Depression

The Struggle with – LOOK, A SQUIRREL!

I have ADHD. Surprise! Who would have guessed, right?! Actually, to most of my friends, it’s pretty obvious. My train of thought is more of a streetcar on detour rather than a train, and my stories have virtually no end. But why did it take 24 years for a doctor to actually diagnose me?

When I was a kid, my teachers told me I was “gifted” and “above average”. I finished all my work before everyone else, and often got bored in class. Instead of acting out, I would zone out or work on something different. Sometimes it was writing stories, or reading a book under my desk. By the time I was in 6th grade, I was running a gum and candy business from inside my desk. I never really got in trouble, because my actual school work was finished and I was always the first to hand in my exams or in class assignments. My parents thought I was just bored because the content was too easy.

In reality, I struggled with focusing. I struggled with doing one task for an extended period of time, and would rush through tasks before my attention span ran out. There was constantly an attention hour glass that ran out just a bit too soon.When I was young, it was cute – I had messy writing, didn’t color in the lines, and couldn’t cut a piece of paper in a straight line. Everything was a race, and quality slipped through the cracks. As I got older, it became less cute and more annoying. School got harder, and I didn’t magically know all the answers anymore.

I tried to explain to my parents that I thought I had ADHD when I was about 12 or 13. When they took me to a doctor, I didn’t fit the usual ADHD bill. I wasn’t disruptive, I didn’t act out, I didn’t have bad grades. I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive. I just wasn’t disciplined enough because I had always had it so easy.

In university, I skipped a lot of class, because I barely got anything out of lectures, and when I was in class, I would be doing a million other things. I struggled with studying, and could only accomplish anything if I was having a “power hour”. I didn’t realize my “power hours” were actually a part of ADHD. In the ADHD world, it’s called “hyper focus”, which means that you have these bursts where you put so much focus into one thing, that the rest of the world is basically shut out. It was brilliant for writing papers and studying when it happened, but the problem was that it never really happened when I needed it to. Sometimes, it would happen when I was trying to work, but my focus was directed at something completely irrelevant. I always finished exams early because I could barely pay attention in a 45 minute lecture, let alone a 3 hour exam.

PC:”Auntie, Me & My ADHD” via Facebook

ADHD impacts every little bit of my life – from getting restless at work and needing to walk around every hour or so, to losing my keys, wallet, shoes, etc. to forgetting important dates like birthdays and social obligations. I lose track of more things than I can count, and find it difficult to follow through on a lot of things I commit to. It’s like being scatter brained on steroids. It’s also incredibly stressful.

This past year, my doctor asked if I ever had issues with attention and focus. I was seeing her because I had gone into a deep depression and my anxiety was out of control. Her question seemed irrelevant and surprised me, but when I did some of the diagnostic tests and realized I actually experienced a ton of ADHD symptoms, something clicked. It turns out that it’s really common for undiagnosed ADHD to manifest itself as anxiety and depression. We learned that part of the reason I was “treatment resistant” was because some of my anxiety and depression came from my ADHD. The stress of not being able to stay organized or the anxiety that comes with having a messy apartment (and let’s be honest, kind of a messy life), actually heightened my anxiety and depression.

I was actually quite relieved to get my diagnosis, but a big part of me was sad too. Why did it take so long to get diagnosed? What could have been different had I not struggled with my ADHD for so long without knowing? Could I have done more? Achieved more? Could I have avoided my depression and anxiety getting so severe? I’m not sure, and I guess I’ll never really know.

But I do know that we talk a lot about people being misdiagnosed with ADHD, and stimulants being over-prescribed, but we don’t talk nearly enough about how women and girls are often looked over and not diagnosed. The way that ADHD manifests itself can be quite different for young girls and boys – girls are more likely to retreat and disconnect, while boys are more likely to act out. Therefore, the boys get diagnosed because it’s a lot easier to see. Girls are more likely to be “inattentive” (like me), while boys are more likely to be “hyperactive”. We also think of hyperactivity as being a physical thing – like running around or being disruptive, but “hyperactivity” (in girls especially) can be more emotional – like having outbursts or emotion that don’t quite make sense or fit. This leads to the inattentive girls being labelled as lazy or stupid, and the emotionally hyperactive girls being labelled as drama queens or crazy.

Stimulants (medication for ADHD) can be dangerous and very easy to abuse, so it’s important that we are not over-prescribing these medications. It’s also important that we don’t under-prescribe to those who need it, especially girls who are already under-diagnosed. 

Now that I’ve bounced around enough, I should probably get to my main point which is this: a proper diagnosis can be absolutely life changing. And getting it sooner rather than later is really important, not just for medication, but because it can explain a lot. I struggle a lot with my self-esteem and always felt stupid or forgetful, but it was really just a part of my ADHD. It’s a lot easier now that I know what’s going on, but it was a long road to get here. When we let our knowledge of a condition be guided by misinformed stereotypes, we become blind to some important warning signs. When that happens, we let people slip through the cracks or misdiagnose them and treat problems with the wrong medications, which is dangerous and expensive.

Keep Surviving by Living.  

Advertisements

The Price You Pay

The cost of mental illness is now becoming more of a topic of discussion, as a way to propel the conversation forward due to the large economic costs to our society.

When we talk about it, we talk in terms of lost labour hours and wages, or the cost to our health system. We talk in macro economic terms because the problem is of such great magnitude that it actually can impact our economy. If you Google what mental health costs in Canada, you’ll learn that it costs our economy over $50 billion every year. You’ll learn that the cost of mental illness represents almost 3% of our nation’s GDP.

It’s estimated that 6.7 million Canadians are struggling with their mental health, vs 2.2 million dealing with diabetes and 1.4 million with heart disease (CMHA). Despite mental illness effecting 20% of the population, only 7% of our health care budget is spent on mental health.

But, I’d like to focus on the micro economic costs of mental illness – the costs we don’t talk about that impact how well or how poorly we can line our pockets. Because I’m angry about it. This post is not a happy one, but it’s a necessary one.

We know the numbers on the national impact of mental illness, but what about on an individual basis? How expensive is it?

We need to discuss these concerns, because it’s important that we acknowledge that accessing mental health care in our country is reserved for the privileged. Our public health care system is inadequate, underfunded, and overburdened, leaving those suffering to seek out private care options. Canada boasts being a country with public health care, but the mental health side is largely privatized. This points out one flagrant fact: our health care system does NOT see mental health and physical health as equally important. As a result, far fewer resources are allocated to mental health care and the ratio of needs to resources is grossly disproportionate.

Beyond that, the public health care system only provides support in a couple of very small areas – emergency intervention (hospitalizations) or PRESCRIBING pharmacological support (like anti depressants). A note about pharmacological support – you don’t have to pay for the doctor to prescribe it, but in order to not pay for the pills themselves, you have to have fantastic extended health insurance (so basically private). Personally, these two areas represent less than 10% of my actual mental health care needs. The other 90% is self funded.

So what does that 90% cost? Well, in the past year alone, I’ve spent almost as much of my money on mental health care as I have on rent. I maxed out my extended health converge from work within the first month.

It costs a ton of money – in fact, therapy alone is close to 2x what my annual university tuition was  (and I was in one of the most expensive undergrad programs).

In Ontario, the average income is less than $60,000, which is less than $45k after tax. The running rate for therapy in Ontario is $225 per hour. So if you’re an average person in Ontario and go to therapy weekly, you’re paying $12,000 a year. More than a quarter of your income is going just to therapy. Considering a good insurance plan for that income bracket is $1000 a year for mental health, you are covered for just over one month of the year.

The cost of mental health goes beyond therapy, however. There are costs I incur for physiotherapy and massage therapy, because the physical symptoms of mental illness are very real. That’s another couple thousand bucks a year. Since my illnesses are largely “treatment resistant”, meaning most medication doesn’t actually work for me, not to mention I’ve had horrible side effects from pharmacological support, I’ve had to use a naturopath to find more natural remedies and adjust my diet. So tack on another couple grand. When I do take prescription medication, it can cost hundreds of dollars a month. I remember being in university and being apprehensive about trying a new medication because there was no generic version, so it would cost me $400 a month. This past year I tried a new medication, and a trial of just 6 pills cost $45. Part of me was relieved when it didn’t work because I didn’t know how I would afford it otherwise.

Even without doing a bunch of math, it’s clear that having a mental illness is expensive. In fact, it’s basically unaffordable. And you might be thinking that there are some free programs available to people who really need it, and you’d be right. The issue is that those services are largely inaccessible due to them being over-burdened. Wait times are staggering and it can take over a year just to get an assessment for what programming you’d be eligible for. Then you wait again for a spot to open up in that program. When you’re struggling with your mental health, that wait time can quite literally be a death sentence. It would be like being told you have cancer, but you can’t get chemotherapy for another year, even though waiting could mean you die within that year.

When we find out someone is struggling, our first thought is to reassure them that help is available. But do we ever think about if that help is actually accessible? Do we stop to acknowledge the financial barriers that could get in the way of them getting help? When we tell people to get help, do we recognize that because the cost is so high, they may have to make significant life sacrifices? We shouldn’t have to ask these questions. People shouldn’t have to pick between taking care of their mental health or putting food on the table. In a country with universal health care, we shouldn’t have to open our wallets to buy access to services because the free services become basically useless when they’re inaccessible. But we do.

Until we as a society can finally recognize that mental health is just as important as physical health, we will always have to ask these questions. People will have to spend five digits annually out of pocket to take care of their mental health needs. Until we bolster our services enough to reduce the strain on current infrastructure, people will continue to slip through the cracks.

Keep Surviving by Living.

“Yes, and” not “Yes, but”

The concept I want to describe is one that I’ve never quite been able to put into words, so bear with me here. Luckily, I have a couple of very insightful and thoughtful friends who understood the concept when I tried explaining it to them, so I’m borrowing their words.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to separate my depression from me. I demonized it and made it this big villain that wasn’t a part of me – it was a battle I had to fight, an enemy I had to destroy. Time and time again, I hear myself saying “I am not my depression” and how I’m not really myself when I’m anxious and depressed. I still stand by those statements…sort of.

I am not my mental illness, I am not exclusively my mental illness, but it is a massive part of me. It influences the way I act, the way I speak, the people I associate with. It’s in every deep breathing exercise I do, in every therapy session I pay for, in each conversation I have. It does not (always) consume me, but it plays an integral role in my life. As much as I would like to believe I am not defined by my mental illness, it defines a part of me. And that’s not to say that my mental illness has to dictate my life and I just have to accept that, but rather, it means acknowledging how this part of me is not a demon to destroy, but a wound that needs healing. It means acknowledging that though my mental illnesses have made life really hard, they’ve also allowed me to become a better listener, they’ve guided me towards people who have better intentions, they’ve taught me valuable lessons about the universe that some people may never learn. They’ve made me more fearless in knowing what I want and going after it.

I’m learning that because my mental illness is part of me, I have to learn to love it somehow before I can truly love myself. I have to love the beautiful bits, and the parts I think are ugly, and I have to try and see the beauty in the ugly. I can’t accept myself wholly or give myself love if I’m constantly vilifying a part of me that can’t be silenced or ignored.

Part of that process of loving all of me, is being loved by the people around me. Letting them love the good, the bad, the ugly. Being loved simply because of me, and not in spite of something else.

Let me make this part crystal clear: my mental illness is not something to be “looked over” or loved in spite of. I don’t need you to look past my struggles and mental illness in order to love me. I need you to see that there is ugliness in me, but that ugliness is just as worthy of love as the most beautiful parts.

I’m tired of the rhetoric that exists around being loved even though you have pain or baggage or struggles. I deserve better than “I love Ameera, but she has anxiety and depression”. It’s not something that diminishes how deserving I am of love.

I was really frustrated with this one day, and tried explaining it to a close friend. She understood what I meant immediately, and described it as needing people to say “Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”. It was a simple concept I learned in improv class – that when someone offers something in a scene, you accept it. Whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes the scene harder or easier, you accept it, and you work through the scene together.

Moving from language of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, but I still love her” to messaging of “Ameera has depression and anxiety, and I love her.” It’s reaffirming that I can be loved with what I have, rather than mental illness being something that should detract from the amount of love I am worthy of.  It’s a mixed bag, and you don’t get to pick and choose which parts you get.

Another example is when I have a bad day or I’m going through a rough patch and feel bad about it, and people (with only the best intentions) respond with how they know how I really am, and they don’t judge me for this part. They see that I’m actually this happy, funny, lively person and it’s “just the depression talking.” I really, really appreciate the sentiment that I am not my illness, and sometimes my depression and anxiety make me act differently. However, that depression and anxiety is a part of me too. They may be a part I try to hide a lot more, but they’re a part of my journey and my experience. They are not just something to be overlooked or ignored.

When we make our mental illnesses something to be loved in spite of, or we allow them to be ignored so we can be loved, we create the perfect breeding ground for shame. Shame that makes us hide who we are, shame that makes us hide our pain and our struggles, and shame that makes us feel unworthy of the love we need and deserve. It fosters guilt that we can’t be “enough” because we deal with these issues. And it’s not right. No one should be made to feel more isolated and guilty and ashamed because of their mental illnesses. There’s already enough of those feelings because of the mental illness alone, we don’t need the problem exacerbated because it’s easy to love the “good” and hard to love the “bad”.

I realize I’m basically contradicting myself by saying my mental illnesses don’t define me but also they totally do, and I also recognize that it’s difficult to be a positive support when you have to navigate a paradox as complex as this one. This journey isn’t an easy one, but it’s easier when we’re in it together. Even if the people around me don’t know what to say, just knowing that they can love me with or without my mental illnesses, because it has no bearing on how they feel about me, is enough. Reminding me that depression and anxiety don’t have to be looked over and brushed under the rug in order for them to still think I’m great speaks volumes.

Regardless of if you deal with mental health issues or not, think about who you love. Do you love all of them? Do you love them through the messier parts? Do you show up when not showing up is easier? If the answer is no, think about how you can make that move from “yes, but”, to “yes, and”.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, and you feel like people have to love you in spite of what you deal with, or you feel you have to hide the hard parts so that you don’t lose that love, you’re not alone. That fear is totally valid. I hope we can learn to love the beautiful bits and the ugly bits of one another, and see the ugly bits as beautiful in their own way, so that we can break down the walls and boundaries built by bricks of shame and guilt. I hope you remember that you have pain and struggles, and you are loved. Not despite it. Not in spite of it. Not when it’s ignored. You are simply loved. I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you.

“Yes, and”, not “Yes, but”.

Keep Surviving by Living.

100 Posts of Surviving by Living

This is my 100th post on SbL. 1700+ days. 25000+ viewers. 85+ Countries. 20+ Collaborations. Two eye-opening projects.

Countless hours of writing. Even more hours of thinking and not writing.

Since launching, I’ve spent 6 days in a psych ward, made two ER trips, attempted suicide once (contemplated more times than I can count), tried 9 different prescription medications, seen more than 7 doctors or specialists, talked to 8 therapists, received 1 additional diagnosis, and had over 150 hours of therapy. Caring for my physical and mental health during this time has cost me over $25,000 out of pocket (and that’s with extended health care coverage/insurance). Every. Single. Penny. was worth it.

What I’m trying to say, is that it’s been a wild ride. And I’m so grateful to all the people that have stuck around for this crazy ride and followed along. And I’m at peace with the people who chose to leave, because they taught me valuable lessons, and were in my life for a reason at the time.

Whether you’ve been the one I go to when I’m upset, or have helped me get out of a funk whether you knew it or not, or even if you just tossed me a “like” on Facebook  every so often, thanks for being there. Thank you for accepting me. Thank you for making this “roller coaster from hell” a little more fun and a little less dark. Thank you for showing me that I matter, and not giving up when I don’t believe I matter. Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for giving me the platform and space to have my story heard. You’re teaching me that my story deserves to be heard. That I deserve to be heard.

In my very first post, I said I’d be sharing “more of my real story – not sugarcoated, not horribly depressing either” and I hope I’ve done that. I hope that you’ve learned a bit more about what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and more importantly, I hope that you think of your own mental health more.

Pursuing a better mental health state is a lifelong journey – that’s something I’ve learned the hard way. I’ll admit that I thought I could be fixed or cured, and that if I ever wrote a 100th post it would be looking back and saying “damn, what a wild ride. Glad that’s over!” And I’d be lying if I said that a part of me isn’t a little disappointed that the words I wrote in my first post ever, almost five years ago, are still pretty true.

I wrote: “If you ask anyone what type of person I am, common words used to describe me are “Funny”, “Witty”, “Intelligent”… Are these words an accurate depiction of me? Probably. On the outside, at least. Notice how none of those words showed any deeper emotion? I like it that way.

If you really wanted to know me, you would know that I have a tendency to overanalyze everything, my thoughts are my biggest enemy, I am stubborn as hell, and I grapple with mental illness everyday.”

Yep, I’d argue that still sums me up pretty well. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made a ton of progress. I forget that a lot. I forget how much I’ve grown since I was a scared student who wrote about her mental illness in secrecy from the safety of her bed at 3am. While I may wish that I could have progressed more, and sometimes give myself a hard time for not having made it further, it’s important that I recognize the strides I’ve made.

I’ve transformed over the past five years and really started to own my story. I talk about mental illness to anyone who will listen. I commit my time and energy to teaching others about mental health, and work to reduce stigma and make people a bit more compassionate about these issues. I’ve even worked in the mental health sector, and have been affiliated with a number of different organizations supporting mental health over the years.

I’ve learned that no one has to go through this alone, and there should be no shame in struggling. I’m still learning that it’s okay to admit that I’m not okay and reach out for help. I still face the same demons I faced years ago, I just have a better support system, and know more about myself.

So I hope that these 100 posts have meant something to you. They’ve meant a ton to me. I’ve poured blood, sweat, and yes, even tears, into this process, so that maybe someone out there feels a little less alone. I hope that the words “Surviving by Living” mean more than they did before – that they’re more than three little words. They’re a way of life. They’re a commitment to striving for more than just survival.

Surviving by Living is not just a blog, it’s a promise to demand better for our future, so that we may enable one another to live full, beautiful, wonderful lives that are worth living. Are you surviving? Or are you living?

Here’s to the next 100 posts of Surviving by Living.

For the 100th time, Keep Surviving by Living.

The Pressure of Recovery (and tips to help!)

Some of closest people in my life have seen multiple versions of myself over the years. They knew me before mental illness was a part of my life, they knew me when I was in the thick of my depression and suicide attempts, and they know me now.  If you ask someone about me, they might say how I think I’m really funny (and if they’re in a good mood they’ll admit they think I’m funny too). They’ll probably think about my intelligence, or my love of craft beer, or other parts of myself that I choose to showcase more than others. And despite openly talking about my struggles with mental health, it’s probably not the first thing they see.

I’ve designed it this way. I wouldn’t want to be seen as my mental illness (even though I talk about it literally all the time, sorry pals, I don’t intend to shut up about it anytime soon 🙂 ) .

The issue is that when I talk a lot about the strides I’ve made to get better and recover, people forget about the harsh realities of my mental illness that pop up when I least expect it. They forget the bad days can strike at any time, and they do.  They still seem surprised that so many years later, I’m not “better.”

I’m not better. It doesn’t go away. Even when I’m laughing and smiling and having a good time, it hasn’t gone away completely. I may not be as bad as I once was, but that doesn’t mean I’m good. Just because you don’t need a hat and mitts when it’s not snowing anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need a jacket. We all bundle up after the blizzard too, because it’s still cold out. So I’m not freezing, but I’m still cold. We still see mental illness as something that gets better and goes away, like an infection or cold, and don’t accept that it could be something we live with every day like diabetes or arthritis. We always hope mental illness will go away, yet we never go to someone with diabetes and say “oh, I really hope you beat this soon! You’re so strong, you can do it.” Saying that makes it sounds like if it doesn’t go away, we weren’t strong enough to make it go away.

My friends and family are wonderful, and I love them dearly, but they’re often the ones building that pressure when they ask if I’m better, or tell me how happy they are that I am better. This type of pressure comes from people meaning well, but they actually make me feel guilty about my recovery being a non-linear process.

Now, as you’re reading this you’re probably thinking “shit. I’ve said that.” Don’t worry, I’ve said it too, but here are some shifts in language that I’ve found really supportive and helpful. Here’s a great trick on good days as well – celebrate the wins and accomplishments of the good day, rather than just the good day itself.

Language Shifts on Good Days

“I’m glad you’re better” –> “Sounds like you’ve had a few good days”

“Yay, you’re cured!” –> “I’m so happy you feel the worst is over, I’m here if it’s hard too though.”

“You’re finally better!” –> “I know it’s been a long process, but I’m here for the long haul.”

“Phew, glad that’s behind us.” –> “I know you’ll have ups and downs, and that’s okay.”

“I knew you’d get here if you tried hard enough!” –> “I know how hard you try to have good days, and I know how much harder you have to try on the bad days.”

Basically, you’re just trying to reassure the person that you’re excited for their good days and for the times that they’re better, but you’re also totally okay with sticking around for the bad ones. When I’m feeling better and having a good day, my biggest fear is that it’s not going to last, and that I know I’ll have another bad day again (as we all do, to varying degrees).

I also find it really helpful when my friends point out small wins – a friend and I often do this for each other when we’re having good OR bad days. We recognize accomplishments, regardless of how big or small, and celebrate them. On a bad day it’s something like “YAAASSS, YOU ATE A MEAL!”, and on the good days it might be “YAASS, HIT THE GYM!”. We’re proud of each other both times. When I get treated with the same amount of enthusiasm and respect for what I’m capable of on good days and bad days, I feel less ashamed of the bad days, and less pressure to hide them.

That being said, don’t be the annoying person who acts like the bad days are good, because they’re not. I need my support system to acknowledge how hard it is, and how it’s okay to be sad and scared and upset that I’m having a bad day because it’s really hard.

Language Shifts on Bad Days

“Tomorrow will be better” –> “I know today is really hard, how can I make it a bit better?”

“Just try going to the gym, you’ll feel much better” –> “You’re having a hard day, is there anything that you can think of that might help?”

“I know how you feel.” –> “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

*When you don’t know what to say, so you say nothing* –> “I don’t know what I can say or do to help. Is there anything I can do that would be helpful?”

“it’s just a bad day, don’t worry about it.” –> “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this will be temporary. You’ve gotten through it before and you will again. Until then, I’m here for you”

“Come out and have a good time! The distraction will help.” –> “Would you be up to coming out if you think a distraction would help? Or I can come over to distract you or talk about it? You’re not alone.”

“Let’s have some fun and get your mind off it.” –> “I’m here to sit with you in the darkness if that would help. If you’d prefer to have fun, we can do that too.”

“Did you forget your meds?” –> Just. Don’t.

“Call your therapist.” –> “Did you want to talk about anything? I know I’m not as good or qualified as your therapist, but I’m willing to listen until you can talk to them.”

“You have to eat” –> “Have you eaten anything? Can I bring something over? I can leave it outside and we don’t even have to see each other if you don’t want company.”

“I hate seeing you like this” or “I hate when you have bad days” –> “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day. I wish I could make it easier for you, but it’s totally okay to not be okay sometimes.”

Basically, by not making the person feel bad on their bad days, and showing up to listen, care, and just acknowledge their struggle, you’re removing the pressure for them to be okay all the time.

So here’s the point I want to make: I feel a ton of pressure to be better, and the fact that I’m not better makes me feel really guilty and ashamed sometimes. Actually, most of the time. Recovery (I hate that word) Progress is not linear, so extra good days don’t mean I won’t have extra bad days anymore. Dealing with mental illness doesn’t look like climbing a mountain – it looks a lot more like surfing. I’m working on accepting that being cured or better may not be a reality for me, and that’s okay. I’m becoming okay with it, and I need the people who love me to be okay with it too. It’s not something to be sad about, it’s just how it is. Some people will have depressive episodes and be okay later, and others won’t. Some people will have their anxiety virtually go away completely with the right therapy and meds and coping strategies, and others won’t. It’s okay. It’s okay to have a mental illness, it’s okay to have dealt with a mental illness at one point, it’s okay to struggle with your mental health before, now, or in the future. It’s okay, because we all struggle a bit, some of us more than others. Most of all, it’s okay because we can all love and support each other a bit more to ease that pain even just a tiny bit.

Keep Surviving by Living.

Suicidal Ideation is a Sprained Ankle

CW/TW: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation

People are scared to talk about suicide because it’s a scary thing to think about. And because the only time we talk about suicide is after we’ve lost someone from it. Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Chester Benningfield. Our suicide awareness and discussions come at the expense of being shocked enough to open our eyes.

We see suicide as a point-in-time event, like a strike of thunder or lightening, as opposed to considering it as a lengthy storm. We often hear people say that the attempt “came out of nowhere” and was completely unexpected, but that doesn’t make it true. Whether we could see the signs or not, suicide is often not an impulsive decision. People can be really careful to not show signs of what they’re thinking, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Therefore, if someone survives an attempt, we cannot treat it as a one-off.

When we talk about suicide when the person survives, IF we talk about it, we talk about how they made it through – how they survived and things will be better now. Surviving an attempt means life continues, but the hard work is after the attempt. Surviving an attempt doesn’t mean the pain that caused the attempt disappears. The hard work is rebuilding, or building from scratch, a life we can live. When we see people survive the suicide attempt in movies or TV, that’s the happy ending. It’s not. It’s just the beginning.  It’s what comes after the attempt that we need to lean in closer to, it’s how we all have to band around that person and make their experience a little better.

Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but this is how suicidal ideation is for me. Suicidal Ideation is like a sprained or broken ankle, or any big injury really. Have you ever broken a bone or had a bad fracture or sprain? And no matter how much physio you go to or how much you take care of it, it can still hurt sometimes? Maybe the weather changes and you feel that part ache a little more, or you work out too hard and the impact forces you to take a couple extra days of rest before working out again. Sometimes you have flare ups from sleeping funny or not resting enough, sometimes you get flare ups for no reason at all. For me, suicidal ideation is just that. It’s the sprained ankle that will never be the same. And you can still do all the things you did before, like run or play sports or do the things you love, but maybe you’re a little bit more careful. Maybe it’s the first thing to get triggered to indicate that you need a break. I have to be mindful of my “triggers” and take a bit of extra care to avoid flare ups, and avoid unnecessary pain.

What if we treated people who survive suicide attempts the way we treat people after an accident? What if instead of never talking about that “one dark time” that’s finally over, we talk to them about how rehab/therapy is going? What if we reassured them that it’s a process, and it takes time, and there are ups and downs to physio (or therapy)? If we normalized that and didn’t pressure them to be okay overnight? What if we accepted that they will need a brace or supports every now and again, maybe forever? And five or ten years down the road, when our friend complains of shoulder pain from that car accident they had that they were never quite the same after, we offer to hold their bag and slow down. Similarly, if our friend who survived a suicide attempt five or ten years ago mentions that they’ve been having some passive thoughts of suicide, what if after confirming they have no intent to act on it, you just offered to help take some of the weight off by listening?

People are so happy when they hear that I haven’t attempted in almost five years. It’s a great accomplishment, and I’m very grateful for my first, second, and third chances because life has been so worth it. But I can’t remember a time I didn’t have passive suicidal ideation. Passive, meaning I have no intent or plan to act on my thoughts, but they’re just floating around. Not strong thoughts of wanting to die, but fleeting thoughts of being okay with not being here. In my world, I can think about suicide, and not be suicidal. In Frank King’s TED Talks, he says “Let’s say my car breaks down. I have three choices: Get it fixed, get a new one, or I could just kill myself.” It’s so common for me, that I hardly notice it anymore, and of course in King’s example, it’s not the option he is going to go for (personally, I’m rooting for option 2 – new car), but as he says “it’s [suicide is] always on the menu.”

This is usually the part where people get scared and think this is very, very serious, and they’re not wrong because suicide is scary. It is scary. But the reason I’m telling you this is not to be scared, I’m telling you because we need to reframe the way we think of suicide as a single occurrence, and adjust to seeing it as a process. We need to make these conversations okay, because talking about it really, really helps. And if we respond to these conversations with rushing to a hospital or freaking out, we make it unsafe to talk about something big and scary.

Offer love. Offer compassion. Throw judgement out the window. Isn’t that what we should be doing when anyone talks to us about their mental health anyways?

As a caveat, I must add that if you or someone you love is experiencing ACTIVE suicidal thoughts, it’s important to help them get the help they need immediately. Remind them they are not alone.

  1. If it’s an emergency, call 911.
  2. For 24/7 phone support for you or a loved one, call 1-833-456-4566
  3. For youth (<20) texting support, text “TALK” for English and “TEXTO” for French to 686868

Suicide attempts occur in a fleeting moment, but the stuff that led to that moment, and the aftermath of it, is where we need to band together as a community and support each other. We can’t act like surviving an attempt gets rid of the problem, and that someone dying by suicide is always a complete shock.

Look out for your friends, check in with them, make sure they’re okay. And if you have a friend that has attempted, be on the lookout for warning signs, but also be there to listen to what got them there in the first place.

I’m not suicidal. But I experience suicidal ideation. Much more often than I wish I did, but I’m safe and I’m not going anywhere. And people like me shouldn’t have to feel this way alone because it’s scary or uncomfortable for others. It’s scary and uncomfortable for me too. It’s easier when we’re in it together. So just as you’d be there to support your friend with that pesky busted knee from hockey 6 years ago, be there to check in on the friend that “made it out of the woods”. Pause. Listen. Support.

Keep Surviving by Living.

 

 

Dear Past Me #BellLetsTalk

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.

(more…)

I had anxiety before I knew I had anxiety

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.

(more…)

A Year In Review – 2017

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.

THE GOOD

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

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.

THE UGLY

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.

The IMPACT Project: Kate Wallace

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.