I want to preface this by saying that I struggled with the decision to write publicly about my experience with mental illness. Tomorrow is Bell Let’s Talk Day, and there’s a piece circulating from the Globe and Mail about how ineffective this campaign is. I’ll stipulate that it doesn’t go far enough, but that isn’t Bell’s responsibility. It’s ours. Let’s keep talking- but let’s start doing.
Andrew Furey, Alan Doyle, and Brendan Paddock are doing great things with the Dollar a Day Campaign, locally and across the country. We are talking about replacing our aging mental health facility in Newfoundland, and we can shape how that looks. We can look at barrier-free emergency shelter and housing, and provide support to agencies that provide this. We can support people as they transition through periods of wellness and illness. We can put money into mental health care in the province. We need to put our money where our mouth is- and that is something Bell can do! And they do- they support mental health initiatives around the country. Mental wellness can be a protective factor for mental illness- they are ying and yang, just like regular health and illness. Can we do more? Absolutely!
Where we are today
I would never have published this article 5 years ago. I would be afraid of the social, familial or work repercussions from admitting that I live with mental illness. Talking about mental illness on a personal level makes people feel uncomfortable. Seeing mental illness manifest is uncomfortable and people don’t know how to deal with it. With the advent of Mental Health Fire Aid, Psychosocial First Aid, and integrating mental health components into regular first aid programming means one day we will treat it like we do any other injury: with care and dignity.
Where I am today: living with mental illness
My official diagnoses? Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, queried Panic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and with the advent of DSM 5- Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder. It has been described as severe depression, debilitating, chronic, and recurrent. I have often shrugged off the mantle of mental illness because I’m not that sick. For the most part, I function. Publicly, that is true most of the time.
I am writing this from a place of privilege- I have an employer and co-workers who support myself and others with mental illness every day. Mental illness is often regarded as a family secret and only talked about behind closed doors. I’ve had a safe space in my circle of care. I also live in Canada, where a trip to the ER won’t bankrupt you, and there are significant protections in place for human rights, including illnesses and disabilities. Can we do better? We sure can.
If this post makes you uncomfortable: this is my truth. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s how we change.
You don’t wake up one day with depression or anxiety- it’s a gradual slide and suddenly you’re wondering how you got there.
I don’t think there was a firm date where I became depressed. A series of shitty things happened to me as a teenager and young adult, and I just took my feelings as par for the course. I had no siblings, and relatively few close friends until high school. I had a loose leash from my parents and abused my privileges so much that I wonder how I turned out as well as I did, relatively speaking.
Our environments and experiences can lead to trauma, of which depression and anxiety can be a symptom.
As a young person, I struggled badly in junior high school. I was more or less tortured by some of my classmates, and my only savior was the man who owned the grocery store where we waited for the bus. I never knew or understood why I was the target of such hatred. [n.b. My worst tormentor suffered from his own demons, and sent me the most heartfelt apology a few years ago. If you’re reading this- apology accepted.] I went from a grade A student to failing grade 7 subjects in the blink of an eye. I ran to my mom when I got that report card and told her everything. I told her about the darkness inside of me, and how much it hurt. I saw a counselor for a few sessions, who said I had ‘situational depression’. He recommended I switch schools and my parents and I never spoke of it again. Life went on.
A Common Refrain
I was in an abusive relationship in high school, although I never understood it as such at the time. It wasn’t until when we broke up (and he tried to kill us both, driving 100 km/h towards a brick building before jackknifing the car) that I realized that it wasn’t healthy. Years passed, and he cornered me in a hallway at Memorial University and my heart stopped. I was clutching a VCR tape (yes, I am that old) that my friend Susan (thank you!) had taped a show for me. It was next to the vending machines by the Attic in the University Center. He told me he was studying social work, and I thought, what a joke. Someone who hates women? Right. I didn’t tell him of my own plans to be a social worker, because it was a pipe dream at the time. By the time I got into the School of Social Work, we would be on opposite semesters and I’d never see him again.
Until in September of 2009, when I walked into one of my classes, and there he was. He’d taken a leave of absence the previous year and now we would be classmates in the same cohort. I was paralyzed with fear. I remember sitting in the student advisor’s office, choking through what I had come to realize were horrible details of power imbalance, dominance and manipulation. I was referred to the University Counseling Center, and I began an on and off again therapeutic relationship with Dr. Y. Her quiet but firm grace carried me through my undergrad. With no proof of wrongdoing, it was he said, she said. She arranged with my academic advisor to ensure I was signed into the opposite classes of my ex. We never spent another five minutes together.
When Grief is something more: Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder
I missed out on a lot during my undergrad, for many reasons. The first being my absolute fear of this man; I lived in fear of being trapped somewhere with him again. I bowed out of parties and social engagements with my classmates.
The second was my Dad, Derrick, dying suddenly and tragically on Cougar 491 in 2009. Although many of my loved ones had already passed on much too early, this death shook me to my core. Time became before Dad died, and after Dad died; before Mom died and after Mom died. My life is measured that way now.
After the dust began to settle following his death, I began compartmentalizing. I was so naive as to the ways of the world, but I knew that we just lost half of our families income. I returned to work after two weeks and became a zombie. I told myself I was a normal undergrad student.
Pretending to be normal
Normal undergrad students don’t have the media calling their home, or showing up at their workplace for a comment or sound bite. I was constantly bombarded with memories and flashbacks to my dad. Every day, the news was dominated by the crash. First the recovery, and then the Transportation Safety Board investigation, followed by the Inquiry into his death.
The day that the sole survivor testified during the inquiry, I was at my first field placement. I locked the door and hid under my desk because my anxiety and need for safety were so overwhelming. For years every time there was an accident or incident related to a helicopter, our phones would light up. Eventually, the black box recordings were released. There was a TV show on CBC. A book. Memorials. News releases. Comments. Letters to the editors. I relived my grief every single day.
Becoming the walking wounded.
Once I graduated, I threw myself into my work. Keeping busy was the only thing that kept me afloat. If I was focused on everyone else’s problems, I didn’t have to worry about my own. My hand was the first one up for overtime, on call, or overnight shifts. I volunteered to work every holiday and made apologies to my own family, or what was left of it. My job was so incredibly stressful at times, but it was that stress that let me ignore my own stress.
My mother was suffering from her own new mental health problems, unexpectedly a widow and the sole support to a young woman in university. She tried her very best to do everything she could for me. Our avoidance of what was actually happening in our lives and our relationships led to some tense moments, and ultimately me moving out- with my grandmother. My first best friend. She was my rock and confidante. She was undoubtedly the strongest woman I knew. She persevered and triumphed over mental illness, cancer, and a troubled period being a single mother to four. She watched her siblings pass away, one by one until it was her turn.
Losing my nanny was like losing a limb. It was so unexpected that someone who was relatively young and had been through so much, including beating cancer, could be so quickly gone. She was the glue that held our family together; we are still picking up the pieces (love you guys). Still, I pushed on through work. It was getting harder to juggle the pieces of my life.
False Hope: Thinking I was cured
By this point in my life, it’s been four years since I lost my dad. I had attended therapy piecemeal but hadn’t committed to trying medication. I had been ‘sad’ at times and someone told me I just had ‘situational’ depression and I believed them.
As a matter of fact, I was vehemently against taking medication. I was treating myself with a double standard. I would be the first to recommend that a friend, coworker, or client seek professional help. How is the professional help supposed to get help and take it seriously?
I met the love of my life (hope I don’t have to edit that later, D), and bought a house. I had a car, a job, and a man who loved me. Some weeks I worked sixty hours, and more than once I had to stop at Walmart to buy underwear because it had been weeks since I had time to do laundry. I was treading water, but I was still afloat. When D went to sleep, I’d cry. The depths of my despair and sadness were more than I could bear. That was the only time I felt safe enough to cry. No one event would set me off, it was just an overwhelming sadness that enveloped me. He encouraged me to seek help, and I began counseling and was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. The edge was taken off, but I still wasn’t ok. I was fooling myself and everyone else.
My friends’ parents started passing away. I was the ringleader of the Dead Parents Club. I went to wakes and funerals like a seasoned professional. I was thrown each time back into my own grief. It paralyzed me. I began letting people down when they needed me most. I couldn’t help them, because I couldn’t help myself.
Then without warning, my mom was sick. She was hospitalized and had multiple surgeries to address gastrointestinal bleeding but they were ultimately unsuccessful. During a routine procedure, lifesaving measures had to be taken.
And suddenly I was an adult orphan.
I had flashbacks to my aunt and uncle passing within months of each other, and sitting next to my cousin. She was shell shocked, and understandably so. I remember us sitting in the family room at the Palliative Care floor of the Miller Center, and her clutching my hand. She told me, ‘I’m an orphan now,’ and I thought that was so foolish because only children could be orphans.
I was wrong.
As Mom’s next of kin, I had begun making a series of decisions that would grow harder and harder as the night, weeks, months and years went on. From begging them to keep attempting CPR, to telling them to stop. Planning her funeral, cremation, and gravesite. Closing her accounts. Applying through the courts to administer her estate. Pleading and arguing with service providers, renovating and later renting my family home, facing a staggering bill from the CRA.
Losing my mom meant I was losing my dad all over again. All the moments that happened when it was just the three of us, all the memories they shared of building a house and life together- gone. I felt all alone in the world, and in some respects, I was. I have no immediate family (legally speaking)- no brothers or sisters, and my parents and grandparents are deceased.
I soon felt like I was drowning. I took a leave of absence from work for a year, having burned through all my leave while Mom was in the hospital. I cried every single day and lived in fear that everyone around me would leave me, either by choice or happenstance. I couldn’t breathe, and I no longer felt safe in my own skin. I didn’t recognize who was in the mirror most days. I went weeks without cooking food or washing my hair. I was convinced that every time D left the house, he wouldn’t come back. I become irrational, angry, and combative. I pushed people away. I could not stop crying.
D encouraged me to seek help, and eventually, I did. My doctor told me he thought my illness was more than he was equipped to handle and he referred me to a psychiatrist. What I heard that day was that I’m crazy and won’t get better. An hour later, I pulled up to our house and D came out. I sobbed the whole fifteen minutes to his work, dropping him off for his evening shift. I went another five minutes to my best friend’s house and parked outside before I texted her.
She didn’t answer right away, so I called- I could barely get the words out but I managed to tell her I wasn’t ok, and she told me to come over. She laughed when I said I was in the driveway. I made my way to her front door where she met me with open arms, with a baby on one hip. That sweet little girl snuggled me for hours and made the rest of the world disappear for a while. That hug, those snuggles, and the quarter chicken dinner were the medicine I needed. This was the beginning of my shift in how I viewed my own mental illness.
Medication Vs Therapy: Fitness isn’t a substitute for medication or therapy
That was the beginning of a series of medication trials, to find what worked for me. My moods were intolerable, and I got worse before I got better. I regularly saw a therapist as well as a psychiatrist in addition to my family doctor. I tried to run before I could walk, and I fell down again. I needed a purpose.
I started powerlifting in the fall of 2015 as a way to add some structure to my weeks and have something to focus on outside of the house. I could no longer do what I had been so good at- working with families in times of intense crisis as a child protection social worker. I wasn’t ready to return to work, whether that job or another, so being able to focus on lifting was a great boon for me. Soon I was lifting more and more, and I began to look at lifting competitively. In addition to several local meets, I’ve competed at two regional competitions and Nationals last year. The ability to see progress, while meeting and exceeding milestones and personal expectations, allowed me to flourish outside of a professional setting.
The Mental Illness Toolbox
It was a combination of medication and therapy that allowed me to wake up every morning and get through my day. It lowered my anxiety and depression enough that I could talk myself up into going to the gym. I was able to do laundry, cook meals, and research my new hobby. Medication and therapy were the leg up I needed to do that.
If you spend any time on Pinterest, Facebook, or Instagram you’ve probably seen inspirational quotes and platitudes about how ‘the bar is my therapy’ or ‘this is my iron therapy’ and ‘I run because it’s cheaper than therapy.’ While I’ve shared these things in the past, it’s important for me to remember that there are people- lots of people- for whom this isn’t enough. My participation in activities like powerlifting is often a barometer of my mental health. It’s a protective factor, for sure- it keeps things from being as bad as they could be. It’s a tool in the mental health toolbox, like so many other things that we call self-care.
It gets better: Does it?
I remember talking to my doctor about wanting to decrease the medication I was taking and how I was worried about the common side effects from withdrawing from it. I was pretty taken aback and disheartened when he said I would probably be taking these medications for the rest of my life. This isn’t true for everyone but it was true for me, based on the severity and duration of my depression. If you are interested in learning more about maintenance medications for mental illness, check out this article.
But why are we so hesitant to take medication for mental illness, or take it for prolonged periods of time? There are many medications that people take for life long illnesses- insulin, Warfarin and beta blockers, and ADHD medications to name a few. All I would suggest is approaching your medications with an open mind.
For me, a combination of therapy, medication, support, and time seem to have put me in a better place mentally. On January 1st of this year, I downloaded an app that lets you track your mood every day. Coming onto the last days of January, most of my days were mediocre at worst. I was surprised to see that. Just as gradually as I had slid into depression, I’ve evened my keel.
Some days are terrible, but I’m better at giving myself grace. I’m no longer trying to do it all. I’ve learned when to step back and I respect my limits most of the time. No is a full sentence.
Can we still be friends?
I spoke earlier about my truth, and I’d like to leave you with that.
The truth is, some days are really, really, really hard. Those days are the most draining because it takes more energy to get through the day.
Some days I just don’t have the energy to do something, and that is ok. It’s not because my priorities have changed, or I don’t like you, or I’m lazy. Living is exhausting.
I often forget to do things, especially things that aren’t a part of my routine.
I struggle with motivation, but once I get going it’s ok. Sometimes it’s hard to work through it enough to get to that point.
I get peopled out. When I have low energy
or am having a low mood day, it’s really exhausting to keep up appearances. Even with the most understanding friends or colleagues, it’s nice to be able to put your best face forward.
I’m okay today, but tomorrow is another day. I live in the moment but in fear of the future. I plan for the future in hopes that it will come true.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the unwavering support of my friends and family. At the end of the day, I am lucky to have you in my corner, no matter how much time has passed.
All my love,