Exactly one month ago I was released from the hospital after spending 7 days on a mandatory hold inside of the psychiatric unit. It was undoubtedly the worst week of my life, and the lowest point I’ve reached during my decade long struggle with mental illness.
During and following my hold I didn’t tell many people about what was happening. Partly because I was embarrassed and ashamed, and partly because I simply didn’t know how to talk about it. I still don’t, to be completely honest. But despite that, I’m writing now because I feel it’s important to say something. It may not be the correct thing, or what people want to hear, but the one thing I know is that keeping quiet out of shame only perpetuates stigma.
The ‘How?’ and the ‘Why?’ are likely what people most want to know, but are in my opinion the least important aspects of the story. While it was one rash and desperate decision that landed me in the hospital, the path leading up to it was a long and complicated one. My incarceration was 10 years of poor decisions in the making. Poor decision that I, for the first time, realize come from the fact that I simply don’t value my own life.
That revelation is in and of itself heavily complex. And along with it I also have my crippling anxiety, chronic depression, and unstable emotional responses to stress and upset. But I’ve come to learn that identifying and accepting issues is half the battle.
And as of tonight, that battle is not yet lost.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in Canada, and CMHA is suggesting we #GETLOUD for mental health. As I’m always happy to further conversation on the topic, here I am, getting loud. Or at least speaking at a moderate level ;)
Over the past year I’ve been volunteering with a local children’s mental health organization, and it has opened my eyes to the great strides our country has made when it comes to talking to young people about mental illness. Part of my volunteer role involves running information booths at mental health fairs and events held in secondary schools around the region. And every time I go it never ceases to amaze me how informed and engaged young people are about mental health issues.
I can’t help but feel a little envious.
I often wonder if I’d had all this information, would I have been a little more prepared when mental illness took a hold of me? When it started during my second year of university I didn’t have a clue about what mental illness was, that it affected 1 in 4 people, or that it was most often triggered during post-secondary. I didn’t understand what was happening to me or why, and I was certain that I’d never be okay again. I would go to sleep wishing that I’d never wake up because the confusion and pain felt unbearable.
I didn’t know that I could go and seek help. I didn’t know about counselling or medication or crisis lines. I didn’t know about all the resources that were offered through the university to help me get better, or that this was something that thousands of other students were dealing with at the same time. I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t know any of this because no one had ever told me.
But this generation does know. They know signs and symptoms to look for in themselves or in their friends. They know who to call and where to go if they need help. They know that there’s no shame in mental illness, and are active in making sure that the stigma is gone. And while I know that this knowledge won’t lesson the occurrence of mental illness for them, I’m hopeful it will make the lives of those who deal with it down the road just a little bit more bearable.
So, I’m going to #GETLOUD for all those like me who just didn’t know. Mental illness affects everyone, and we should all be talking about it.
I can feel an overwhelming chorus of “I told you so!” coming my way after this post. And, to be honest, I told myself so as well. Yet here we are at… burnout.
“Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life—including your home and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses.” (x)
After spending several long months ill and unemployed last winter I finally found a job with the Chamber of Commerce in late spring. It was only part-time, but I thought it would be a good opportunity to ease myself into work life after so long away. I spent 6 months doing this, but near the end felt I needed to find something full-time. I began applying and interviewing for positions in late summer, but unfortunately never landed anything.
In the autumn I decided that my finances required I figure something out, so I began applying for other part-time jobs that I could do in addition to the Chamber. Within a week of making this decision I found myself with 4 offers, and decided to accept 2 of them. One was a part-time retail position conveniently located in the same complex as my first job, and the other was a casual position at a local sport/entertainment venue.
For the next few months I easily balanced the 3 roles. I was tired, but it was working. When January rolled around the retail hours diminished, so I took on a second retail position that offered 1-2 shifts / week. However during January the hours at the casual position unexpectedly shot up to full time, and I found myself working non-stop. At the casual job I also found myself assisting other departments during events, and was offered a job in the finance department, which my people-pleasing self accepted in a moment of weakness. This brought me up to 5 jobs.
Did I mention that on top of this I was also doing regular volunteer work with a local non-profit as well and taking courses for my outpatient anxiety program? Yeah…
In all of January I had one day off. I was completely exhausted, but knowing the hours at the casual job would drop down in February I powered through. And then February came and I thought ‘Oh, sweet relief!’
Except, not so much.
A family crisis hit early in the month, which I won’t get into, only to say that it was horrible and caused a lot of stress. I was so flustered that I began giving incorrect availability at jobs, double booking myself, missing enough class to eventually be kicked out, and having panic attacks at work (which as you know from my last post was a huge trigger issue for me).
Everything came to head last weekend when I went on holiday. After months with only a handful of days off, and too tired and busy to think about anything other than work, I have 4 whole days off! And doing what I always do when such an event occurs: I hopped on a bus to NYC. I was expecting a few fun-filled days with theatre, friends, and wandering. And while all of those things happened, I can’t say the days were fun-filled.
The night before I left for NYC I developed a fever. As I have auto-immune disease this wasn’t a rare occurrence, so I ignored it, as I usually do. Unfortunately one of the effects of me being fevered is an increase in anxiety. And with finally having time off to breathe and relax all of the stress of the past month(s) hit me full force. I spent the entire weekend in a state of low-grade panic, I couldn’t sleep, and became wholeheartedly convinced that I was going to die. I was in full fledged terror psychosis mode, and actually wrote goodbye letters to people. It was terrifying.
“Anxiety is a poorly performing fight or flight system, which is the system that your body activates when it’s experiencing severe danger. An anxiety attack is essentially the peak of this fear. Your body rushes with an intense amount of adrenaline, and this alters your brain chemistry and thought patterns to tell you that you’re in grave danger. It’s the same way you would feel if you were holding onto a ledge above a 10 story building. Your body is telling you that you need to be very afraid because your life is in danger. Unfortunately, in the case of panic attacks, your body is wrong.” (x)
When I got home I was beyond exhausted. I went back to work on Monday and by Wednesday felt like I was losing my mind. Some unpleasantness that I’d rather not talk about happened over the next 24 hours and I went to the doctors where I learned that 1) my white count and liver enzymes are completely out of whack; and 2) I am, indeed, burnt.
My doctor ordered that I take some time off, so between now and April 1st I’ll be working just 2 jobs. This should total only about 25-30 hours / week, leaving me time to do my classes (6 hours a week), get some rest, and pack (as I’m moving on April 1st). I am also taking a full 7 days off in the middle of March for a big meet-up in New York. I’ll be seeing Hamilton (!!!) and Fun Home, catching up with lots of amazing friends, eating an obscene amount of delicious food, and doing activities all over the city. Needless to say, I’m very excited! And it’s nice to have something to look forward to in the midst of all this chaos.
So, I have 5 weeks to get my head back on straight. Wish me luck…
The Toronto Star published an interesting article this morning highlighting the EXTREME shortfalls that our system has when it comes to mental health and suicide prevention. Some highlights:
- “Stigma is a big, big influencer here. You are not going to come under pressure to fund something if nobody’s talking about it.” -Former Ontario health minister George Smitherman.
- The lack of awareness is likely linked to an “emotional disease index” that sways government decision-making and drives public funding. Childhood cancer would rank highly on the index; suicide would not.
- Every year about 4,000 people on average commit suicide in Canada, making it the ninth-leading cause of death in the country, according to Statistics Canada. (As compared to 2011 deaths rates: 2,158 in car accidents, 527 by homicide, 303 by HIV, 482 from influenza and 253 from drowning.)
- Canada is one of only a few countries in the western world that does not have a national suicide-prevention campaign.
- The total cost of suicide and self harm in Canada is estimated to be $2.4 billion a year in lost economic productivity of the dead and mental health programs for the grieving families left behind, according to a report by SmartRisk, a national injury-prevention group.
4000 people kill themselves every year in Canada. That’s a life taken every 2 hours. Can we let that sink in for a moment?
Now can we talk about the fact that no one seems to give a damn that this is happening? No one is talking about it. And the government could not care less. Seriously, someone should be calling a human rights violation here.
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’m glad there’s been a lot of talk this past week about the state of mental health services. The reason it was brought to the front page is beyond horrific, but maybe some change will come out of this terrible tragedy. And it’s not just the United States who are guilty of such deplorable services- It’s everywhere. After the week/month/year I’ve had I think I’m qualified to make this assertion.
I’m annoyed. And offended. And annoyed some more.