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

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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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Real Talk: Last Night, I Had a Panic Attack.

Ever since I hit grade 12, I haven’t been shy to talk about my mental illness when I’m approached. I consider it really important for people to speak out about their struggles with mental illness because it’s all very internal, and people always think they are alone.

Today, the subject of mental illness has really been weighing heavily on my heart. So I thought I would share my story in full so it’s out there for people who feel all alone to find, and know that they aren’t by themselves.

So here it is:

From the day I was able to make conscious thought, I was a nervous person.

I can’t tell you how many times as a child I was so nervous about different things, that it caused a lot of fear, crying, and an unwillingness to do things that made me feel that way. Looking back on it now, I realize I worried an unhealthy amount, definitely way more than a child should.

I remember when I was in the first grade, we all had to take care of a beetle. Our teacher gave each of us a plastic container with a little handle, filled with dirt and sticks, and one little beetle. I was getting on the bus one morning, holding this tiny container, when I tripped on my way down the narrow aisle. My container hit the ground, bursting open, and my blue beetle zipped away and out the window. I was so horrified, I began to cry.

Not because I was hurt, or was sad about losing my newfound pet, but because I was so extremely worried. What would my teacher say? Would she be mad at me? Would my mark on this insignificant beetle project suffer? I cried and cried, overwhelmed with this anxiety that my actions would have the scariest consequences.

When I got to school, my teacher wiped my tears and told me she’d give me another beetle when I tried to apologize over my shaking sobs.

Maybe that should have been my first warning sign.

I was that kid that cried over spilled milk. All because I was worried about what would happen, what kind of trouble I’d get into, what kind of inconvenience I was causing others. But at this point, I was thought of as nothing more than “sensitive” by my teachers, my parents, my peers… It was just one of those things that kids outgrew eventually.

Except, I never really grew out of it.

My whole life, I’ve lived with a constant nagging feeling that something will go wrong. Think about the strange sense of nervousness you get right before a big test; your head feels foggy, your hands are pretty clammy, and your body is tingling with a sense of dread. That’s kind of how I feel, for the most part of my life.

As I grew older, life became more stressful. With that, it became much harder to handle this constant throbbing of anxiety hidden deep within my chest.

Throughout my childhood, I was considered “very bright”. I was always a few steps ahead, and brought home report cards full of straight A’s. Somehow, in my weird mind of mine, I got it into my head that any sort of failure would result in disappointment from my family and friends, and that absolutely could not happen.

It’s crazy how interconnected anxiety and perfectionism are.

My second warning sign came around the time I was 12-years-old. I was in the seventh grade, and we were doing an assignment in math. We were using a computer program to complete a package of worksheets on geometry.

Absolutely everyone was struggling. The program did not have a user-friendly interface, especially for pre-teens who were still kinda new at the whole “tech savvy” thing. I remember I was so stressed about it.

One of my friends was teasing me about the assignment, but they seemed to take note of my mounting distress. “Carole,” they said, “don’t worry. It’s going to be fine.”

And I lost it.

“It’s not going to be fine!” I snapped, feeling a rush of tears in my eyes, the painful knot of worry pulsing hard inside my heart. “I can’t do this. I can’t. I can’t!”

My friend’s face was bewildered, scared even. They slowly inched away from me.

Everyone left me alone, hoping I’d get better with some space.

It wasn’t until grade 10, that I knew something was wrong.

I was struggling to understand grade 10 academic math. I wanted to, but it was the beginning of the year, and I was just having so much difficulty. Something that once seemed so natural to me, was foreign in front of my very eyes.

I remember the day I got one of my unit tests back. This strange numbness overwhelmed my whole body. My head felt like I was lost in the clouds, my body was moving on its own. All I could feel was that familiar sense of panic. That fear, that worry, because I didn’t know what I was going to do next.

Everything was all blurry. I moved in a subdued autopilot to my locker, grabbed my lunch, went into the cafeteria and sat beside my best friend. I must have looked like a ghost, because he looked at me with a very concerned expression. “Carole….? Are you okay?”

And I just started to cry.

All at once all these emotions just broke into a big mess that I couldn’t sort through. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!” is all I could say over and over again. The whole room was spinning, I couldn’t breathe, nothing in my body was cooperating.

It took me half an hour to calm down and stop sobbing.

My friends were shaken. They didn’t know how to help me. They tried their best, they really did. One of my friends bought me a cookie when I stopped crying, trying to cheer me up. I was just tired from my strange outburst of panic. I wanted to go home.

That was the moment I knew there was something wrong with me.

No one else ever had moments like that. I remember things that would bring me to tears would not even phase some of my friends. I felt like an outsider in my own body. Why did everything make me so worried? Why did I panic about everything?

This continued on for the whole semester. And then I put grade 10 math behind me, and tried to keep going about my life like everything was normal.

But I wasn’t okay.

Grade 11 hit me hard, just like grade 10 did. I cried about math tests, wiped away the tears, and told myself to keep going. I had to keep pushing. I had to keep ignoring how I felt. I just had to get through it. Everything will be fine, I would say to myself. That didn’t help the overwhelming nerves I got when I was waiting for my teacher to hand back my test paper.

Soon, I found that this nervousness never left me. It was always there. Even when I had nothing to worry about, I still felt stressed. I could try to relax for a while, but start feeling guilty and nervous that I was forgetting something.

It was exhausting.

I couldn’t sleep. I became afraid to be left alone with my own thoughts. I didn’t like lying in the dark while I began to overthink about almost anything until I felt like I would burst into tears. I would just stay up reading books, and stories people wrote online until I woke up the next day, not really sure when I fell asleep at all.

I didn’t know what to tell people. I didn’t understand why life just seemed so difficult for me. Something has to be wrong with me, I would always tell myself, everyone else seems to handle life so well. All I do is cry, and think about something bad that’s going to happen.

Then, I found out about anxiety on the internet.

I had met a few friends online from twitter, and they would always talk about their mental illnesses and such. So I looked it up. I read about generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorders, OCD… I remember the way my hands trembled, and how I cried alone in my bedroom. It felt too real. It felt like me.

I remember the day I told my mom I thought I had anxiety.

She was sitting on my bed when the smile from her face seemed to drop. “But… You’re so happy.”

I was happy. I’ve always been a smiley kid. I have a good life. But none of that seemed to matter when it was late at night, and I found myself crying just in fear of something bad happening in my life.

The next time I went to the doctor, I told her I thought I was anxious. She wrote me up a referral to a psychiatrist.

My dad took me to the psychiatrist’s office. If you hadn’t known better, it could’ve been any other doctor’s office. The room had a faded old brown carpet, tan coloured walls, beige seats. Everything was so monochrome, as though trying not to trigger anything inside somebody.

I didn’t see a psychiatrist that day. I saw a nurse. She had a questionnaire, to ask my questions about how I felt. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t let on to how bad my problems really were. I was scared.

The nurse thanked me for my time.

My dad and I left. We ate McDonalds for lunch, laughing and having a good time.

I didn’t hear back from the psychiatrist’s office for over a year.

In the meanwhile, I continued to navigate through life on my own. Grade 12 was one of the hardest, but also most rewarding years of my life. It was so complicated. I could go into so much detail, but I’d never be able to cover it all.

To try and summarize it all, I had a lot of stress; just as most grade 12s do. But paired with my anxiety and lack of outlet, I didn’t know how to cope. I was in grade 12 advanced functions, and I was suffering. I would get so anxious to the point where I couldn’t form a thought. I’d forget everything I’d learn, stare at a blank page, and have to hand in a test that wasn’t even half completed.

I remember going into my school guidance office to ask for an IEP, because I could not finish in time. I needed extra time.

I met with my guidance counsellor. We talked for a long time. She agreed to let me write my tests in the guidance office with extra time. But she also told me, I should see the school social worker for my anxiety.

That didn’t really help me either.

I was crumbling, falling apart at the seams. Almost every day I would leave first period math crying. Pair that with grade 12 stress, such as preparing for my university auditions, maintaining grades, a social life, working at my job. I was a mess.

My music teacher, bless her soul, was someone that really helped me during that time. She was always there for me when I needed her. She offered me advice that was hard to take, but beneficial.

My friends were always there for me when I was having a hard day.

I think if I didn’t have the support system of people I had, I would not be here today.

I finally met with a psychiatrist when I was starting to get better. I was trying to reorganize my life, change my way of thinking, learn to live without an overwhelming cloud of anxiety hanging over me.

I spoke with the psychiatrist about my experiences in the past few years. He told me, yes, I did have generalized anxiety disorder. If he had met me a year ago, he would have put me on medicine to help. But for the most part, I was doing well, learning to handle my anxiety on my own.

And I have been. For the past few months, I’ve been doing really well. I’ve been handling stress at my own pace, teaching myself how to go through things one at a time.

But just because I’m getting better, doesn’t mean it’s gone.

Yesterday, I had a panic attack.

Nothing in particular brought it on, but I felt it was coming. I was sitting at my kitchen table, just looking through my phone when I felt this nudging of nervousness start forming in the pit of my stomach. I usually try to ignore this, hoping it would go away. But it didn’t.

I hadn’t felt this way in months.

By the time I was in bed, my hands were shaking. I tried to focus on something else. I tried reading little stories online. It didn’t help. I started hyperventilating and crying, overwhelmed with anxiety that had no reason to exist.

Today, I’m here to tell you, that it was okay.

Yes, I had a panic attack.

Yes, it felt like I had lost all the progress I’ve made in the past few months.

Yes, it took me over an hour to calm down.

BUT,

I won’t let my mental illness define me.

I won’t allow for this to set me back.

I won’t let myself fall apart like I did before.

Mental illness is something powerful and scary. It’s truly terrifying to think that your own mind can be working against you. But I’m writing this long winded blog post to tell you that it is okay.

Do not let yourself suffer alone.

If I had gotten the help I needed earlier, so much of the strife I experienced could have been avoided.

There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness. It is not something that’s “all in your head”. There is a valid reason why you feel a certain way. Don’t ever let someone discredit how you feel.

If you think you are suffering from a mental illness, please tell a doctor.

Lastly, be strong. Your brain is a powerful tool. It fights against you with a vigour. But your brain is also yours. Fight with all your might. Even with medicine, with counselling, with all the help in the world, you still need to have the willingness to fight.

Mental illness is a battle I will be fighting probably until the end of my life. The key is to never stop. Because there is so much you are capable of, and so much that you can accomplish and nothing, not even mental illness can dare stop you.

I believe in you. And I believe in me.

Believe that things can always always get better.

And know that I am always always here if you need someone.

– Carole