A few days before Bell’s annual campaign to talk about mental health, I find myself blinking back tears after plopping down at my desk, Tim Hortons lunch in front of me that I knew I wouldn’t eat and sorels dripping melted snow onto my carpet.
I felt it coming all morning, from the moment I woke up and pressed snooze four times to replace the bad dreams that showed me all my worst fears in visualization, to feeling the anxiety knot in my stomach and heart race worrying about being late for a doctor’s appointment with a new physician I’d have to explain my medical history to, and my oil change bleeping at me in my car. To realizing my groceries in my fridge went bad again, because I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. To cancelling and rescheduling plans with friends over the previous three days, retreating, and filling my time with exercise classes clawing for an endorphin rush. To snapping at the dogs for making too much noise when they’re greeting me.
To feeling too tired to lift my fingers to type an email to make an appointment with my psychologist. To telling myself step by step how I’m going to get into my car because I feel like there are buckets of water attached to my legs. To wondering how I can articulate to my friends feeling like the sun went behind the clouds, and my life is shadowed.
I kept the feelings at bay, soldiering on and armouring myself with exercise, cleaning the shower, watching 12 seasons of Greys Anatomy, and music. Others see physical activity, maintaining a home, a career, success… love.
When I saw my doctor shortly after my mom died by suicide, he carefully listened to me and agreed I needed time to cope with the grief (thankfully, I worked somewhere that supported fully paid stress leave). He was relieved I already had a psychologist in place who had been helping me deal with my mother’s depression and several attempts at taking her life, and all of the feelings that go along with that- anger, guilt, exhaustion, annoyance, and fear. Then he said: there is a tendency for these things to run in the family, and over time, that might be a concern for you.
I shrugged it off, knowing having been through this I could never do this to the people I loved. That I would rather suffer than make anyone else suffer like I was.
It wasn’t until this past year where I found myself in a fetal position under a duvet in a hotel room in another province, completely paralyzed by depression and anxiety, that I realized I was there. I wanted to sleep, and not wake up. I wanted to disappear. When I tried to sleep, my body was buzzing and I felt like I was hyper-alert, heart racing, trying to hold my body as tight and as small as I could.
I had been out for brunch and started the morning normally enough as I would on any other work trip, thankfully with a good friend and colleague. It was somewhere in the middle of sitting at the table with her that I realized I was feeling panicked. I pushed the food around my plate and felt a roar in my ears trying to focus on the conversation, all the while my thoughts racing. I felt like I needed to throw up, but I couldn’t move. Like a few days ago, it had been accumulating- the anxiety, fear, and what I now recognize as depression, kept at bay by all the distractions (people, events, work) I filled my schedule with. It crept out of the shadows through needing to straighten something left haphazardly and in a un-symmetrical way on my desk, or needing to crack my neck or back while talking to someone. Needing to rock back and forth under this duvet to try and feel felt and real. Feeling hopeless, and paralyzed. My friend recognized something was happening and immediately got the bill knowing I needed to leave. In the taxi, I kept thinking just make it to the room just make it to the room not knowing how that would help, but that I needed to get to a place that was safer than where I was.
I could list a few things I know that were the catalyst for this episode, but really, they don’t matter. Stress and anxiety can be a part of life. An unkind word, rejection, financial issues, work stress, relationship breakdowns can all be the spark that ignites a somewhat dormant flame- akin to a bonfire that is at its embers.
I’ve been extremely forthcoming and transparent about my mom’s mental illness- because the story is only partly mine to share. After the first attempt she made to take her life, the primary emotion she displayed was complete and utter humiliation and embarrassment. She called what she did “a stupid mistake” and didn’t want anyone to know what she had done. It became clear as she went further along that her resolve hardened and she cared less and less what people thought, and wanted to go through with ending her life.
I want to be clear that I have supports in place, and am not in any danger of hurting myself. I have a psychologist, a prescription for anti-depressants, and friends who I turn to when I’m slipping into a dark place.
Despite the amount of writing, tweeting, talking and even presenting on mental illness, writing about my own struggle is the hardest thing I’ve done. It’s opening up and showing someone your most vulnerable self, and this is the most naked I’ve ever felt. Recognizing that advocating for a cause but withholding my own story as it relates to it (when I was actually ready to share it) was hypocritical, is partly the motivation for sharing. It’s also because I owe it to everyone else who is suffering in silence. I owe it to my mom.
I realize now that I find control in the way I eat and consume food, something I experienced for the first time with eating disorder called anorexia athletica several years ago. I realize now that I have several flagship symptoms of social anxiety, something that would surprise many who know me because I’ve pushed past it so often- professionally and personally. That since I was a child, I would scratch my skin until it bled, bite my nails and pull out my hair when anxious- performing in choir competitions, before games, etc. I realized in high school that despite being an athlete and the captain of my team, my anxiety would rear itself before games to the point where I would throw up before turning on a smile and running out of the locker room to represent my team with the coin toss. That I’m sensitive and empathetic, and sometimes I feel things more deeply than I know. That I’m prone to negative self-talk about not being good enough, needing to be better, and berating myself mercilessly for mistakes or missteps. I realize now that when I first journaled and wrote poems when I was 16 about disappearing- that my Mom found and forced me to go to a psychologist (a sports one, to make me feel better)- it’s something I’ve been managing.
The difference is, I’ve always had the support of my Mom, who for me, was a life raft. When I was having this episode, part of what was whirling around was feeling so utterly and completely alone. Of course friends and past relationships and even other family members are supportive, but there is that one person who could always make me (and this isn’t true for everyone) land in the softest place. I craved a hug from her, or from anyone like I never have, and while I listened to the storm outside of my hotel (how perfectly dramatic), I hummed a tune she used to while brushing my hair back, my head in her lap. I tried to stop feeling like I was a failure, an idiot, worthless, incapable of being loved, and thought about the things she would say to me. You see, it’s easier to believe the good things other people say about you, or tell you, than believing it inherently on your own… especially from when they’re coming from your person.
It took me about three hours of lying there in silence and rocking back and forth under a duvet to move from my bed and jump in the shower and get ready for work that night. My friend navigated the evening for me until I relaxed and settled into my body again, me following her like a toddler, sipping on some water. I immediately made an appointment to see my psychologist when I returned, and spent several hours cuddling my dogs who I realize I need in a very real way and am prone to anxiety attacks when traveling away from them.
Self-awareness is a gift when dealing with anxiety or depression (or both), and understanding and recognizing the way either of these things start to creep up on you can help avoid slipping under again. I know now I need to control who I’m around, because I have to protect myself from people who make me feel badly about myself in a significant way. That exercise and sitting (laughing, dancing) with friends is a really good way to shake off some of the initial and primary symptoms I have. That eating regularly and eating what I feel when I feel like it helps reduce the controlling behaviour I have with food. That texting one of my best friends immediately to give them the heads up really helps. That it’s okay for me to take time, say no, and protect my headspace. That the worst I’ve ever felt was in that hotel room thinking about driving a car off of a bridge, and the best I’ve felt is laughing uncontrollably with friends.
I realize now, that I’ve been able to do some amazing things in my life in spite of dealing with these mental illnesses and will continue to thrive, try to inspire, take care of myself and enjoy the moments where I can close my eyes and feel at peace. That it’s okay to miss my Mom and cry it out and make mistakes. That I’m loved, and am a good person. That I’ve achieved my goals and will dominate them until I don’t feel like it anymore, and mentor others to do the same.
I hope this post helps someone feel like they’re not alone, that in spite of looking like you may have it all together, you don’t, and that you’re not sure what to do next. The crisis line is a great place to start, and you don’t need to be in immediate danger to call it. The people there are amazing and will talk to you before you’re ready to talk to someone you know. Visit http://www.reasontolive.ca for more resources.
I’m here with you, walking alongside you, and you are not alone. You are not alone. You are not ever alone.
“There’s always a way to find hope again. We can help.
Call the Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line now at 1-877-435-7170. We are a 24-hour, non-judgemental and confidential service. Our caring and compassionate counsellors will listen and support you.”