Today, Canadians will gather as one to talk about mental illness – something that impacts so many of us. Even those of us who don’t know it, or don’t show it in an obvious fashion. Those who suffer the “invisible disease”, so to speak. We’ll talk about being there for each other, about supporting programs that help those impacted have more normal lives, about educating ourselves on how we can cope and how we can co-operate, and how we can end a stigma that, given how common and how life-impacting mental health issues are, really should not exist.
Tomorrow, some of us will keep talking. Some of us will move on. Some of us will hold the lessons learned and the experiences shared, and some will go on as if the previous day never happened. Some will keep fighting.
I’ll be heading to my doctor for an afternoon checkup, to talk about how I’ve been progressing through three months of medication.
My tipping point was shortly after my summer vacation. To say I needed to get away from the world at home was a bit of an understatement – I found myself constantly irritated, constantly down, unable to focus, unable to really be myself. I felt burnt out and overwhelmed, and I thought going as far away as I possibly could from home to a familiar place that still had friends and support, was my best option.
It helped – a lot. Two weeks in Vancouver and Victoria did me a lot of good – I was active, I made a point to fill in most of the landmarks that I’ve missed on previous trips, I saw lots of friends, ate lots of good food, and by and large kept myself away from social media – easier to do in the dog days of the offseason. It was great. I came home, I felt recharged, I felt like I had a plan, and I was ready to take on the world.
Within a week, it all came back feeling worse than ever, and that’s when I knew that it wasn’t burnout, and it was something much worse.
To be honest, all the warning signs should have been there a lot sooner, but for years, I’ve been ignoring all the advice that I’ve been giving out to others in similar situations. “I don’t have it as bad as other people, so I shouldn’t complain”, “this is circumstantial; something bad happened and once I push through that, I’ll be fine again”, “maybe this is a normal feeling, not the bottom, and I’m just too weak to get through the mundane”, “I was feeling better for a bit, so it can’t be actual mental illness”.
Had I heard that type of stuff from my friends and family, and I have, I would be the first to try to talk them through it – that their feelings weren’t fake, that they weren’t lesser for succumbing to them, and that if it feels like something where they’d like help, trying to get it wouldn’t be a bad idea, and that I’d be supportive every step of the way. But being on the other side is different – you don’t really have the confidence to talk about the important things firmly, you do feel like you’re the problem, you overthink everything, and you generally don’t take yourself seriously.
Looking back, the bad days of my teens, the stress stomach aches, the fear of putting myself of any sort of real-world podium, were probably signs of depression and anxiety at an early age. My push into good health at the beginning of my 20s probably helped combat it in some respects, the overload of new self-esteem masked what was left of it, and the workload I dove into in hopes of succeeding at a career I was essentially winging kept me distracted on the bad days. There wasn’t time to recognize fear or uncertainty. I spent quite some time talking myself up as someone who had beaten my demons, but in reality, I don’t know how much I did, as they were never addressed in the first place, and I was so devoted to chasing an image I hadn’t even finished designing yet.
Life in the past few years has dealt some harsh blows – deaths to family and friends, fallings out and fadings away of valued friendships, complications with work, and a growing uncertainty of whether I had chased the correct road in the years prior. While some good fortune would always keep me going, there seemed to always be something that got in the way, and it started chipping away.
I started spending more nights alone. I added a couple extra nights to the bar or drinks in the fridge to the menu; thankfully never to a point of routine, but often to a point where that night ended in sadness. I started stress eating, and gained back a decent chunk of the weight that I had lost (then lost it back. then gained it back again). I started worrying more and coming up with fewer solutions.
My mind ate away at itself instead of looking at what it could do next. It snowballed, and really made me a shell of myself, and a personality I wasn’t happy with. My hopelessness and irritability within myself came off in how I spoke to others – more frequent to bark back at those who were hostile to me, shorter and more dismissive to those who meant well. It fractured and broke friendships – and truthfully, I probably don’t deserve the people who stuck through it or came back around, because I could not have been pleasant to talk to on most nights.
Anyway, we’re back in Toronto. I’m more down than ever. I’m not looking to do anything drastic, but I’m at least open to the idea that I’m not just mad at current events and that something might actually be broken. I spend a couple late nights playing with self-evaluations for severe depression and anxiety and similar issues and find myself scoring results that are essential “you should be in front of your doctor, right now, not your computer”.
I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t making an unsensible decision first, so I talked to a couple of people – my mother primarily, but also some of my family and friends. With each conversation, it became obvious that I was making a decision I should’ve made a long time ago.
I sat down with my family doctor and we went through a bit of an evaluation that was similar to the ones I had done online. It didn’t take him long to come to the same conclusion; what I had long thought, dismissed, and thought again to be severe depression and anxiety was… severe depression and anxiety.
Actually, I’ll roll this back – I had to do a couple of things first beforehand. To give you an idea of just how stubborn I am about taking care of myself, I went in with my vintage red-and-white health card, got told to come back the next day with a new temporary one, got said new one, came in, talked to my doctor, got told it had been so long since I had an actual appointment there that there was no digital data on my file any more, got scheduled for a physical, came back to do the physical, and then had the discussion on next steps after we made sure I wasn’t actually just deathly ill (as it turns out, minus the weight gain of sadness, I’m in spectacular physical health).
Then he prescribed a trial run of escitalopram, which he figured would help with some of my internal feelings. The first few days were rocky – I had to get over the fact that I hadn’t successfully swallowed pills since I was a kid, and I also immediately suffered a cold, which had the effect of making me unsure if I was suffering side effects, and also getting extremely disoriented after having my pill with DayQuil (I am a soup and tea by day, NyQuil by night man). Two weeks later, I was pretty sure that things were going well on the side-effect front, and we went to a full dosage.
So far, I’d say it’s helped a lot. Anti-depressants don’t cure depression and anxiety, nor do they eliminate it. Bad days and bad moments still exist. The way I like to describe it is that it’s a buffer or a dialog box for my brain – it buys me a moment to make a better decision for my mind, or to process things in a more positive way. It also seems to have made an already bad sleeping schedule worse – it’s been a while since I’ve had a truly good snooze, but that’s something I’m working on improving (you may have seen me wired up for a test recently).
It’s also helped a lot with motivation – hence why, while I’m not at the full-on, 24/7/365 pace that I have been in the past just yet, I’ve been more active with my ideas, with my writing, with my projects of late. It’s made doing so easier, though I’ve still got a road to climb. It tweaks my list of problems I can and can’t fix, and battles I can and can’t win in a more positive, helpful-to-life direction. It’s also given me the awareness that I don’t have to chase Everest every time – it’s becoming easier to tell myself to take a break or walk away when I need to, to ignore something that would otherwise consume me, and to not try to find a solution for every problem.
Having my friends and family around has helped too. Most are very supportive, and having this confirmation has made it easier for me to talk about it without feeling like I’m incorrectly self-labelling. It also creates a dialogue that you’d never expect of others; those who are dealing with their own battles quietly, or those willing to open up a bit more when there’s a mutual understanding, benefitting the both of you.
It would be awesome if this post wrapped up with some sort of miraculous, fairytale ending, where everything became okay and all my dreams came true and the whole world was sunshine and lollypops. That is not how this ends – I’ve still got dreams to chase, I have things to move past and grow from, I have bridges that I burned in masked and/or defeated states to mend, and I still have some growing up to do in a few other facets of my life. I’d also like to make a few more proactive steps beyond just medication; I’ve been reading a fair bit about what I can do for myself and following through when I can, but at some point down the line (particularly from a fiscal standpoint – as today reminds us, we should probably be funding these things more) it’d probably be good to look at some professional aids & solutions as well.
But since recognizing that I could head my own prior advice and take steps to fight my own internal darknesses, light has shown up again. It’s not always there, but it’s increasingly present and it’s illuminating pathways that I lost sight of over the years. I need to pick up some of the things I dropped behind me and venture down those paths, but the important thing is that they’re visible and I feel more capable of making that stroll.
Since most are covering the topics of funding, awareness, and reaching out, I’m posting this on the off chance that someone feels that they might be suffering from some form of mental illness, but doesn’t feel that it’s worth looking into. Honestly, I wonder how different my life could have been had I addressed things at many key checkpoints; earlier this year when negative feelings became overwhelming, two years ago when life events started to drag me into deep struggles, five or six years ago when I overcompensated to make myself feel “over” my issues, or in my youth where they first became evident.
If that feels like you at all, don’t be shy to reach out. Start with a close friend or a family member if you have to. Talk to someone you know who has dealt with similar if they’re comfortable with doing so. You’d be surprised how many people can emphasize via experience, or at least are willing to listen and help. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to take your battle on once there’s clarity of existence.
Mostly, you’d be surprised in how strong you can become once you realize that your resources give you a proverbial sword, armour, and an army at your disposal. With a little luck, that first step will get you back on the path to taking on the world.---
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