Category Archives: General

I’m the total opposite of brave!

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Hello to everyone who’s here from the Nova Scotia Health AuthorityThanks for taking the time to click that extra click!

(BTW – I’ve also been asked to give a short talk on Thursday over lunch. Location is now confirmed to be the VG Auditorium at the QEII. If you’re around, please come on by. It would be great to meet you all in person!)


I welcome every opportunity to break down the barriers that surround the subject of our mental health. So, when my organisation’s Workplace Health Promotion team asked if I’d write a post to be featured in this week’s internal communications as part of their Mental Illness Awareness Week campaign, it was an easy yes. (It’s just a bonus that I really like those peeps!)

Selecting a topic was also pretty simple. It’s something that always generates a lot of discussion when I talk about mental health in the workplace – Why I decided to disclose my illness.

When I went public with the fact that I live with a major depressive disorder, I was called “brave” and “strong” by a lot of people. This is giving me waaaay too much credit!

While it’s true that my current advocacy is primarily intended to benefit the greater good, the extent of positive impact that my initial disclosure on this blog would have on other people was COMPLETELY unanticipated. I certainly wasn’t burning with an altruistic desire to empower other people who lived with mental illness.

In reality, when I finally “came out” after living in the mental health closet for over 20 years, it no longer felt like a choice. My need to open up about my depression and suicidality was at such a critical point, it felt like it was my only option. It was just too f***ing hard to keep pretending to be healthy. I was spent and exhausted.

At the time, I couldn’t even conceive of how my disclosure would affect others. Honestly, I was far too worried about what impact it was going to have on me! Even though I knew I couldn’t keep living in secret shame, I was terrified I was making a huge mistake. Would I lose people’s respect at work? Would everyone be uncomfortable around me? Would anyone even want to still be friends with me?

You all know about stigma, right? Well, I was internalizing all of these negative attitudes about mental illness, whether they were actually real or just perceived. This is called self-stigma. It’s what kept me from seeking help when I desperately needed it, and why I was continuing to keep my diagnosis and need for medication a secret from everyone except my husband and sister.

I felt pathetic and weak, ashamed of what the depression had made me. My self-esteem was so low, the thought of someone knowing the “truth” about me made me want to vomit. Self-stigma took away every fibre of my confidence and strength, and when I did ultimately disclose my illness, the ABSOLUTE last thing I felt was brave.

As it turned out, much to my shock and knee-trembling relief, my big reveal was met with nothing but pure compassion and support. It’s not exaggerating to say that my disclosure saved my life.

Yes, I still live with depression. I still need to take multiple medications to feel well and I still have periods of time when things are pretty dark. Sometimes I still struggle with daily life. The difference is, I’m no longer going through it all alone. Now my friends and family know to listen if I need to talk, my supervisor allows me a flexible schedule, and my colleagues are quick to offer support if it looks like I’m getting overwhelmed.

I know this makes it sound like I’ve just shifted the burden of my illness onto others, but in reality, it’s the opposite.

Before I came out of the mental health closet, I spent most of my daily allotment of energy just trying to appear “okay”. Behind that facade, I was slowly sinking into a deep pit. Eventually, I wouldn’t even have enough energy to leave the house and my body and mind would want to shut down. Only time, and a lot of rest, could pull me out of the darkness enough for me to start into the cycle all over again.

Needless to say, I was accumulating a lot of sick time. And, when I did physically make it into work, I was inefficient and unproductive. Now, if I need to, I’m able to adjust my schedule and am comfortable asking for support. In terms of maintaining my health, this is as crucial to the balance as are my medications.

Also, my absenteeism has decreased dramatically because my workplace is now a “safe space”. I no longer feel like I have to avoid it at all costs if I’m feeling vulnerable or down. There are days that it may still take some extra effort to leave the house, but it no longer cripples me. Because I miss less work and am more effective when I’m there, my mental illness actually affects my coworkers significantly less (if at all) now that everyone knows about it.

So, if this is true, why doesn’t everyone choose to disclose? Unfortunately, it all comes back to stigma.

Even with all of the education initiatives and advocacy programs, there continues to be stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Some experts feel that self-stigma is such a pervasive problem, it should be addressed as a clinical risk.

There are no patients who don’t have stigma. Stigma by itself has to be recognized as a symptom of mental disorder—not only an impact. – Amresh Shrivastava, MD (University of Western Ontario)

But here’s the ironic thing about about stigma… the only thing that has been proven to be effective at significantly reducing stigma is “contact”. This means, in order for someone to feel less negative about mental illness, they need to be aware that someone they know has it. But what person with a mental illness wants to disclose to the person that needs this important contact to feel less negative? Add to the mix the fact that WE ALL know someone with a mental illness (we just might not know that we know) and this paradox makes my brain hurt!

Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague. And in any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. – Canadian Mental Health Association

I guess this brings us right back to my friends in the Workplace Health Promotion team asking to include this post in this week’s internal communications… it’s all about contact. So, thanks for coming, but before you leave and get back to work, please allow me to share one more thing.

These days I drink alcohol only very occasionally, and if I do chose to have a beer or glass of wine, it’s pretty rare for me to have more than one. Often, when socializing with people who don’t know me very well, someone will ask why I’m not drinking, or if I have had a drink, why I’ve now switched to water.

The answer to that has the potential of being a real buzz-kill, but I don’t want to lie, so I often choose to be a little flippant and say something like, “The stability of my brain chemistry is hard enough to control without adding more fuel to that fire.”

Usually, this gets a laugh and the interest ends. However, sometimes my wit isn’t enough of a deterrent and I get hit with follow-up questions. At this point, I go with this unvarnished truth, “I live with a major depressive disorder and take three different medications to keep me well. I’ve learned not to mess around too much with that delicate chemical balance.”

This is the turning point. It’s pretty much 50/50 whether the person chuckles nervously and then turns to talk to the person sitting on their other side, or whether they’ll lean in, lower their voice, and tell me how mental illness has affected someone in their life. Inevitably, before the conversation is over, they’ll comment on my courage or strength.

Do you think it’s brave if a colleague tells you they’ve had to stop putting sugar in their coffee because their blood glucose is running high? Do you commend them for openly admitting to their body’s inability to produce enough insulin? Probably not.

Perhaps, if I just keep having these conversations, there will eventually come a time when people won’t think I’m brave either… they’ll just think I’m normal.

Until then, thanks for making contact!

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Looking back while looking forward…

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October 1st is the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week.  This is an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness.

There are a couple of projects that need my focus this weekend, but I didn’t want October to start without something new on this page. (And I’m just going to pretend I’m being cleverly ironic by using an old post as my something “new”!)

It’s been five years since I wrote the following post. It was the first time I publicly acknowledged that I had tried to kill myself in university. Despite all of the positive support the post garnered, I was still drowning in shame. It was almost six months before I was able to write about it again.

Yes, this post is old, but it may also be the most personal thing I’ve ever written on the stigma I felt about my mental illness… it was certainly the most difficult!

I think Mental Illness Awareness Week, a week our country has dedicated to starting conversations and dispelling myths, is a fitting time to revisit it. Please follow the link below and have a quick read (it’s very short), then tell me if you agree.

I should’ve talked about this a long time ago

“It’s okay to feel desperate, and it’s okay to talk about it.
Please, tell a friend or call a hotline. I wish I had.”

; My story isn’t over yet

sorry
Wow! It’s been almost a full year since I’ve posted anything here. I know time flies, yada yada… but that’s still very hard to believe. However, even though this neglect embarrasses me deeply, I’m not going to apologize. Here’s why:

1. The Husband says I apologize too much (usually for things that have absolutely nothing to do with me) and I’m working hard to change this behaviour.

2. This blogging drought was caused by positive circumstances in my life, and that’s not something for which to apologize. C’mon… even I know that!

In the past, when there was a significantly long lag between my posts, it was usually because I was having a rough go of it with my mental health. Unfortunately, my instinctive reaction to a depressive period has always been to distance myself, to retreat as far as I can inside myself instead of reaching out to seek much needed help. There have been many times over the years when this has nearly been the death of me… and I’m not speaking metaphorically!

Fortunately, THIS long absence was simply due to a lack of free time.

About a year ago (and totally unintentionally) I began doing things outside of the usual work and familial duties that used to take all of my effort. It was a such a gradual thing that I really didn’t even notice.

I got back into painting and revisited some long-neglected fiction projects. I started socializing more and began playing tennis a few times a week. I even stepped up my volunteering and became the chair of a non-profit board.

So… I guess what I’m saying is, I haven’t posted this year because I’ve been too busy living! Yay, me!

Now, while my absence may have been unintended, my return is very deliberate. This week, when I realized how long it had been since I’d posted (and then had the epiphany as to why that was) I knew that today was the perfect day to dive back in…

WSPD

World Suicide Prevention Day may not sound like a day to be celebrating, but it is to me!

Like many of you, I’ve lost friends to suicide, and today is a good day for me to remember that it wasn’t their fault… just like it wasn’t my fault those times that I came close to dying from suicide.

However, today also serves to remind me that it is my responsibility to SPEAK UP and REACH OUT. It’s my responsibility to #DoSomething.

Close to 80,000 people die due to suicide every year, that’s one person every 40 seconds. – World Health Organization, 2018

As much as I’ve missed this blog, it may take me a while to get back into the creative groove. I’ll try to brush off the rust as quickly as possible, but between now and October 10th, World Mental Health Day, I’ll also be recycling some of my previous posts on the topics of mental health and suicide prevention.

So, here’s the one that started it all… My fish are dead*

Yep, it’s good day to be back, and it’s a GREAT day to be alive!

P. S. I’ve missed you, too!

#MeToo…

Tarana Burke, wearing a ‘me too’ T-shirt, addresses the March to End Rape Culture in Philadelphia in 2014.

I haven’t posted to social media with a personal #MeToo message before now because I didn’t really see the point. I mean, c’mon! Is it still not obvious to everyone that women everywhere are routinely harassed and assaulted?

No? Really? Okay, let’s simplify things and not even talk about women… let’s just talk about girls.

Here are a few things I experienced before I even reached puberty:

  • A classmate jammed his hand under my skirt, past my panties and into my vagina.
  • I was scared to answer the phone because I received obscene calls a few times a week from an unknown male, who knew my name and what I had worn to school that day.
  • A stranger flashed me and offered me money if I would touch his penis.
  • I was regularly catcalled by adult men because my walk home from school was past the new construction sites in our subdivision.  

Let me reiterate… these things (and more) all happened before I even started to grow breasts. And I’m not an anomaly. This study looked at the average age women received their first catcalls.

(Hollaback!/ILR school at Cornell University 2015)

I can’t even begin to list the many and varied ways I’ve been violated since the elementary school years and into womanhood… comments that made me uncomfortable, kisses I didn’t want, gropes that were too intimate.

Of course, women aren’t the only victims of harassment and assault. But the fact is, as a group, we are more vulnerable. Out of necessity, as we grow into our bodies as women, we condition ourselves to be “thicker skinned” and we learn how to take extra precautions to protect ourselves. We learn to ignore the lewd comments, to hold our keys between our knuckles when we walk alone at night, to meet our first dates at busy coffee shops, and to check the back seats of our cars before we get in.

Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

All this is to say, I’m simply baffled that people still seem to be surprised by the prevalence of harassment and assault against women that this most recent social media trend has spotlighted. But, even though I know I’m just another drop in the bucket, here goes… 

#MeToo

Just let me say thanks!

dallaire

I am here because of peer support . . . it arrived in the nick of time.     -Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire

So, I’ve won an award. Its a Let’s Keep Talking Award presented by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. There are five categories and I’ve been named the “Outstanding Individual” for the outreach work that I’ve been doing over the past few years with my writing and public speaking about my struggles with mental illness.

The awards will be presented at the Let’s Keep Talking event here in Halifax on Wednesday evening and the keynote speaker will be Lieutenant-General, the Honourable Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d). I’m really looking forward to this because he is a personal hero and I’ll be toting at least one of his books along in the hopes of getting it signed.

I just finished his most recent book (pictured above) about his struggles with PTSD that stem from his time serving as the Force Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force during the horrific genocide in Rwanda. Waiting For First Light is a haunting memoir that delves deep into his scarred psyche, and his pain is laid bare on every page.

Having previously read his book, Shake Hands With The Devil, and watched the movie and documentary of the same name, I thought I was pretty familiar with the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, but I now know that those accounts, as gruesome as they are, could in no way ever convey just how truly heinous it was to have been there.

I had the greatest respect for General Dallaire before reading this book, mainly due to his Child Soldiers Initiative,  and now I can’t even find the words to describe how I feel about him. Let’s just say, I’m thrilled that, as an award winner, I’ll be getting a chance to meet him.

So, back to the award… I’m very happy to be receiving it, it really is a tremendous honour. I even plan to wear a dress!

The one fly in the ointment, and it really is an itsy-bitsy fly, is that I’m only being given one minute to say my thank yous. I totally understand why, no one wants to hear people endlessly ramble on, but one minute is just too short to do justice to the gratitude that I have welling up inside me after this winter. Things were pretty rough and I really felt like I was leaning heavily on certain people. So instead, I’m going to do my thanking here… don’t feel like you have keep reading, but you never know, maybe I’m going to mention you!

Here goes, in no particular order…

Heather – We have been friends since grade seven and I’ve never been more grateful for that than this year. Thank you for your daily emoji texts. Not only did they always make me smile, but they also let me know that you were thinking of me. You made it very difficult for me to feel alone. Thank you also, for the kick-ass letter of support for this award!

Sabina – I usually find it very hard to ask people for anything, but you made it easy. Thank you for being so willing to lend me your clout when I kept hitting wall after wall. You are the perfect combination of brilliant and caring, but more importantly, you are a loving friend. Thank you helping me when I felt so desperately helpless.

“Da Club” – Thank you to my entire book club. We might not always read the books, but we ALWAYS support one another. It feels like we’ve been through it all this year, and my dark depression was just one of many life hurdles that we faced together. Thank you for always asking and truly listening, and for forcing me to leave the house on an occasional Friday night. I truly love you hilarious women!

Karen – You have been my doctor for almost twenty years and I literally trust you with my life (and my kids’ lives too, for that matter!) Thank you for always fighting for me, especially when I no longer had the strength to fight for myself.

Lisa and Tina – You are the best coworkers a gal could ask for! Thank you for putting up with my teary outpourings and bearing my absences. I really couldn’t have gotten through this winter without you.

BDN – You are such an understanding and dependable friend. Thank you for always being just a text and a stone’s throw away. You have no idea how much comfort that brings me.

BFF – You may be far away in body but I always know that you are with me in spirit. Thank you for the phone calls this winter. They were always bright spots, even on my darkest days.

The Sister – You have always been the person I turn to when I’m too scared to talk to anyone else. Thank you for always being there, ready to listen. I lay some pretty heavy stuff on you and you always manage to bear it, usually without losing your beautiful smile.

The BIL – Thank you for being married to The Sister. I’m sure there are times she needs a hug after a conversation with me!

Mom and Dad – I have so many things to thank you guys for that I don’t even know where to start. I guess all I can say is thank you for loving me unconditionally everyday. That, in itself, makes my life infinitely better.

The Husband – Fourteen years ago, when we got married down in Cuba, the ceremony and all of the documents we signed were fully in Spanish. Seeing that neither of us speak Spanish, our joke was that we really had no idea what it was we agreed to that day. Pretty much every day since then, I figure you got the raw end of that deal. I can only imagine how hard living with me can be. Thank you for your constant support. You are my rock.

Just like General Dallaire, I’m here because of peer support. I love you all!

If you feel like I forgot you, please accept my apologies…  and my thanks!

#BellLetsTalk

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Today is Bell Let’s Talk day. This is the day that Bell Media gives 5 cents to various mental health organizations for every tweet, text or post that tags #BellLetsTalk.

The problem is I don’t feel like writing about mental health issues today. In fact, I haven’t felt like writing about anything for months… and I haven’t. My last post here was in November and the last time I did any serious work on my book was a couple of months before that.

I last blogged while I was away at a conference in Washington, a trip that saw me cocooned in my hotel bed for many more hours than I spent at the meetings. At the time I just thought that it was a chance to catch up on some rest, to slow down from the busy working-parent routine that is my life. However, when I returned from Washington and I still wanted to spend all of my time sleeping, I finally admitted to myself what was happening. My depression, which had been in a simmer since the beginning of fall, was now in a full-on boil.

Over the next week the simplest of tasks became overwhelming, and when a concerned friend at work asked if I was okay, I began crying and couldn’t stop. I took the rest of the week off work and saw my doctor the next day. Perhaps the hardest part was acknowledging that the combination of medications that had kept me healthy and stable for over two years was no longer working. I was swamped with hopelessness and once again wished I was dead.

My family doctor is amazing but even she can only do so much. No longer able to treat my complicated disease, she began the fight to get me in to see a psychiatrist. She made phone call after phone call, stressing the urgency of my situation to every gatekeeper that she reached, but mental health resources are stretched too thin and the best she could do was an appointment in March. My only other option was to go to Emergency and have myself admitted to hospital, a burden I wasn’t ready to place on my family.

Luckily I have a dear friend who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and so I finally swallowed my pride and asked her for a favour. Knowing my history, and recognizing the severity of my situation, she didn’t hesitate to help and got me an intake assessment for the Community Mental Health program for the following week. There I met with a mental health nurse who determined that I indeed needed to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible and I received an appointment for two weeks later.

It has now been almost two months since I saw the psychiatrist. She changed a couple of my medications but I haven’t noticed any positive effects. While it is true that I’m no longer weepy, I think that’s because I’m just too tired and numb to cry anymore. I have another appointment in a couple of weeks and I’m finding the wait interminable. Sometimes I feel like the only thing keeping me alive is the hope that at our next visit I will be referred to be assessed for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

ECT, or “shock treatments” as it used to be known, may seem like a drastic step but after so many years of living with treatment resistant depression it feels like it is my last and best option. Here is what one of our local psychiatrists, Dr. Joseph Sadek, had to say about it in an interview:

I am in the ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) room inside Nova Scotia Hospital. Today I will give ECT to 22 patients. ECT experience is wonderful. You see people getting better to a degree that changes the quality of their lives so much. People who were determined to end their own lives are happy and grateful to be alive. People who lost touch with others are back socializing and enjoying their families and friends. People who were hearing disturbing voices are no longer hearing them. I meet the staff bringing patients and asking them how they are doing. I become thrilled how well they do after few treatments. ECT makes my day brighter and happier. It is a great start of the day.

I have an amazing life and so much to be grateful for… I would give anything to feel it.

Well, I’ve actually written a lot, considering I didn’t feel like writing anything at all. I suppose I would have been a hypocrite if I tweeted about #BellLetsTalk but didn’t actually do any of the talking myself.

On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell will donate 5¢ more towards mental health initiatives in Canada, by counting every text, call, tweet, Instagram post, Facebook video view and Snapchat geofilter. #BellLetsTalk

Washington, DC

reflecting-pool-sunrise

I’m currently at the American College of Rheumatology meeting, the annual event when the Rheumatologists of the world descend on an unsuspecting U.S. city like a swarm of locusts. This year we are in Washington, a city that was one of my regular tour stops when I worked in professional tennis.

Being here this week, in the wake of the American presidential election, I feel very unsettled… like I’m at the scene of a terrible accident but I can’t turn away. I’m staying very near to the White House and every time I walk by and see the protesters I want to hug them and tell them I know how they feel, but I don’t know, not really. I get to go home to Canada and watch their next four years from a distance.

Since I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said about the election results, I’m going to instead focus on the positive.

11 things I love about Washington

1) The opossums – Like Toronto has its giant squirrels,  Washington has opossums. When I was here for a tennis tournament, all of my sightseeing was done at night and these guys used to pop their heads out of garbage cans and startle me every time. I saw one on my way home from dinner last night and his big-butt ramble across the park in front of me made me smile.

2) The Smithsonian – This is an obvious one, right? Amazing collections in vast quantities and all for free. You can spend days in roaming the exhibits and still not see it all.

3) The National Gallery of Art – The Smithsonian gets most of the attention here in Washington, but as far as museums go, I’ve always had a thing for art. In this gallery, I particularly love the amazing realism of the Vermeers and the bronze sculptures by Degas. I spent some time here yesterday afternoon after a long meeting and the place worked its usual magic on me.

4) The monuments and memorials – I’m lumping them together and I know that doesn’t do them justice but naming them all would use up my entire list. My favourites are the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. I love the stark marble obelisk tower, the grand scale of the statue of Lincoln, and how they are brought together with the simplicity of the water on a still day.

5) The White House – A favourite haunt of the aforementioned opossums, the White House and it’s grounds are stately and elegantly beautiful when lit up at night. I especially love the current family in residence and will be sad to see them move out.

6) The streets – Like New York, I love how the city is so well planned with alphabetized and numbered streets. Washington is a joy to navigate.

7) The people – Like all great cities of the world, Washington is a big melting pot and I love chatting with the eclectic people I meet. This week, my favourite was Jorge, our always smiling hotel doorman from El Salvador.

8) Georgetown – I love the juxtaposition of the milling students and the multi-coloured row houses that must cost a small fortune.

9) The Holocaust Memorial Museum – Do I need to explain?

10) Random important but obscure organizations– I love how you can just be walking down the street and pass by something like the National Association of Wheat Growers. I don’t know why but it makes me chuckle every time.

11) Dupont Circle – The very first time I worked in the city, I stayed very near to this great neighbourhood and spent my free evenings wandering the sidewalks, mingling with people as they spilled out of the busy restaurants and bars and watching chess in the park. Simply put, I fell in love. I spent my afternoon wandering there again today and rekindled the relationship.

How do you feel about Washington these days?