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

 

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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

 

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

 

Life With an Emotional Support Animal

Hello everyone! I’m back again! Due to popular request I’ll be doing a little blog on my life with my emotional support animal, my bunny, Timothy!

I’ll start with some general background first. I first heard of emotional support animals when I was in my first year of university. I met a girl who had an emotional support bunny named Floyd (who you can find on instagram @floydthebunbun!!), who was prescribed to her by her mental health provider. The idea intrigued me, as someone who also struggled with mental health issues. At the time, it was something I thought about, but did not know if I could handle the responsibility, so swarmed by the transition from high school to university.

Flash forward to second year. As you might have read in my previous blog post, I was struggling more and more with my anxiety and depression, to the point where I cried all alone because I felt so isolated and lonely. It was then that the idea of emotional support animals came back into my mind. I met Floyd’s mother again, when I joined Active Minds Western, and it brought back my interest in having a support animal because it meant I would never have to truly be alone. I’ve never really been a cat or dog person, so I talked to Floyd’s mom about what it was like taking care of a bunny. And I loved bunnies. I always have. They’re cute and sweet, and such caring creatures. When I decided that was what I wanted, I did lots of research on rabbits.

Let me tell you, there are a lot of misconceptions about rabbits. First off, they’re prey animals, which means they don’t act like cats and dogs at all really (since they are predator animals). They don’t really understand the concept of fetch or really like to chase anything, because it’s not in their instincts (they are the chased, rather than the chaser). They also do not like being picked up (they are never picked up by their mother, and instinctually to them, being picked up feels like a predator has captured them and they are about to die). But what rabbits do like is social interaction. They hate being alone, and once they’ve grown to love and trust you, they will be your friend and loving companion until the end of time.

Flash forward to November 25th, when I picked up my bunny Timothy. Timothy comes from a litter of surprise bunnies from a lady in Mississauga. He was the runt of 6 bunnies, and when I came to pick him up, he was the very last one. Though he was the runt, he was still quite a bit bigger than you might be expecting him to be. He probably weighed about 4 pounds, but was about the size of a small cat (in fact, he was bigger than my roommates newborn kitten who was about the same age as him!). He was born August 17th, and at the time I met him, was about 3 months old.

I fell in love with him at first sight. He was sitting all alone in a cage on the floor, because he did not like other bunnies. He actually had a scab on his forehead, because he provoked another fight with a bunny and lost. So his owner had to separate him from the rest of the bunnies, and he spent most days alone in his cage, with a couple hours a day to stretch his legs. When I first met him, I tried to hold him (which he definitely did not like) but it didn’t turn out very well, because he had no idea who I was.

So I packed him up into the car and drove him home with me, all the while cooing at him that I was his new mommy and I was bringing him to his new home. When we got home, I knew he was scared. He was in an entirely different environment, with new smells and totally new people. He stayed quietly in his cage mostly, and would not for the life of him, let me near him to touch him. I grew very nervous that I had made the wrong choice, and that this bunny would never grow close to me.

Not only that, but he was only 3 months old, so his litter habits were not exactly the best they could be. For the first little while, I had to watch him like a hawk when I let him out of his cage, because he would literally pee anywhere. But I slowly litter trained him and after about a month, he was pretty consistent.

Timothy and I had an interesting first couple of weeks. This was my very first pet (save for some fish that I had growing up) and I was unsure how to proceed. But slowly but surely, we settled into a routine together. For the first couple weeks, I would just sit on the floor with him, and let him explore on his own. For the first little while, he wouldn’t even approach me. As time wore on, he eventually decided to explore the interesting human that always sat with him. He prodded me with his little snout, and eventually let me pet his head. After a couple of weeks, he began to lick me, which is a bunny’s way of giving kisses! Needless to say, I was absolutely in love with him.

Now, bunnies don’t say very much (they actually don’t make any vocal sounds), but they say a lot with their body language. There are very many different ways that they sit (or even how their face looks) that can tell you if they are happy or not. Slowly I began to understand what Timothy’s different body languages meant, and we grew very close to each other.

I started to bring him to school once I felt he was comfortable enough to go out with me. As an emotional support animal, he was allowed to come with me to class. I had to run it through all of my professors, and get their permission as well as go to the Services for Students with Disabilities in the Student Development Centre to get the all clear to bring Timothy to class with me. Having him in class is great. He’s very patient and calm when he’s in his carrier, and doesn’t make much of a fuss. I am very grateful for that. I often bring him to the Faculty of Music Students’ Council office hour table where people would stop by and pet him and say hello. And Timothy just eats it up. He loves attention and adores being pet. He’s a very social bunny (though he loves people, and is super indifferent about other rabbits lol).

In terms of what it’s like to have an emotional support animal, I have to admit it’s an experience unlike anything else. Often, it feels like Timothy is just a pet, especially when we are at home. I feed him every morning, clean his litter box, make him toys out of cardboard boxes and toilet paper tubes, groom him… But there are moments that remind me he’s much more than just a pet.

My generalized anxiety disorder manifests itself in the sense that I get completely lost in my mind. When the anxiety starts stirring, my mind kicks into fight or flight mode to the point where I completely shut down. I often get stuck in a very negative spiral of thoughts, and start to disappear from the present moment. It is moments like this that Timothy brings me back. Usually when I get like this, I’m either motionless or crying hysterically on the floor, call it animal intuition but Timothy knows when something is wrong with me. He usually comes to inspect me, first prodding me with his nose, and from then he usually knows I’m not okay. He’ll just sit with me, and let me pet him, while I either just say all the thoughts that are stuck swirling in my head or I just cry and cry. He’ll just stay with me, give me little kisses, and generally just wait for me to come back to a functioning state of mind. I haven’t trained him to do this, he’s just learned to understand how I am, and helps in just supporting me so I’m not alone. That in itself is everything to me, when I’m in those moments. When I’m not alone, I’m less likely to sink farther into my negative thoughts. I’ve noticed a decrease in suicidal ideation and self-deprecating thoughts because I have Timothy to remind me that I am not alone, and he loves me unconditionally. When he’s with me, I can never forget that I don’t matter.

The idea of an emotional support animal seems a little silly at first. I know when I first heard about it, I was a little bit sceptical. But now, I truly understand the benefit of having an ESA. To others he may seem like he’s just a pet who has special privileges to accompany me in class, or in my exams, or whatever. But to me, he is my partner in crime, who reminds me that I am important and I am loved (whether that’s because I feed him treats or because he actually loves me doesn’t matter ;P). He helps keep me centred and out of my cloudy head, and allows me to enjoy life and be more like myself.

That’s what emotional support animals are all about.

– Carole

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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

 

To You, Whom I Loved

You know, a couple weeks ago, I hurt the back of my hand. My raw skin hurt and it scabbed over and I watched it heal. It went from red and wet with blood, to dry and brown, shrivelling and pulling at my skin to stitch it together again. And I waited weeks. I was careful not to touch it while it healed, careful not to pick at it or agitate it, and after a couple weeks it’s healed. There’s fresh pink skin, and a scar I’m not sure will fade. But that’s something I can look at and know has healed. But the mark will always be there.

No one else can see it, but it’s the same thing with my heart. But unlike any physical injury, no one could see it. I could only feel it. When you left, I felt like someone ripped a huge hole in my chest. That first night I lay in bed, and felt like my head was floating in honey. Think of those jars full of liquid and whole brains in the creepy scientist laboratories. That’s how it felt. I couldn’t access anything inside that jar. Just the bittersweet taste in my mouth, and salty tears that just kept flowing and flowing from my eyes. And it felt like I would never stop feeling like this. Everything moved slowly, suspended in syrup and it was so so hard to breathe. Lying in bed didn’t help. Lying on the couch didn’t help. Pacing the house didn’t help. Every fibre of my being was just stuck on you, crying for you to come back to me. And that was the moment I realized I had lost myself in you.

The next day didn’t feel better. I woke up in bed, with your picture above my head, floating on a curtain of happy memories and your smiling face watching over me. I couldn’t take it down.

Everything felt too normal. The sunlight through the bathroom window felt like any other day, the sound of the water running, and the soft creaking of the floorboards beneath my feet. My body went through the motions, and before I knew it I was on the bus. How did I get here? I wondered to myself, staring at the scenery passing by. The bus called stop after stop, and I realized I would have to get off. When I got to school, my legs felt like jelly. I checked my phone 3 times. You hadn’t said anything. Maybe I was hoping you would take everything back, but I knew deep in the stirring pit of my stomach you wouldn’t.

My prof asked me if I was okay, because clearly I didn’t look like I was. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror that day, but I hardly needed to look to know how I must’ve presented. My eyes were red, all the light had drained out with the tears. I felt like a shell of the person I used to be. And I wondered how I allowed you to take that from me. I told her I wasn’t and sat quietly in my seat. I pretended I was normal for about an hour. Like nothing was wrong and I was the same old happy girl. And maybe it was because I wanted to be her again. But it just felt so wrong. At the end of class I walked out the door and straight past my next class.

One of my friends asked me if I was okay, and for once in my life, I couldn’t pretend like it was. The hole in my chest felt like it was bleeding, and everything was blurry and fuzzy and a big awful nightmare. I found her in a practise room and just started to cry. I was tired of crying, but there wasn’t anything else I could do. I just cried and cried and cried and asked her why you left me. But she couldn’t give me any answers, and neither could I.

“Why did you come to school today?” My friend asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said softly, nursing a crumpled up tissue in my hands. I just wanted to feel normal, but I couldn’t be normal anymore. You had become my normal, and suddenly you were gone. I wondered, were you crying like I was?

The rest of the day was a blur and I went straight home to be alone. But I didn’t want to be alone. All I wanted was to talk to you, because you always knew how to sew the holes that ripped my heart apart. But without you, it just kept bleeding and bleeding until I thought I would die. And I knew I was overreacting. And I knew I was being dramatic. But I just couldn’t make it stop. You were poison that was burning me from the inside out and all I could do was wait for it to pass.

The funny thing about a broken heart is there’s no antidote but time, but time has a way of moving in slow ticks of the clock when I need it the most.

The next day was better. It still hurt, but it was better. I got out of bed and my chest ached a little bit less. The metaphorical scab on my heart had begun to form.

Days turned to weeks.

Some days I thought I was fine.

Then I took your photo down off the wall and cried. My friend ripped it in half and threw your face away, giving me my half back and telling me I could be that happy again without you. But your smile haunted me from the kitchen garbage can.

I packed all of your things in an old chicken korma box. Your sweaters, your gifts, your memories, your love. All shoved in the back of my roommate’s closet, lest I take them out and cry on the floor with them.

Some days I’d wake up and feel good. I’d leap out of bed, brush my teeth, and smile at myself in the mirror. There you are, I would think to myself, this is what it’s like to be happy again. I’d sit at the kitchen table, nursing a bowl of chocolate cheerios and watching the sun filter through the thin white curtains. Today’s gonna be a good day, I would tell myself. And I’d put on my shoes, trying not to think about how you convinced me that I should buy them because I deserved them, and walk out the door. The screen door would always close with a thwack, and it kickstarted me into a new day. Day number _____, without you. I’d smile at the construction worker paving the road and raking leaves.

“Good morning!” He’d smile at me.

“Good morning!” I would chirp back happily. And I’d walk up the slanting incline to the bus stop, breathing deeply with my lungs bursting with early morning air. And I’d stand at the bus stop. And I’d think, this is good. I am good.

But then something would remind me of you.

Someone would be wearing your favourite pair of shoes. Someone would have the same backpack as you. And I’d remember memories that made it feel like someone was poking at my heart with a pin, and boy was my heart a fragile balloon.

I could remember chatting with my mom, and smiling until my cheeks were aching as we walked around the outlet mall looking for the shoes I knew you wanted so much. I remember sitting on the hotel balcony in Florida, curling my toes and looking at the palm trees while you told me about your day over the phone. I could remember seeing your face on my laptop screen as you smiled and told me about your day at the mall and all the cool things you bought. I could remember walking down Main Street, carrying a big bag of clothes I was donating to Salvation Army, and how we sat in the park and just talked about what the future must be like.

All of these things would hit me like a tsunami wave. All the good “I’m fine” moments were just the receding of the sea before the storm.

And when I got like that, you were the only one I wanted. I’d remember that day I just started to cry and it felt like I’d forgotten to breathe. You pulled me into your arms and just said, “Shhhh, I’m here.” And I wished you were here. Because I was crying alone, and it felt like no one would understand except you, and I wondered when I let myself get so lost that I had no one to go to except you.

But slowly I started to find myself again. And I found the people that understand. I just never let them in so they could.

I remember one day I woke up and decided I couldn’t handle the day. My roommates left for school, and I just lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. It was one of those sad days that was just an empty day. No crying, no laughing, nothing. Just silence and the starch white ceiling glossed in the honey golden lamp light.

It was 4pm and I was still there, when my phone lit up and it was one of my friends asking how I was doing. And I wasn’t doing well, I said. And 2 hours later he showed up at my door, which I answered in my wrinkled pajamas and messy bed hair, with a small container of Manchu Wok and said, “Your sister said you would like this.”

That gave me the strength to smile. And to brush my teeth. And wash my hair. And that was when I really started to think, you know, I could do this. I had friends that could help me do it. I didn’t need you anymore.

From that moment I started to try and move forward. Maybe before it felt like I was just trying to survive. But now, I was trying to rediscover who I was and what I stood for. It felt so exciting and liberating, despite being one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

You know what?

Slowly but surely I am surviving without you. Even when it felt like I would never be able to. And not only that, but I’m flourishing. I have people I love so dearly, my family, my friends, and me. I’ve learned what it means to love myself for who I am, not for who loves me. I’ve found what I care about most in life and what I am most passionate about. I’ve overcome my jealousy of others, and found opportunities so that I could be proud of me. You know, I wonder if I would have learned those things if you hadn’t left me. Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn’t have.

What I do know is that I don’t hate you. I don’t hate you, and I don’t love you anymore. Not the way that I did. Sometimes your face comes into my mind. The light that I saw in your eyes, and the way your lips pulled back when you smiled. But I remember that we’re both in such different places in life now, and that I can stand on my own with the life I was given, even if you’re not in it. We’re both different than who we were just 4 months ago. And I wish you all the best in life. And I hope one day we can be friends again.

Maybe I’m not ready for that yet. Maybe you aren’t either. But what I do know is that I’m going to be okay. So to you, whom I loved, good bye.

Love,

Carole Lynn

 

An Open Letter to My Anxiety

Dear Anxiety,

You know, our relationship has always been a funny one. For a long time, I believed that you were all in my head. I mean, after all, you are; but that doesn’t make you any less real.

We’ve had a rocky relationship the whole time I’ve known you, and how long has it been now? 2 years? 5 years? Or perhaps, have you been around since the day I could form a conscious thought?

I think you have been.

You hid from me for a long time though. But one day you just decided: I’m going to make Carole notice me, and I’m going to make her life an absolute hell.

The funny thing is you did it in a way that made me feel like I was going crazy. It was small things at first, like overthinking and overanalyzing. Your voice was quiet, discreet, and small. You snuck into my head, whispering softly in my ear.

“Did you lock the door?”

I did. I did every time. But I’d think about it all day. What if I was responsible for someone robbing my family? What if they killed someone who was at home?

Why didn’t I realize how irrational you were being?

“Why did you say that? They probably hate you now. Everyone hates you.”

You made me afraid to talk to anyone. You scared me into thinking I was pathetic and that no one would ever like me.

You were wrong. So very wrong. But I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t hear anyone telling me otherwise. You told me that they were lying and that the truth was written all over everyone’s actions.

You lied to me.

And you didn’t stop there. You crept into every part of my life, filling in the ripples of my brain and flooding my veins with fear and irrationality. You took hold of my perfectionism and pushed me to work myself half to death. You promised I would feel better if I just did everything right. That people would love me more if I got good grades, if I looked a certain way, if I was nice.

“You’ll never be enough Carole.”

But I’m not perfect, and I never could be.

When I noticed you, things got worse. Did I offend you by discovering you hiding out in my brain? When I tried to evict you, did it hurt your ego? Did it hurt you that I didn’t want you anymore? Were you going to be lonely without me?

For a long time, you’ve ruined my life. You kept me awake at night, staring at the ceiling, making me relive my day over and over again, begging me to listen and critiquing everything I said and did. I remember feeling so lifeless. The hazy yellow light from the lamp post outside my window would streak through the shutters and onto my face, right into my eyes, but all I could see was darkness.

I remember closing my eyes and seeing a warped reality. I remember you asking me why I was such a failure and why was I like this? 

I didn’t have an answer.

You made me feel like I had nowhere to go. You would wake me up with a tight grip around my throat, taking a hammer to my heart, and laughing while my lungs screamed and screamed.

But you’re a smooth talker Anxiety. I would beg you, I pleaded with you to stop. I walked ditches into the floor, I tapped my fingers against the walls until my nails hurt, I repeated to myself over and over again to “stop stop stop”, and you told me that this was all my fault. You weren’t doing anything to me.

And I believed you for so long.

I believed you when I would sit quietly and my mind would seize up with dread for no reason at all. I believed you when you convinced me I would die if I left my bed in the morning. I believed you when you pumped my lungs until I was heaving from hyperventilating. I believed you when I was scrambling to hide tears with my shirtsleeves.

And you know, sometimes I still believe you. There are weeks when you handcuff me by the arm and tag along with me all day. There are days when you set up shop in my skull and hand out doubt, fear, and tears to my naive brain. There are hours when you sit beside me on the floor while I cry and try to convince me everything is my fault in that sick twisted way of yours. There are minutes and moments I can never get back because all of my focus was on you.

But you are no friend to me, Anxiety. That much I’ve known for a long time. I don’t think I can ever fully let you go, and you know this very well. So for now, we have to live with each other, fighting to occupy this brain of mine. But you don’t control me. You’ve taken the reigns from me enough times, and I know there will be days when you grab them from my hands when I least expect it. But I am not done fighting with you. You will not wear me down. The thing is Anxiety, you underestimate just how strong I am.

And that was your first mistake.

Love,

Carole Lynn