Tag Archives: depression

Too tired to write…

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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!

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.”

#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

#SickNotWeak

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Last month I was delighted to be a guest author on Michael Landsberg’s website #SickNotWeak. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Landsberg is a Canadian celebrity and sports journalist who speaks publicly about his depression.

Landsberg began #SickNotWeak as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to redefining mental illness in the public eye.  As he explains, “This is a sickness, not a weakness. It is not a reflection of my inner strength. It is not something I willed upon myself – it is an illness.” The site also has an amazing collection of stories that remind people that they are not alone.

So, my article was posted back in September and I meant to tell you about it but I got a little sidetracked. Here it is now. Please take a moment to click the link below…

Speaking Out and Saving Lives

As always, thanks for reading!

From Digby with love

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I wrote this last night but it didn’t post due to a wifi glitch.

I’ve been busy over the last couple of months working on my fiction, which is great, but it means that I’ve neglected the blog. I’m spending tonight alone in a hotel room and I’ve just realized this is the perfect time to write a post. I have a few things on my mind and it has been far too long since I’ve put my thoughts down on paper screen.

First of all, you may be wondering why I’m all alone in a hotel room in Digby… so let me tell you.

I was invited down to this incredibly beautiful part of Nova Scotia to give a talk as part of an evening being hosted by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. Very timely because…

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Tonight began with a talk from an expert, child/adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jerry Gray, and then I followed with my story. As happens sometimes, I got a little choked as I spoke about my university suicide attempt (I’ll chalk it up to me being tired after a long day, work until 1:30 and then the three hour drive) but the audience was warm and receptive and I was able to continue after a deep breath.

After I spoke, Ryan Cook played a couple of songs. It was beautiful music therapy and closed out the evening perfectly.

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He’s a super nice guy and incredibly talented. Plus, he’s a huge tennis fan so that endeared him to me quite a bit. All in all, a good night.

The other thing on my mind tonight is the recent decision I made to accept a nomination onto the board of The ALS Society of New Brunswick & Nova Scotia.

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I’m incredibly honoured because, as you know from some of my previous posts, this is an association that is very close to my heart. At the same time, I really had to think long and hard about accepting the position.

As the name states, this is a shared organization between two provinces so there is a little bit of travel involved. Not a lot, but enough so that it will interfere a few weekends a year with our family life. Before I said yes, I needed to discuss it with The Husband. He was, of course, ready to support my decision either way.

Also, I was a little hesitant because I could already feel the weight of the position. I know how important the Society is in the lives of NS and NB families living with ALS and I had some doubts that I would be able to fill the role well enough. I’ve never been a “Director” before… what if I suck at it? What if I can’t do justice to the memory of the amazing people I’ve watched die from this horrific disease.

Well, I’d quashed those doubts as best I could and accepted the position, but until tonight I was still feeling a little nervous about my decision. That is until I learned that Angie Cunningham died.

Angie was an Australian former professional tennis player who worked as part of the WTA Player Relations and Operations group. I didn’t know her well when I was working on the tour, but whenever  I saw her, she had a huge smile on her face. I’ve heard she kept that smile until the muscles in her face stopped working.

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Angie was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Motor Neuron Disease) just over three years ago. I won’t tell you anymore of her story, suffice it to say that her death today has put all my hesitation to rest. I want to play a bigger role in the fight against ALS, I think I’ve NEEDED to do more ever since I had to give up my position in neuromuscular research four years ago.

If you are wondering why, just take a few minutes to read this interview she did earlier this year. For those of you who haven’t been close to this disease,  it will give you some idea of the terrible toll it takes.

Well, that wraps up my musings from Digby. I’m tired and I have the long drive back to the city in the morning. I’m actually really looking forward to it because it is just so damn beautiful this time of year.

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Goodnight everyone.

The elephant in the room

 

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Wow… it’s actually used as the example.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stigma recently. Mainly, because I just received this little blue elephant in the mail.

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This guy is from the Mood Disorders Society of Canada and is part of their Elephant in the Room  anti-stigma campaign. He now lives on my bookshelf and indicates that my office is a “stigma-free” zone. This is a safe place to talk about mental health and mental illness, without fear of being viewed or treated differently.

Mental health has long been the elephant in the room; something we all live with but no one wants to discuss. Let me say that again. We ALL live with mental health… be it good, poor, or somewhere in between. Get it? The same way we all have physical health, we all have mental health.

When we, or someone we love, have problems with mental health we feel uncomfortable discussing it because we are afraid that we will be judged negatively. This is stigma and it is real. Here are a few facts for you:

In Canada:

  • Only 49% of Canadians said they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness
  • Just 50% of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness
  • 55% of Canadians said they would be unlikely to enter a spousal relationship with someone who has a mental illness
  • 46% of Canadians thought people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior
  • 27% said they would be fearful of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness

(from Canadian Medical Association (2008). 8th annual National Report Card on Health Care)

Those are some scary numbers… and Canada is relatively progressive in terms of its views towards mental illness. Luckily, these attitudes have gotten a little better in the past eight years, especially with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, but Canadians still report that the stigma of their mental illness is often worse than living with the disease itself.

As I wrote about in this previous post, stigma has had a huge impact on my life. When I experienced major depression in university, I was scared to seek help. I was embarrassed and wished to die rather than talk about my problems. When my suicide attempt was unsuccessful, I was worried more about how much I had humiliated myself than I was about getting better.

Like two thirds of the people in Canada who suffer from depression, stigma kept me from getting treatment. It took further serious suicidal ideations after my children were born to scare me enough to break my miserable silence. I was in real danger of leaving my babies without a mother and that was the only thing that got me to admit to my illness.

Now that I have “come-out” of the mental health closet and disclosed my illness, both personally and professionally, the stigma I once felt has all but retreated. There are still times when I feel that my words or actions are being judged differently than if I didn’t have a mental illness but those instances are rare.

I am more fortunate than most people. I have amazingly loving parents and a sister who is unwavering in her fierce support. I’m married to a wonderful and understanding man and I have a secure job with accommodating superiors and compassionate co-workers. I have loyal friends who I know will stick by me and a doctor who gives me hugs and sends me notes of encouragement in the mail.

When I broke my silence, the world outside my closet was kind and welcoming, the stigma that had kept me trapped was my own.

I only wish everyone’s truths could be met with such understanding and support.

If you would like to join the fight against stigma, please visit the Mood Disorders Society of Canada or a Mental Health organization in your country to learn the facts.

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