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Real Talk: Where “I’m Okay” Ends, and Recovery Begins. #BellLetsTalk

Possible TW for anxiety and depression.

Hi everyone! I’m back!

Last July I shared my mental health journey in a blog post called “Real Talk: Last Night, I Had A Panic Attack“. I outlined my life and my journey through my mental health up until that moment. I think it’s safe to say that a lot has changed since then. I’ve gone through more ups and downs, hit rock bottom and hit unprecedented highs, and I’m here again to talk about my brain and my experiences in the hopes that sharing my story will help any of you out there who aren’t sure how you’re doing, or want to know you’re not alone, or are just curious about mental health.

So let’s start, from last July, a lot of things have changed. I was fresh out of high school and extremely excited to tackle my next journey in life: university. All summer, I was ecstatically packing my room up, gushing about my great school, and preparing to have the time of my life. First year was definitely great, though when they say it’s a big life change, they aren’t kidding. First year was by far, one of the hardest years of my life. Not to say that it wasn’t fun or anything, I definitely had a lot of fun, but I had never before experienced the sheer amount of responsibility that came with being an undergraduate student, all the while being on my own for the first time.

The anxiety started by the first week of school. It felt like there was so much to do and so little time. The workload was insane. Being a music major and having 7 credits (that’s about 2 above the average), I was in class for about 22 hours a week on top of supposedly practising 2 or 3 hours a day, on top of doing my homework. I clearly remember feeling all too familiar panic rising in the pit of my stomach and bleeding into my chest. I snapped. I cried in the middle of my dorm hallway until my RA came and sat me down on my bed and calmed me down. I told her I was scared and worried, and didn’t know what to do. She recommended I go to residence counselling.

Flash forward to my appointment. I was so ashamed. It’s funny because I talk about mental health advocacy a lot. I preach to the masses about sharing their mental health, but ultimately, I’m a hypocrite. I had to walk all the way across campus to a different residence building. I didn’t really tell anyone I was going. I felt horribly alone. I remember sitting in that office with a small lady with blonde hair pulled into a low ponytail and I tried my best to spill my heart out to her. But I couldn’t. I cried, yeah. But I said I was stressed and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t talk about the days where I woke up so frightened I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t talk about the times I just sat paralyzed and frozen because I was just so panicked I couldn’t move. I didn’t talk about any of that. I just kept saying I didn’t know how I was going to do all my school work in time, and that I wanted to do well.

She smiled at me sympathetically and pulled out a little whiteboard. She told me that everyone gets stressed, and we need to stop “worrying about what’s coming next” and live in the present. She told me to meditate. And to tell myself, “nope!” when I started to worry about the future.

I was frustrated. If it were that easy, I would have done that by now, I thought to myself. But it was partially my fault because I didn’t tell her nearly enough about how I was feeling. So I left. And I didn’t go back. We didn’t click, I didn’t feel comfortable, so I just walked out the door and never came back.

From then on, I tried to manage everything on my own. Which was a mistake. I ate gallons of ice cream and called it “self-care”. I would lie in bed and do nothing for hours because I was “taking time for myself”. Ultimately, I procrastinated everything until I had barely enough time to scramble it all together. I lived my life like I was just trying to make it. I was on the ground crawling and grabbing at nothing with my fingernails. I constantly asked myself, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I motivate myself to do anything?”

But I didn’t tell anyone.

I just quietly kept it all to myself. I smiled at people every day like I was okay, and that it didn’t take me hours to fall asleep the night before. Sometimes I told my friends when I was having a bad day but not nearly enough for them to know how I was really doing. I felt isolated and alone.

In March, I finally had enough. I confessed to one of my friends how I’d been feeling, and she listened to me. I didn’t realize how much someone validating me meant. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my chest. She held my hand and helped me book a doctor’s appointment and I felt like maybe my life was looking up for the first time this year.

I wrote down everything I wanted to say. I wasn’t letting myself get away with minimizing my problems and making everything seem okay. I sat down in the doctor’s office and the first thing I said was “I need help”.

He was an older, tall white man. He leaned back in his chair, as though he had done this a million times. “What do you think is wrong?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat and my hands fidgeted uncomfortably with the hem of my shirt. “I’ve been experiencing really bad anxiety.”

Then he sat forward in his seat again, making a soft ‘hm’ sound with his mouth and recited a checklist I had heard so many times at every single appointment involving mental health I had ever been to. I tried to be honest. I really did. At the end, he made another quiet sound, “Mm, I see, so what do you want to do?”

I felt dumbfounded. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how to help myself. I came here because I wanted to be told what I needed to do to get well. “I don’t know,” I said lamely, my tongue feeling dry in my mouth, “what should I do?”

Turns out, there were 2 options.

1) Therapy.

2) Medication.

He recommended I go to therapy first. Medication was always a “last resort” he said. He said that student health services was much too overbooked, and that I should go see a psychologist somewhere else in the city. Except, I really didn’t want to do that.

I’d tried going to therapists before, and I had started to develop a distrust of them. They didn’t understand what I was saying, didn’t understand that I couldn’t just read a book and turn off my anxiety. I needed help but it felt like nobody was taking me seriously. Not only that, but the stigma that had suctioned itself to my heart was throbbing deep within my chest. I didn’t want to tell anybody what I was going through. Not even my own parents. And I needed money from them to make that happen. I was ashamed. I felt like a failure. I wanted to do well and succeed and make them proud, and I didn’t want them to feel like they had gone wrong with me somewhere. I didn’t want anybody taking responsible for how I was feeling except myself.

And thinking about it now, that sounds so foolish! I could have had so many opportunities and resources available to me if I had just said something to someone! Here I was, calling myself a mental health advocate, yet I was hiding all my inner struggles with mental health under the false pretence that I was okay. And I didn’t have to be okay. It’s okay not to be okay. For some reason, I would tell them to everyone, but I think perhaps I didn’t love myself enough to tell myself that the same applied for me too.

So needless to say, I went out of the doctor’s appointment pretty disappointed. I didn’t want to tell anybody about how I was feeling, and felt trapped trying to pursue resources to get better. So I just kept doing what I knew best, pushing myself to keep trying and not actually getting anywhere productive. I tried to use my anxiety to motivate me, but at some point it started overwhelming me to the point where I didn’t want to do anything. I felt like my life was always running on the “barely scraping by” mentality. But I felt like I had everyone fooled, including myself. I was a happy girl who got good grades, had good friends, and should have had a good life. It was frustrating to feel like everything was wrong. I woke up every morning feeling like the whole weight of the world was on my shoulders, with this heavy sense of sheer dread just sizzling in my spine.

And then school passed. Classes ended, exams were all wrapped up, I was at home in my childhood room, with my parents making me food, secured with a summer job, and sunshine every day. This is it, I thought to myself. No more stress, no more anxiety? Right?

Wrong.

I don’t want to say that my summer was worse than when I was in school. I had so much potential to do things I loved! I had free time to hang out with my friends, write stories, play games, spend time with my family…. These were all fun things that I did, and I loved and genuinely enjoyed them, yet I found that my mind was slowly starting to slip farther and farther away from me. Maybe it was my lack of routine at the beginning of the summer, but I just started to feel hopeless. No longer pressured to be doing school work, I felt like I had no purpose. I slept in until noon and dragged myself out of bed hours later after browsing social media on my phone. I watched TV in the family room and ate grilled cheese sandwiches with chips. Things that I had enjoyed doing before when I was on a school break. But I felt like I was in a slump. One that I don’t think I’d ever quite experienced before. That was the start of my depression.

I thought this slump would go away after I started working. After all, I was looking for a job, and once I had a job, I’d have something productive to do. I would be able to get out of my house. Then I would feel useful again, right? I stressed about finding work, and began to wrestle with my desire to be productive and to expand my horizons. When I finally landed a job, I was ecstatic. My first week of work had my brain buzzed. I was nervous, obviously, but so very excited. But as time went on, I found myself falling back into this sad state.

No matter what I did, I felt useless. I convinced myself that I wasn’t doing anything special. That I wasn’t important. That I didn’t matter. Nobody could convince me otherwise. Not my friends, not my family, not my boyfriend, and certainly not myself. I’d stay awake at night asking myself, “What’s the point? Am I going anywhere in life? What am I doing?” I started waking up with no motivation to do anything. What was the point? Did anything really matter anymore?

I wanted to be happy, I did. That was what was so frustrating. I was so desperate to be happy, I got so angry when I wasn’t. When I felt sad and empty, I just started to cry because I just didn’t want to feel that way anymore.

Every morning I would open my eyes and dread the fact that I was awake. I wouldn’t want to move. On days where I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. I’d stay in bed until I was starving just because I didn’t want to get up and eat. On days I had to, my anxiety took over and forced me up lest I disappoint someone. I kept living like this and it was so exhausting. I felt trapped. I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself, that I kept most of how I felt to myself. And of all people I should’ve known better than that. But I had so much personal stigma, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. It got worse and worse the longer I ignored it, and I started wondering what it would be like if I wasn’t around anymore. What would people say? What would they do? And those kind of thoughts scared me. I felt like I had started pushing away all the people important in my life. But I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t feel like Carole anymore. I was someone trying to pretend like she was still there.

And yet, I kept smiling and telling people I was fine, when I was anything but fine, and when I moved away from home again for my second year of university, I decided a new school year was finally the time for me to step up and help myself. I was tired of moping around and feeling sorry for myself. I was tired of being embarrassed of who I was and how I felt. So, though I was scared, I marched up the university hill up to the Student Development Services and asked point-blank, “Please, please help me.”

Finally admitting that I needed help was like a huge weight off my shoulders. I demanded that someone actually listen to me and listen to what I wanted for myself. I went to counselling, I went to see a doctor, I started taking anti-depressants, I started going to therapy. I wanted my life back. I was tired of losing my life to myself.

The journey was long and painful, and it still is, but it slowly is picking up. The first few weeks I was taking my medication I had such bad nausea and for the next few months I was so tired all the time. My first times in therapy I felt so frustrated and helpless I cried (and to be honest, I still do). When I first got my emotional support bunny Timothy, I was completely at a loss for how to take care of something other than myself.

Now?

I still take my anti-depressants. I still go to therapy. I still have my bunny (who I’ve slowly learned how to care for).

I still have anxiety. I still have depression. I still have bad days.

But now, I also have good days.

I have life and motivation.

I have things that I love to do.

I have goals I want to achieve.

I have an appreciation for life that I had lost, and desperately wanted back.

And I have started to heal.

It’s possible to get there. And sometimes you fall back down, but what matters is you have the tools to help yourself back up, whether that be your medication, a therapist, a friend, a pet, etc.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that you need help. If there’s anything I have learned, it’s that people will be so much more supportive than you ever imagined they could be. And if they truly love and care about you, they will stay. Through the ups and the downs, and the laughing and the crying, they will be there.

And you deserve that much from them.

And you deserve that much from yourself. You are so valuable and loved and important. Your life means everything, even when you think it doesn’t. If you are struggling or need help, please reach out. I am here. You can also connect with crisis or help lines like the Canadian Mental Health Association at 519-433-2023.

In the words of Dodie Clark, one of my favourite musicians, “I promise you, it’ll all make sense again.”

You only have one chance at this life. Don’t let your mental health take that away from you.

Love,

Carole Lynn

 

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Travel Diary: Nelson, British Columbia

Hi all!

I’m sorry I’ve been MIA all this month, but it’s all for valid reason. This month I went on my very first trip alone. I went across the country to British Columbia, in a small city called Nelson. I’ve had this in my plans since about October of last year, and the fact that the trip finally came to fruition was really exciting!

I went to Nelson for an experiential learning opportunity through my university, as a course called “Community Through Choral Art”, where I would take part in two different choral opportunities. A mass community choir (in an event called “Fireworks”) and an outdoor performance extravaganza (in an event called “Ripple Effect”). Since I was there for work purposes, I spent a lot of time in rehearsal and doing work related things. However, this didn’t mean that I didn’t have time for fun! The experience was one of the best of my life, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

First things first, the travelling. I’ve gone to many different places, the Caribbean, the USA, even the Philippines, BUT I’ve never gone travelling by plane on my own. Thankfully, since I was flying domestically, it was a breeze. I went from the Toronto, ON airport to the Calgary, AB airport, and then from Calgary to Castlegar, BC. Our plane to Castlegar was so little, there were only 13 rows! We got to fly over the mountains for about an hour and it was so beautiful to see! Ontario is quite flat, so high mountains like these aren’t a sight I normally see.

And then it was a 45 minute drive to the lovely city of Nelson, where I would be spending a majority of my trip. Nelson is host to about 10,000 people, tucked into the mountains. Yet, despite their small size, there was plenty to do there! The infamous Bakers Street is in the heart of their small downtown, playing host to many different novelty clothing boutiques, restaurants, and novelty stores. I arrived in Nelson around 11am, and spent the day touring around with the two other girls from my group that had been on the same plane.

At around 6pm we met at one of the churches to meet our billet families. Basically, a billet family is a family kind enough to open their homes (for free!!) for travelers like me. The billet families for my group were volunteers from the surrounding choral society and the like. My billet mom was a sweet lady named Janet, who welcomed me and another girl I was travelling with into her small home. Oh how cozy it was! I was nervous to be staying in someone’s house who I had never met before, but I immediately felt welcomed there. What a great opportunity it was to spend a trip in a home rather than a hotel. I really started to feel integrated into this wonderful, tight-knit community. One of my fondest memories is making our first dinner together (which was this incredible mushroom/swiss chard pie thing that was DELICIOUS). Nothing says bonding like having a meal together!

Over the course of my time in Nelson, I spent many hours in rehearsal (rehearsing both for Fireworks and Ripple Effect), but also exploring and having many new experiences! I tried going kayaking, but I fell out while I was trying to turn (lol). The lake was still freezing in early/mid-June!! The next day, I took a hike up A MOUNTAIN. I actually made it the whole way (though I had to take many breaks and wheezed the whole way through), the adrenaline rush was quite exciting! Needless to say, the view was amazing.

After our climb, we went home and got ready for our very first performance, Fireworks! It was probably the most low-key, chill, performance I’ve ever been a part of, but it was extremely rewarding, because of what it was. Basically, Fireworks was a massive, one day only, mass choir performance. People from the community had registered and been given 5 songs they were going to perform for everyone else that bought tickets to come see. Some of these people had never sung before in their lives and some people were well seasoned choir folk. This incredible mix of people and experiences ultimately made for an out of this world experience. In the choir, there were probably 465 singers. We had to do the performance in the hockey arena, since it was the only place big enough to hold us all! We had about a 2 hour rehearsal before our 20 minute concert. Hearing the music come alive with the sound of voices young and old was incredible. I was seeing so many different people from this community all come together with only one goal: to sing with each other! It was an awe inspiring moment of community. The concert went without any problems (by some miracle!) and so many people from the community came to see their fellow neighbours sing for others. Many people were so moved, I couldn’t believe how many hearts we had touched in just the span of 1 day.

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This is just a glimpse at our massive choir rehearsal, you can find a video of us rehearsing here!

From then on, it was full steam ahead for our next performance, Ripple Effect, which would take place across the lake at the Yasodhara Ashram. We left in the mid-morning, taking Canada’s longest free ferry to the other side of the lake. Oh how beautiful the water and the mountains were!! And when we arrived, the Ashram was just as beautiful! I had no signal and only limited Wi-Fi (when I was in the library, which I didn’t get much of a chance to do), so it was quite the unplugged way to experience the beauty.

The experience at the Ashram was an interesting experience of its own. One of the things that really spoke to me was their hospitality to welcoming so many people! The Ashram is a retreat centre for yoga, amongst other skills including self-reflection, etc. The people there are accustomed to a quiet environment and simple life, yet here they were allowing us rambunctious singers to stay and run around their property as we were preparing for our multi-stage concert. One thing that I thought was really interesting about the Ashram was their silent meals. They eat all of their meals in silence, as a means for self-reflection time. As someone who talks A LOT it was a very interesting and different experience to have. Regardless, the food they served every day was delicious, the property was absolutely gorgeous to take in, and every day we slaved away, tracing the steps and singing our hearts out to prepare for our one day only but FOUR performances of Ripple Effect.

To get into what Ripple Effect is and all the parts that made it would take a blog post in and of itself, so I will briefly summarize it the best I can. For Ripple Effect, we would be leading the audience through many different locations outside on the Ashram property before leading them into the Temple of Light (a GORGEOUS building in the shape of a Lotus flower) for the final songs of the concert. In total, we learned 11 songs for the whole program, talk about a crazy amount of music! The journey started on the beach, up the trail to the lavender field, into the forest, out to the orchard, and into the temple. And there are no words I know to use to explain how powerful and charged the program was. I desperately wished I could be a performer, so I could just take the whole thing in! Our performance day was so exhausting, but totally worth it. We did 1 hour performances 4 times, with about 30 minutes break in between. Not to mention our dress rehearsal that morning. We were walking and up on our feet all day, but I fell asleep that night feeling whole and rewarded. So many people came to see us sing that day. I watched so many people let the music move them in their own ways. It was beautiful.

And of course, all good things must come to an end. After Ripple Effect, we spent a day at the Ashram to re-cooperate after a long 5 days up on our feet preparing, and then after that we headed back on the ferry to Nelson. We spent one more day in Nelson, where I wandered downtown with a friend to do some last minute shopping, and then went to a small get together with all the friends I had made both through the course for Western, and with Nelson’s youth choir (who were with us this whole time), Corazon. I went home with high spirits, though saddened to leave such a beautiful place.

Overall, I had such a fun time in Nelson, BC. I would do the course all over again if I had the chance. This was my first time across the country, and what a different world, but the same world all at the same time. I got a chance to make connections and community with so many locals in a way I wouldn’t have, had I gone on a regular hotel vacation. I got to see the connections people make through music, with performers, directors, audiences, and each other. What a rewarding experience to have!

Would you ever go travelling alone? If you did, where would you go? What would you do?

– Carole

Why We MUST Talk About Mental Health #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

And just like that, May is ending and so is mental health awareness month! I’ve had a blast writing these posts for the month on a topic I’m extremely passionate about. I’m so glad you all could join me on this journey of mental health and wellness.

For this last post, I wanted to write a short and sweet post to emphasize why its important that we talk about mental health. Not just for mental health awareness month, but every month, every week, and every day of the year.

1) 1 in 5 children/youth will experience a mental health challenge.

If you were to line up 5 kids at random from Ontario, approximately one of them will have experienced a mental health challenge in their life, which typically expresses itself during adolescence. That’s 20% of children! Mental health doesn’t just involve being “depressed” or “anxious” or “bipolar” etc. A mental health challenge can simply being so overwhelmed with school work, it’s hard to function. In Ontario, it can take up to 18 months for children to see a mental health specialist. The government needs to know that mental health is important to their constituents, and that means advocating, and advocating loud.

2) 30% of Ontario residents over the age of 65 have mental health issues.

It’s not just Canada’s children that suffer when we stay quiet about mental health. The seniors of Ontario also face mental health challenges. According to CHMA Ontario, “changes [particularly for seniors] such as loss of loved ones, retirement, and decreasing social support networks can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety in later life.”

3) Approximately 49% of people who feel they have experienced depression and/or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor for help.

Shocking, isn’t it? About half of Canadians never go to their doctor with mental health concerns. There are many reasons for this, but there is one big issue: stigma. When I first experienced mental health issues, I didn’t want to tell anyone because I was scared and embarrassed. When I was in public school, our health class covered healthy eating, consistent exercising, puberty, etc. yet why had I never heard anything about taking care of my mental health?

People have so many preconceived notions of what it means to be “mentally ill”, but the reality is, we all have mental health even if we don’t necessarily have a mental illness. We’re only human. There are going to be times when we’re not okay, and it’s okay to admit to ourselves and to others that we aren’t okay.

Everyone needs to take care of their own mental health. Just because we aren’t suffering from an illness, doesn’t mean we need to just throw health out the window. We try to stay physically healthy even when we aren’t sick, so why should our mental wellness be any different?

When we come together and take care of our mental wellbeing, and talk about it with each other we can make a big difference. It’s time to talk about mental health with each other so we can begin breaking down the stigma. If you’re having a hard time mentally, you don’t have to keep it to yourself. No one will think any less of you. Everyone has had a hard time at some point in their lives, and you will find someone who can support you. You are not all alone. I promise.

– Carole

Medication 101: Taking Medication to Treat Mental Illness #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

We’re almost at the home stretch! It’s crazy how quickly May has passed by! My apologies for not getting this post up yesterday, time got away from me.

This week I want to talk about taking medication to treat mental illnesses, specifically using anti-depressants to treat anxiety and depression. Growing up, I had a lot of misconceptions about taking medication that stopped me from pursuing it as part of my treatment plan. This week, I’m going to answer some commonly asked questions I get about taking medication to provide some information about what it means to take anti-depressants. I haven’t tried any other forms of medication, so I can only speak to the use of SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors).

How does your medication work? Will you be on it forever?

One of my biggest fears of taking medication to help manage my anxiety and depression was the fear that I would never be able to get off them. What if I needed them to function and I was stuck on them for the rest of my life? Perhaps, in a deeply uncomfortable way, I wanted to prove to myself that my willpower was enough. I was strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was weak if I needed my life to be managed by drugs that messed with my brain chemistry. How silly that is, now that I think about it! Anxiety and depression are caused by many things, but one of the biggest things? Chemical imbalances in the brain!

The medication I use is an SSRI, a type of anti-depressants which prevents serotonin from being re-uptaken from the synapse right away. Serotonin can regulate mood and is proven to be linked to depressive disorders in the brain. By taking my medication, my brain is able to function with all its chemicals in balance, just like everyone else’s brain does naturally.

It’s unclear how long I’m going to be on my medication. It could be a year, 10 years, 20 year…? I don’t know. I don’t want to measure my journey to wellness by how many months I’m on my medication. I just want to feel happy and healthy in my own body again.

Is medication the “cure” for mental illness?

Contrary to what I thought taking medication would be like, it doesn’t actually fix anything really. 100%, it helped regulate my mood. I used to go through extremely dramatic fluctuations of heightened anxiety and low depression. When I started taking my medication, the severity of these episodes decreased significantly. However, that didn’t mean that they went away. In reality, my anxiety and depression were brought to a more manageable level so that I could function enough to help myself.

Medication works in part with other treatments, such as therapy. I outlined my experiences with that in my last blog post here. It was because my mood was more stabilized (and was less all over the place) that I was able to connect with myself more efficiently and make actual progress during therapy.

There’s no “magic cure” for mental illness. Medication is just part of the healing process. You can’t just start popping pills and expect for your problems to all disappear at the drop of a hat.

What was it like starting your medication? What is like continuing on it?

The process of starting a medication is never easy. In the first two weeks of taking my medication, it made me nauseous. As a person who hardly ever feels queasy (unless I’m having a panic attack, or coming close to one), it was very hard to manage at first. I definitely didn’t eat as much in the first two weeks, but once my body adjusted, I was lucky enough that that nausea stopped.

The very first time I took my medication, it was a wild time. My brain suddenly had an abundance of serotonin, which it was probably lacking in for a long time. I could not stop smiling for hours. I was a bit dizzy, and kept giggling, even though nothing was happening. I went to bed and probably had the best sleep I’d ever had. When I woke up, I felt like someone had hit my head with a positivity hammer. My eyes stayed wide open and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I felt like I was floating through clouds the entire day. Of course, every time succeeding that the effect was less and less intense, until it finally settled down. Now, I feel completely normal again, if not less emotionally extreme as I was before.

I’ve been on my medication for 9 months now, and it’s become a regular part of my life. One of the side effects to my medication is weight gain, so I have put on a few pounds. But other life circumstances also led me to some poor eating habits, so that definitely contributed to it as well. Otherwise, I’ve noticed no other negative changes. I’m lucky in the sense that my first medication worked well for me. Some people have to circulate through many different kinds until they find one that works for their body.

So overall, does your medication work? Do you still feel like you, even though your brain chemistry is being altered medicinally?

Overall, my medication does work. When I was in high school, managing my dramatic moods was exhausting. I was a seemingly normal girl on the surface, but underneath it all, I lived in a very constant state of general anxiety. And when I wasn’t anxious, I was depressed. It was incredibly tiring having my mind go at 150% with anxiety all the time. Since starting my medication, my generalized anxiety has calmed down incredibly. I used to be afraid that medication would change how I was. But the reality is that my medication allows me to be who I really am, past the anxious shell I lived in. I’m so thankful that I feel like I’m finally in control of my life and myself. It’s a great feeling!

Medications did wonders for me, but everyone is different! If you feel like you benefit from taking medication, I would definitely talk to your doctor and see what kind of treatment plan will work best for you.

Do you have any more questions about treating mental illnesses through medication?

– Carole

 

My Therapy Journey #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

“It’s okay Carole, you’re safe here.”

There’s no doubt, those are some of the most important words I’ve ever heard. Who said them?

My therapist.

My mental health journey has been long and tedious, I’ve been shuffled through doctor after doctor, seen by multiple therapists, social workers, and counsellors. But I’d never seen any consistently, until this year.

My first encounter with therapy was when I was about 15-years-old. I went and saw a family counsellor with my parents, who my  mom booked me to see after I told her I was first experiencing anxiety. It was a new experience, scary even. I felt incredibly embarrassed, my palms sweating and my head down the entire time. When I left, I had the feeling that I never wanted to go back, clutching a sheet of “bad mindsets/coping mechanisms” that were supposed to help me identify what was leading me down the mental illness rabbit hole.

I don’t remember going back to “traditional” therapy for a while after that. I was seen by school guidance counsellors, a lot. I remember every time I sat in that office with the big glass walls that looked out into the school atrium, I sagged my shoulders low and looked down at my tightly squeezed hands resting on my lap. I didn’t want people to look in and see me. The first guidance counsellor was friendly, he had a kind face and genuinely wanted to help me. We talked for a bit. I was having problems in class. I was getting good grades and all, but I was crying. A lot.

When we talked, he noticed one thing about me, despite being an optimist about everyone, I was extremely pessimistic when it came to myself. I always looked down on myself. I was always trying to please people. I was crushing myself under the weight of expectation I had conjured up myself.

“You have to change the way you think,” he told me. “There is some good in every day. I promise.”

He opened the top drawer and pulled out a dark blue notebook. “Here,” he said, handing it to me. “Every day, I want you to reflect on your day. The good things and the bad things. I think you’ll start noticing everything’s not as bad as it seems.”

And I followed that for a while. Every night, I’d write the date and I’d start with the bad things. My terrible moods, or things that upset me. Then I would write the good things, food that I ate that made me happy, or memories I shared with my friends at school. Before long, I found that my school guidance counsellor was right. The positives really did outweigh the negatives.

That helped for a while. It definitely taught me to start thinking in a new way, but it wasn’t quite enough.

The next year, I was in the guidance office again. I was struggling to finish tests in my math class because of severe text anxiety. I cried after every class to the point where I couldn’t attend my next class, and my teacher told me I needed to get help. This time was more embarrassing than the last. My face burned with shame as I sat in my new guidance counsellor’s office (they had moved to an alphabetized system rather than a by-grade system, so I got moved to a different counsellor). Admitting I needed help was embarrassing. I felt like a failure. I was a smart kid. I was supposed to be able to write tests just like everyone else, just like I’d always been able to. But something about sitting in a room full of people with a test I had studied so hard for made my whole body feel fuzzy and numb. It was so frantic in my head, I couldn’t even read the questions. The sound of people’s pencils, the ticking of the clock, the sweatiness in my palms, paralyzed me. I looked at the ground. How did I explain that to someone? What would I do? What would they do?

Of course, I cried in there too. But my guidance counsellor, a gentle and compassionate woman, looked at me in a way that I just knew that she wanted to help me. She helped arranged for me to write tests in the guidance office by myself, with a little extra time so I could start to clear my head. My test scores sky-rocketed. Of course, I still had an excruciating level of anxiety, but those things helped me.

Along with that though, my guidance counsellor made me see the school social worker.

Now, it wasn’t that I didn’t like her. She was a sweet woman. She just… Didn’t understand me. It felt like I was talking to someone who thought I was 4 years old, like I didn’t understand my own feelings, and it made me feel like my problems were so much smaller than they felt like to me. We did ten minutes of meditation. She asked me if it helped. “I mean, I guess,” I remember saying, after 10 minutes of uncomfortable silence. Meditation, to me, didn’t really do that much. It just gave me time to do nothing but overthink. There was no such thing as “emptying my mind”. Thoughts just seeped into my consciousness and spiralled around in my head until they became monsters. But at the time, I didn’t know how to articulate that, and she didn’t understand what I meant. I stopped seeing her.

After that, my therapy journey is pretty much on par with what I’ve written in previous personal mental health stories. This year though, I had the opportunity to see a therapist consistently for about 6 months, I believe? Getting to see the same person who knew my story already was extremely helpful because we were able to make a lot of progress with each session.

Sometimes I would go in thinking I knew what I wanted to talk about, and we would end up talking about something else that I had no idea bothered me. Other times I had no idea what to say, but once she asked me a question, all these words just poured out of my mouth.

Therapy confirmed to me what I already knew, I am an extremely empathetic person who wants to make other people happy. All my life, this has been extremely hard for me to deal with, as I find it difficult to separate my own experiences from others. Things don’t just “roll off my back” but affect me in a much deeper way than people mean to. I’ve always considered this one of my faults, until my therapist taught me otherwise. She taught me its a wonderful thing to be able to connect with others on such a deep, emotional level, but with that ability comes the challenge to self-protect. I learned in therapy what it means to set boundaries for myself, and to be assertive when other people try to push my boundaries.

She followed me on my life journey these past few months and was able to understand where I was coming from by taking the time to get to know me and my experiences, both present and past.

What meant the most to me was the day we dealt with some of my deep rooted insecurities and pain, and I just started to cry. For the first time, it felt like I really saw who I was, and someone else did to, and they understood completely. It was cathartic, and taught me that I am the person I am because of all my experiences, the good and the painful, but it’s okay to be sad or angry about things that have happened. It’s okay to feel lost and afraid. It’s okay to feel.

I used to be afraid of how I felt. I’ve grown up being “oversensitive” and “overdramatic”. I was afraid of feeling something deeper than just the surface. Therapy taught me what it means to genuinely be myself, and not to be afraid of who I “thought I was” and who I “actually was”. Because we are who we want to be, and its up to me to make that decision for myself.

What I’ve learned from my multiple attempts at “therapy” from social workers, guidance counsellors, family counsellors, etc. is that it takes time to find someone you are comfortable with. When you’re able to connect with someone and feel safe with, the real work begins, and sometimes it takes time. But the things you learn about yourself can make the struggle worth it.

Have you ever gone to therapy? If not, would you try it? If so, how did you find it?

– Carole

 

Self-Care 101: Aloe Bud App Review #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

Happy mental health awareness month! I am so happy that there is a whole month dedicated to mental health advocacy and awareness! To celebrate, I’m going to be posting a blog post every Sunday for the month of May.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Aloe Bud for sponsoring this blog post by giving me access to the premium version of the app for no cost so I can review their product in its fullest. With that being said, all the opinions found below are all my own, and they have not asked me to say anything specific in exchange for giving me premium access.

I first found out about Aloe Bud when it was still in its beta phases. I was browsing twitter (as usual), when I came across a thread of self-care apps that target taking care of our physical and mental health. One that stuck out to me was Aloe Bud. It caught my eye because of its pastel colour palette and cute design. I was disappointed to find out that the app wasn’t currently available on the app store because it was still being beta’d, and only a select people were testing the app out.

Regardless, I found Aloe Bud on twitter, and followed them for updates. From what I could tell, people were really enjoying the app. When the app was available for pre-order on the App Store, I was ecstatic. The app came out in late April, and I immediately went to explore.

Let me get into the app now.

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The app itself is very simple, which surprised me at first, but is not actually a bad thing. Basically, Aloe Bud is a customizable self-care app. What the app does is prompt you to select reminders for what you think is most important for you to remember. This includes a multitude of different things, including reminders to take your medication, reminding yourself to take a break from screens, prompting yourself to drink water, etc. You can select when you want Aloe Bud to send you notifications, including options such as “only on the weekends” or “every week day” or you can set your own parameters (for example, I set a reminder to “move” or “exercise” Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). At the time you select, Aloe Bud will send your phone a push notification that prompts you to do whatever you wanted to remind yourself and then you can check it off.

 

This is particularly useful if you’re a forgetful person (like me). I personally use Aloe Bud to remind me to take my medication for my depression/anxiety. Aloe Bud prompts me to take my medication at 7:30 every night, and I click off “check-in” after I’ve done it.

 

With the premium version, this becomes even more useful, because you can write your own reminders. With the basic version, there is a preset notification for each type of reminder. If you have the premium version, you can customize what the notifications say to remind you of specific things. For example, part of my own self-care routine is taking care of my emotional support animal, Timothy. I use Aloe Bud to remind myself to feed him dinner, using the “fuel” reminder, and customizing it to tell me to feed my rabbit at 8:30, in place of the generic reminder to feed myself. This makes Aloe Bud super customizable and flexible to the individual needs that come up in individuals lives.

Another great feature of Aloe Bud is its ability to function as a quick journal. There are lots of options that ask you specific questions to reflect on how you feel. My personal favourites are the “people” activity, which asks you to write an encouraging message to your future self, and the “breathe” activity, which asks you how you’re feeling at the current moment. Aloe Bud keeps track of all the things you write, and if you click the icon at the top, you can scroll through your recent inputs. You can read what you’ve written in the past, and see how your mood has changed.

 

Overall, I think this app is awesome! It’s super easy to figure out, has a clean and simple layout, and an aesthetic I can appreciate. I love the pixel style and the bright colours, which really set it apart from the sleek and smooth designs that most apps these days have. After using it for a couple of weeks, it has served me very well, because it’s so easy to customize it to suit your own needs. I definitely recommend you give it a try, because it finds a way to be helpful for everyone.

In terms of mental health, I think it’s really important and super awesome that developers have started to create resources for people to help themselves. By no means does Aloe Bud ever attempt to be a therapist, but rather its a tool that you can use to track your progress when seeking the help of a therapist, or even in your mental health journey in general. It’s great at reminding you to do important things to take care of yourself, like drinking water, eating food, taking a shower, etc. which I would have benefitted greatly from during my depressive episodes.

All in all, a super cute app with lots of potential. I’d love to see them incorporate some kind of calendar feature, so you can more easily see what you accomplish each day, and can easily find the dates you are looking for. Perhaps their little boxes on the home screen could be more specific about when you last checked in or filled them out. But otherwise, a great app.

How would you use a self-care app?

– Carole

Redefining Beauty: Inclusive Brands

Today I went shopping by myself.

And by shopping I mean walking around the mall with a Starbucks iced drink and looking at clothes but never buying any. This has become one of my favourite hobbies, as there’s something peaceful about shopping on your own without anyone to bother you that you’re taking too long or you’re going to stores that they don’t want to go to.

It was also today that I realized how much inclusivity matters. At least, to me.

It’s no secret to people who know me that one of my favourite stores to shop at is Aerie by American Eagle. I love them because 1) they sell the most comfy bras and underwear but 2) they don’t photoshop their diverse set of models.

The latter of those two things is most important to me because as a child, I often felt awfully uncomfortable and embarrassed when I went clothes shopping. When I was a kid, I was rather plump and chubby. I was wearing “size 16 kids” (whatever size “16” even means) by the time I was around 11 or 12 years old, and was constantly embarrassed every time I went clothes shopping and things didn’t fit me right or were too small. Everyone my age was wearing Aeropostale, Hollister, or Abercrombie graphic tees and skinny jeans. It was horribly mortifying that I didn’t fit into those clothes (their sizing tended to run small, so I was squeezing into large and extra-large t-shirts, sucking in my stomach and trying to smooth out my muffin top by pulling up the waist of my jeans). Why couldn’t I look like everyone else? I wondered to myself, looking at the popular girls with their little tiny waists and straight blonde hair. They looked just like the models in all the ads. Maybe these were clothes meant for them, but not for me.

So I stuck to what I was comfortable in or what was more “me”. Random off-brand clothes, sometimes from Wal-Mart, sometimes the thrift store, sometimes hand-me-downs from my cousin. I still wished I could be wearing all the so called “fashionable” and “in-style” clothing as everyone else. I often complained to my mom that the fashion in style wasn’t meant for my body. Low rise jeans and tight little t-shirts did no service to my chubby, curvy body. My mom agreed, saying that stores should have different kinds of clothes that suit different body types and allow for everyone to feel comfy and happy.

Flash forward to my first year of undergrad. I had moved away from my small town (it’s by no means small in population, but basically a bedroom community with nothing fun to do there), to a bigger city about an hour and a half away. For the first time, I lived nearby to a mall that had more than a handful of stores (that mostly catered to middle aged white women). That was when I found Aerie.

I’d been to an Aerie before back when I was on a high school trip to Chicago, but in the flurry of the trip I’d forgotten about it. When I walked into the store, it seemed like everything was inline with my aesthetic and sense of style: pastel colours, soft and comfy fabrics, and stylish but functional. But what really blew me away was the pictures of models all over the stores.

All over the store, the models were plastered with the tag #AerieReal, meaning none of the girls were photoshopped to look thinner, fair-skinned, or perfect. And I could tell. Some girls had thick thighs, some girls had smile lines, some girls had cellulite, some had fat rolls, but they still looked absolutely beautiful and radiant.

For the first time I was looking at shining women who I felt I could relate to. If these women were imperfect, but I still thought they were beautiful, perhaps I could also be beautiful just the way I was.

I was hooked after that. It was so comforting to browse their website and have an idea of what clothes would look like on someone who looked similar to me. I used to face the problem of seeing clothes look gorgeous on tall skinny models, but when I put it on my short, curvy body, it did me no service. But I felt overjoyed to spend money on clothes that were made with my body in mind. In fact, the whole brand was designed to have something that suited everyone, and created an environment that allowed you to feel beautiful no matter what you were wearing or how you looked in it.

It was so liberating, most of the clothes I own (or rather the clothes I love the most) are from Aerie.

Today I went into the mall and peeped into other stores that sold similar things to Aerie, like Victoria’s Secret, Pink, and La Senza. I could immediately tell the difference. All the clothes and pictures in those stores clearly catered to the skinny white girl my young self had desired to be like. It didn’t feel like I was really meant to shop at these stores.

Inclusivity is by far one of the most important things to me, especially as an Asian-Canadian who often struggles with my sense of cultural identity, and even more so how I looked compared to other people. There’s something very powerful about feeling included, whether because of your race, body type, gender, etc. and it’s important that brands follow suit to try and meet those needs. Is the #AerieReal campaign perfect? Far from it. But they’re definitely taking a step in the right direction, a direction that I am more than happy to support by buying their merchandise.

It’s taught me that I deserve to feel happy, comfortable, and beautiful in the things that I wear. Even if I don’t look like the “ideal woman”.

 

5 Things I Learned from Taking a Mental Health Leave

When I first heard about people taking time off from school/work for mental health reasons, I never quite understood what “mental health leave” would entail. When we are physically ill (with a cold, the flu, etc.) we get a doctor’s note and stay home for a prescribed amount of time (a week or so), we sleep, we lie in bed, drink soup, take medicine, but what did it mean to take mental health leave? And what would that do?

For the first time ever, I recently took a week off of school for mental health reasons. I’m sitting now, back at school, in my faculty building facing the huge glass windows. But two weeks ago at this time, I was at home, probably still sleeping.

From my time off I learned a lot about myself, the people around me, our society, and more. Here are some of the things I learned.

1. It is 100% valid to take a mental health leave.

I didn’t want to take a mental health leave. “I can’t,” I told my friend, curled up in a ball on the floor of their room, my head buried between my knees. “I have so much stuff to do!”

“Carole.”

Her voice was stern, but with the kind of conviction where you know they’re only doing what’s best for you in that moment. “You need time to recover, you won’t get better like this.”

And she was right. I wasn’t. I needed time to just stop. I had been living the past 2 weeks in a flurry of hell, grabbing onto whatever shred of hope and motivation I had with my fingernails, hoping to claw to the finish line. The “final sprint” so to say, but I’d been sprinting for almost 3 weeks at that point.

“Don’t worry about the things you need to do. The assignments, the grades, the performances, what matters most here is you. You need to be well. None of that matters if you’re not okay.”

As someone that puts others before myself, that was something I desperately needed to hear. I’m a people pleaser, I know that. I try the best I can because I want people’s acceptance. But in doing so, I forget to take care of myself. It’s funny, because you don’t realize it’s happening, until someone else points it out to you.

From those words, I decided she was right. And from there, I took a week off of school. Not because I “wanted it” or “didn’t want to work” or “was giving up”, but because to take care of myself, I needed a break. And that’s 100% valid. If our body is sick, we rest, if our mind is sick, should we not do the same?

2. There is actual merit in taking sick leave for your mental health.

At first I didn’t know what benefit going home and taking a week of off school would do for me. Would I not just fall more behind? These were the thoughts racing through my mind on the way home. Was I running from my problems? Was this all some crazy mind-game I was playing with myself as an excuse to be lazy?

But that wasn’t true. When I got home, I instantly felt a bit better. It was familiar surrounding, my childhood home I’d spent so many years of my life in. It was slowing down and taking a breath. It was surrounding myself with people that I cared about deeply. That tight knot in my chest slowly began to come undone and I knew that I had made the right decision.

Getting the chance to just rest was by far the most rewarding experience. Getting to put myself first, and care for my wellbeing as a number one priority was liberating. I was gathering the strength that would allow me to keep going; to do better and get better.

3. There will be people who understand.

When I first admitted I needed to go home, I was embarrassed. The idea of calling home and crying for my parents to come pick me up was mortifying. I thought they would be confused, or they’d make me explain when I really didn’t want to talk. But when I called them, they listened to me cry on the phone and dropped everything to come get me.

When I went to the doctor to get a doctor’s note, I was terrified she wouldn’t understand why I felt I needed to spend a week out of school, when there was nothing “physically wrong with me”. But she’s been my doctor since I was a young child, and when I told her I needed her help with a doctor’s note, she looked at me and asked, “How did this benefit you?”

I told her that I felt I needed time away from school and work to truly take care of myself. If I was back at home with my parents, I would have the time to rest and move forward with my life. She smiled warmly at me, before turning to the computer to write the note, “That sounds like the best idea for you, yeah?”

Of course it was embarrassing to explain where I was to people back at school. I said it was a “personal emergency”, and the outpouring of support was really heartening. I thought that people would be angry. I had to give up some of the commitments I made because I needed to put myself first, for the first time in a very long time. And I’ve been so blessed to be with people who told me, “That’s okay, thank you so much for your work. I hope you get better soon.”

4. There will also be people who won’t.

And of course, there will be the people who don’t understand. But that’s okay. I spoke to my therapist soon after my leave from school and she told me that she was proud of me for putting myself before other people.

I shared my struggle with how other people perceive me, and what they might think of me, and she gave me some very relevant advice.

It does not matter how other people see you, that’s their problem, and you can’t change how they are and what they think. The only constant you have is yourself, and what matters is how you view yourself, and how much you value yourself.

I’ve learned that being a people pleaser can deteriorate your self-worth, and you’re the only person who will always be with you, so learning to accept yourself and ignore what other people might think about you can be the most liberating thing.

5. You are allowed to rest.

This one is important. When I was at home, I spent the days lying in bed, spending time with my friends and family, and using my free time to do things that I enjoyed. At first, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I wasn’t doing anything school related at all. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the whole point of a health leave is to rest.

You wouldn’t think twice about not doing any work when you’re home sick with the stomach flu. There shouldn’t be a difference if you’re at home sick with mental health issues.

You deserve to take care of yourself and if that means that you can do work, then do it. If that means you need to take time for yourself and just rest, do that. There is no linear way to recover, and you need to learn what’s the best for you.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to balance self-care and productivity, and I’m still learning, but the most important thing I’ve taken away from taking a mental health leave is that you deserve to take care of yourself however you might need to. You are valuable and important, and deserve that much from yourself.

– Carole