Tuesday, February 12, 2013

On #BellLetsTalk

I used to be much better at talking about mental illness. When I was younger, I was seriously depressed, even suicidal. I tried to take my life a few times, and I realize now that it was more than just your regular teenage mess of hormones and feeling so lonely while growing up. Once I admitted my issue, I had no problem discussing it with everyone and on all my social networks. But since then, I've become more of a private person, and this post is my attempt to change that.

When I was depressed as a teen, talking about it didn't help right away, because I had to find the right people to talk to. At the time, I reached out to my favourite teachers, because the government funded healthcare centers didn't offer much support. The therapist I spoke to on the phone - because I couldn't make my way to the clinic without tipping everyone off! - was not very helpful, even when we did have an in-person session. After my parents became aware of the issue and got involved in trying to help, I saw another therapist, privately and with my family. That didn't help either. The therapist did not accept that my feelings were real to me, whether or not they were "legitimate" in that situation. And this was a trained, educated doctor. Her job was to deal with issues like mine. If she couldn't help, who could?

The stigma about mental illness MUST end. Invisible pain is just as real and serious as physical pain. Just because someone is constantly smiling and bubbly doesn't mean that their mind isn't going a mile a minute trying not to think of the big bad. I deal with anxiety on a daily basis. Sometimes, it's so bad that I have a panic attack. I know myself, and I know that this is not me. I've taken steps to get help, and I'm on the right path.

I've been on anti-depressants before. This time, a whirlwind of "big bad" events all happening at the same time led to my feelings of anxiety becoming overwhelming. Some days, I could barely get out of bed. It didn't help that I wasn't getting enough sleep because all the what-ifs were keeping me awake at night. Some days, I got out of bed, then binge-ate junk food to try to hide the problem from myself, and then felt like crap for making myself feel so gross and unhealthy. Even though I had found the little things that made me happy the last time I was depressed, and used those feelings of gratitude and appreciation of every day "happy" to get me off the anti-depressants, I realized that I needed a helping hand.

This time, talking about it DID help. The first step was admitting to myself that I wasn't going to be able to deal with this myself. So I reached out to friends who I knew also had experience dealing with invisible, mental pain. Once I was comfortable speaking with them about my current issues, I was able to reach out to my other friends - those who might have been closer in theory but felt further away because I didn't know how they would react to me sharing that it wasn't all moonlight and roses in my head. Fortunately, this time around I've got "real" friends. The kind the stick with you no matter what. And not only were they accepting, they were helpful, and they offered to change the way they interact with me ONLY if it would make me feel better.

It wouldn't, by the way. I think it's pretty safe to say that the worst reaction to an admission of mental health struggles is for your friends and family to treat you different. It just makes you feel even more isolated and fragile.

The second step was to talk to my doctor. I'm fortunate to have an AMAZING doctor. She was my GP at Queen's Student Health, and I've seen her for everything since, from follow-ups to annual check-ups. She also offers counseling services. Yup, I hit the jackpot! I found someone who understands that health and wellness is not just physical, and who realizes that listening is the most important step to helping someone towards their wellness goals. And that's listening without judging. Feeling like someone is actually listening to you and cares about what you have to say is a huge help. The best part for me is that my doctor realizes that I'm fairly well versed in medical issues and that I keep track of my body and what I'm feeling, so there's little to no second-guessing, apart from regular professional obligation, of course!

So yes. I'm an overly anxious person, to the point where at this confused intersection in my life, it can be paralyzing. Yes, I am currently taking medication to help me get through the day, because sometimes, whether it's hormone-induced or situational, I get overwhelmed by all the items on my to-do list and the lack of control I have over many of them, and I freak out. I have those junk food binge days, or days where I work from bed because it's more comforting. And sometimes, I don't take care of my responsibilities, like when it's my turn to make dinner or when I've said I'm going to vacuum and don't end up doing it.

Make no mistake. It's not that I just don't feel like doing it or that I physically can't do it. It's that I feel like I can't muster the energy to do it, and the fear, the FEAR of not being able to do the things I say I will do, and the anxiety related to the reactions of those affected by the decision - and the "if only people knew I felt like this, my brand would suffer and they'd see me as weak and incapable" that I'm currently feeling even from simply writing this post - that's the real problem. The anxiety builds up until it's truly paralyzing and then you really ARE unable to get up and do the things you say you're going to do. Until you get that little push that helps you take the first step towards accomplishing that task.

And while that push sometimes means taking three steps forward, then five steps back, then another two forward and maybe ending up back in bed, the feeling that you tried does make a difference. A little one, but at least you know you can get out of bed and you will eventually be able to follow through with the full task.

It's been tough for me to admit, but as an anxious person, I also find it really tough to give myself a break. I know it doesn't show, but being a workaholic is actually a bit of a coping mechanism. If I keep working and don't relax, then I'll get everything done and I won't feel guilty about not crossing things off my to-do list, right? Guilt is indeed one of those other messy feelings that prevents you from doing the things you know you need to do. Sometimes, I even feel guilty when I choose to go to the gym when I could be working on my thesis, even though I KNOW that the gym will make me feel better overall, help heal my knee injury, AND make me more productive in my thesis work. Not to mention give me a much better night's sleep!

It's a bit of a vicious cycle, and that's why it's so hard for people affected with mental illnesses to discuss their experiences. But we must. Because people need to know. They need to understand so that they can stop judging and so they can admit that they too have dealt with some of these issues. We need to have a real conversation about mental health and how the government needs to step up and start dealing with the repercussions of the modern day "go go go" lifestyle we now live.

But the discussion starts at home, with your family, your friends, your doctor. Call the local health line. Tweet about it. Post an awkward Facebook status that calls for attention and then LET PEOPLE HELP YOU when they ask if you're okay.

Be honest with yourself. It's okay to feel down sometimes, and it's okay if "sometimes" becomes "most of the time". You're not alone, and chances are that if you reach out to someone, that person will tell you they've felt like that too.

Don't be afraid to call your friend in the middle of the night even though you know they're going to be pissed at you and they probably won't answer and then you'll have worked up the courage to call for no reason. Talk yourself INTO these decisions instead of letting the fear, guilt and anxiety talk you out of it.

And please please please be open about your experiences. If you've dealt with a mental illness in the past, or are dealing with one today, help break the stigma, and talk about it now. Why wait? Bell says let's talk. Whether or not you like their corporate sponsorship approach, the message is valid. It's time to talk, Canada, and there's no time like the present to start the conversation.

PS: I hope this post helps at least one of you feel more comfortable with your crazy feelings. We're all a bit messed up - maybe part of our healing can be to help others heal too.

PPS: Hug someone today and every day. Hugs are awesome. Chocolate is awesome too. And pets! And babies! Find your happy and let yourself enjoy it! :)