to a sitting position, noticing a crick in my neck, no doubt the result of mounting tension in my shoulders from high anxiety. “Great”, I think to myself, “more pain”. I was supposed to go see a massage therapist to help with the muscle tension in my upper body but I still need to figure out if that treatment would be covered by my husband’s health insurance. That’s a problem for another day.

I reach for my phone while my husband brushes his teeth. Last night a fellow comrade on Twitter was in crisis, I am hoping to see good news. I fell asleep shaken with the possibility that he wasn’t safe. There is strength in connection over social media, but the distance can sometimes make me feel so hopeless to help. I don’t see any news, I hold out hope that he will check in to Twitter soon to say he is safe.

My husband is back from the bathroom. He comes and gives me a kiss, says he is on his way out and he’ll see me later. I can’t hold back the tears. I wish I could cry elegantly like the ladies in romantic comedies. For the next ten minutes he comforts me, reminds me he will be home soon enough and that he can call me on his lunch break. Every touch from my husband gives me strength and courage. Every time he lets go I begin to sob all over again. I feel horrible, the last thing I want is for him to worry about me while he is at work. I have dealt with many trials from mental illness, but perhaps none so terrible as the dread of waking up and having to survive another day. I try to hide how much I am hurting, but I fail miserably at this practice. I calm myself down as best as I can and give him a final kiss. I don’t want him to be late. I suppress my sobs as he walks down the stairs, grabs his lunch and closes the garage door behind him.

After a few minutes of seeking strength from cuddles with my dog who so intuitively is clinging a little closer to me this morning, I get up to go to the washroom. Passing the vanity mirror I notice my reflection. Its distorted features bear a resemblance to Quasimodo. I had forgotten that I plucked my eyebrows out yesterday when the urge to self-harm was overwhelming me. My eyes are puffy from crying and dehydration, I must remember to drink some water today. My CPAP has left a distinct ring around my nose and mouth. My whole affect is droopy, the feeling of being weighed down that I have been dealing with for weeks can be read all over my face. “Invisible illness”, I say to my dog, “not so invisible today”.

The washroom is brighter than the bedroom. I wince as I enter it. I’d say that depression makes me feel like a non-violent vampire, but my affection for garlic denies me that claim. I reach for a pill bottle, but I don’t have one anymore having come off of my last antidepressant just a few days ago. There have been many attempts to find a daily medication that works for me, so far, no luck on that score. My bathroom routine takes longer than usual, mental illness at its worst wreaks havoc on my digestion. I skip brushing my teeth and hair, they are a mess but I am already drained from the few minutes I have spent out of bed. On the way out of the washroom I check that our medicine cabinet is locked, it is. My husband holds the only key, a security measure we put in place at the urging of my psychiatrist after one of my suicide attempts last year. It has often crossed my mind that I could break the cabinet open if I really wanted to, but the superficial barrier of the lock gives me enough pause to remember that is a bad idea.

I change in to a fresh pair of pyjamas. I have steadily accrued a large array of sleepwear; my agoraphobia has been crippling for the last two years so I seldom leave the house. Being comfortably dressed in pyjamas just makes more sense. As I slip on my stained pyjama bottoms I remind myself that putting on day clothing might help me feel more put together; working from the outside in and yada yada. But truly, that’s a struggle for another day. I remember the counsel my psychiatrist gave me last week, “Your job for the next two weeks is to wake up at the same time every morning, eat all three meals and stay out of your bedroom during the day. The rest is gravy.” This is sage advice, focussing on anything else right now might stop me from meeting those seemingly meagre goals.

Pyjamas on, I succumb to the will to crawl back in to bed. My head is pounding and my breath quickening. I figure I’ll relax for a while to ready myself to walk downstairs. On a better day the walk downstairs would be nothing to me, but today it is daunting. In bed I scroll through world news, frequently thinking how messed up our current political climate is. I consider texting my friends, but really who wants to hear from me? I spot that thought distortion, my friends routinely try to reach out to me. Nevertheless, that sentiment feels real today. My dog whines, he wants to play – I respond by snapping at him. I lower my head in shame, am I really irritable enough to take it out on my dog today? I gather him up in my arms and show him love. I fall into a slumber.

Waking back up, I resolve to make my way downstairs. I can’t bring myself to prepare breakfast. Instead, I find my usual place on the couch, allow my dog to jump up on my lap and begin watching the same TV show I have watched over ten times in the past couple of years. The familiar story helps distract me from the agony of my own thoughts. It’s now just past 11:30am, two and a half hours down, far too many more to go.


Take care,

Fiona

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A “thank you” to the people who care

This is a thank you note to the people who care. To those whose kindness and compassion doesn’t end when their loved one’s mental health is at its worst. To the people who show their caring every day, or once in a while. To those who don’t always know how to help but do their best. To those who don’t always understand but strive to.

Thank you to the people whose love for us doesn’t waver no matter what. Who feel our pain so acutely and wish beyond all else that they could take it away. Who help build us up. Who support us. Whose constant care and affection gives us strength. Who get the brunt of our bad moods, who see the worst of it and are never deterred by it.

Thank you to the advocates and the researchers. The people who spread information, dig for answers, share their experiences and help combat stigma.

Thank you to the people who stay at our side through panic attacks, outbursts, suicidal episodes, hallucinations, etc. Thank you for helping us regain control.

Thank you to the people who send us letters, funny photos or tokens that comfort us. Thank you to the people who sit with us when we are low. Thank you to the people who help us keep up with our lives by running errands for us, joining us for outings or bringing us healthy food to eat.

Thank you to the people who bring us to the hospital when we are in crisis. Who visit us in our hospital rooms. Who feel uncomfortable in the psych ward but come anyways. Who sleep beside our hospital beds. Who bring us snacks because the hospital food tastes like garbage.

Thank you to the people online who offer words of hope and consolation even though you don’t know us personally.

Thank you to the doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, case workers, nurses, counsellors, pharmacists, social workers, personal support workers, etc. To anyone who care for us as a profession. Who face vicarious trauma, burn out, etc. in order to help people like me achieve health, happiness, stability and independence.

Thank you to the people who ask questions because they don’t understand. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to vocalize what we are experiencing.

Thank you to the friends and family who never stop writing, calling or visiting. We feel less alone knowing you haven’t forgotten about us. Thank you for not judging us for not always being able to answer you, talk with you or see you.

Thank you to everyone who cares. I know you can feel hopeless too. I know you wish you had all the answers. I know want to know how to help. Thank you for caring, for trying, for reaching out, for helping, for your time and for your energy. Thank you for sometimes giving more than you receive when we aren’t in a place to give back to you. I know we don’t always make it easy on you. I know it can be exhausting for you. Thank you for caring. You are helping far more than you know.

Thank you. Thank YOU. Thank you.

Take care,

Fiona

Who would you like to thank?

This is My Story – #GetLoud for CMHA’s Mental Health Week

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.

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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.
Take care,
Fiona

Falling Off the Wagon Doesn’t Mean I Can’t Get Back on Again

* This post discusses self-harm and therefore may be triggering to some. *

Last night after over three months without self-injuring I succumbed to the impulse in a moment of panic. Today I am left in a sort of hangover of emotion over it. And much like with what I imagine accompanies most normal hangovers, I feel predominantly ashamed of myself. I have worked so hard to get to a place where self-injury isn’t a part of my daily life. I felt this was one area of my mental illness from which I had fully recovered. Yet here I am with fresh scratches on my arm and a head full of regret.

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Basically how my brain was talking to me last night. Photo from https://www.playbuzz.com/joppemaren10/10-moments-from-the-game-of-thrones-finale-that-made-your-jaw-drop

But you know folks, the road to recovery is so often full of twists and turns. It’s so easy to think that every moment of perceived weakness brings us right back to square one. But I am not in the same place I was when I was self-injuring multiple times a week. As discussed in a recent blog post, I’ve come out the other side of my two year long depression, I don’t hate myself or wish I were dead right now. I am able to be mostly compassionate and understanding towards myself where I had too often been judgemental and cruel. I am able to feel hope where I used to feel despair. So I refuse to let this slip up bring me right back to where I started.

I have used self harm for two main reasons in the past. The first is as a form of punishment when I feel guilty or ashamed of something. Kind of like Dobby from Harry Potter punishing himself whenever he thinks he is breaking the Malfoy’s wishes, but a lot more real and a lot less endearing. The second reason is when I am extremely anxious and having difficulty regulating my anxiety. These two reasons are not always mutually exclusive, the worst impulse to self-harm comes when I am both feeling guilty/ashamed and extremely anxious.

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Illustration of Dobby by Jim Kay from the Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets illustrated edition

Such was the case last night. Without rambling on too much, the next few days present quite a lot of huge challenges for me. On Sunday I am supposed to attend two major events for some of the most important people in my life. These are major milestones for those people and I would feel incredibly guilty if I weren’t able to attend these celebrations because I was too anxious; like I was letting them down or failing to show them just how much they matter to me. Then on Tuesday I will be beginning a group therapy program that I was unable to stick with several months back. This group therapy really triggered some things in me that I wasn’t prepared to deal with and I am not sure how I’ll react to it this time around. This is likely the most anxiety-charged few days I have had to confront since my wedding weekend in October.

Last night I found myself alone at home in the late hours of the evening, with painfully high anxiety. I couldn’t stop my thoughts from looping between how bad it would be if I attended the social gatherings and group therapy, and how bad it would be if I didn’t. If I did and I panicked, I might draw focus away from my two loves ones who deserve all the attention. If I didn’t than I wouldn’t be showing them how much I care and I would be missing out on a big moment in their lives. It felt like no matter what I do I’d be in the wrong on this one. I ended up taking a small dose of an anxiety med to help take the edge off but it didn’t kick in before I succumbed to the impulse to self-harm. Now I am in an even worse spot than I was before the self-harm because I can’t stand how embarrassed I feel when others notice my scratches, scabs and scars.

But back to the purpose of this post. All of that does not mean I am back to square one. I can’t let this bring me back to a place where self-injury is the norm. Falling down doesn’t mean you can’t get back up again and succumbing to the impulse to self-harm doesn’t mean I can’t master it again. I have to believe that. And I should, because I have conquered this before. I have shown to myself that I can regulate my emotions well enough to avoid this external show of my internal struggles. So I am going to rely more heavily on the coping tools I use to manage times of high anxiety and I am going to get through this without another scratch. And when I inevitably revert back to this maladaptive coping tool in the future I will remember that a moment’s mistake does not determine the future course of my actions. Because I cannot allow a disorder that I can’t remove to let me feel guilty. All I can do is manage it to the best of my ability and embrace the little victories as they come. I can do this… right?

Take care,

Fiona

On Being Agoraphobic and Stir Crazy

A month or so ago I left my house to go for a walk. I made it four houses down from my house accompanied by my pup Midnight. My breathing became more rapid with every foot step, my mind started to blank out, the ground was moving under my feet, the cold claws were closing in around my chest, I felt feverish. I clung on to Midnight’s leash for dear life. I gave in to the incoming panic attack, recovered, snapped this picture and then ran home. Despite the panic attack, that was a victorious day. I had managed to leave the house alone. I haven’t gone for a walk by myself since.

For the past couple of years my anxiety has manifested into something new and most unwelcome: agoraphobia. For those of you who might not be familiar with agoraphobia, my (not at all professional) take on it is that it is an anxiety disorder which causes you to avoid certain places and scenarios out of fear of panic or discomfort. I’m far from an expert, here is a place to start your reading about agoraphobia if you are curious to know more. I struggle to feel safe when I am out of the house. My anxiety is particularly strong when I am in large open spaces, somewhere with lots of stimulus (i.e. a grocery store) or can’t escape/get home quickly. But most of all, I struggle to leave the house alone. This isn’t to say that I never do those things, the best known treatment for agoraphobia is exposure therapy. I have coping mechanisms I use to venture out in to the big scary world and have managed to expand the places where I feel at least somewhat safe quite a lot in the past couple of years. If I feel in control I am much more likely to try to push myself into an anxiety provoking situation. I never go anywhere without an escape plan and a little kit of anxiety coping tools stashed in my purse.

Something that many people don’t get right about agoraphobia is that it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to go out. I get a lot of people telling me things like, “Come out tonight, it’ll be fun” or “just give it a try, you used to like it”. I want to get out of the house more than anything. Agoraphobia is an innately isolating disorder. I don’t feel like I can fully participate in my life and relationships. I feel confined to my house. I dream about hanging out at my friends’ houses without my husband present, going to see a play or musical, doing the groceries… The list goes on. Even just thinking about those things causes me to start feeling panicked, but I yearn for them. I feel blocked from accessing things that I love in my life like my friends, family, the outdoors and theatre. My number one goal right now is being able to feel independent again. I long for the day when I can go to appointments or even just walks in my neighbourhood without having one of my trusted support people with me. Right now doing those things, even when accompanied by people like my husband or my mom, is extremely difficult and draining.

I have adapted a lot to this disorder. At first it was incredibly distressing and I carried a high level of anxiety with me all day every day out of pure confusion and guilt over these new feelings. I still resort to beating myself up about my agoraphobia more often than I should, but I am generally more accepting of it. I have become more accustomed to my isolation and have found things to occupy my long days spent at home alone. It isn’t easy though. There are days when I hear the mailman delivering a package to my door and can’t stand to open the door to retrieve the package. Feeling this incapacitated is exhausting, it’s humiliating, it’s often more than I can handle. Other days, I decide enough is enough. I grab my dog’s leash and I head out the door, determined that my pure strength of will is enough to conquer my agoraphobia. You might remember from my opening story, that doesn’t always go so well for me. 

 

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Me as I post this blog: Another day, another Netflix binge

Sometimes I become so stir crazy that I can hardly handle it. It can feel like an itch I can’t scratch. I am currently trying to navigate one of those times. Yesterday was a crazy day, I had to rush my dog to the vet in the morning and then went downtown to my favourite restaurant for lunch with my mom to help pass the time while he was being treated. I was proud of how well I coped with the anxiety of my dog being in danger (he ate a couple of grapes – not to worry Midnight lovers, he is back to his normal self now!) and going fairly far in the car to a busy part of town for lunch. I hadn’t been to my favourite restaurant in well over a year. I probably should have taken this in as a victory – but instead it made me focus in on what I am missing. My mind went straight to longing for these sorts of outings to be more frequent and less painful. I started thinking about all of the things I want to do and can’t. Instead of being happy that I succeeded, I started to beat myself up for how often I fail.

I became restless thinking about all the things I haven’t been able to do and places I haven’t been able to go. I was exhausted at 9pm, but couldn’t bring myself to sleep until 4am. I kept thinking about all of the things I feel I have had to sacrifice for agoraphobia. I changed our honeymoon plans from a Caribbean vacation to a trip to Quebec City, I have rarely been able to walk our dog, I had to step down from being a bridesmaid for my best friend. It is the excuse I never want to have to use. I had a definite “woe is me” moment. Forgive me, self-pity isn’t pretty, but it’s a reality of life sometimes and I try to be honest here. I struggled with the injustice of it all in the early hours of the morning until I burst. I decided I was going to go for a walk at 3am, walked down to the front door, opened the door and fell into the inevitable panic attack before I even felt the cold air nip my face. I dragged myself back upstairs and in to bed. This morning I hadn’t yet given up my resolve. “Take two weeks off of work”, I said to Tom, “we’re going on vacation”. Never mind that we don’t have the savings right now for a vacation, I would likely struggle through the whole vacation and Tom obviously can’t book time off of work with no warning. It was going to happen. It had to happen. These days I feel like I need a change of scenery as much as I need air to breathe and water to drink.

This afternoon I feel subdued. This is my life right now. That isn’t to say that I can just give up on trying to push my boundaries, which is another thing that I resolve to do more frequently than I care to admit. It means that some of these things I want aren’t attainable, not right this minute anyway. Beating myself up about that and fixating on all the things I am not able to do isn’t helping anything. It just feeds in to the perpetual cycle of depression and anxiety I am stuck in. Hopefully this weekend I will push myself to go swimming, maybe go out to a restaurant or see some friends. Maybe I will spend it caged up in my house. Maybe I will give in to this stir crazy feeling and book a vacation to Florida. Who knows!? All I know right now is that I want this feeling to end and I want people to understand that being afraid of leaving the house doesn’t mean I don’t want to.

Take care,

Fiona

P.S. I keep meaning to share this for all those who also suffer from anxiety disorders. This song really resonates with me, a doctor in Emerg showed it to me last year. I hope you like it. Waving Through a Window – Dear Evan Hansen

Hey Bell, Let’s Talk

I want to talk about Bell Let’s Talk. I have found that the stories promoted by Bell Let’s Talk are one-sided and I think it’s important that we don’t let that go unnoticed. I am writing today to advocate for a more full portrayal of mental illness by the Bell Let’s Talk initiative. First off though, it’s important that you understand that I support Bell’s work with Bell Let’s Talk. So before I launch in to the areas that I feel need improving, let’s talk a bit about that first.

Tomorrow is Bell Let’s Talk Day. I am a fan of the Let’s Talk movement. Perhaps you support Bell in its Let’s Talk initiative, perhaps you find it a bit of a nuisance, perhaps you think it is just another take on a publicity stunt. While there are many valid arguments about its shortcomings, I am not one to complain about a corporation doing its bit to fight stigma and support mental health initiatives. Before I launch in to one area in which I hope to see Bell improve its conversation around mental health, I want to be clear that I applaud them for what they are doing. I do think that Bell Let’s Talk has contributed in a shift towards less stigmatized talk about mental illness, and that’s without taking in to consideration the $86.5 million donated to mental health initiatives in Canada. By the way, if you are among those who isn’t confident that they are actually helping fund mental health programs I suggest you look into this page on their website where you can see the amount of funding given to programs on any given year, sorted by region.

Recently, I decided to look in to the stories of people impacted by mental illness that they feature on their website. These stories are a main feature of the public image of Bell Let’s Talk. The stories are shared on their social media outlets and websites. They are used to highlight when Bell Let’s Talk day is forthcoming. Bell Let’s Talk has nearly 50 individuals featured on their website, people who either have themselves faced mental health challenges or have supported people with mental illness. I read through a fair share of these stories and found a couple of patterns in their contents. The first theme common among nearly all of the stories I read was that they featured individuals who had struggled with mental illness but have either overcome their illness or have gained control of their symptoms. These are people whose stories reflect “getting through to the other side”. Their stories often lack detail about what it felt like at their worst. Most of them now advocate in one way or another for mental health. Secondly, many of the individuals featured are spreading the message that help is out there in abundance and all you have to do is reach out and take advantage of it. Darshak Zala even says, All you have to do is seek help and you will get more than you have asked for. I promise.”

I have a couple of problems with this. I understand that Bell wants to promote hope; a feeling that mental illness is treatable and treatment is available for all who need it. I understand that they want their stories to be happy ones. I understand why these patterns are in place. What I find disconcerting is that they are sharing so many stories of people who have recovered that the stories of those who haven’t yet found the right solutions are seemingly silenced. Where is the story of the person who can’t get out of bed in the morning but is trying all the same? What about the person who is living in a psychiatric facility of some kind? What about the person who attends therapy several times a month? The person who every day deals with debilitating compulsions, hallucinations or panic attacks? The person who still claims to have the flu each time they call in sick to work because of depression? In short, why is it that to be considered a “mental health warrior” you have to have already surpassed the worse of your struggles?

I feel there is a depth that is missed in their portrayal of mental illness because of this. The stories they share on their website and social media are inspiring, but they are incomplete. Without allowing for the voices of those in the throws of their mental illness to be heard, we aren’t exploring the full breadth of the issue. It’s almost a kind of stigmatization by omission. Why should the people who are suffering the most feel that their stories are of less importance? And if our goal is to de-stigmatize mental illness, shouldn’t we be talking more about the actual illness part? In the past year I have met tons of people working hard to gain control of their mental health. People in hospitals, in group therapy, working with peer support workers, in day programs… These people’s voices deserve to be heard too, and not as a minority. We should celebrate and encourage the people currently fighting their mental illness as much if not more than the people who have already won the battle. Maybe my opinion is biased as one of the warriors who is still in combat, but I think my story matters too and I don’t see it reflected at all by Bell Let’s Talk.

Now jumping back a bit, the other main issue I have with the stories on Bell Let’s Talk is that there is a near consistent rhetoric that once individuals sought professional help for their mental health issues they received the help they needed. I would think that an initiative such as this wouldn’t scare away from pointing out the deficiencies in our current system. If it was perfect, it wouldn’t need Bell’s help! The truth of the matter is that across Canada waitlists are long, many medical professionals are so crippled by workplace stress that they have “checked-out” and many services simply aren’t affordable. Yes, there are amazing free community programs. Yes, there are doctors who truly care, are competent and make a difference with their everyday work. But that isn’t always the case. Not to mention that in many smaller or more remote communities mental health services are scarce or inexistent. The systems that are in place are often fragmented, overburdened and inconsistent. Many programs that would be beneficial for the vast majority of the population are only made available to a select few severe cases.

Giving the illusion that mental health services are ready and waiting to help may raise hope but I don’t think it is completely beneficial. It’s not reflective of the many Canadians who work incessantly to try to access services only to be turned down repeatedly. It may contribute to a greater sense of frustration for those who are just starting to reach out for help and find their way blocked by limited options or immense waitlists. It is important to spread the word that there are services out there and that mental illness is treatable. Likewise, that many people recover or go in to long remissions. But that can’t come at the expense of at least a small dose of reality. Where is the recognition of the suicidal person who was sent home from the Emergency Department because the hospital had no available beds? Or the person who can’t obtain referrals for a psychiatrist because they don’t even have a family doctor? The caregiver calling up free services in their area every day to see if they have spots available for their sick loved one?

Bell, I believe a big part of improving our mental health services and decreasing stigma is acknowledging that there is still ground to cover. The harsher realities of mental illness and the medical system shouldn’t be shoved under a rug. Let’s not limit the stories that are being shared to only those of success. Let’s not allow anyone to feel that they are an outsider even amongst the community Bell Let’s Talk is creating. I am so appreciative of all the work Bell Let’s Talk has done and continues to do, but please, let’s talk about this too.

Take care,

Fiona

P.S. Despite the areas where this initiative can still grow, I hope you will all be contributing to #BellLetsTalk tomorrow.

Bah! Humbug!

Christmas a humbug? Okay, not really. Like loads of holiday-lovers, I put my decorations up at the first possible chance. I watch my favourite Christmas movies over and over all December long. I cook immense meals for various family gatherings. You’d think Christmas was my favourite time of year. And I think it was, once upon a time.

Much like a little Cindy Lou Who, I am wondering if Christmas changed or if it’s just me. I am unsuccessfully attempting to pretend I am happy as a clam about the end of December. Posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram that give the impression that I am having fun. Saying “Merry Christmas” at every chance I get. Inviting friends over to my house for a Friendsmas celebration tomorrow evening. Dressing my puppy up in all the Christmas attire I can find in this city. And yet, for the past several years the holidays have been a major drag. It seems like nearly everyone around me is gladly celebrating their various holidays and the coming of a new year. Meanwhile, I am dreading that another year is coming to a close and hyper-ventilating at the thought of all the social gatherings I have signed up for.

I don’t hate the holidays. I love the holidays. One of the most difficult things about depression and anxiety is that they can twist events you love into the most terrible time ever. My lows make it so that I can’t fully enjoy even the things I hold most dear and my anxiety gets in the way of me engaging in all of the gatherings. My mind is split in a dichotomy between holiday spirit and dread of everything this season entails, in spite of myself.

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This year I sought counsel from my psychiatrist about how to handle the days between December 23rd and January 1st. This isn’t even about trying to enjoy the holidays, it’s about surviving them. We decided to use some strategies which include planning to take 15-minute breaks every hour or two during social engagements, rejecting any last-minute plans, staying at events for a short amount of time and keeping myself low-key during unscheduled time. Thankfully my husband is more than willing to help me stick to these coping strategies and my loved ones are all very understanding.

In spite of all of this support, I feel guilty over my sudden change of perspective on Christmas and New Year’s. I worry that I am not doing a good enough job of convincing my family and friends that I am enjoying myself or even “doing okay”. I used to be the happiest person at holiday gatherings – the embodiment of holiday spirit. I worry that they will feel the need to walk on eggshells around me, especially since I just got out of the hospital again. I worry that I will detract from the joy others should get to experience in full this time of year just by being around them.

I also feel sad about this whole situation. It has been such a challenge to sit around Christmas trees with people I love and not feel genuine happiness or calm. It’s hard to hear myself saying “I hate Christmas” over and over when I know the opposite to be true. I know that I only “hate Christmas” this year because I love it so much that it is hard to feel detached from it. I know I will feel the same in a few days when I am faced with the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018. I feel like in addition to letting everyone who matters to me down, I am letting myself down. I wish I just knew how to get out of my own way so that I could feel the way I used to during the month of December.

The worst panic attack I have ever had was last New Year’s Eve around 11pm. I felt my anxiety levels start to rise as I was watching holiday programming so I went and had a bath to help calm down. I wound up having a catastrophic panic attack with all the “fun” bells and whistles. Why? Because I suddenly realized that I had wasted 2016. I had secluded myself, done very little of value, lived in near constant unhappiness and anxiety, etc. A year later, I feel much the same. Yes, yes… I hear you people who know me saying how much progress I have made this year, how many amazing things have happened in my life this year, etc. But from where I sit, progress feels slow and it is hard to see all of the good through the foggy lens of depression and anxiety. 2017 is the year I got married, the year one of my best friends had a baby, etc. Hopefully at some point down the line I will remember it that way. Hopefully at some point down the line, I will be able to enjoy my favourite time of year again.

If you too are dreading the start of a new year and just doing your best to make it through the holidays, I hear you. I know the pressure to feel jolly this time of year makes it even harder for those of us who aren’t coping so well. I hope you are okay and that next year’s holiday season will be a little bit easier for you. In the meantime, this article from The Royal Ottawa Hospital or this one from CAMH might be of some help. Remember, if you are in distress there are helplines out there with people ready to chat.

Take care,

Fiona