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.