Last week I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Mental Health Association’s #b4stage4 conference in Victoria BC. During these two days I was inspired by the knowledge and personal stories shared by powerful politicians, an award winning musician, health care officials, nurses, psychotherapists, and students alike. Hearing their stories was a vivid reminder that mental health issues do not discriminate; each and every one of us has been, or has the potential to be impacted by mental illness or addiction.
The premise of the b4stage4 campaign: We don’t wait until Stage 4 to intervene for cancer, so why do we wait to treat mental illness and addiction?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest barriers to seeking help and/or early intervention for mental illness is stigma. Did you know that 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and yet only 49% of Canadians say they would socialize with a friend who has mental illness?!
This is unacceptable.
If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t educate people, and if we don’t say that sometimes ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, then how can we possibly expect people to seek the help they need?
We need to GET LOUD. We need to BE BOLD. And we need to TAKE ACTION.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a vested interest in psychology and considered myself to be an advocate for mental health and ending stigma; however, as I sat there in a room full of 250 people and watched powerful and successful individuals courageously share their most personal struggles, I couldn’t help but feel like a hypocrite.
Because here I was at a National Mental Health conference with people from all over the world, advocating for change and ending stigma (things I passionately support)… and yet a large majority of the people in my life had no idea that for well over a decade, I’ve been fighting my own battle with mental illness.
How can I justifiably advocate for people to openly discuss their personal experiences with mental illness and addiction when I haven’t done so myself?
This is me ‘getting loud’, ‘being bold’, and ‘taking action’.
THIS IS MY STORY.
Part I: Stomach Pains & Patterned Pant Suits
For those of you who don’t know, when I was 9 years old I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease; an unfortunate condition that restricts me from eating all that is delicious and full of gluten. With this in mind, I spent much of my childhood afflicted with horrible stomach problems, cycling through doctors and specialists until they finally came to a conclusive diagnosis. Besides being extremely discontent with the fact that I could no longer eat my regular Vanilla Dip donut from Tim Horton’s or indulge in PB&J sandwiches like the average 9 year old kid, I was pretty healthy for a while after that.
When I was 13 years old, the stomach issues returned (and no… I was not sneaking donuts I promise!). I began having constant stomach aches, refused to eat, lost a significant amount of weight from my already lanky frame, and missed school regularly for about a month and a half. So…back to the doctors I went to figure out what was going on.
After numerous appointments and tests, they found nothing.
This resulted in my first trip to a child psychologist. They told me this was an approach to dealing with chronic pain (since nothing else was working); although, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure they were lying, because let’s be real…there is no way in hell a stubborn 13 year old like me was going to go to a psychologist for any other reason. Regardless, there I was sitting in the office of ‘Psychologist #1’ talking about my entire life history (unsure of how that had anything to do with painful stomach aches).
Much to the surprise of my 13 year old self, turns out that psychological distress can actually manifest as physical symptoms; stomach aches included. Who would have guessed?! Long story short, after a number of conversations with Psychologist #1, and a trip to the ‘Russian Psychiatrist Who Wore Unfortunately Patterned Pant Suits,’ I was formally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Part II: “I’m so OCD”
Most of you are probably familiar with the OCD stereotypes; neat freak, clean freak, an inevitable discomfort felt in the presence of a crooked picture or a messy room. While these characteristics resonate with many individuals who are diagnosed with OCD (and most definitely for myself), I can tell you that the disorder is much more complex and debilitating than what the stereotypes surrounding it insinuate.
According to Mayo Clinic (because this was obviously the most reliable source I could find on the internet) Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) features a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress. According to Anxiety BC (probably more legit), obsessions are often related to contamination, accidental harm to self or others, symmetry and exactness, and forbidden thoughts. Compulsions include washing and cleaning, checking, counting and tapping, and ordering/arranging.
Over the years I have experienced every single item on this list. I can also tell you that someone with OCD is entirely aware that these obsessions and compulsions are absolutely ridiculous and illogical; but this realization certainly doesn’t stop the obsessing and ‘compulsioning’ anyway. I mean, realistically I’d rather not spend my day checking numerous times to confirm the oven, hair straightener, and lights are off (because if I don’t I might be responsible for burning down my entire apartment building); that yes, the door is most definitely locked, and it was the first 5 times I looked (but if it isn’t, then someone might break in… and that could be catastrophic); I’d rather not wash my hands excessively to the point that they are raw and cracked (but if I don’t then I might contract a deadly disease); I’d rather not feel the need to keep everything constantly clean/organized to perfection (but if I don’t, I know I’ll feel anxious until I do); and I’d definitely rather not waste time counting to 12 for no particular reason other than when I’m done I somehow feel better.
As someone with an extensive amount of education, I can rationally conclude that these associations are entirely irrational; I know the stove is off, I know the door is locked, I know I’m not going to contract a deadly disease if I don’t constantly wash my hands, and I know that counting to 12 accomplishes absolutely nothing. With OCD this is irrelevant, because the anxiety is real, and all that matters in the moment is finding a way to reduce it… even if that means feeling like a fool – a less anxious fool, at least.
When I was younger, the obsessions and compulsions were a very prominent part of my life, but with the combination of many visits to “Psychologist’s # 1, 2, 3, 4, 5”, a group exposure therapy class for kids with OCD (where they provoked our anxiety by having us stick our fingers in toilet water and refrain from washing our hands for as long as possible – although I’m pretty sure any person with some standard of personal hygiene would find this quite stressful…), and medication, things became much more manageable.
That’s not to say I don’t still have my ongoing challenges.
Part III: Literally and Figuratively Living Under a Cloud
Despite past experiences, I can confidently say that the last three years have been both the best and the shittiest of my 25 (almost 26) years. I have laughed, I have cried, I have succeeded, and I have failed. I have loved and I have lost. I have experienced the beauty of this country and I’ve found a passion for the mountains. I’ve made amazing friends, I’ve completed a Master’s degree, and l have reclaimed my independence. I’ll spare you the details of the ‘shitty stuff,’ but despite it all, and most importantly, I have learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.
In the fall of 2013, I moved across the country to Vancouver to attend graduate school at Simon Fraser University on top of a mountain in the clouds. It sounds majestic, and on clear days you got a pretty incredible view of the surrounding mountain ranges; but let me tell you, it could be depressing as hell. If it wasn’t raining or foggy at the bottom of the mountain, then it probably was at the top. I mean, our mascot wasn’t named McFogg the Dog for no reason (and yes, I am totally serious).
The first term of grad school was one of significant transition, to say the least. I had recently gone through a break up with my long term boyfriend, moved out of my parent’s house for the first time, moved across the country on my own, and started a Master’s degree in the top Criminology program in the country. Needless to say it was a lot to handle all at once. Despite the constant academic guilt and numerous emotional breakdowns in the department lab, I steamrolled through and successfully made it to the Christmas break, during which I went to visit my parents who were living in Iqaluit, Nunavut at the time (I’ll save my experiences in Nunavut for another blog).
The Christmas of 2013 was my first real confrontation with major clinical depression. Let me tell you, if you think having OCD sucks, being depressed sucks even more.
“A major depressive disorder is different than the blues. Someone experiencing depression is grappling with feelings of severe despair over an extended period of time. Almost every aspect of their life can be affected, including their emotions, physical health, relationships, and work. For people with depression, it does not feel like there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – there is just a long, dark tunnel.” -CMHA
…And a long dark tunnel it was. That Christmas consisted of lying in bed binge watching TV box sets and constantly on the verge of tears. It didn’t matter that it was the holiday season, that I had successfully completed my first term of grad school, or that I was reunited with my supportive family for the first time in months. I had so much to be grateful for, but the depression clung to me like a heavy fog.
Over the past three years I have encountered a handful of these depressive ‘episodes.’ Sometimes they are short-lived, and sometimes they feel endless. This past spring was by far the most difficult. It was a time of significant transition in my life and I felt like I had lost my sense of direction. I stopped eating, I stopped exercising, I couldn’t sleep and yet sleeping was all I wanted to do. I started a new job and yet had no motivation to work. I was stuck in a deep hole and I could not dig myself out.
If I’m being honest, I can’t pinpoint the moment when things changed. I cannot identify the day I woke up and didn’t feel like complete garbage. But it happened. Slowly but surely, things got better. I started to eat. I regained my energy. I forced myself to socialize. I made fitness my therapy. I pushed myself and I faked it until eventually I felt better.
Let me emphasize – someone with depression does not choose to be depressed; and someone with depression cannot just decide to be happy. I did not dig myself out of the hole alone and for that I am grateful. I had bills to pay and a new job to keep, I had friends who showed up in the morning to drag me out of bed or push me to leave the house (special thanks to KW), I had phone calls from my family, I went to counselling, took medication, joined sports teams, and started fresh in a new apartment of my own.
There are still days that I can feel myself spiraling backwards; mornings I’d rather stay in bed and shut out the world. Fortunately, however, I’ve come to recognize these signs and find ways to scramble my way out before I slip back into the hole: I have my fitness, I have the mountains, and I have many shoulders to lean on.
I may be a person with mental illness, but I am not alone.
If you’ve made to the end of this post, I want to thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope that at the very least, my experience is a reminder that it IS okay not to be okay, and like me, you are most definitely not alone.
There is help, there are people who understand what you’re going through, and it does get better, I promise.
BC friends!! Please take an extra 30 seconds out of your day, join the #b4stage4 movement, and sign the BC CMHA manifesto at the link below- let’s change the way we think about mental health and addictions!