During the first week of any job, by law, you are usually asked to review and acknowledge the common workplace safety hazards to ensure your safety at the workplace. For office jobs, this can be reviewing ergonomic sitting positions, or best practices to get up and move about to avoid neck/back strain. For jobs in warehouses or manufacturing facilities, it’s much more in depth about creating a safe workplace. What all of this training has in common is the fact that they pertain only to physical health. There are generally no considerations about potential risks to your mental health, or what can be done to manage and mitigate those risks.
Kaylee Houde was one of the first people I approached to be a part of IMPACT@Work. Having followed her professional journey after briefly meeting each other in university, I knew she had a great story to tell, and from the moment I brought the project up, she was enthusiastic and willing to contribute thoughtfully and honestly.
Site Life & Mental Health at Work
I know a lot of people who claim their work-life and home-life are completely separate. Others say that they are a completely different person at work than they are at home. This cognitive dissonance is not sustainable for me, and I believe the world of psychology would argue that it is not typically comfortable for anyone.
Today I am going to share a story about mental health in the workplace, and the difference between forcing myself through days that were not aligned with my values and purpose versus the alternative.
The Red Flag
I should have seen it coming. It was about a month after the corporation announced that I would be part of a divestment that the first red flag showed up. I felt pretty uncertain about my future. All I knew was that in a few months time the corporation that I was relatively fond of would no longer be where I showed up for work. I would report to a new boss, at a new company, with a new culture and performance structure, and I had limited choice in the matter. I could either accept the acquiring company’s offering, or go somewhere else. There was no in-between.
The red flag occurred as I was frantically building my network, out of this place of fear and uncertainty, desperately grasping at any connection I had and could find as a safety net. I had set up a meeting with a consulting company, an information interview, on a Friday afternoon. What happened, however, was totally out of my character. I did not even show up. For some reason I felt that I had not formally confirmed the date and time, and simply deleted the meeting from my calendar.
I was clearly in a bad place, because I live and breathe by my calendar. I never miss a meeting, and I am rarely late. This time, I totally blew it. The lady texted me to let me know she was on her way, and I called her back blundering about my mistake and clearly sounding like a tool. She proceeded to send me a condescending e-mail about waiting until I was ready and knowing what I wanted in life. It cut deep.
I felt this sinking and sickening feeling in my stomach, and I accepted my fate. I was going to go work for this company that I knew nothing about, and at least give it a shot, because I clearly was not ready to act as an adult about my emotions in the real world.
A Handful of Months Later
When I started with the new company, I realized the one thing I could control were my thoughts, actions, and responses. However, this too seemed to be gruelling at times. I was in a new environment, with new clients, and my team was in various states of disarray fixing employee data and just getting base-business up to par. I told myself I would give the position 6 months, and if I still was not happy, I would do something about it. Thus, I put a smile on my face (however, fake) and kept plugging along.
I was in around the 3.5 month mark when I was told I would be based at a remote location going forward. I had a month to set myself up for a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) schedule whereby I would work 4 days up at camp, and have 3 days off, indefinitely. I was not thrilled, but I decided to give it a go.
It was NOT good.
Less than 2 weeks into this rotational work and I was fatigued, anxious, and starting to show signs of depression. It did not help that my team was often not available, with closed door meetings or being spread all over the site. It did not help that the work I was doing seemed tedious and meaningless to me. It did not help that my clients were stressed out about the initiatives and policies that I had been tasked to roll-out. But, what was the kicker, was how all of these things combined with my FIFO lifestyle really impacted my wellbeing.
I would dread Monday mornings, my internal dialogue saying things like, “What is the point? Does life mean anything? Who am I? What am I to do? I am stuck. I am not worthy. I am not respected.” I felt scared and alone.
It was all a bit more manageable before, when I could go home to my boyfriend and rant about my day over a cup of tea and some couch cuddles. It was manageable when I could snuggle up in my bed at night and get a decent sleep. It was manageable when I had energy to balance my work with the things I really liked to do evenings and weekends.
With site life, and a FIFO work-schedule, it was a different experience:
- I would get up at 3:30am (how ungodly?) every Monday morning to make it to the airport on time for my flight to site.
- I would spend 6am-4pm as my formal working hours, 4 days per week, but as we all shared dinner in a big hall I was usually engaging with the same clients and/or colleagues well into the evening without reprieve.
- I would get gawked at for being a decent looking female at the site, I could barely go for dinner without turning heads even in a baggy hoodie and my hair in a bun. I won’t even get into the gender inequality, that is a story unto itself!
- I would be too tired from this schedule to do much of anything Friday-Sunday at home, as I would spend Friday running all the weekly errands and doing laundry and would sleep most of my weekends away in despair.
And so you have it, my job was officially bleeding into my wellbeing in a way I never thought possible. I was becoming unrecognizable, not interested in doing anything anymore, and was truly unhappy.
The Breaking Point
It was a Thursday evening, at 7pm my flight landed, and I was starving from my 10 hour day. I staggered to my partner’s truck where he picked me up and asked me what I wanted for dinner. We went to my favourite pho restaurant, and he tried to engage me in our usual conversations about the week. I was short tempered and barely responded coherently.
In the truck after our meal, he asked me what was wrong and pointed out that I was being, “Kinda a b*tch.” He was right, too. I was being awful to this man that I love and call my life partner.
I said, “I honestly don’t know, I don’t think I can do this anymore… the money just is not worth it.”
Those were the words, “The money is not worth it anymore,” that stuck with me.
When Sunday night finally rolled around I had impending anxiety about my upcoming week at camp. I could barely breathe, and was shaking with despair. I was attempting to cry myself to sleep when my partner asked me what I was going to do. I said, “I am taking a mental health week to reflect and decide what is next for me.”
And so, that is exactly what I did. My doctor gave me a note excusing me from a week of work, I spent the week searching the job market and applying on 30+ jobs, I went to the gym and concluded that I would put in my notice. It was the only way forward that made any sense, and that I had full control of.
Never Looking Back
Oh, and since then, the anxiety has lifted and all those signs of depression seem like a distant memory. I still cannot believe how unhappy I was only a few months ago, and how different my life is now.
Everything has completely changed.
The part that worries me, however, is that a lot of my colleagues are still there – pushing through an environment they are not happy with, but to what end? Do they do it to get a year end bonus and some stock options that won’t make them any happier? I fear a lot of people put up with the fear and anxiety without knowing their options or what is out there. They put up with workplace abuse, because they do not know their own worth in the market. Or, when they go to that second round interview they do not ask the tough questions about culture and values.
Mental Health at Work
It is with this experience that I have realized work can play a significant role on one’s mental health. In fact, it could be for the better or worse, depending on where you work and their care for people.
The fact of the matter is, that after a certain income level incremental income is less and less associated with happiness. That is right, research shows that money does not buy happiness, especially after a certain base-level. And yet, we stay.
I have a seriously demanding job today, run my coaching business part-time, and am also taking online classes. Yet, I am the happiest I have ever been. For me, it is because these items are aligned with my values as well as my purpose and personal growth aspirations. I am the busiest I have ever been, but I am learning things I care about and making an impact every day. I am on a journey that fits with who I am and what I care about, and it is so inspiring to wake up every day excited to do something!
My good friend Ameera Ladak says, “Your workplace health and happiness depends on three things…
(1) Your workplace culture and policies
(2) Your manager and how they implement them
(3) The nature of your work”
I agree, these three pieces of the puzzle have a huge impact on your workplace happiness, and when all three are out of whack or misaligned with your values, well, happiness is fleeting at best.
I encourage you to do a values check the next time you’re having a bad time at work, and if you do not know yet what your values are, let’s define them together. That is why I now devote my life to career coaching: to help others wake up with purpose and happiness and to reach their full potential every day. I do this to ensure workplace happiness is a priority, so that action can be taken. I do this to ensure your Sunday evenings and Monday mornings are just as mentally healthy as every other day in your life.
Let’s work together.
“Be the change” – Mahatma Gandhi
Keep on sippin’
Last week, I published a piece about anxiety that I wrote when I was 17 called “I had anxiety before I knew I had anxiety”. It was written two years before I began to understand the way my mind works. If you haven’t read it already, you can read it here. For #BellLetsTalk, I wrote an open letter to myself, and today I’m sharing it with you.
Dear Past Me,
Thank you for staying. Thank you for fighting. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the tools I have now, and I’m sorry that shame made you suffer in silence for too long. I blocked you out for as long as I could, until your words somehow found me. Even though you were a shell of a human, built on lies that society forced you to make a reality, you persevered. I want you to know that you grew and became stronger, and shed the skins you never wanted. I want you to know you’re still shedding them. But more importantly, you’re doing what you can to be unapologetic for who you are.
I am SO excited to announce a new project I’ve been working on, called IMPACT@Work. A branch of off last year’s initiative, The IMPACT Project, IMPACT@Work addresses how our professional lives and mental health are undeniably intertwined.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen mental health become a more approachable conversation with friends, family, and other people I interact with. What has progressed at a snail’s pace is the presence of these conversations in a professional context.
According to CAMH, 39% of people in Ontario would not tell their managers if they had a mental health concern, and 64% would be concerned about how work would be affected if a coworker had a mental illness. These facts are not okay. IMPACT@Work is here to change these statistics.
Employee mental health is not the sole responsibility of the employee – it falls to the employer too. Even if we speak crassly in pure dollars, the cost of mental illness to companies is estimated to be upwards of $6 billion every year (CMHA).
IMPACT@Work will explore mental health at work in a number of different ways, including:
- The impact of our careers on our mental health
- The impact of our mental health on our careers and professional development
- What workplaces are getting right when it comes to supporting people, and what they are getting wrong. The “workplace” involves three separate realms, that all need to work together to support employees
- The company as a whole, through policies and culture
- The employees’ direct managers and their attitude and support
- The nature of the work itself, and the mental health issues that can be brought on by it
There are SO many stories out there, and I can’t wait to share them with you over the coming weeks. From HR professionals, to first responders, every contributor has a unique story, and each one will inspire action to make our workplaces a more inclusive space.
If you’re interested in being involved, either publicly or anonymously, please reach out to me at email@example.com, or contribute anonymously here.
Our stories deserve to be told, and it’s time to hold employers accountable for making workplaces accessible to everyone.
Keep Surviving by Living.
I am often asked when I first started dealing with my mental illnesses, and I generally go on a tangent of how it started when I dealt with conversion disorder and subsequently depression at the age of 19. Anxiety, however, is generally an after thought that I mostly considered an unsurprising side effect of my high-functioning personality, crippling depression and other mental health issues. Until now. A few weeks ago, I was transferring files from an old computer of mine to a new one. I stumbled upon my old high school papers and decided to read a few of them, just for fun. Nestled in the literary analysis and Shakespeare essays was a file simply labelled “anxiety.docx”. It was penned at 11:37pm in early 2012 – almost a year before I was officially diagnosed with a mental illness. I don’t have any memory of writing this, nor do I remember dealing with anxiety in high school. My mind had blocked it out. So here it is, my 17-year-old self’s take on anxiety, and also the first time I ever wrote about anything mental health related…six years ago.
2017 was a year of growth, a year of change, and a year of learning. It was also Surviving by Living’s most popular year ever, with almost 7000 viewers from 79 countries. I love rereading my “year in review” posts, because I can see how much my life has changed since SbL started almost four years ago, and in turn, how much I have changed. Consistency has never been my strong suit, but I’ve grown to love the typical format I’ve used every year – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
I’ve had some incredible things happen to me this year, and I’m really grateful. I’ve joked in previous years that each year comes with it’s own “flavour” or health challenge but 2017 was a “manageable” mix of everything. Manageable. A word I never thought I’d be able to use about my health. I find myself able to walk down the street sometimes with more bounce in my step, a smile on my face, and the knowledge of my scary past to remind me of how lucky I am. Gratitude is something I am much more cognisant of as I recognize that hard work, perseverance, and determination has finally begun to pay off.
I owe a lot of the progress I’ve made this year to my new job, where I’m recognized for the efforts I put in and am treated with the utmost respect. I work with people who see me as a person, not just human capital, and I have the support to ensure my health is a number one priority.
In October, I was given the opportunity to attend the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston, MA. It was the experience of a lifetime, and I wanted to have at least 5 conversations about mental health, because statistically I would encounter someone with a mental illness. I was among some of the brightest minds in the world, and I spoke with a guy from South Africa, who was working on multiple social enterprises, a girl from India who helped run a large media conglomerate, a venture capitalist from Texas, a small business owner from the Midwest, and even someone from Toronto! I asked them to continue the conversation about mental health, either with others, or even just with themselves. These conversations are universal and relevant to people with and without mental illnesses.
Finally, I’m the most proud of launching The IMPACT Project in 2017. It was an important step to take, to share the stories of others and learn how mental health is weaved into every facet of our existence, even if we don’t recognize it, but also to give a platform through SbL to people who haven’t had a chance to share their story. When I launched The IMPACT Project, I thought it would be most beneficial for my readers, because they would get to read more unique stories. It turns out that the biggest impact was on the writers themselves. Seeing them take charge of their stories and be vulnerable was an incredible journey to be a witness to. I’m hoping to continue this success in 2018, with a new project, called IMPACT@Work, which will explore the ways that mental health impacts our workplaces, and vice versa.
The bad stuff for 2017 was more of a slow burn than in previous years. There wasn’t one specific moment that was absolutely horrible, but rather a culmination of small things that made life a little tough. In late 2016, I was told that within 5 years, I may not be able to walk again. I already couldn’t get very far without my legs wanting to give out due to significant muscle and nerve damage. I was in treatment 3x a week, and not only was it hard to balance that with maintaining a social life and managing my work load, but it was also extremely expensive and not covered by insurance. It was a huge reminder that mental health can also have very high costs to your physical health.
In early 2017, I found myself working more and more and more. I loved how fast I was progressing in my career, and was promoted to my 3rd role within a year. It felt great to be doing so well so early in my career, but it came at a price. I was working close to 14 hours a day some days, couldn’t bring myself to disengage from my work, and the stress began to take a toll on me. My friends and family told me I was changing, not for the better, and my seizures were more frequent and more painful. Halfway through the year I left that company to pursue a different opportunity that was a better fit for my values and needs. It was a tough pill to swallow, and a bit of a blow to my ego to be taking a step back, but it was an opportunity for me to practice self-advocacy, and prioritize my needs and health.
Though I am extremely fortunate to live in Canada, the political climate of the United States has undoubtedly taken a toll on me. The constant reminder that hate and bigotry remains very much alive in our society is exhausting, and I find myself having to disengage from much of it, yet I still want to remain informed.. I sometimes find myself afraid to acknowledge parts of my identity because of the negative impact it could have, and that takes a huge toll on my mental health. It took many years of grappling to not be ashamed of my sexuality, and to be comfortable with saying I’m gay, but those feelings return when I read about hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community. This year in particular, I’ve had to deal with my identity as a Muslim, and the way Islam is portrayed in the media. It becomes difficult to feel like I’m loved and accepted when a large part of my identity is viewed as “lesser than” or dangerous, or unworthy of the same respect as someone else. In 2017, I’ve had to learn the hard way that intersectionality cannot be ignored, and that other parts of my identity shape the way I feel about myself, and can feed the negative thought patterns my mental illness creates.
Overall, I’ve noticed that this year the good list is much longer than the bad and the ugly combined, and that gives me a great sense of hope. If things continue like this, I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store.
Keep Surviving by Living.
Melanie Muto is a graphic designer, who has used her creative talent and ability to express her journey with mental health. We met while interning for Jack.org and immediately hit it off. She brings a fresh perspective, and can see the little details with ease. I am amazed by the way in which she works with her mental health, and uses it to her advantage with her creative pieces, as opposed to allowing it to be a hindrance.
“Working With My Mental Health. Not Against It”
My sixteen-year-old self would barely understand this concept. The only idea of “health” for her was eating decent food and somehow getting “perfect” grades (which was probably the start of all this).
I took a walk yesterday and found my mind wandering to a very familiar place, where a group of negative and hypothetical thoughts were closely knit in a very complex web of insecurity. It’s like some type of rapidly moving daydream, except you don’t just “snap out of it”.
You (well I) tell yourself that you’re breathing. You’re alive. And you’re strong.
You talk back to your thoughts, because you finally know how they work, rather than trying to permanently erase something about you.
Coming to terms with my mental health was not easy. It took therapy, a huge support system of amazing people who helped me reach out shamelessly, and my own courage to accept a mind that likes to work in a certain, unique way.
Oh, and it also took a small period of avoiding my mental health all together because not feeling much was “easier”. What was perceived as a state of calm was more of a lingering numb, fuelled by the fear that I’d trigger a harmful, uncontrollable mindset again.
I found myself in the same state of feeling embarrassed to admit a period of depression in my life, thinking people would shame me for falling back to “old ways”, as if I ran a race backwards or something.
But the support system reminded me of their compassion, and I learned that I was always running a race, and that it wouldn’t really ever come to a “finale”. What do I mean by this? I mean that I was always waiting for some over-arching moment, where I’d wake up and everything would be “fixed”. I’d be all smiles and never have to face a sudden period of sadness again.
There wasn’t and probably will never be an over-arching moment – I am always changing and there will always be a battle to overcome. Oh, and I will always have mental health.
Coming to terms with the way I think and knowing that my thought processes have the potential to trigger states of anxiety or sadness was actually liberating. Yes. Liberating.
I’ve become excited to learn about myself. To realize why I suddenly become down, and discover what brings me back up.
I’ve grown to want to learn about others more. To be inspired by their story, their decisions, them.
Conversations with my friends and family about their mental health have become less of a “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed” (that feeling is long gone) and more of a “I want to encourage others to be happy, and meet their own goals.”
I want to see others get better and take care of themselves, and I want to be an example for them. Yes, I could give all the advice with my past experiences, which helps too, but I can also inspire others through my actions and everyday decisions. I use “inspire” because everyone is different. Some people hate walks, and some people don’t prefer a comforting tub of ice cream. But I know that everyone likes a little (or big) dose of encouragement – the type that tells you:
a: people give a fuck,
b: you got this, and
c: self-care is not selfish.
I’ve known Kate Wallace for about four years, and despite hating me when she first met me, we’re now great friends. Without knowing it, Kate and I had very similar experiences dealing with our mental health in school, and trying to juggle being a high-functioning over-achiever with feeling like most things were impossible. She was one of the first people I called when I thought I would be getting ECT, and dropped what she was doing to meet up and talk me through it. That’s who Kate is – even when things aren’t going well for her, she will always show up to be there for someone else. She was there to take notes for me in classes, help me with my assignments, and have fun wine nights. She’s got a great story to tell, and I think everyone can learn a thing or two from her – she tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to shed light on some of the uglier parts of her story.
When Ameera asked me to contribute to her blog I was grateful. I have been meaning to start writing as one of my new years resolutions. I always find that writing out the jumble of thoughts in my head helps me find clarity on what I am feeling and why. As a result it strengthens my ability to communicate and interact with the people in my life.
I am however, the queen of procrastination. I always feel I’m too busy to write. Too busy watching my weekly line up of crime shows and napping that is. So this invitation lit a fire under my ass. I told her I probably wouldn’t have a chance to start writing about the impact of my mental health on how I live my life until next week. However, within two minutes I was mulling how I would begin, reflecting and recalling memories, trying to figure out how to phrase feelings. I was consumed by the topic in the shower, on the chairlift, over quiet moments at dinner and in bed.
The opportunity had created a frenzy in my brain, the topic had become all-consuming. So a day later, overwhelmed by the pages (tangents) being written on the inside of my forehead, I took to the keyboard. But after half an hour of flying fingers – writing, deleting, writing deleting – I was exhausted. Writing this down gives me anxiety, and I started to get to the hard stuff. An introduction of quips, niceties and similes had been written and now I really had to start digging in to the impact that mental health had, has and will always have on my life. So I shut the laptop, popped half a clonazepam, took off my bra and tried to deep breathe myself out of a panic attack and into a nap.
And then I pretty much let the word doc sit for two months. Every once in a while when I couldn’t sleep and felt like I’d found the right words to convey what I’ve felt I’d open my laptop and jot down the phrases, and then close her back up again.
I was scared to sit down and dig deep, I was scared to over think it. Forever, frustrated that I never felt I’d found the right words to make people understand in past conversations. I always find I came across cliché or dramatic. I was having to face the fact that I can’t make others understand when a lot of days I myself can’t fully wrap my head around it all. I often still don’t understand how a good day turns to bad in a blink of an eye, how confidence erodes exponentially into insecurity or how I can feel calm about everything around me and somehow a panic attack is triggered.
Those closest to me have heard me talk on this topic openly a number of times. However, I often avoid acknowledging my mental health in public or professional platforms and situations if I can help it. I am still grappling with how to do this “properly” – but this is as good of a place as any to get my feet wet… or dip my toes in at least.
In a lot of ways suffering from a mental illness is what I imagine being an addict is like. I am constantly at risk of relapsing; forever in “recovery”. I modify my medication and my behaviour to manage my symptoms. There are good days and bad days and with the bad days the desire to indulge in a variety of unhealthy habits or thoughts arise.
For me anxiety is like an itch that spreads through my body, and I just cant stop scratching. Making it worse.
For me, panic disorder is like being out for a routine swim and all of sudden swallowing water as I’m being pulled under a wave. I know I’m going to be alright – I can swim, and the swell will pass, the water really isn’t that deep, and I love the Ocean. But still I flail and my body thinks it’s drowning even though my brain knows it’s only a painfully elongated moment in time.
For me depression is exhaustion, numbness, an aching paralyzer, a reappearing stranger; my alter ego. In the past, depression had played a starring role in life. These days it’s less of an antagonist. Depression has become a symptom of my anxiety and panic attacks when they make me feel completely out of control of my own body.
Maybe you feel the same. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you know somebody who does.
My mental health impacts my life in so many ways, far too many to include in a single blog post. But some of the most prevalent or obvious ways are the physical symptoms of anxiety, depression and panic disorder. Not to mention the bonus brutal side effects that accompany the different medications I have tried to curb the overall effects of my mental disorders.
I think these so called ‘symptoms’ are an important place to start – because it helps you understand a person with mental health disorder’s physical struggles and limitations. It may also help you recognize when someone is struggling with a disorder, or struggling with side effects of the medications they’re trying to get their disorder under control.
For me the forefront physical and mental struggle I face is pure exhaustion. For the last 4 years I have had a really hard time accepting my fatigue and lack of energy, and an even harder time conveying it to others. I often hear: “go to bed earlier”, “have you eaten enough, have you eaten the right things?”, “just grab another coffee”.
In grade school I was your classic overachiever. I was often out of the house for 12+ hours, between early morning advanced classes, multiple after school sports practices or games, study groups and volunteering. I would then come home and do homework and text my friends late into the night. I would do all this on 6 hours of sleep, and rally the next day to do it all again. When I was in grade 11 and 12 I would sometimes take naps in my car during spares – but most days I didn’t pause. My body seemed to be able to handle anything, everything.
That is in stark contrast to how I felt during university and how I feel today. The energizer bunny that once was, is no more. Energy is a very finite resource in my life. In my first years of university I suffered from insomnia – between the loud dorm-mates and thin walls, stress of school, late nights studying and my racing mind – I was regularly up at all hours, sleeping between and through classes. My last years of school, and more recently, I slept like a baby. I came home defeated and dead at the end of the day, sleeping 8 hours and never having it be enough.
I always hoped having a routine as a summer intern (then), and as a young professional (now), would help this. It hasn’t. Standard bed times and routine start times hasn’t eased the energy reserve supply. You know when you wake up with a really bad head cold or an achy flu coming on – how before you even open your eyes your body is protesting, alerting you that today is going to be hard to get through physically? That’s how I feel 90% of my mornings.
Now to add to this sleeping struggle, common side effects of starting or tapering off anti-depressants or anxiety medication (most medication can be used for either disorder) includes night sweats and nightmares. Sometimes these symptoms extend beyond the initial transition periods. A medication I was on years ago woke me up at least twice a night drenched in sweat. Turned out my birth control and this anxiety medication weren’t interacting well together. This past fall I started on a new medication. A side effect was night sweats and night terrors. I had the most vivid and disturbing nightmares of my entire life. I could recount most of them to you still. They were so bad they would induce panic attacks in my sleep. I would wake up unable to breathe, exhausted and sweaty af.
Other common side effects that accompany these types of meds that I have experienced at one time or another are are headaches, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia and loss of appetite. I literally had a doctor say “Common side effect of this pill is fatigue, so don’t take it during the day. But you don’t want to take it at night either because it also causes insomnia”…. Great. OK. So…?
In the last year I started to suffer from panic attacks. Occasionally, they would develop from standard anxiety or discomfort (stress from a long to-do list, cramped on a night bus in a foreign country). Most often, they would come on out of nowhere – driving home on a highway I’ve traveled my whole life, excited to see friends, family and attend a festival I go to every year. One time, it hit right before my favourite band was about to come on stage. Another time, laying down for a nap when I had nothing else I should’ve been doing.
The attacks would make me instantly nauseous. I had difficulty breathing – like someone was sitting on my chest. I’d start to sweat, become light headed and feel faint. Feeling out of control and overwhelmed my mind would race. Sometimes they would last 20 minutes, other times 5 hours. In general, I’d like to think I am pretty laid back, easy going and logical. I knew I wasn’t in any immediate danger, I knew everything was fine or going to fine, that this would pass. And yet… Feeling out of control of your own body and thoughts is the most frustrating part of any mental disorder.
In the face of an attack I’d often become compulsive – convince that only one thing could calm me down and I needed to drop everything to do it (bye bye logic…). These remedies include but are not limited to: driving to buy a new note book to write about the attack, picking up and driving in search of a specific comfort food, buying a new pair of shoes, and reorganizing my entire closet. The worst part (or maybe the best) is these self-identified and indulgent solutions usually did ease my mind. Giving myself a mission – putting the blinders up and not letting my mind continue to run wild – did calm me down, and brought me simple pleasures.
I hope this blog makes you feel less alone, more “normal” if you suffer from similar symptoms. I hope that if you are lucky enough to be mentally healthy that this helps you and identify loved ones who may be struggling with their own mental health. Since I have talked a lot about medication and accompanying side effects I’d like to take a moment to highlight an issue that I think can be overlooked or misunderstood by individuals and in our community and social circles. That is the combination of mental health, medication and alcohol.
It’s important to note that certain medications for anxiety and depression such as Prozac, Clonazepam and Xanax can be highly addictive and also may mix very poorly with alcohol. As a young adult it can be really hard to avoid drinking in social settings. It is important to be vigilant about this combination if you yourself are on similar medications or if you notice erratic, unusual or harmful behaviour by someone in your social group under the influence of alcohol. The world is a better place when we recognize and support each other’s issues, and exercise compassion.
A common phrase you hear when dealing with illness or a disability is “you are not your illness/disability”. Personally, I disagree. I am more than jut my anxiety, panic disorder and bouts of depression. However, it is a huge part of who I am. My ‘disorders’ impact my thoughts, my physical abilities, my behaviour, my decision-making, my relationships, my habits and nuances. As a result they are very much a part of me – engrained and influencing my personality and my actions on a daily basis. It is not easy, and it is not ideal, but it has been an important and integral part of growing into and loving myself.
Wendy is a little ball of light. She spreads joy and happiness everywhere she goes, and I can’t think of a single time she didn’t put a smile on the face of the person she was interacting with. She is funny, she is sweet, she is strong, and she is thoughtful. I met her when we worked together on our undergraduate society’s marketing team – we bonded over our passion for blogging, and she supported all of my mental health initiatives, even showing up for a 5k run in the pouring rain.
Her story is heart breaking, honest, and vulnerable, but it also serves as a reminder that the human spirit is powerful, and can endure the toughest times.
When Ameera first asked me to be a part of the Impact Project, I said yes without hesitating. I love the initiative. I love how her blog opens the eyes of many about mental illnesses, I want to inspire others with my story, of course I do. Little did I know that I was going to be sucked into the black hole again just a week after I said yes. This time, I drowned in depression for longer than a month. I couldn’t bring myself to function on a daily basis. I was surrounded by darkness. I couldn’t see the light. How was I going to share about my “survival story” and inspire others?
There’s a dent in my heart. It felt like someone pierced through my heart with a knife, except in this case, it was pierced by sheer nothingness. I didn’t understand why. I was surrounded by people, I was engaging in conversations, but the space around me still seem so bleak and empty. Dark water was gushing into my soul. I felt alone. Lonelier than ever. I knew that it’s coming again…
It has been 3 years since depression first hit me. It stemmed from a sexual assault on my 21st birthday. Throughout the following 2 years of university in Canada, counsellors, therapies, fitness lifestyle changes and my close friends helped me get by my self-hatred, self-pity, and self hurting actions.
Like Ameera, I was a good actress. Putting on a bright, teethy smile comes naturally to me especially when I’m in front of others. As my family was 8000 miles away in Malaysia, I avoided mentioning anything about the assault or mental illness on social media. I didn’t want them to worry, and I really wanted to graduate from university without having to spend time at home. As a result, not many know of my suffering, only the close or chosen ones know.
It wasn’t easy putting on a mask for the public while trying to be honest with myself about depression. I would drain up all my energy being around people and go home feeling like a spineless slug. There was a lot of confusion about my identity. I’d feel strong and fragile. I’d feel proud and meek. I’d feel as if I don’t know myself.
I lied on my bed, drowned in the vortex of pain and fear, wishing someone could pull me up.
I don’t see a difference in being dead or alive. Aren’t they just different stages of life? Like a party, it’s completely fine to leave early if you’re tired or sick of it. Why struggle so hard to stay when you don’t enjoy the party?
This was my first time having depression in Malaysia. I moved back from Canada to work in a city that I barely knew, my family was back in my hometown and I was living by myself. I understood the risk of relapse and got myself mentally prepared for what was coming – I signed up for a gym membership to keep myself physically fit, I learned meditation to keep myself mentally in tact, I asked friends out to keep myself socially active, I joined a new church to keep myself spiritually strong… Yet, I still felt that hollow, dark force flowing through my veins.
Then, I started experiencing physical symptoms. I started developing an allergy in which I still haven’t found the cause. I would joke to myself and say that perhaps I’m just allergic to living. I started having migraine every time I was facing multiple stressors or when I was angered. I felt sleepy and lethargic every day no matter how much I slept, which caused me to just work and go home doing nothing every day; and all I had in my mind was all the negative thoughts that can’t seem to go away.
You want to know what depression is like? It’s like dementors are under my bed, pulling me in and sucking my soul, my joy, my energy, my spirit to live on.
It took me a while to seek professional help because social stigma associated to mental illnesses is still huge in Malaysia. I was afraid of being misunderstood or a disgrace to my family. I didn’t know if I could afford treatment without healthcare, and if my employer is going to cut me out for it. Opening up to my sister pushed me to get help, and I definitely don’t regret doing so.
I chose to meet a psychiatrist instead of a counsellor or psychologist, and it felt weird when I was finally, officially diagnosed by a doctor and given medication. I knew that was what I needed despite knowing the potential side effects of antidepressants. I started off with mild dose of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) and increased the dosage eventually. The side effects hit me hard initially, I was constantly drowsy, nauseous, and I had this weird symptom that made me yawn excessively to the point my jaw hurts. It’s weird, I know. And because it usually takes about 1-2 months for the drug to be effective, I actually felt way worse when I started medication.
As the side effects subside and my brain got used to the chemicals, probably 3-4 weeks after, I started feeling better. I never knew a simple task like doing my laundry can give me such amount of satisfaction until the day I did my first load of laundry after having it piled up for a month. You can only imagine how messy and dirty my room was. I also finally opened up to my parents (about depression, not sexual assault, I’m not ready for that yet), who were really calm and understanding, and they supported my decision to quit my job and rest for a bit.
A lot had happened in the past few months – I started SSRIs, opened up about depression, quitted my job, moved back home, and now I’m sitting here reflecting about it. The first two weeks of joblessness had been good to me. I started doing things that I was passionate of but stopped doing – blogging, reading, and making YouTube videos. My 10-year-old niece told me she’s happy that I’m smiling more than 50 times a day now (she noticed I’ve been smiling too much lately, and started counting). Having a huge downfall allowed me to appreciate all the simple, little things and it inevitably made me appreciate life even more.
It may sound like good news that I’m recovering and feeling better, but it’s not really a happily ever after. Last week, I met up with a friend who does insurance for coffee, and was told that because of my record in the Psychiatry department, there is a high likelihood that my application to sign up for a medical card would be rejected. I was also warned by an ex-colleague to not let Human Resources know about my depression, because it’s worse than having “underperforming” on my employment file. There’s only so much money I have to support myself while being jobless. Soon I’ll have to stress about my career again, and I think it will be harder looking for my next job than before.
I actually had a choice to go back to Canada to work, but I chose to stay back and fight the social stigma instead. If I, a privileged girl who has a Bachelor with Honours degree from abroad can’t fight with the stigma, how are those who are not so lucky dealing with it? I want to start the conversation in Southeast Asia or even Asia, to let those who are inflicted with mental illnesses know that it is a disease that can be treated, that they have options and are not alone. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but I know this is the choice that will make my life fulfilled. Ameera has definitely played a huge role in inspiring me to do this, and I can’t thank her enough for being the strong and brave soul that she is.
So… To answer the question, how did depression really impact me… Well, when I was severely depressed, I couldn’t see the light in living. I felt powerless, helpless and hopeless. But after I opened up and accepted the fact that I am sick and not weak, I found myself on the journey to recovery. It made me realize that I’m never alone in this, that there is light at the end of the tunnel and it IS possible to get there. I can be fragile and strong at the same time. Yes, I may have a lower stress threshold now; yes, I may be socially disadvantaged because of the stigma; yes, I may be depending on pills every single day; but I fought the desire to end my life and I’m still standing tall – how can that not make me strong?
Thank you so much for reading till the end. I hope it helps you a little in understanding how depression is like for me. I’ll keep you updated about my journey in defeating mental illness stigma in Asia, and I’ll end this post with one more quote from my journal when I was severely depressed:
I used to think hell is filled with fires and flames and it’s in the hue of red; but now I know it’s not. All that I’m going through is living hell, and there’s no flame at all. Not even a tiny spark.
I’ve been to hell and back, in fact I have a living hell suppressed in me, surely there’s nothing I can’t do right? 🙂
Brittany Danishevsky is an avid advocate for mental health; an active member of Guelph’s Jack.org chapter, a Jack Talks speaker, a Jack Summit alum, and a two-time Jack.org intern. Aside from speaking about her own mental health and how to take care of it openly in front of large audiences, she is also a master of starting conversations on a smaller scale, which often have a greater impact. Brittany and I met while interning at Jack.org, and I always admired how she somehow managed everything- while she was carefully working on fundraising initiatives, I was playing with the office turtle. I’ve learned a ton from Britt, and am so glad we can always say we’re part of the #dreamteam.
“Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”
Did your parent ever use this saying to stop you from playing with the troublesome kids on the playground? Mine did. It worked.
Though I did have a couple of troublesome moments. Like in first grade, I pantsed a guy on the playground, in second grade, I had friends in the eighth grade, and in third grade, my friends and I spent a recess in the middle-school area of the field because we were checking out a haunted house (read: broken wooden shed in an unkept backyard adjacent to the school). Pretty badass, I know.
Today, my badass creds include possibly saving your life.
Don’t believe me? Well…
I’m an airplane vigilante. I insist on sitting in the emergency row on a plane – not for the leg room – but because I am READY for the responsibility. I will gladly put my bags overhead, and resist any desire to bring them down, even for a minute, because those rows MUST be clear. I listen to every word that flight attendant tells me, and even take my earphones out for the video. I’ve also become quite skilled at reading the flight attendant’s eyes, so I’ll be the first to inform you if they are lying about the turbulence being “normal” and we are actually plummeting down into the ocean. I’ve even mentally rehearsed how I would put on my oxygen mask – first my own, and then yours, of course. Yep, you might as well call me Kim Possible; I’m your basic average girl, and I’m here to save the world (I have red hair, so this reference is particularly relevant).
Oops, I mean, I’m your basic anxious girl, and I’m here to save the world. Think Kim Possible actions, with Ron Stoppable thoughts and concerns.
In all seriousness, anxiety is helping me save the world… but not entirely due to my airplane safety skillz. My anxiety, well actually, being open about my anxiety, has helped me impact my friends, my family, and even strangers in the most meaningful ways.
Being open about mental illness is really hard, and awkward, and uncomfortable. Admitting that mental illness was a thing in my life was incredibly difficult because of the stigmatizing thoughts ingrained in my psyche. I believed mental illness replaced academic success, extroversion, dance trophies and party invites. It’s taken me many years to get to a point where I recognize that these things can co-exist. Though, I must admit, that my ability to whole-heartedly accept this truth cycles depending on how successful I feel, or how debilitating my anxiety is at that moment. Stigma sucks, and I imagine that just like my anxiety, it will be something I will struggle with for many years to come.
A couple of years ago I began to discover the antidote to stigma. Conversations. As a mental health advocate, I tell people to have conversations about mental health all the time. I ask people how they’re doing, what they’re feeling, I facilitate ‘aha’ moments when someone realizes the parallels between mental and physical health. The conversations I have as an activist don’t often get too personal; the students I stop while they run to the bus on my university campus, won’t often unload what struggles they’re currently pushing through. My hope is that they’ll feel comfortable talking about those battles with someone they trust, after they’ve heard my shpeil about normalizing mental health conversations. Though I’d like to think I’m pretty skilled at getting other people to have those conversations, I definitely forgot to have them myself.
That is until I interned at Jack.org three summers ago.
I was surrounded by over-achievers like myself – who loved brainstorming, implementing great ideas, and ice-coffee. We called ourselves the #dreamteam.
Though I knew that we all had some connection to mental illness, it took a while before our stories came out. It took a while before we had those conversations.
And then, we got more comfortable, and the conversations began to happen. As a group, one on one. While getting ice coffee, while in the elevator, or at the bar after work. We talked about our struggles in high school, what it felt like to panic at work and try to hide it, how we balance our self stigma with our perceptions of our own success, how we aim for goals and deal with failures as a result of mental illness that we sometimes forget we have. We talked about our parents, and our friends, and the stigmatizing things they’ve said, and the stigmatizing things that we’ve said because we’re not perfect. We’ve even talked (and laughed) about the ridiculous things we do because of anxiety, like insisting on sitting in the emergency aisle of the airplane.
We talked about mental illness as if it was a normal thing in our daily lives; because frankly, that’s exactly what it is.
I will be forever thankful for these friends, because they made me feel normal sharing something that stigma made me feel so abnormal for. I am thankful that they allowed me to just chill out, even laugh at some of the thoughts that the lack of serotonin in my brain conjures up.
Because of the #dreamteam, it’s become easier to have these conversations with other people close to me. If I make this conversation normal with the people I love in my life, my loved ones will have no choice but to do the same; and they have. I am grateful that when I see a relatable meme about anxiety, I don’t just scroll past – I can send it to friends who will also relate to it, knowing that even though we are laughing together now, we will always be there for one another when things need to be more serious.
So today, when my mom tells me “Show me your friends, and I will show you who you are”
She will show me that I am not abnormal, that I am loved, and that my mental illness doesn’t change my over achieving nature. She will show me that perhaps I really can save the world, or at the very least, make the world of the people around me a little easier to be in.
Because I will show her, the #dreamteam.