When University Turns Your Life Upside Down

Hi all! It’s been a busy start to my third year of university. I’ve been less active on this blog, but it hasn’t been forgotten! Below is a post I wrote for a website back in the spring. I never heard back from them on whether they wanted to publish it or not, so I’m going to post it now on my own accord. Enjoy!


When I was 4 years old, I had a dream. I wanted to be a teacher. I lined up all of my stuffed animals in rows on the carpeted floor, and dragged my toddler sister to sit in front of me and my little blackboard. “I’m Miss Carole,” I said cheerfully, writing 2 + 2 on the board. “Let’s learn some math!” Of course, the stuffed animals said nothing when I asked them a question. My baby sister got bored and wouldn’t listen to me. But I continued to teach as if I had a class full of engaged students.

When I stepped foot on my university campus in September I had a goal. I spent all of grade 12 preparing for this moment. After a lot of hard work (and a lot of tears) I had made it to my dream school, Western University. I was going to get a degree in music and a minor in English, go to teacher’s college, and teach kids forever.

I’d grown up in a small city. My view of the world was small. I was always excelling. Always at the top. When I came to university, that all changed.

I was suddenly aware of how many people were in the world. I was meeting people from all over the country who had just as many accolades and awards that I did. Suddenly my big world plans felt so small.

The truth is that university is just a taste of how big the world is.

I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to touch hearts, and instill love in a way I knew how; through music. Here I was, trying to make my dreams come true, and here were 100 other people just like me that wanted to do the same thing.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do something that everyone else was doing. This wasn’t a bandwagon fad, like temporary tattoos in elementary school. This was my future. But it led me to wonder, what else was out there? Was I destined to a life that I thought I wanted, because it was the only thing I knew?

I was having a crisis. I didn’t know what I wanted out of my future. I didn’t know what I wanted to be anymore. Suddenly, I didn’t know who I was. I defined myself by what I thought I wanted, by the goals I thought I wanted to achieve. But suddenly the world was big and full of opportunities I had known nothing about, and I didn’t know what to do to get them.

My academic counsellor recommended I visit the university’s career counselling.

I learned a lot of important things there. The most valuable lesson I learned? There are two kinds of jobs in the world. Those that require special education: doctors, teachers, firefighters, architects, etc. They are the jobs we see most often, the ones on TV saving the day, pulling people out of fires and performing surgeries. But behind them is an even larger work force.

The ones that build their career on networking. Who don’t have a plan spelled out right in front of them. The ones who go out looking for jobs with a degree in their hands, no specific plan in mind, but a desire to work and be flexible. All my life, I’d grown up thinking you needed a plan, but in reality, not many adults do. I grew up in the house of a nurse and a mechanic, both immigrants, who had pretty specialized jobs. All I ever knew was I wanted to provide for them the way they always provided for me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t explore all that life had to offer.

After that, I wanted to have learn more; to have more life experiences, and to take away as many different experiences I could from my undergrad. My life changed. I was less laser focused on a goal, and more open to experience.

Was it hard? Yes.

Letting go of control and allowing myself to just live in the moment was, and still is, scary. I’m a perfectionist. I want everything to go according to plan, but the reality is, life never goes according to plan.

When I stopped worrying about it all; my grades, my career, my future, that’s when it all started to click into place. I expanded my own horizons, joining groups that I aligned with. I joined my faculty’s music council, which opened me up to student politics. I joined the faculty peer guides, where I was able to connect with younger students. I joined the Western chapter of Active Minds and took part of so many activism movements toward mental health on campus, in my community, and onwards.

I wouldn’t have met any of these opportunities had I not gone to university. And more importantly, I wouldn’t have tried them out, if I had been so focused on sticking to my plan. The goal was to go into school, get my degree, rack up some teaching experience, and get out. But I’ve learned so much from opportunities I risked passing up because I thought there was only a linear way to success. Going to university turned my life upside down, and yeah it was scary. There was nothing more terrifying than doubting everything I’d ever wanted for myself. But going out and trying to find the things I love and am passionate about, meeting new people and making new connections is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

I think part of the reason I failed to notice this so soon is because I was taught as a child to have an end game. We start school at 4 years old and are expected to keep going until we can land ourselves a full-time job that will sustain us for the rest of our lives. Students just like me have long since forgotten that school is supposed to be a place to learn, not just what we need to have a full-time job in the future, but to learn about ourselves, and the things we love, and the people around us. Often, we find that the things we learn in school don’t hold any applications in our real life. After all, who really uses the quadratic formula in real life anyway? But the connections made between ourselves, other people, the things we are passionate about, and the life skills we learn from our education and all the opportunities that come with it? They are priceless and are skills that I know I will use for the years to come.

– Carole

 

Advertisements

Uni 101: Academic Life

Hi friends! My original plan was to publish a blog post a week for the month of August in preparation for back to school in September. Clearly, that didn’t work (August was so unimaginably busy I just simply couldn’t keep up with the blog), but I’m going to continue my series anyway.

I’m currently sitting in a dark classroom with no windows and only one set of lights on by myself because my tutorial was cancelled but no one told me. Regardless, I feel like with my hour of free time I now have because I’m not in class, I can writ a bit about academic life.

As many people know from previous blog posts of mine, when I was in high school, I had an unhealthy perfectionist mindset and basically front loaded my life with my academics because I had the time to do it. Once I was in university though, that all changed. I recently saw a presentation at my university about how incoming students from high schools have a grade average of 90.1%, which is incredible! In fact, that was my exact high school average when I was leaving grade 12 to go to university. What’s shocking is that by the end of first year, that average drops to about 73%. That’s about 17%! When I first saw that statistic, I was gobsmacked.

There’s no way that’s going to be me, I thought to myself. I’m a smart kid who works hard. I can do this.

How naive that is! Now granted (and not to toot my own horn or anything) but my final grade average in first year was 84%. Was it easy? Was I happy with it? At first, no. I was anything but happy. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to understand the arbitrariness of grades, and I’m here to provide insight as to what these numbers mean, and how to find success regardless of what the numbers say.

1) Grades don’t mean the same thing they did in high school.

In high school, I was kept myself to a 90%+ average. I thought to myself, if grades are measuring how much of the course content I understand, I want to know 90%+ of the material. In high school, 90s are base line for knowing the material. Getting 70s, even 80s, is devastating to our self esteem. I know for myself, seeing anything below 90% caused me to burst into tears. But this idea is dangerous and far from the truth. The truth is, 70% means that we are meeting the requirements. We understand what’s happening, and we are learning. Anything 80% and above means that we’ve exceeded the expectation for what we’ve needed to learn, and demonstrated that we’re well beyond the learning outcomes of a course. And we don’t need to be like that in every course. One thing that was hard for me to accept, but is liberating is that getting 70s is okay. My choral conducting professor explained it well. 70% means you put in the effort and you’re meeting the expectations. 80% means you’ve shown that you’ve put in an exceeding amount of work that wasn’t necessarily required of you. 90% means that you’re an expert and could present to the experts in the field.

It’s okay to be a 70s student. Don’t break your neck trying to get 80s and 90s. If you are doing well and getting those high marks, that’s great. If you’re not, thats okay too. When you’re out of university and trying to get a job, no employer is going to ask you what mark you got in a first year psych class.

2) Studying is not something you can cram in the night before an exam.

I’m 100% guilty of doing this in high school. The day before my exams I’d be on the phone with friends as we quiz each other on our 3-4 page study sheets we made together, trying to cram in all the information that we could. It’s easy to do this when you’re in high school because honestly, there isn’t that much information to cover in one semester. Don’t get me wrong, high school is extremely difficult for some people. There were definitely moments in high school where I thought I was in over my head. But compared to university, the vast amount of knowledge you have to learn in a 4 month semester is absolutely insane. I’ve learned the hard way that it is thoroughly impossible to fit in everything from the semester in a couple of hours.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned when it comes to university academics is how to study. MAKE A SCHEDULE. I can’t stress this enough. I know it seems stupid and you don’t want to follow it, but trust me, it helps. I usually allocate myself a couple days to write study notes, which helps me refresh my brain on the material, but I also give myself days to study with friends and quiz each other. Did you know one of the best ways to learn information is to talk aloud? Having a study group of friends that just quiz each other and hearing and speaking the material out loud together is immensely helpful. I 100% recommend it.

3) Asking for help is okay. Even if you were the “smart kid” in high school.

When I first came to university, the idea that I could ask for help was all but literally forced down my throat. “Ask upper year students, talk to your profs, schedule meetings with your TAs, have a conversation with your academic counsellor…”, you name it, I heard it. And yet, my younger self thought that I couldn’t ask for help. Perhaps it was my pride, and believing that I could do everything myself, because heck, I was living on my own for the first time. I could do this.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s okay to ask for help. And when you do, it’s incredibly helpful. I took an English class in first year where we had to write 2 essays. I wrote the first one, thought it was pretty decent, and submitted it. If I were in high school, an essay like this probably would’ve gotten me anywhere from an 80 to 85. It’s no surprise that I was shocked to see a solid 72 in my grade book, and a copy of my essay literally mauled with red ink. My head started spinning at 100 mph. What did I do wrong? How could this happen? What do I do? Our next essay was coming up soon, and I definitely wanted to see an improvement from this essay, to our next essay, which was worth a LOT more.

So of course, I swallowed my pride and e-mailed my professor. I asked him to meet with me so I could discuss my next essay, and what exactly I could do to make it better. So I met with him, and within an hour, I felt enlightened. The standards in university are different than they are in high school, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I was focused on the wrong things, and needed someone to point me in the right direction so I could meet the requirements of what was needed AND exceed and succeed. It’s no surprise that my second essay got me a nice solid 80%.

4) Your academic life shouldn’t take over your whole life.

I’ll end with this point. You go to university to learn. There’s no doubt about that. BUT, university is also meant for so much more than that. This is something I really wish I knew when I first started. University is a time where you can learn so much beyond your course work. It’s your first time out in the world when people expect you to start figuring things out on your own. It’s learning to create social connections, it’s learning to find new experiences, to develop skills you can’t learn without trying. It’s the time to join clubs and meet people that share the same passions as you. It’s a time to find out who you are, what you like, and what you want to accomplish in life.

And you can’t do that if your head is down, reading books, and studying all the time. Your academics are important, yes. But they’re not everything. So get up, stretch your wings, and fly. Even if you fall, you can get back up, and learning from our mistakes is the way we grow.

– Carole

Uni 101: Residence Life

Hello all! As the summer wraps up, I wanted to start a series on my blog about entering university! I’ve had a lot of people ask me in the past for tips on what to expect when transitioning between high school and university, and as per usual on my blog, I’m here to share my personal experiences.

A lot of people I know are going into their first year of post-secondary (whether that be college, university, whatever you got going for you). If y’all are anything like me, it’s both incredibly exciting and terrifying! It’s exciting going off to do a new thing (especially if you’re moving away from home), but the unknowns can be daunting. This blog post is a list of tips and tricks from me, that I learned during first year, that hopefully can be helpful to you! In this first section, I’ll start with rez-life. It can be overwhelming to live on your own, but there are lots of people to help you, and little tips and tricks that will make your life a lot easier!

I lived in a “traditional-style” residence (basically, a floor with ~100 people, separated into 4 wings of ~35 people, with 3 common bathrooms [women, men, gender-neutral]) on a “living-learning community” wing made up of only music students.

Many of you will have very different experiences to mine, and by no means am I an expert, but hopefully some of the things I learned can help you out. Nothing I say is set in stone either, if something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to use it, or you can modify it to suit your needs better!

Rez-life will be different for everyone. It all depends on who you are as a person, what kind of people you live with, what kind of building you live in, etc. Personally, I had a lot of fun in residence! I met my best friends from first year in residence, and we’ve had a blast.

I mentioned before that I lived in a traditional style residence, which for me meant that my dorm room was literally just a bedroom. The door opened right up to the common hallway. I had one roommate, and basically the room was split in half, where we both had 1 closet, 1 twin-size bed, and 1 desk with a chair. Like this:

Portable Network Graphics image-5ADEE37A2BA8-1.png

Here are some of things I found really helpful/useful.

1) Creating extra storage without taking up more space. You can kinda see in the picture above, but I had 3 plastic storage boxes under my bed. 2 were for clothes that I was able to fold (1 for tops, 1 for bottoms) and 1 was for snacks (non-perishables like microwavable popcorn, granola bars, etc.). I don’t have a picture of the closet in my room, but if you’re anything like me (and have millions of clothes), trust me when I say THEY WILL NOT ALL FIT. Having them stored under my bed made sure it didn’t take up any more space (you might as well use the space under your bed for something), but also let me have more of my clothes while I was away. I folded all the clothes up like they were in a dresser drawer, kinda like this:

portable-network-graphics-image-7739758fbb27-1.png

Pro tip: If you’re looking for a way to downsize your closet or fold clothes in a more compact, efficient way, I definitely recommend looking up the “KonMari” method!

The nice thing about having more of your clothes with you too means that you don’t have to do laundry as often (unless you run out of underwear or something LOL), which will save you lots of money, bringing me to my next point:

2) Laundry day.  For some of you, laundry will be something you’ve always done at home (like I did!) but for some of you, it’ll be your first time. It’s really useful to have some sort of laundry schedule to follow so you can make use of your resources and time most efficiently.

Pro tip: If your building uses high efficiency laundry machines (you can typically find out on rez tours or by calling the front desk) I recommend you buy liquid detergent instead of the Tide pods that some schools (like mine) recommend.

Mostly because:

  1. If the washing machine is HE, you don’t need to use as much liquid detergent as you think, meaning it will last you for a lot longer than you would think (I had 1 bottle of liquid detergent that lasted me all year).
  2. Some of my friends had experiences where the tide pods wouldn’t completely melt, and the plastic casing would get glued onto things, and they’d have to wash things again (wasting laundry credits and their time).

At my school, all residents got their first 29 credits for free (both the washing machine and dryer were 1 credit to use once) which can last you all year if you try really carefully. In total I added $10 to my laundry card, I believe, at the end of the year.

For me, I only did laundry every 2 weeks, and I only used about 3 credits at a time. I like to wash my light clothes separate from dark coloured clothes (to prevent colour bleeding), and I found it was helpful to wash both simultaneously (in 2 separate washing machines, beside each other), so that I could toss both loads in the dryer together, to save myself from using the dryer twice, when a lot of my clothes I had to hang up to dry anyway.

The best way to accomplish this is to do laundry on a weekday. Absolutely EVERYONE tries to do laundry on weekends, which can make it really difficult to do this when you live in a smaller building (my floor [which had about 100 people in total on it] only had 3 laundry machines and dryers). I liked to do my laundry on Thursday afternoons, since I finished class at 3:30.

Pro tip: The laundry machine should lock when your load is running, meaning you can leave to laundry room to go do other things instead of waiting in there. People can and will take your clothes out and dump them on the floor or on top of the machines if you don’t come back to get them though. Set a timer on your phone a few minutes before your laundry is finished so you remember to take it out and move it before that happens.

Another great way to conserve laundry credits (or not use too much money) is to take your laundry home as much as possible. This can become more difficult the farther from home you are, but if it’s possible, I would definitely recommend it. First semester has tons of holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) so typically, I would try to hold off from doing laundry until I was going home so I could do it at home for free. This won’t always work for everyone (my parents picked me up in their car so I could bring my laundry bin home, if you’re going home on a train/plane/bus, this won’t be incredibly ideal), but if you get the chance, definitely take it!

3) Living with a roommate. Sometime is you’re lucky, you’ll end up in a single room in residence. If that’s the case, you don’t have to share the space with anyone! But if you’re like me, you may end up sharing half of your room with someone else. Having a roommate was definitely a pleasant experience for me, though I know for many of my friends, it wasn’t. Here are some tips that I’ve compiled from living with my roommate and hearing stories from my peers.

  • Borrowing Things from Each Other: if you don’t want your roommate to use your things, let them know what is okay or not okay for them to use. My roommate let me know that I could use her mini-fridge to hold any food items that I needed, but I never borrowed any of her other things without asking right away.
  • Giving a Heads-up: there’s nothing worse than coming home to your residence  with a complete stranger in your room. You may be comfortable with having a friend, family member, or significant other hanging out in your room, but that doesn’t mean your roommate will. Always make sure to ask your roommate(s) if its okay if you have guests over, and respect their decision!
  • Respecting the Space: always remember that you share your room with someone, which means respecting the space in a way that makes your roommate feel comfortable. You may not be phased by leaving your underwear on the floor, but your roommate might.
  • Communicate Right Away: If your roommate does something to bother you, don’t let it simmer until you’re angry and bitter (trust me, it’s exhausting to be that mad all the time). Talk to your roommate calmly about what upset you, and hopefully you two can reach a compromise. This works vice versa as well. If your roommate approaches you with something, try not to be too defensive. Listen to what they have to say, so you can (hopefully!) reach a calm compromise. If that doesn’t work, your residence staff member can help by mediating a conversation between you two.

A lot of people may have grown up with their own bedroom that they didn’t have to share with anyone. Having roommates is a wonderful chance to learn what it’s like to live with someone else, and you may end up making a friend in the process! Remain calm, and keep a clear head. Your roommate is probably equally as scared to live with someone else as you are. No one is looking for trouble!

Pro tip: Most universities will ask you to fill out a short survey about your lifestyle, such as what time you sleep, if you are tidy/messy, etc. and match you up with a roommate accordingly. Trust the process no matter how scary it can be! People who are matched up by the system, rather than trying to find a roommate online find that they end up with a much better match.

4) Food and nutrition. While it may be exciting to move out for the very first time, make no mistakes. Mom and/or dad aren’t there to cook for you anymore. Many residences offer in building food in their cafeteria, and it’s great! For the first week that is. After a while, you can get tired of the food the cafeteria serves. I recommend you buy a mini fridge (or coordinate with your roommate) so that you can bring food from home too. Every time I went home my parents would bring  me food, whether that was homemade bread from my grandma, or cheese that my mom bought on sale.

Overall, residence is one of those once in a lifetime experiences that are very special. Make the most of it! Everyone’s needs are different, and these are only a guideline of what you can do, but hopefully they help!

Do you have any tips for people living in residence? Or do you have any questions about residence?

– Carole

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.

35053114_1964576416888912_3970913430856007680_n
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