Tag Archives: Mental Health

Reaching out and saving lives

World-Suicide-Prevention-Day-2015

Today in Canada …
11 people will end their lives by suicide.
210 others will attempt to end their lives.
77-110 people will become newly bereaved by suicide.

It’s World Suicide Prevention day. For those of you who don’t know why this is an important day for me, you can read this post, My fish are dead.

Since this year’s motto is

Preventing Suicide: Reaching Out and Saving Lives

I figured today was the perfect day to give an update on what I’ve been doing with my days off – I’ve been taking meetings and booking speaking engagements!

The next one is in a couple of weeks, I am going to be the “first voice” speaker at a Government of Nova Scotia mental health training program. It will be a session where I discuss my personal mental health and how it affects me in terms of my job and workplace.

Then I have two dates booked with Saint Mary’s University. They are having a mental health awareness month in October and I’ve been asked to be the keynote speaker at the official opening and also to appear as a panelist at a session later in the month.

My most recent meeting was with The Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. Also in October, I will be giving a presentation to their student body. This talk will focus on mental health self-awareness, awareness of peers, and the importance of seeking help.

These university talks are very exciting for me because this was the age I was at when I tried to kill myself. My goal is to reach one young person with every talk.

While I’ve been preparing for these presentations, I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection and I’ve realized something important… Maybe I’ve lived such a full and successful life, not in spite of my depression, but because of it.

If this is true, and I really believe it is, then I have a responsibility to embody this year’s motto and will continue to seek out, and accept, whatever speaking opportunities I can. So far, so good!

Have any suggestions for me?

I’m so excited!

TWM

It sounds like an episode of Star Trek but it is actually the course I recently took at work.

The Working Mind: Workplace Mental Health and Wellness is an education-based program designed to address and promote mental health and reduce the stigma of mental illness in a workplace setting

How great is that!?!

You all know how I feel about the stigma surrounding mental illness, right? If you are shaking your head no, take a moment and read this old post. I am so thankful that I work for an organization that is so directly addressing the issue.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority offers this course free to all of their employees. There is even a more in-depth course specifically for leaders so that they are better trained to manage people who are dealing with mental health issues.

Another reason I’m so pleased with this program is because I’ve been asked to become a course facilitator. Yay!

Additionally, I’ve also been asked to be the “first voice” speaker at a provincial government mental health workshop in September. Double yay!!

Both of these invitations stemmed from someone reading my essays in The Coast and The Globe and Mail. Now, can’t you see why I’m so excited?!?

National exposure

 

Art: Lindsay Cameron for The Globe and Mail

Art: Lindsay Cameron for The Globe and Mail

As most of you know, speaking out about my own story to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health issues has become my personal mission. Today I am thrilled to be reaching over a million people with my message.

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper and today’s edition features an essay I wrote about my depression. Much of it will be familiar to my faithful readers but it is my rawest piece to date.

Please, take a moment to click the link and read… and then pass the story along. The more people we reach, the better.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/whether-im-tired-in-my-soul-or-shining-with-the-sun-depression-is-always-with-me/article24489477/

 

One life at a time…

As I talked about in this post, I’ve been feeling a need to reach out to high school and university students who may be having their own struggles with mental illness. I want to break down the barriers that surround the subject of mental health and let them know that it’s okay to need support. I don’t want anyone to be too ashamed to ask for help; to die of embarrassment.

Today, I got my first chance to do just that.

I am lucky enough to have a great friend who is a teacher at one of our area high schools and she arranged for me to speak to another teacher’s sociology class as part of their program on brain development. This morning I gave a straight 75 minute talk to this class and it went great! Most of the kids didn’t text the entire time, and I’m sure those that did were just giving me a shout-out.

But seriously, it went pretty darn good, if I may say so myself. A few students stuck around after class to thank me and to tell me they found the talk very interesting. Two girls told me that they thought I was brave to be so open about my mental health and they liked hearing my story because they had each gone through some difficult stuff in the past and could relate. Great feedback.

Most importantly, however, was the student who quietly waited until all of the others were done chatting with me and then just stood looking at me with huge eyes. When I asked if she wanted to talk to me privately, she shyly answered, “Okay.”

My teacher friend showed the two of us to an unused classroom and then left us alone. Things went slowly at first because she was holding on tight, but eventually she opened up. She’s been severely depressed, lonely, and scared. I was the first person she felt she could tell.

I got her permission to include her teacher (my amazing friend) in the conversation and together we walked her downstairs to the school counsellor’s office. I left her with a hug and my e-mail address.

Can a writer be at a loss for words?

I just don’t know how to express how I feel about this experience today. I’m both exhilarated and thoroughly exhausted at the same time.

The process of developing this presentation was an interesting one because it really forced me to go back at look at things objectively. On one hand, I have lived a blessed life; full of loving family, supportive friends and amazing experiences. On the other, my inner road has been extraordinarily rocky and under major construction since I was a teenager.

Would I go back and change any of it if I could?

Although I would like to say “yes” and spare my family the pain that my illness has inflicted upon them over the years, the answer is unequivocally “no”.

If I were to go back and change things so that I was never depressed, I would be an entirely different person. I would have gone to medical school as planned, and missed out on my travel with the tennis tours and all of the amazing experiences and friendships that came from it.

If I hadn’t been travelling with tennis, I wouldn’t have been in Toronto at the right time to reconnect with The Husband. How could I possibly wish to live a life that doesn’t have him at the centre? And of course, if I hadn’t married The Husband, my two beautiful boys wouldn’t exist. The mere mention of that as a possibility makes my heart stop beating.

And now, after today’s experience, I feel even more assured and know that my rocky road life has given me a unique ability to reach out and help ease someone else’s pain.

Turns out, I didn’t need to go to medical school after all.

Meet my new therapist…

He doesn’t say much but he is a great listener.

Dexter (formerly known as DJ) is a previously chained dog who was rescued from a shelter by Good Bones. He is currently with us on a “trial sleepover” but I don’t see this guy ever leaving us. He is a 2.5 year old Lab mix who looks and acts all lab, just a little bit smaller.

Have you’ve noticed that I’ve been away from the blog for a long time. (Hello?… have I lost all my readers?)

November was the first time I went an entire month without writing on this blog. Now here we are, the Ides of March, and I’m finally back! 

My kids have been as funny and infuriating as usual, and news events have pique my ire, but even with all of this tinder, the writing spark just wouldn’t ignite. 

How could I write about humdrum daily happenings when something so much larger was looming? The simple fact is that I couldn’t.

Someone very important to me has been ill and this has dominated my psyche since the summer. I write about what is going on in my life, what is occupying my thoughts. There has been a whole hell of a lot going on… but it hasn’t been my story to tell. Thus, I’ve been silent.

My loved one is now through the roughest of the rough and has started to shine anew. Once again, I can think about the mundane.

As is my trend, I had a rough winter. Here is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to my doctor trying to describe how I had been feeling.

I wake up each morning and force myself out of bed to get through another day. I feel as if I’m wearing a suit made out of lead and I have to use all of my strength to keep taking the next step; to wake the kids up, to smile and kiss them good morning, to pack their bags for school. Then I sit down and rest so that I can summon up more strength to get myself to go to work. Some days it takes me just a few minutes, some days it takes an hour. Other days I have a panic attack and can’t do it at all.

I’m not stressed, or overworked, or underappreciated. However, none of this matters. Even the easy things are hard to do when you are wearing a leaden suit. 

People talk to me and I respond, but the smile takes effort. My muscles pull hard to make it happen. The words in my mouth feel off, like a movie soundtrack that’s slightly lagged. One step at a time, I make it through the day. At home I struggle to be “normal”, to ask about everyone’s day and try to remember mine. My reactions must be appropriate enough because no one seems to notice. After all that needs doing is done, lie down for the rest of the evening because Mommy’s tired. Some nights I’m asleep before the children.

As is her modus operandi, my wonder doc immediately got me sorted out. We did a couple of medication adjustments and tried something off-label. The change is remarkable.

First of all, I got bangs…This sounds frivolous, but it’s not. This is me caring about how I look. This is me having the energy to style my hair in something other than a ponytail. This selfie (my first ever) is me feeling good enough to show you my face.

I have energy for the first time in a VERY long time.

This will sound insane to anyone who knows me, but I am now a morning person. Suddenly, the morning is my favourite time. I am appreciating the peacefulness of the house before anyone else is awake. I am writing.

I wake up in the mornings now and I want to take a walk, or go for a run, but I needed a buddy for that. I needed Dexter.

He is my favourite drug side-effect ever!

It’s that time of year…

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I love the fact that World Mental Health Day is in the Autumn (at least, here in the Northern Hemisphere) because there is no better time for people to be encouraged to talk about mental health.

As I wrote about here, I live with dysthymia and I am also susceptible to major depressive episodes that are triggered by low serotonin levels.

In other words… I can get really, really sad when the days start getting shorter.

In our busy lives, it is all too easy to explain away the change of mood that sometimes accompanies the change of seasons. The carefree days of summer are over, of course I’m no longer feeling so happy… right?

Well, maybe… but unless I remember that I need to get outside and see the sun during the day and that I need to exercise to work up some endorphins, then that “normal” post-summer low can quickly spiral down and become a different beast entirely.

Marking every October 10th as World Mental Health Day is meant to reduce stigma, build compassion and educate on a global scale. For me, it acts as a warning alarm, reminding me that it’s time to do a personal inventory to ensure that my coping mechanisms are in good working order.

Thanks, World Federation for Mental Health… It’s good to know you’ve got my back!

In mourning…

I vividly remember learning of Jim Henson’s death. I was listening to the radio as I drove to attend a coaching clinic. I pulled into the parking lot of the athletic centre and burst into tears. I was a week away from turning seventeen.

I didn’t know Jim Henson… I knew Kermit, Ernie, Sam the Eagle, the Swedish Chef, Dr.Teeth, Rowlf, Waldorf, Guy Smiley and Cantus Fraggle.

This week I’m grieving for Mork, Popeye, Adrian Cronauer, John Keating, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, Genie, Alan Parrish, Armand Goldman, Sean Maguire and Teddy Roosevelt.

But something has been bothering me since I learned of this death. I just wasn’t able to put my finger on it until now.

Yes, I’m sad about Robin Williams because, like everyone else, I loved his work. However, unlike Jim Henson’s death, the news didn’t shock me.

He was sick and suffering from a disease. This disease killed him.

As PopChassid wrote, Robin Williams didn’t kill himself.

It is time we acknowledged that a disease in the brain is just as physical as a disease in the heart, lungs, or liver. The fact that it is more complicated, less understood, and only beginning to be studied, does not mean we can ignore this fact. In truth, it means the exact opposite: that mental health needs to be treated with urgency. That our society has to start treating its illnesses as every bit as deadly and malicious as other ailments… Until our society aggressively, strongly addresses mental illness, until we move it from a side issue to a real issue, until we give it the same priority as other illnesses… I will still shake my head at the death-by-disease that is called suicide.

Nanu nanu.

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Life out of the closet

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Since going public with my dysthymia and depression, a few different people have asked me a variation of the same question,

“But _____ reads your blog, are you sure you want them to know?”

Sure, I could have just come out of my mental health closet to anonymous readers who I’ll never meet face to face. Perhaps my story might help a young reader who feels like they are currently going through something similar – that would be fantastic – but it wouldn’t serve to break down the barriers which I’ve spent so many years building.

Yes, people at work read my blog. (Hi peeps!)

Yes, parents of my children’s friends read my blog. (See ya tomorrow on the playground!)

Yes, my neighbours read my blog. (Can I borrow a cup of sugar?)

The honest admissions that I’ve made are about changing the perceptions that society holds about depressed people. I have an illness but that doesn’t define who I am.

I’m an involved and active mother.

I’m a wife in a loving and happy marriage.

I volunteer on committees and host playdates.

I’m a member of a book club and a writing group.

I’m a productive and sociable co-worker.

I’ve acted in plays and sung in musicals.

I’m a healthcare worker who loves to help others.

Sure, there may be times when I mope around in stained sweat clothes and eat chocolate… but who doesn’t? My depression doesn’t usually manifest itself outwardly because I have spent years and years building a life in spite of my illness.

Sometimes, when things get to be a little too much, I may falter. Perhaps I won’t return your phone call right away, or I’ll beg out of a social gathering that I promised to attend. Maybe I’ll look a little extra tired and run down because I’m having trouble sleeping. There are times when my depression gets the better of me, but that doesn’t change who I am.

So, to answer the question… Yes, I want the people who I know in real life to read about my depression.

That was the whole point.

My fish are dead*

WARNING: If you are my mother, you may want to skip this post.

March is next week and I’ve just uncovered a pile of unopened Christmas cards in the kitchen drawer. I had a rough winter and things that I couldn’t face were pushed aside. If I open those cards, I’ll have to acknowledge the relationships they hold. Concede that there are people who care, have to care for them in return.

Life isn’t as easy to shove away as those colourful envelopes.

There have been too many lies in my life. I lie to cover-up my feelings and I lie to make people go away. Eventually the lies become too many; too many to keep track of and too many to care about. The lies are my shield, but they make me tired.

When I get too tired, I just want it all to end.

I now realize I’ve been depressed since my teen years. There were so many days that I pretended to be sick because I couldn’t go to school and face my small group of friends. Only now do I see I wasn’t pretending… I really was sick.

Everything came to a head in university. That’s when the people became too many, the exposure constant and the expectations too great.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to act happy everyday when you aren’t. This energy gets sucked away and there is no way to recharge it, no way to rebuild the facade that gets you through the day. The only coping mechanism in my arsenal was avoidance.

Like the Christmas cards in my kitchen drawer, I started pushing the things I couldn’t deal with out of sight. I broke up with my boyfriend and cut off my friends. I was getting A’s but I stopped attending classes. I withdrew from daily life and spent my days hiding in a distant corner of an obscure building. I told myself that nobody missed me.

At home I lied that classes were great. All was fine, I was okay. I lied with every breath and I got tired.

When I got too tired, I tried to make it all end.

I lied to my doctor to get pills. I lied to my family so I could stay home that day. I lied to myself and was convinced it was best for everyone.

My family came home early and found me. No one can lie well enough to pretend that hasn’t left a scar.

Now that I’m older, I’m not as good an actor as I once was and my loved ones can better sense my lies. They feel me withdrawing and they pull me back in… I’m still depressed.

Recently there have been days when I’ve told myself that it would be better for everyone if I was gone. But now I have kids and that lie is too big to be convincing. Even I can see the truth, how it would fuck them up forever.

I’ve only just come out of the dark tunnel that I was in over the winter. New drugs, a new therapist and a trip in the sun have helped. I seek support and talk easier now than I did when I was younger… I have a hell of a lot more to lose.

Maybe tonight I’ll open those Christmas cards.

________________________________

Notes:
This post is a follow-up to a previous post about stigma and suicide. Stigma and disgrace have no place in a discussion about mental health, yet depression is still commonly viewed as a personal weakness. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have a mental illness called dysthymia.

Dysthymia is a long-term chronic depression that lasts years and typically characterizes itself as low energy and drive, low self-esteem, and a low capacity for pleasure in everyday life. Dysthymia may result in people withdrawing from stress and avoiding opportunities for failure. In more severe cases of dysthymia, people may even withdraw from daily activities.[1]

Dysthymia often goes hand in hand with other mental illnesses. In my case, I also have periodic major depressive episodes that are thought to be triggered by extremely low serotonin levels in the winter.

*If you want to read about how the “detached, meaningless fog” of depression feels like owning dead fish, please read Hyperbole and a Half’s “Depression Part Two”. Allie Brosh has truly captured what living with depression can feel like. I’ve never read anything better.

[1] “Proposed Endophenotypes of Dysthymia: Evolutionary, Clinical, and Pharmacogenomic Considerations.” Niculescu, A.B. and Akiskal, H.S. (2001). Molecular Psychiatry 6 (4): 363–366.

Should’ve talked about this a long time ago…

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One day, when I was in my final year, I was swimming laps in the university pool. I paused to catch my breath at the end of a set.

“Did you hear about _________?” The lifeguard had strolled over for a chat. We’d gone to high school together.

“No.” I replied, willing him to go away. I only had an hour until my next class.

“He killed himself.”

I lost my breath again and had to be helped out of the water. Continue reading