Month: March 2017

The IMPACT Project: Din Ladak

Many people know that a mental illness can strain relationships, close lines of communication, and create confusion and misunderstanding. Somehow, the opposite rang true for my dad and me. Though we were not close  while I was growing up, he was actually the first person I attempted to open up to. It was as if discovering my mental illness made the distance in our relationship seem more understandable, and less of a character flaw for either of us. We learned neither of us had failed – that it didn’t matter if I went left and he went right, I went up and he went down, because there were more important things that we needed to be united on. When he finally realized the severity of my illness, he was by my side, driving me to appointments, finding doctors, and replacing judgement with openness. There’s a saying that I believe sums up the transformation our relationship went through since my diagnosis: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The more both of us recognized this, the more we respected and supported one another. Thanks for not giving up on me, Din. – AL


The fog on Monday morning was thick. It was Family Day in Alberta. I opened the blinds and could barely see beyond our deck. As beautiful as it looked, I was not able to look any further. My view of the world was hampered. My vision destroyed. And my hopes for a clearing in the fog diminished as the day went on. It had me thinking about how Monday was Family Day: a day to celebrate your family and loved ones, and I was instantly transported to the world of those who face this hampered view of the world constantly, not by choice but because of a mental illness. “You missed it, Dad,” she said to me.  “You are a social worker by training and I thought maybe you would see through this, but it crept past you.” It had me stop dead in my tracks. As I looked outside the window on Monday morning, I realized how her life was filled with this complex, dense fog.

On the evening of August 6, 2013, she asked us to get her to the hospital, and said, “I need some help.” It was 11:30 pm, and my wife and myself did exactly that: we drove her to the hospital and she was in the hands of the best care team. At 7:00 am the next morning, the mental health counselor came to us in the waiting room and said, “you are very lucky parents that she talked it over and asked to come to the hospital.”

“I need some help!” They were the most powerful words I heard as a father. You see, in all these years of being a parent, I often believed that providing for the day-to-day needs of my children was good. Almost like Denzel Washington said in the movie, Fences. But this was far from the truth. My real purpose as a father had just begun: to understand Ameera better, her challenge with mental illness, her experience in having lived through years of torment before reaching out, and her repeated attempts to try to comprehend what was happening to her. Life had dealt her a tough blow, yet it never ceased to amaze me how the power of a loving family could heal many a tough situation. Her own journey in alleviating stigma, in striking conversations about mental illness and mental well-being, and in being a champion of change has been more far reaching than ever!

I learnt fatherhood from my parents. They were available for us no matter what. My internal mantra has always been exactly that. I realized however that being physically available is different from being emotionally present. I think that as a father, I had understood physical presence better than emotional presence, yet professionally I was unwaveringly emotionally available for everyone. Every interaction with Ameera was influential in determining our next conversation with each other. “You know Dad, there are times I just don’t wish to talk as you are driving me to school in the morning, please try to hear what I am saying.” Why would it be so hard for me to understand that? It is because I looked forward to spending time with my daughter, yet I learnt it had to be on terms that worked for both. I learnt to accept that. As an eighth born in a family of nine, I was surrounded by full conversations every living moment. But life was different now and I eventually managed to grasp that.

I would pick her up from school every Friday afternoon, and we would have a late lunch since she finished at 1:30 pm, and so did I at my place of work. We sat at Boston Pizza and she would have her sliders and I would gorge over a pecan salad while surreptitiously eyeing her food, and then we would split a chocolate sundae or the hot fudge brownie that had molten lava streaming through it. Those were good times. We talked about her day and her week at school, and I would talk about how my week went, and she would give me some “sage corporate advice”. I learnt that moments of stillness were good. Silence was okay. There were other ways to affirm a loving relationship. I nurtured it. I treasured it. I cherished those times. It glued us in some mysterious ways. It strengthened our bond and our respect for each other, and it communicated how in life we would always be there for each other. But that Monday morning, I realized that I too may have skipped some important definitive milestones in being a good father, the kind of father I always wanted to be.

At that moment, the fog lifted. I could see the world with greater clarity. My actions today will always affect someone else. Someone did tell me once: “It’s like the boomerang effect, once you initiate change it inevitably impacts someone else, and ultimately comes back to you.” But I still beg the question: how far have we moved the needle? Well, not far enough. Until the stigma goes away, we can do more. Until the conversations are happening in multiple places, until the supports for people with mental illness are provided unconditionally, our work is not done. It’s a frame of mind that must change, and I know that as a father, this journey for me has started. I am proud to be Ameera’s dad, of her accomplishments in having lifted the fog so others could see with more clarity.

It has been a tough few years. But we look back and remind ourselves that as our dear daughter talked about her illness, we needed to listen. Listen attentively. Listen with no judgements, listen with affirmation. Let her be her, and we could be us as a family. She has played an important role in our lives, an incredible role, and we know her journey is far from over, but we instill hope in her all the time, and we support her to support others see through their fog. Ameera has “Survived by Living”. And if you have read her blog, you will know how many other people will benefit from her words. Reach out. The person who needs you is closer than you think.

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March 12, 2017 – At the airport before our annual father-daughter trip

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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