The IMPACT Project: Megan Johnstone – The Nurse

I met Megan Johnstone while I was President of our university’s Mental Health Awareness Club, and she was Vice President. We didn’t really get along at first, but I admired Megan’s confidence and sense of responsibility. Eventually, we co-chaired UBC’s first Defeat Depression campaign, and became close friends somewhere along the way. Megan manages to do it all without missing a beat, yet isn’t afraid to show vulnerability. As an aspiring nurse (and a damn good one), she shares an important message about the importance of mental health in the medical field. -AL 


 

“Okay so that’s 12 hours of classes, 2 assignments due, 1 quiz, and 24 hours in clinical this week, but remember – good self care!” my program loves to talk about self care. They love to tell us that we need to go for a hike, pet a dog, or talk with a loved one. But they also warn us not to trip and get injured – you’ll get kicked out; not to take too long with that dog – you can’t get below a 65% grade; don’t say too much about your experience – confidentiality! Every time they tell you to relax there’s a caveat.

Recently some of the alumni of my program came to speak to us as we reached graduation and one of them told us that she was struggling to fill her time off. I, much as I imagine she did, will come out of school with no hobbies, fewer friends, and huge amounts of debt. Not exactly a combination for good mental health. People expect a lot from the people who work in health care – there’s an expectation of perfection. You never get to have a bad day. The pressure that is put on us to know everything, notice the slightest changes, and have everything done on time is exhausting. It’s no surprise that nurses experience depression at twice the national rate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were even higher in student nurses.

In this program we look at people with mental illness diagnosis in similar way to how we look at someone with a cancer diagnosis. We ask questions like which neurotransmitter is out of wack? And we’re taught to assess for signs of abnormal behavior or thought the same way we would assess a blood pressure or lung sounds. We engage people in conversation then we annihilate their portion of the dialogue with labels. They hadn’t showered yet – they’re disheveled; they got excited about the topic – that’s pressured speech and excitability. We break down every single normal behavior in search of abnormality, but we never look at ourselves. We don’t take the time to process our emotions or recognize when we are in over our heads. I strongly believe that nursing can be a rewarding, heart breaking, and necessary career without breaking nurses. But in order for that to happen we need to cultivate coping habits in our nursing students that are healthy and simple.

It is important to build your own resiliency, to make working on your mental health as much a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. I wake up an extra 15 minutes early before my day shifts so that I can enjoy my cup of tea before I leave my apartment. Breaks should be protected as if they were the most precious jewel because they are. I lean on my colleagues – getting them to back me up when something is too much for me, and in return having their backs when I can.

I vehemently reject the saying that “nurses eat their young” by refusing to be chewed, refusing to allow people to make me feel small or dumb. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am stubborn and dedicated, and I work hard to continuously build those attributes. When I have a bad day I debrief either by writing it down or talking to another nursing student, I let the feelings out and look for areas to improve.

Lastly I try to have a life outside of my career with friends who have other interests, my best friends are in business, finance, non-profits, and artistic endeavors – and they hate it when I talk shop, I guess not everyone sees the humor in a good poop joke.

The IMPACT Project – Zeenat Ladak

This is the first time my mom has openly discussed how having a child with mental illness impacted her. It’s the story of any mother who worries about her kids, tries to fix everything, and feels bad when she can’t. Opening up to my mom was the hardest for me, because we’ve always been really close and I felt so guilty about the pain my mental illness was putting her through – while she felt guilty about the pain my mental illness was putting me through. I don’t think I can say thanks enough, Mom.- AL


When Ameera asked us, her family, to add our perspective on her mental health, I must be honest – my first reaction was, I can’t express myself through writing, I like to talk! I did however quickly remind myself of the title of one of Ameera’s blogs: “No is my biggest motivator, “and so I begin…

Here is a mom’s story of her precious daughter going through some very sad times and I, her mom, asking “WHY didn’t I notice sooner?”

Chronologically I am a little foggy with the details of the exact sequence of events. So, I will start with what I thought to be the beginning (that is, for me). But for Ameera, it was much earlier. It was in the last two months of Grade 12 when Ameera was going through such a difficult time and the symptoms were stomach aches, headaches, not wanting to go to school, etc. that I noticed something was wrong. As a mother, I always tried to get the help of a doctor for all the physical symptoms. How many times I as a parent had said, “take these meds and get back to school,“ not realizing the depth of these symptoms.

I was frustrated with myself at not having the answers! Isn’t a mother supposed to “kiss all the owies better?“

I was feeling guilty for maybe not totally believing her, or believing her but not knowing what to do as I too succumbed to the daily pressures of life: work, chores, etc. I thought this would pass.

During these painful times, one of the activities we did together to take her mind away from the “pain” was to go on long drives. We would stop by at McDonalds to pick up her comfort food of chicken nuggets and Tim’s French Vanilla, pretty much what Ameera could stomach at the time. We would listen to music with Ameera educating me on the latest songs and making sure I could sing along with the correct lyrics!

I could not understand why she kept listening to the haunting music of this one particular soundtrack over and over again: the soundtrack of Aashiqui, a Bollywood movie about a musician who deals with mental health issues and alcohol abuse. I went along with it but couldn’t understand why at the time.

Why did the two movies Aashiqui and It’s Kind of a Funny Story (based on Ned Vizzini’s book about his hospitalization due to depression) mean so much to Ameera? Why did she make sure we watched these two movies together?

It wasn’t until later that I realized what Ameera was trying to tell me. At the time, I was totally clueless!

I quickly reacted to the physical symptoms (stomach aches primarily) and her physical health but ignored her mental health. These symptoms were there but often they are the silent ones so they get missed. When a person’s physical health is not strong, we as a society are more apt to respond and react appropriately and without judgement. When a person’s mental health is not strong, we judge instead of act.

Both the physical and the mental health are equally important and need to be nurtured. As a society, we tend to nurture the physical health more than we do the mental health. This needs to change. It must change.

In all honesty, I did not realize that Ameera’s mental health also needed to be nurtured until she had left home to go to university. This realization was followed by guilt.

Why didn’t I pick up on these signs? If it was a physical sign, I would have! Why didn’t I have those conversations?

I was right there beside her!

But was I? I couldn’t stop these thoughts.

Why was she going through all these experiences in the hospital by herself away from home?

Why couldn’t I bring her home? She could come back to her nest. Wouldn’t it be much easier to bring her home?  She could always go to university here in her home town rather than follow her dream of going to UBC.

Why? Why? Why?

Amidst the feelings of guilt, sadness and helplessness, I did not feel anger. I am not sure why.

It is not easy for a parent to leave a child in school after being to the hospital numerous times alone! No matter how old the child, no matter how close or far away from home.

Luckily YVR was only an hour plane ride away. It was going to be tough!

How will I cope?

One thing I was certain about was that here is a girl who has worked so hard to come to her dream school. At that moment, I vowed that I would do everything I could to empower her so she could fulfill her dream. Thankfully this was something our family believed in too. In June 2016, Ameera fulfilled her dream and graduated with honours from the Sauder School of Business.

But ultimately, this is not about me. It is about Ameera! If she can be so strong and determined then here is a lesson this child is teaching us, her family: to be strong too.

So now to understand the “why’s”?

To understand the “why’s”, conversations within our family unit became extremely important and helpful. Thanks so much to Shazya (my daughter) and Din (my husband).

My sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, the entire family has given and continues to give a great deal of support (only a phone call away) as I have continued to work through the “why’s”. Faith, prayers and meditation have helped me personally as I work through the feelings of guilt. Prayers are healing. It was Ameera, through her writing, sharing, and strength, who also helped me.

I still haven’t totally forgiven myself for not realizing earlier the “dark” space she has been in. One thing I do hope is that I can be part of that conversation constantly moving forward.

She doesn’t need to be alone. She is not alone. She has the tremendous support and love of her family and friends.

I would like to thank Ameera for coming out, sharing her feelings and her thoughts, and letting us into this “dark” space. I would like to thank her for starting this conversation. It can’t have been easy!

It is my hope that these conversations will continue to help her.

I urge all to nurture both the physical health and mental health, be it through medications and/or conversations. Keep the conversations going. Try to reserve judgement. I hope that one day these conversations will come easy without worrying about any stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness.

I am so PROUD of Ameera! I am so proud to be Ameera’s mom!

ameera - mom's blog

The IMPACT Project: Coleton Strand

Coleton Strand is one of my oldest friends, and one of the strongest, most amazing people I know. Growing up, Coleton had it all figured out – he got good grades, was a phenomenal athlete, starred in plays and musicals, and was everyone’s friend.

I’ve never seen Coleton without a smile on his face, and though he just went through the toughest year of his life, he never lost his spirit. His story shows that physical health and mental health are so deeply intertwined, and that hope and faith can make all the difference. – AL


The last 6 months or so have felt like a rollercoaster ride. At the start of summer 2016 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and was set to undergo Chemotherapy Treatment for 6 Months starting in September. After multiple surgeries and diagnostic tests, it was confirmed that I had stage 4 Cancer, and that I was to be set to take a chemotherapy cycle called ABVD which was very aggressive and hard on the body. Little did I know, the events following my diagnosis would change my life completely.

I’m not one-hundred percent certain about what I would like to get across through this dialogue, but I hope that maybe by explaining the hurdles that I went through within my recent health battle, and being vulnerable with the feelings that I had surrounding them, I could maybe normalize these feelings and help anybody feeling this way to understand that it is natural. We are human, and life hits hard sometimes. We aren’t weird for thinking about the why’s in life, and the way our brain processes the events around us. I also wanted to add some context to my journey – by stating that trauma hits everyone in different ways. As Chemo was hard for me, for others it has been a very small blimp in their path. Some people breeze through chemotherapy and can function in society without anyone knowing that they are getting treatments. For others, it can hit harder and cause more nausea. We are all unique and beautiful in our own right. Our bodies, brains, and hearts respond differently to all interactions that we experience. I say this because I believe that as chemotherapy was hard on me, someone struggling with social interaction, or someone being relentlessly bullied could be equally or even more threatened and damaged physically, emotionally, and mentally. These individual struggles exist within situational context, and I think that it is important not to judge based on perceived struggle.

Through my treatment, I was blessed with a very sound group of friends and family that encouraged me to have a smile on my face, and remain extremely positive during the time. I had an optimistic outlook, and a very optimistic attitude towards everything – because there was no other option. I feel humbled to have had the support available when I have needed it. I had friends answer the phone at 3 Am for tough conversations, shave their head as I lost my own hair, produce videos to commemorate this time in my life, and cancel plans to see me on a bad day. I had acquaintances gift me with chocolate baskets and get well soon cards. Family members would visit often to try to make me feel more comfortable. Individuals that should not have had any business doing so took me to my chemotherapy appointments, and displayed wild amounts of bravery in doing so. I do not list these things out of pride, or to brag. I am so appreciative of these people, and for the way that they treated me when I felt that I really didn’t deserve it. I still feel indebted, and pray that anyone going through this kind of an ugly disease would be able to receive even an ounce of the love that was thrown my way.

The sad reality is that for many going through what I have gone through, situationally they are not so lucky. I can say with confidence that I was lucky, and almost gifted with a special group of people around me, and for that I truly do feel blessed.

Another thought that persisted through this time was centered around the lies we are fed about human perfection in our society. One of the many reasons that I really turned to my faith and to God was due to a constant realization that we as humans are not perfect. Even through this overwhelming amount of support, I would find myself sitting in my room sad, and feeling lonely. This happened more times than anyone would have known, as I did not openly express this to many. I know what you are thinking – how could you feel lonely when people were doing these things for you? And I don’t blame you, you are not wrong. But I think the answer to that is that we are NOT PERFECT. I’m human, and I know that I made plenty of mistakes in my recent past. My brain sometimes likes to take over and think its way into different circles that seem very unnecessary. I found myself placing very unfair expectation on those around me. For instance, for every person that was there for me, there always seemed to be somebody that was not there for me that I felt I really couldn’t count on (even though they were there for me countless other times within a recent span). Was my head playing tricks on me? Was I overthinking everything? I mean this clearly wasn’t always the reality. How could I expect life to stop for me as I dealt with my health issue? When I placed my faith in others capabilities to act as I had ideally hoped in my mind –  and they let me down – I I set myself up for failure. It was only when I began to pray about things, and trust God to carry things out, and to take it into his hands that I became so much more comfortable about how my life was playing out on a day to day basis. I trusted in things to work out, and when they didn’t I felt more appreciative of the full process. Not everything is going to work out ideally for us personally, but when looking back we can often find that the natural course of how things happened was often vital to a new discovery or experience. By placing my faith in this kind of trust, I could feel that I was communicating better. Decisions became easier to make, and I began really focusing on the things that I loved. This all seemed to distract my mind and heart from the little instances of depression and anxiety that I was experiencing.

Life is very short – and this experience has opened my eyes to that. In a lot of circumstances, death is a natural part of life, and there are so many threats to individual existence. I feel so fortunate to be able to live through what I am dealing with and to experience the pain of Chemotherapy than to have lost my life quickly and not have had the opportunity to connect this way with the people that I have. I know that naturally it was hard to look at things with this kind of perspective, but the positivity and support that was given to me allowed me to be open to that idea. Going through this kind of trauma really changed me in this way, because my life on this earth had never really been threatened until now. Looking at the glass half full made a world of difference for me, as my perception for my life, how it was to work, and where I was heading was something that I kept thinking about. This experience almost nurtured my personal ability to take a step back and to understand who I was, enabling me to find value in what I wanted from my life. I was never fully thinking about things from a month to month standpoint though – as my head processed things day by day. This was because I was in complete survival mode to keep healthy. This sound stressful, but it was actually SUCH a refreshing experience because I was living in the moment. I started to not worry about how things would shape, and began living in the present, appreciative of each passing moment and event that occurred. Every day became more and more a blessing, and every chemo treatment that passed became more and more exciting. I remember thinking to myself “Another chemo session off the books, I’m going to go and eat a burger”.

I never have truly experienced bad anxiety in my life until chemotherapy. Little things began to really bother me. I found that I was unable to eat foods that I had the day of some treatments, looking at red liquids reminded me of the drugs that were injected in me, I wasn’t thinking clearly always – and I still feel the effects of what is called “chemo-brain”. The best way that I found to deal with these kinds of things was to talk about them. I found that being very vocal and open about my experience made it easier to communicate with those close to me, but also served as a way for me to find comfort in a therapeutic sense. When I told others about the weird nuances of my journey and my trauma, I found that almost everyone was extremely open and in many cases sought out more information from me. You wouldn’t BELIVE the amount of people that do not understand what cancer is, and how chemotherapy treatment works. I do not blame them at all because there are so many different types of cancer, so many different streams of information about it online (do not trust all sources that are on the internet), different treatments, different treatment methods. Every single cancer diagnosis is also situationally different. An example of this can be seen through drug prescription. It took me the first couple of treatments to really understand what type of medication reduced my nausea. This is different for every person – but It took me until treatment 4 to have the guts to be more vocal and request more anti-anxiety medication from my oncologist.

Currently, I have finished my 6-month chemotherapy treatment. I not only feel healthy from a physical standpoint, but also feel healthy from a mental standpoint. I realize that the journey does not end here. For the rest of my life, I will need to go in for checkups, and have the understanding that the cancer could return. That used to really bother me, but this experience has taught me to trust, and be faithful that I have been healed. This process has been a complete blessing in my life. Before my diagnosis, you could say that I did not really understand who I was, or know what my purpose was. By tackling things like depression and anxiety, I found out the amount of courage and mental toughness that I had. I was also able to see friends and family rally behind me and create a tight knit group that showed me I was loved, supported and cared about. It doesn’t feel like I was the one to get through my diagnosis. The team around me that became my family allowed me to find myself, and provided me with outlets to deal with these emotions, and conquer them. I will experience anxiety and depression in the future, I have no doubt in that – but I will be prepared to face them, and learn more from each new challenge.

I hope that we can start to have more conversations about the struggles we are dealing with. Being able to acknowledge our imperfections in my belief is an important therapeutic method to deal with these mental health issues, and reminds us that we are not alone in our battles. If you wanted to talk about anything that you are going through, or just cared to have a conversation on a day you really need it, I would love it if you sent me a message on facebook.

 

-Coleton Strand

The IMPACT Project: Shazya Ladak – The Sister

As the person who initially gave me the idea to open up, it’s fitting that my sister be featured first for The IMPACT Project. Though she doesn’t have a mental illness, she has an important story to share about having to watch someone go through it that I think will resonate with many people. 

She’s the first person I lash out at when I’m feeling bad and don’t understand my feelings, but she’s also the first person I call when I need to talk. She’s the one who listens to me yell for no particular reason, and the first to get the cold shoulder when I don’t have the capacity to communicate. She loved me when I didn’t love myself, and didn’t allow me to push her out of my life when that’s all I wanted to do. I’m so grateful for everything she’s done, and never realized the impact of my mental illness on her until now. – AL


My sister lives around the corner from me. From my window, I can see hers, and when I get home at the end of a work day, I check to see if her light is on. You may be thinking really, Shazya, your sister is 22. You don’t need to check up on her. But for me, this light represents something else, something fragile, something I’ve dealt with for years but couldn’t find the words to describe.

This light represents my sister’s mental illness.

//

Ameera and I have always been close. While “close” has changed in meaning as we’ve grown older, grown as individuals, and moved out on our own, she has always been an important person in my life. We’ve had our challenges too. When we would argue as kids, Ameera would become angry very quickly, much to the confusion of myself and our parents. We didn’t know exactly how to deal with this anger, and frequently ended up fighting further because we were perplexed as to how something we thought was so small could end up so big. The sounds of Eminem would blare from her room as I tried to determine why she was so angry and what went wrong.

This happened again, and again, and again. We fought, and made up, and the cycle repeated. I remember often knocking on her door a few minutes after a fight to say sorry for the part I played. The thought of her being angry at me was much worse than the pride I had to swallow to apologize. And life went on.

In 2007, I moved away for university. Our relationship strengthened – we had to work harder to keep in touch, we began to value each other’s opinions more, and I finally felt a shift in our relationship: from sisters to best friends. She knew me and I knew her.

Except that I didn’t really know her. I knew the person she was hiding behind. And it wasn’t until years later, when she left home for university, that I realized.

//

One night in August of 2013, while I was vehemently ill with food poisoning, my dad called. Ameera was in the hospital. She had tried to kill herself – twice – only hours earlier. My sister. Ameera. Kill herself. End her own life. “Commit” suicide. My mind could no longer compute.

//

February 6, 2017 marked three years since Ameera started her blog, Surviving by Living. What began as a casual conversation where I suggested that she write about her journey as a form of catharsis and healing turned into a flurry of posts at 4 AM on a weeknight. While I was sleeping, she bared the details of her reality: lack of sleep, thoughts of self-harm and self-doubt, loss of appetite, detachment from friends and family, and many other symptoms I wasn’t privy to. Until I read her posts, I was unaware of the extent to which Ameera was struggling. From then on, nothing was the same. Now I had a label. I was the sister of someone with a mental illness. I was the sister of someone who tried to kill herself to lessen the burden on those close to her (me included). The 1 in 5 statistic was no longer just that – it was real. It was happening to my family, my sister. And there was nothing I could do to escape or prepare.

A part of me wishes I could say that I’m okay, that I’m strong (because society tells us that okay = strong), and that three years have passed and my family and I have made significant progress in our ability to understand mental illness and how it manifests physically, emotionally, socially, and professionally. We have made progress. But the reality is, mental illness doesn’t go away. Ever. And it has no mercy. It rears its ugly head repeatedly and without warning, forcing my parents and I to constantly face thoughts we would rather block out. Thoughts of why her? what did we do to make her feel this way? what was so bad about her childhood? why couldn’t we fix it? why doesn’t she understand that we love her? why isn’t our love enough?

I don’t want to have these thoughts anymore. I’m tired of them. I’m frustrated that my mind can’t always comprehend them. I’m frustrated that it has taken me this long to admit that my sister’s mental illness has affected me too. I’m frustrated at myself for thinking her illness has affected me as much as it has her. Am I being selfish? I’m frustrated that even after a few years of therapy and her working on recognizing her emotions as distinct emotions rather than just anger, we still occasionally fight like we did when we were kids (except now, if she blares Eminem, I can’t hear it). I’m tired of second guessing whether I should bring up something my sister said or did that bothered me, for fear of making her feel unwanted. I’m angry that she has to endure this, and that I can’t always understand. I’m upset about the toll this has taken on my parents, on my friends, on my support systems who don’t always know what’s wrong or what to say but hold me up anyway and without question. I’m scared of hurting her further.

Amid the frustration though, there are moments of hope. When a friend calls me because she is having troubled thoughts and I somehow find the words to comfort her. When my parents are worried because Ameera hasn’t answered their texts in a week and I can appease them because I know she’s having a busy week, because she communicated openly that she’s stressed and overwhelmed. When a friend is having an anxiety attack and I know that I can’t do anything to stop it except hold his hand and tell him I’m not going anywhere. And when Ameera and I can meet up after work for a drink and have the most incredible time laughing, recounting the details of our days, and truly enjoying each other’s company. When we can forget about depression and forget about mental illness, even for a second.

Those moments reassure me that I’m not supposed to know everything there is to know about mental illness and mental health just because my sister grapples with it. I’m not supposed to be strong or have it all figured out all the time – I’m human too. It’s okay not to be okay, and admitting that doesn’t mean I’m weak. I’m allowed to get annoyed when I send Ameera eight texts in a row and she doesn’t answer. I won’t be hurting her by expressing my feelings clearly. My mental health matters too. But mostly, those moments show me that my sister is not her illness. And while I could claim that I knew that before, I didn’t. My sister has no control over how she reacts to situations sometimes, but she is working on it. She doesn’t choose the days when she wakes up feeling like she’s surrounded by darkness, but she still gets out of bed. She is resilient, brave, courageous, and an inspiration to me every single day, but I would have described her the same way even before I knew about her illness. I am her biggest fan and her number one cheerleader, and nothing has hurt me more than watching her go through what she has thus far.

But she is healing. She is learning about herself and her emotions, her capacity to be a sister and a friend, and her purpose. And I’m learning too. It will still be challenging, and frustrating, and emotionally draining, and exhausting, but she is healing. And I’m healing too. Seeing her light on at the end of the day tells me she’s probably watching TV in bed, eating bad takeout and drinking a glass of wine. But it also tells me she’s alive, she’s safe, and she’s home. My sister is home.

The IMPACT Project: Celebrating Three Years of SbL

Surviving by Living is the story of how mental illness didn’t claim me. For the past three years, my readers have had an unfiltered look at the most vulnerable aspects of my life.

Like any story, my story has a number of characters, and while I’ve used SbL as a platform for people to get to know me, I feel it’s important to introduce some of the other characters in this story.

You see, my story is not just about me – it’s about the people I love, and the people who love me. It’s about the stories of people who may have never thought they had a story to share.

To celebrate three years of being open, starting conversations, and sharing stories, I’m excited to introduce the next chapter in Surviving by Living: IMPACT. The IMPACT Project is about sharing the stories of these other characters. It’s an opportunity to shed some light on how mental illness not only impacts the person involved, but their entire support system.

The IMPACT Project is also about sharing the stories of others. Every person has a story to tell, and whether they have a mental illness or not, their mental health is a vital part of their story.

IMPACT explores how mental health/illness impacts us, the roles we play in people’s lives, and the role they play in ours. It also looks at how mental health can impact the every day decisions we make (where to live, where to work, what to do with our free time), or how those decisions and life things also influence our mental health.

Over the course of this project, you’ll meet “characters” who, like me, have had to face their mental health or the mental health of those they love, whether they wanted to or not. Maybe you’ll find these stories similar to your own, or vastly different.

If you’d like to get involved with The IMPACT Project or share your story, feel free to reach out to me on social media, or via email at ameeraladak@gmail.com.

My story isn’t over, and neither is yours.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Big Business vs. Mental Health

January 25th, 2017 marks the annual mental health awareness event, known as Bell Let’s Talk day. For those of you who have been living under a rock (or possibly outside Canada), Bell Mobility, primarily a cellphone service provider, agrees to donate $0.05 towards mental health initiatives for every tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk. Last year, the event raised over $63 million. Since it’s inception, the campaign has been met with more and more criticism for a number of reasons, from some believing it makes financial gains over exploiting a very serious cause, to others questioning the validity of “cause marketing”, to more serious allegations that the money supports questionable causes.

Here’s my (potentially controversial) opinion: at it’s core, Bell Let’s Talk has done more good than harm. As someone who has often looked at cases of cause marketing or social conscious business in school and remarked on how “brilliant” or “game-changing” they are, I can see I may be biased. However, I really do believe that the campaign has ultimately made great changes to the way Canadians view and perceive mental health. This does not mean that our work is done, it’s far from that, but it’s a small, small step in the right direction. Here are some issues people have with Bell Let’s Talk, with my respectful rebuttal.

Issue 1: This is all a marketing campaign, and businesses shouldn’t benefit off of causes.

I agree with this, and don’t believe a business should have the right to exploit minorities or marginalized groups, but the campaign has made talking about mental health much more accessible than 5 years ago. There’s no doubt that the marketing payoff for this campaign has been astronomical at all, however, I struggle to see why that’s such a bad thing. Milton Friedman’s (granted, drastic) view of business was that it’s sole purpose is to generate profits. Wouldn’t you rather see company’s use marketing tactics that spread good in the world as well? Isn’t a campaign focused on mental health awareness much better than a campaign that over sexualizes women or has little to no meaning? Can’t we say it’s a win-win that a business is able to create positive change and market their products or services? Why do we have to discount the positive impact by saying it’s just for marketing. Obviously the business needs to have some way of increasing their bottom line with everything they do.

Issue 2: We can’t just talk about mental health one day a year.

Yes, yes, yes, 100% agree to this. However, having Bell Let’s Talk day is one more day that people think about mental health than 5 years ago. At it’s worst, people see mental health talk spamming their news feed and do nothing about it. Whether people engage in the campaign to earn that $0.05 donation is irrelevant – the point is talking. I see the money as icing on the cake. People need to think about mental health everyday. I also need to drink more water, eat fruits and veggies, and exercise everyday. Chances are, it’s not going to happen instantly. Changing the way people think and view things they’ve never thought of before doesn’t happen overnight. So yes, Bell Let’s Talk is only one day, but it can inspire lasting change. At an absolute minimum, we can agree that Bell Let’s Talk is a catalyst for conversations and change. Here’s an example: Surviving by Living was started after Bell Let’s Talk. I felt one day wasn’t enough, one tweet wasn’t enough, so I started to blog about my mental health. I don’t think I would have done that without seeing how many people tweeted in support of talking more.

Issue 3: People jump on this “bandwagon” and then forget about it.

DUDE. MENTAL HEALTH IS A BANDWAGON THAT’S NOW “COOL” TO JUMP ON?! HELL YES. I’LL TAKE IT. Okay but seriously, mental health and illness has been in a long term relationship with shame, and it’s kind of an awesome step that people are now thinking it makes them cooler to care, even if it’s just one day. Ultimately, we need to do a lot more than tweet once a year…but it’s a start. I don’t want this to let us be complacent by feeling like we did our part because we tweeted one time. However, I don’t want to get too caught up in how much more there is to do without recognizing the steps we’ve taken. Because here’s the thing: for one day a year, I see people who have no experience with mental illness, or who have never spoken about mental health, say that they care, and that it’s important. For one day a year, what I fight every day for isn’t stigmatized as much as it usually is. I get to do the virtual equivalent of shout from the rooftops and be celebrated for it, instead of judged. That one day is a glimmer of hope that change is real, and that the future can be better. And if that doesn’t make this campaign worth it, I don’t know what will.

Here’s the tl;dr. Bell Let’s Talk isn’t perfect. Most things to do with change aren’t. Bell Let’s Talk may not even have the purest of intentions, but it’s still important. Something not being perfect isn’t reason enough to discount it completely, and we shouldn’t be blind to the great strides it’s made so far, both from a financial perspective, as well as an engagement perspective.

We still have a lot of work to do, so on January 25th, let’s talk. And then let’s keep talking, because talking saves lives.

Keep Surviving by Living.

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Ups, Downs, and Upside Downs

As I think back to this time last year, I’m reminded of the rocky start I had to 2016. By January 3rd of 2016, I was admitted  to a psychiatric ward at Vancouver General Hospital. It was a place I swore I’d never go back to, but was willing to because I had been told that the best way to deal with my treatment-resistant depression was through ECT, or electro-convulsive therapy. I had dropped classes, prepared myself to lose parts of my memory (temporarily, but terrifying nonetheless). Unfortunately, 2016 had other plans for me. The doctor overseeing my progress in the hospital decided that ECT was not the right option, and that more intense drug trials would be in order.

Part 1: The Ugly Trials

Let me preface this by saying that taking prescriptions or medication for mental illness is completely acceptable in my opinion, and people considering medication should not be afraid, provided they have the support of a medical professional. After trying a number of different anti depressants in 2014 and 2015, I was told to try a few more before giving up on medication altogether. From January to April, I tried at least 4 new medications at countless different doses and in numerous combinations. It felt, quite literally, like hell. The side effects caused a plethora of issues consisting of hallucinations, mood swings, nausea, and fogginess that I hope to never experience again. While on a ski trip in late January, I had an adverse reaction to a new drug trial and ended up losing feeling in half my body for a number of hours and lost some memory. As if being on new drugs wasn’t hard enough, while switching from one trial to the next, I had to endure the agony of withdrawal. Withdrawal is a slow and painful process, because quitting these drugs cold turkey can cause a number of reactions – some as severe as death or heart attacks.

In the midst of all this, there were a number of moments that were really fun and special for me. When I was struggling in my classes and feared not being able to graduate, my professors showed a great deal of support and were very lenient and understanding of my needs. My friends were there to help me out whenever I needed – whether it was giving me notes from classes, or making sure I was eating, or just reassuring me when the side effects of drugs were really bad. I was able to get into a really amazing therapy program for suicide attempt survivors and made a great deal of progress in my healing process.

Perhaps the most important and special memory I have from those difficult few months was getting to not only attend, but also play an integral role in planning the jack.org 2016 Jack Summit – an annual event designed to inspire change in youth mental health and alter perceptions to reduce stigma. It was an unforgettable experience, and I met and worked with people I hope to know forever.

Part 2: The Rocky Road

In early May I found out I was hired by my dream company for an opportunity in logistics…across the country. In what felt like no time at all, I got out of my lease in Vancouver, packed my bags, and moved to Toronto. I left behind my friends, my mental health supports, and pretty much everything I knew. The summer was an unforgettable one that I hope to forget. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at my job, couldn’t adjust to the hours, had no professional support, and was scammed by my movers. I spent my summer hating my life with no bed, no belongings, no friends, and worst, no hope for my future.

Part 3: Finding my stride (with a little limp)

Luckily, a new position opened up in my company and I was able to start a job that I was actually good at. I love my job, I’ve met amazing co workers, and finally can see a future for myself like I always wanted. Slowly but surely, I’m finding my stride in Toronto. What many people struggle to understand about people with mental illness is that sometimes things take a little longer. For me, adjusting to my new life was painfully long, and I still don’t feel like I have it all figured out. My anxiety contributes to thoughts that I’ve made wrong decisions and don’t know what I’m doing, and my depression makes me question why I bother trying at all. Somehow, these voices are a little softer on some days, and I have moments where I feel okay.

My life is by no means perfect, just like everyone else, and there are definitely days where I feel like I got the short end of the stick. I recently learned that my seizures have caused permanent nerve and muscle damage in my legs, which makes walking difficult and physical activity close to impossible. As a result, I have treatment 3 times a week and hobble around sometimes. I think I look like a penguin and get frustrated with the pain and limitations that come with it, but it’s all part of learning and growing. I’m learning now more than ever that self care isn’t selfish, and am working every day to accept my limitations without letting them bother me so much.

So, 2016, you’ve taken me by surprise. Just when I thought I knew where my life was headed, it turned upside down. Good thing being upside down isn’t as scary as I thought.

Keep Surviving by Living.

 

A Synonym for Happy

This is a story I’ve written in my head a thousand times. It’s a conversation I’ve wanted to have for so long. It’s a statement I’ve never been strong enough to make.
The past 48 hours consisted of two very important days.
The first was World Mental Health Day. Obviously, mental health is something very close to my heart and I’ll talk about it with pretty much anyone willing to listen. I’ve committed to being open and candid with the hope that someone (just one person is enough) feels like they’re not alone.
Why? Because it’s okay to not be okay.
The second is national coming out day. This may be obvious to some (either because you were told or you just figured) or it may be a shock to some other people.
Either way, I’m gay.
It took a long time for me to be able to say those two words. For the first 18 years of my life, I couldn’t string those five letters together out loud. Even as I write this, part of me keeps considering how much easier it would be to hit the backspace key and not do this. Not because I’m still in the closet, but because I was conditioned for so long to be “straight” that sometimes I question who I really am.
But this is a story I have to tell, because if I want to be completely honest about my journey and my mental health, my sexuality is a huge part of that. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are much more likely to attempt suicide (some sources like CAMH suggest 14x more likely) and experience a significantly higher occurrence of mental illness. I am no exception.
Imagine feeling like who you are is bad or wrong because of who you were born to love. Or that you’re a lesser person and deserve less because of who you’re attracted to. What if you had to live in fear of being disowned or bullied or beaten or killed if you were honest about who you were?
I was incredibly lucky to be born into a family where coming out as gay was met with nothing but love and acceptance. I was fortunate enough to be a citizen of a country where Pride has become more of a celebration than a demonstration or protest. I’ve been blessed with friends who don’t treat me different from how they treated me before they knew.
Despite all of this, my sexuality had a significant impact on my mental health. Coming out to myself was much harder than coming out to anyone else, and it took the acceptance of other people to make me accept myself. In fact, my declining mental and physical health was the driving force behind me finally telling my family and close friends about who I really was. Hiding my identity and pretending to be something I wasn’t made me hate myself more than anything, and reinforced the shame I carried every day with me. Even though I now consider myself “out”, and I don’t hide my sexual orientation, I also don’t advertise it. Sometimes I’ll let people think I’m straight; I won’t correct them if they assume I’m interested in men or have a boyfriend. I’m saying this today because I need to change that.
Why? Because it’s okay to be gay.
Even though I didn’t believe it at first, I do now. For those of you who are curious, I think I have one of the best coming out stories; I was never once responded to negatively, and that’s pretty special. Every single person in my life who knows loves me just the same, if not more. Even my parents, who raised me in a relatively conservative Muslim household, have never made me feel like there is anything wrong with me.
I’m extremely lucky, and I still had a tough time accepting who I am. Think about how tough it must be for people who don’t have the same type of support I did. Some people are against the idea of a coming out day, because we shouldn’t have to “come out” as gay if straight people don’t have to. While I completely agree, I think today is a great day to acknowledge the people who have come out for having the ability and courage to do so. Today is also a day to acknowledge the people who aren’t able to come out, and let them know, wherever they may be, that they are worthy and deserving of love.
So if you had to take away two important pieces of the past 48 hours, here they are:
1. It’s okay to not be okay.
2. It’s okay to be gay (or of any other sexual identity)
PS. I have the same policy about my sexuality and my mental health; all questions welcome, so feel free to ask away.
Keep Surviving by Living.
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Hacking Life: Gamification

Recently, Pokemon Go was credited with causing a significant increase in physical activity. Frequent flyer programs such as Air Miles and Aeroplan have taken off (pun intended) due to the fact that they promote increased spending. Pain Squad is an app developed by a Toronto hospital to track pain in cancer patients. So what is gamification, and why am I writing about it on a mental health blog? I’ll answer the first part first; gamification is essentially using some sort of reward (points, badges, etc) to promote a particular behaviour. Example: When you hit 10 000 steps on your fitbit, you get a badge. Theoretically, that should motivate people to hit that many steps again to receive the badge, regardless of if it means anything or not.

Why am I writing about it? Well, we’ve already seen people gamify dealing with depression or other mental illnesses to get through the day. I did the same thing (see: One Fun Thing). Gamification allows little rewards for doing something unpleasant, and it’s built upon the fundamental psychology theory of positive reinforcement. In simpler words, do something good and you’ll get something good in return. Now, most of the ways dealing with depression is gamified is on a micro level. Got out of bed? 10 points. Took a shower? 20 points. But these points don’t really mean anything, and I got bored of them quickly.

I needed something more. Those little points or rewards don’t make the intrusive thoughts or suicidal tendencies go away. They don’t make me believe life isn’t futile or negate many of the warped ideas depression puts in my head disappear.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with my mental health, and have been questioning a lot about my life. I thought that it was something that would go away if I had the right job, a good apartment, or money. Obviously, that isn’t the case. I started to wonder why I got through those slumps before and I realized something: I was gamifying life. I kept pushing and pushing, because I wanted to reach the next level, and ending the game wasn’t going to allow me to do that.

What if we didn’t just gamify life on a micro level? What if we did it on a much bigger scale? Up until now, my entire life has been a game of levels I needed to pass. Level 1: Learn to walk and talk. Level 2: Go to kindergarten. Level 3: Graduate from school. Level 4: Get a degree. Level 5: Get a career.

These levels always gave me a goal to work towards. They were a sign of something not being permanent, because you finished the task and then moved onto the next. It’s something to keep working at to make it to the next stage, and it means that if a part of life is really hard (ie, this particular level), it won’t last forever because eventually you’ll get to the next level. And if I followed that mentality, it gave me hope that things would get better, that something else was out there after this and the struggle would be worth it for the reward.

So what happens now? I passed those levels. I have a career, and the permanence that comes with that is terrifying. Even for someone like me who loves stability and security, I find myself asking, what’s the next level? When is the next reward? Or is this it?

I don’t know what the next level is, and that scares me and makes me feel more vulnerable, but maybe now it means I determine what my next goal is instead of it being set out for me by society. I naively believed that if I got to the next level, my mental health wouldn’t be a concern; if I beat the level fast enough, and racked up enough “rewards” (money, friends, material things), I would be immune to the mental health struggles I face. That’s not how the game works, though. And depression makes the game a lot harder. It feels like everyone else keeps winning power ups and you keep failing challenges. Depression tells you you’re bad at the game, and pathetic for continuously trying to win a game you’ll never stand a chance at. It tells you that even if you did get power ups or rewards it wouldn’t matter because you’d never win.

But if you quit the game, you’ll never know how awesome the next level is, and you’ll never be able to enjoy the level you’re playing. So keep playing the game. Even if it isn’t fun right now, or this level is really really hard, keep playing.

Keep Surviving by Living.

WSPD: Have a Day

Today is important for me for two main reasons. On this day, three years ago, I was staying in a psych ward in Vancouver because of a suicide attempt. Today also happens to be World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s an important day to remember not only those we have lost to suicide, but to consider how many we still could lose. For some people, this may be the only day of the year they think about suicide – it’s not a fun topic to think about, so today may be uncomfortable for some. But for many other people, suicide is something they think about every day. I wish I could say I no longer have suicidal thoughts, but that would be a lie. It’s something I still have to be careful of. Problems like suicide don’t just go away – it requires hard work, support, love, and most of all, it requires hope. Hope that there is a way out, or that the future is worth waiting for, or that maybe these feelings won’t last forever. Imagine feeling alone, isolated, helpless, worthless, stupid, invisible, or worse, nothing. Imagine feeling like no matter what you do, the only way out is to no longer be here.

As a community, we have a responsibility to ourselves, and to the people we love, to remain vigilant and aware of the risk of suicide. Every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide. That means 788 500 die by suicide per year. That’s 788 500 too many. That number can change though, and it all starts with one conversation. Call one person and tell them you love them. Reach out to someone and ask how they really are. Text a friend or loved one to let them know you’re thinking of them. Keep an eye out for the signs of suicidal tendencies. Remember that sometimes these signs don’t show up. Suicide awareness needs to be on our radar more than just one day a year, it needs to be something we learn about in schools. Emotional first aid is just as important as physical first aid. You have the power to save a life just by showing you care.

I don’t like remembering my time in the hospital, but it also makes me remember that I was given another chance. Every one of my suicide attempts was terrifying and something I hate thinking about, but they were also an opportunity for me to realize that many people aren’t as fortunate. They don’t get a second chance…or third, or fourth, or any other chance like I get every day.

I’m not saying that everyone who has attempted suicide or has been suicidal needs to be happy every day. I’m not saying every day needs to be a good day. All I’m saying is to just have a day. And then have another one. And then keep having days. You’re loved, you’re wanted, and suicide is not the answer. Try and stay with us, and if you can’t stay safe by yourself that’s okay too, as long as you reach out because there is help available. All you have to do is pick up the phone. I still have to pick up the phone and call for help sometimes, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of – if anything, it’s something to be incredibly proud of.

So today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, I ask you to have a day.

Keep Surviving by Living.