My dad and I went to an event at Brock tonight called “Let’s Talk About It”, wherein a panel of students, parents, and nurses openly discussed mental health issues. It was really interesting, and well done. Three current students spoke openly about their struggles with different types of mental illness, the mother of a student discussed her experience both with her own issues, and being the parent of a child going through it (there was a recent article in the Review about them), and a nurse from Health Services moderated / answered questions.
The whole thing was about an hour and a half, and anyone interested can watch a recording here. I was pleased to see that Brock’s relationship with students who are dealing with mental health problems has vastly improved in the years since I graduated. Not to say it was terrible back then, but it certainly wasn’t as good as it could have been. The event itself was put together by a committee that included Brock, CMHA Niagara, Niagara Public Health, and a student group called Active Minds.
All of the speakers openly discussed their histories, victories, and loses with mental illness. It was incredibly emotional to listen to, and I give them so much credit for standing up there and doing it. I’m honestly not sure I could.
In saying that, I can’t finish a blog titled ‘Let’s Talk About It’ with an ‘Or not’ comment. I’ve always tried to be as open as I’m comfortable with, which has often meant writing over speaking. But I’m not sure I’ve really openly discussed my full experience before. I made a brief summary of it on Ending The Stigma, back before it crashed and burned. ‘Brief’ being the operative word.
So… *deep breath* …in the hopes of helping to break the cycle of silence, end the stigma, and ‘talk about it’, here we go…
I’ve always been anxious and moody, even as a child. But it was never to an extent that affected my daily life, nor did it hinder or alter my decision making or thought processes. Any recollection I have of being particularly emotional or frightened were in situations where such reactions were understandable: death, assault, dying.
I was always relatively fine though. Introverted, emotional, and weird, but that was just me. When I was 18 I went off to my first year of university in England and had a ball. It had its ups-and-downs, but they weren’t much different than what everyone else was going through (well, aside from that time I was quarantined in the hospital!). I spent the first couple of months being mildly homesick, but by New Years was loving it, wanting to stay there forever.
First year came to an end and I made a decision to transfer schools in order to pursue a particular (and, at the time, rare) program. I would have finished off my degree in Kingston, but instead decided to head to Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, just a couple of months in the program was cancelled, and I started to change. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, other than I miserable. And that it continued to get worse and worse. Everything became so incredibly difficult. Reading, writing, eating, getting out bed. Some days I just couldn’t. I was embarrassed and confused and alone. I once tried to explain to my mom what I was feeling, and she told me just to work my way through it. I remember being so angry and upset because that’s what I was trying to do and it wasn’t working. So, I unplugged my phone and went to bed for 2 days.
As parents do when their child is 1000 miles away, showing signs of severe emotional instability, and not answering the phone, they got a hold of the uni. My RA was alerted and came to check on me. I can’t even remember her name, but she was incredibly nice and encouraged me to go to the health centre. I eventually did, completely mortified. I don’t know what exactly I told the doctors, but they gave me medication and set me up with regular counselling.
Doctor # 1 / Diagnosis: Clinical Depression.
Things shifted back and forth after that. I’d start to feel a bit better and then not. By the end of the year I was still deeply depressed, and had flunked (or nearly flunked) several classes. When I moved home in the spring I told my mom I couldn’t go back there. Still not quite understanding what I was going through, her reaction was “well, you need to go somewhere“, at which time I applied to Brock.
I spent that summer (’07) working several jobs, visiting doctors, and discovering The Office. I know it’s cheesy as hell, but I still credit TO with helping me through that time. In the months that preceded I’d reached the point where I just didn’t want to live anymore. And to find something that brought me some amount of joy after nearly a year of misery… Well, I clung to it, and I clung hard.
I went back to uni that autumn, made some wonderful friends, and eventually, finally started feeling some version of “normal” again. I was on and off of various medications for the following year, all to varying degrees of success. Of course, with depression/anxiety meds you tend to determine if you stay on them or not based on the side effects. Some make you stay awake for 48 hours straight, others make you gain 30 lbs.
Unfortunately by 4th year things started to take a turn again. Thanks to spring/evening courses I had been able to catch up on my credits, so by winter I was eligible to graduate with a Pass. I was disappointed in myself for not getting a 4 Year Honours degree, but I’d become familiar with my limits, and knew by that point I’d reached them. So, I quit while I was ahead and in Feb 2009 was issued a BA.
I spent the next two and a half years working, travelling, medication hopping, and taking a few classes. During that time the depression had eased off, but the anxiety had swooped in. I’d started experiencing bad panic attacks while at Brock, which continued after graduating. Though it wasn’t until after that the debilitating daily anxiety really hit me. Getting attacks at the thought of leaving the house, or having to use a phone? It was exhausting. It is exhausting.
Doctor # 2 / Diagnosis: Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
In early 2011 I was working in a contact centre (email based) and completely fed up with the state of my life. Having found a postgrad program that I was interested in in Toronto, I decided I’d head back to school. Sadly, it turns out that getting through school with debilitating anxiety is just as (if not more) challenging than getting through school with depression. But, the anxiety had the bonus of just really pissing me off, and making me that much more determined to go through with something (as opposed to depression, which makes me unmotivated, lack focus, not care, etc).
Doctor # 3 / Diagnosis: Panic Disorder.
In powering through I started to experience severe daily attacks and took on several terrible, and sometimes dangerous, coping mechanisms. I’m still not at a point of being able to openly discuss the latter, it’s far too difficult to get into. Suffice to say, I spent most of grad school as an anti-social, anxiety ridden, mess. Though I somehow made it through the coursework successfully. It still kind of bothers me that most of my classmates probably just saw me as that weird, asshole girl in the corner, but many have been kind enough to listen to me speak / write about my anxiety, and hopefully realize that wasn’t really me.
Doctor #4 / Diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder.
After completing the coursework, the final requirement of the postgrad was several hundred work experience hours. Feeling emboldened with the recent success, and still wildly angry at / in rebellion against my anxiety, I decided to move back to England. “Don’t want me to leave the house, anxiety? Well, suck it- I’m moving across the ocean!” Or something like that.
So, in late summer 2012, off I went. I don’t think I would have survived my first few months there had it not been for the unreasonably generous hospitality of a friend and her mother. Though my mental health issues proved to be too much of a strain and our friendship quickly dissolved, I still remain immeasurably grateful to them for their kindness. I was able take my time in learning the new city, finding work, finding lodging. As a result by my 4 month anniversary I was working an exciting job, living comfortably, and finding myself quite content. The anxiety was still burdensome, but I was determined to find a way to live with it, even if it meant crying and hyperventilating on public transit regularly.
However, as happens, life had other plans. In the new year my physical health started to deteriorate. My lungs, kidneys, and liver had all gone haywire. My white count was through the roof. I learned then that having a fever can have an enormous impact on my anxiety. And after frequent doctors visits and no real answers, I decided I should go home. I felt terrible, and working had become more and more difficult. Back across the ocean I went…
After only 48 hours back in Canada I found myself in the ER with a doctor telling me I should be dead. Again. And thus began my Toxic Summer. (Brief rundown: The medication for my auto-immune disease had built up in my system, slowly poisoning me, deteriorating my organs, etc.) I then spent much of the next few months in bed, and most anxiety/depression stuff was put on the back burner.
By the autumn I was feeling better than I had in years (it’s nice how being healthy does that!) and was ready to take on the world again. I headed back to London, got my old job back, found a new place to live, and started the search for an internship. I also finally found an anxiety medication that worked. I didn’t have panic attacks for months. MONTHS. It was glorious!
In that time I even managed to finish grad school. Of course, my luck being what it is, there was a clerical error that resulted in me not being allowed to officially graduate for another 7 months, but, that’s neither here not there.
Earlier this year I started having intense, intermittent depressive episodes. These episodes are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. They come on suddenly, every six weeks or so, last for about 5 days, and then end just as abruptly. I figure it has to be related to PMS, right? I’d never experienced PMS systems before this, so maybe it’s come on with a vengeance. Some kind of horrible hulk version that’s been repressed for 15 years and has had it!
Okay, okay, all joking aside- For that week I’m a complete disaster. I can’t sleep, I cry constantly, my brain is inundated with dark thoughts (not impulses- They’re very different!). It’s terrible. And in the last few months I’ve started feeling all those depression symptoms (to a lesser extent) all the time.
So, I have a referral in to see yet another doctor. I’m hoping this time I can get one, solid diagnosis. Maybe then I can finally start getting the right treatment because nothing thus far has had a long term impact. Much like my immune system, my brain is not working the way it should and I’m in need of effective treatment. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find it for either.
At the end of the night I couldn’t help but ask the students if they were prepared for life outside of Brock. As wonderful as theses new initiatives are, they still only exist within the walls of the school. For me personally a great challenge has been finding services after I graduated.
The nurse said that they do provide a transition service, and one of the students began speaking about understanding in the workplace. I commend him for his optimism that he’ll transition immediately from university to a proper job with full benefits… It’s been 6 years since I finished my undergrad and I’ve yet to find such a thing!
My point had simply been that for as positive and upbeat as they were feeling at the event, that doesn’t last. Mental health issues are cyclical and inevitably will return. And having that experience in university with an understanding support system is far different than having it later with nothing. I don’t have insurance to pay for medication, or easy access to counselling services, or anyone I feel even remotely comfortable talking to about this. And that’s the reality of post-university life for a lot of people.
“Our ‘universal’ system is a lie. We’ll diagnose you for free, but then charge you for treatment. And if you can’t pay? Too bad. ” -My doctor venting her intense frustrations over the Canadian healthcare system.
We live in a country where mental health services are limited, where medication (aka TREATMENT – for anything!) is not included in our ‘universal’ plan, and where most people just don’t have a clue about mental health issues- particularly what to look for and where to find help.
So, please, talk about it. With your doctor, partner, friend, anyone. I’ve had my fair share of negative reactions, but as much as they hurt, they’re meaningless when stacked against the positive. The people who’ve quietly approached me in hallways or in a facebook message telling me that they were feeling like I was feeling. Those conversations mean everything to me, because it’s indicative of something changing, shifting. Talking about it doesn’t have to mean doing what I’ve done – making a public declaration on a blog. Like mental health issues themselves, no one case is the same. And neither should your approach to helping end the stigma. Every action, no matter how large or small, has a reaction.
Let’s make it happen.