On getting help for medical issues.

I am no stranger to mental health issues, nor am I a stranger to physical health issues. Throughout my life I have dealt with asthma, allergies, chronic breathing issues, iron-deficiency anemia several times, kidney infections etc. I’ve also dealt with severe depression, social anxiety, separation anxiety, self-harm, suicide attempts, and have a strong family history of mental illness.

Today I saw a doctor about my depression. I’ve been dealing with it on and off for the last two years, but it’s been consistent for the last few months and has worsened in the last several weeks. I toyed with the idea of seeing a doctor for a long time, but consistently brushed it off. I would tell myself “oh you’re just upset, it isn’t depression”, “you’re wasting their time”, “they’re going to laugh at you” etc. Part of dealing with both depression and anxiety means you want to get help to feel better, but your anxiety makes you feel like more of a burden for going to a medical professional. It’s a vicious cycle and the only outcome of it is untreated mental illness.

When it comes to bouts of depression, I very easily brush it off as non-important and a waste of people’s time to even discuss it. Alternatively, when it comes to a re-current physical health issue, such as breathing problems and suspected iron deficiency, I am very cognizant of it and will get help as soon as I notice it is not getting better. I am much more aware of problems with my physical health than with my mental health, though I arguably have a much stronger history of severe illness when it comes to mental health.

Why is that? One might think that someone who has struggled so profoundly with mental illness and who has such a strong history of mental illness would be more aware of it and willing to get help when needed. Mental health is still seen by many as a weakness of character and young people have not experienced enough hardship to truly have major depressive disorder. If I have that attitude myself, I would think it is much more prevalent in professionals and the general public. But here’s the bottom line: if you wouldn’t wait until your physical health was in a dire state of emergency before seeing a doctor, why would you do that to your mental health? Treatments aren’t reserved for those struggling with self-injury and on the brink of suicide. You deserve treatment, your life and well-being is worth it.

Killer Infamy – a reflection

In the last five years, news has broken about three different mass shootings that individually broke records. Sandy Hook, 2012: worst school massacre. Orlando Pulse, 2016: worst massacre and deadliest terrorist attack  on American soil since 9/11. Las Vegas, 2017: worst mass shooting in modern American history. Although countless others have occurred in my lifetime: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Taber Shooting, Aurora, Isla Vista, three major ones have occurred only within the last five years, with the last two dubbed “most deadly mass shootings” occurring only one year apart from one another. After each massacre, we come together for a temporary collective mourning and exchange of “thoughts and prayers” and fight over gun control and whether or not a tragedy should be politicized. We talk about the victims in the days following their tragic death, but discuss the killer for a much longer period of time and plaster their names and faces over media outlets. It begs a question: why do we indulge in the same routine when we’ve witnessed the ineffectiveness time and time again?

To draw a quote from the novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’: “In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable. Hence I am no longer surprised by the frequency of public rampages with loaded automatics but by the fact every ambitious citizen in America is not atop a shopping centre looped with refills of ammunition.” I read that passage a day after the Las Vegas shooting and it struck a chord with me with the blunt accuracy.

Of the massacres I’ve mentioned, how many of the perpetrators can you name? Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are all household names – we recognize them nearly instantly, recognize their faces, and are familiar with their stories. But how many of us recognize the names of John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Daniel Mauser or Grace McDonnell? How many of us can name any of the victims of these senseless crimes?

After a massacre, we broadcast the name and face of the perpetrator for years, long after the names and memories of their victims have washed away from our collective memory. We grant these people infamy. When they set out to commit “a bombing to rival Oklahoma city”, “Columbine part 2”, or “the deadliest shooting in American history” we grant them that title. Their names and legacy stick with us for much, much longer than the names of their victims.

If we want to address the intricate reasons as to why these massacres continue, we have to come to terms with how we contribute to the cycle of perpetuated violence. We need to make a conscious effort to remember the victims, learn their stories, their legacies, and not let their deaths be in vain. We need to stop mentioning the names of the killers and broadcasting their faces. It’s entirely reasonable, and expected, for attempts at psychiatric evaluations of these individuals, but that process doesn’t include broadcasting their names and faces in mass. We need to stop “score-keeping” tragedies. When it comes to people that kill for infamy, the nobodies that wanted to leave a legacy through the most horrific means imaginable, we need to deny it to them. When it comes to people that kill for recognition of themselves and their senseless bloodshed, we cannot keep granting them that recognition. If we can address how we, as a society, react to these massacres and address the issue of infamy, we can perhaps stop one contributing factor as to why these massacres occur.

tomorrow holds such better days.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is an initiative to provoke conversation and awareness about mental health, encourage people to get the help they  both need and deserve, and to reduce the stigma around mental health and treatment. For many, it’s a time of year where mental illness is at the fore-front of our collective attention, and then it slowly seeps into the recesses of our minds and we become preoccupied by other events and more pressing matters. For others like myself, it’s an opportunity to speak vocally about something that affects our life on a daily basis and to to express our thoughts on mental health that stick in our minds year-round.

The first time I heard about mental illness, it had already changed my life forever. I was ten years old and being told about brain health as a reason to explain my father’s death. I was unaware of it as a young child, but my parents had struggled with their mental health for decades. My Dad had battled depression since the late ’80s after his father died, and my mother experienced postpartum depression in her pregnancy with me which persisted throughout my childhood. They were both unhappy while persisting throughout their lives trying to make the best of the situation they didn’t want to be in while giving my sister and I the best life they could. I didn’t realize until I was much older how much their struggles bled into my life and how it affected by home life. I only became aware of their struggles after it had consumed my father and stopped him from living the life he deserved.

After his death, I experienced separation anxiety. I would cry every time my mom left the house and would stay up staring out the window to watch when she would come back, and would panic if she wasn’t home precisely when she said she’d be and I would experience ruminative thoughts that she was dead, too. Since my Dad was the oldest of my family, I thought my mom and sister would soon die next, and I’d be left alone. I was seeing multiple therapists and taking anti-anxiety medication by the time I was 11 years old.

In high school, I experienced major depression. It started very suddenly and seemed as though it would never end. I came home from school and slept in complete darkness until the next morning before I had to go to school again. I took my anger out on people, then was filled with overwhelming regret about it and tried to remedy it by not talking to them anymore. I alienated the people who were there for me and caused major riffs in friendships I value more than anything. It was a period of my life filled with all-consuming and overwhelming self-hatred, hopelessness, a distain for everything I had enjoyed and self-harm. I made an appointment to see my doctor after I had decided this wasn’t going away, and I was checked for hypothyroidism and iron deficiency. As it turns out, I was severely anemic; my iron levels were 4.0 g/dL when the normal range is 12.0 – 15.5 g/dL. It was refreshing for my mental and emotional state to be validated by a physical cause. Although my mental illness was in my head, it wasn’t just in my head – there was a reason for it. I was prescribed four medications as a result of that doctors visit: iron, folate, birth control and celexa. Despite how much my anemia was improving over the following weeks and months, my mental state plummeted. My antidepressants had no effect aside from causing a constant state of nausea, and a month after being diagnosed with clinical depression I began to cut myself. That resulted in being hospitalized on suicide watch for two weeks and missing a month of school. Despite the therapists and psychiatrists and I was seeing in the hospital, it didn’t do much to help me. Upon being discharged, I continued to cut myself and attempted suicide two and a half months later. I overdosed on forty iron pills, five pills of trazodone, and fifty-five celexa pills. I tried to fall asleep afterwards, and was woken up by the most horrifying feeling I can only describe as ‘internal coldness’ – I was frozen but my skin was burning to the touch. I managed to fall asleep again, and woke up again a few hours later puking. At this point I became terrified of death and told my mom what I had done and was rushed to the hospital. Once I got there, I remember drinking a glass of charcoal and then becoming unconscious. I woke up around twelve hours later in a different room – I was wearing a hospital gown, my clothes had been taken away and I didn’t know where they were, I had an IV drip in my arm, an ECG on my chest, and bruises on my arm and the back from my hand from where they had taken blood the night before. I was transferred to another room intended for longer stay a few hours later. Two nurses had to help me stand up and had to help me walk through the halls until we reached the room. I wasn’t there for long before a doctor came in and transferred me to the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton for a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist came and spoke to me, evaluated me as not being high-risk and sent me home. Despite that evaluation, I was still very depressed, took other antidepressants and increased my dose several times, and continued to go to therapy. It wasn’t until a year after my suicide attempt, just short of beginning University, that I got better.

The point of all this is to illustrate that mental illness has the potential to affect your life in ways you might not expect it to. It affects your personal life with friends and family, your physical health, your work life and academic performance. Many people who’ve experienced mental illness since early childhood think they aren’t deserving of help because that’s just their personality. Don’t presume that you aren’t important or significant enough to get help, that you shouldn’t since it’s not as bad as someone else’s experience with depression, or that you’re just moody and it’s a phase everyone goes through. Everyone can get depressed, not everyone has depression; everyone can get anxious, not everyone has anxiety. Mental illness isn’t a typical aspect of life everyone should just expect to endure at one point or another. If someone in your life is experiencing a mental illness, read up on it and educate yourself on ways to help them. Although they may not be cognizant of the degree their illness is affecting you, or unable to express their regret for causing you harm, it’s an unintended side effect and they still need your support. Everyone is deserving of help, and it’s out there. It’s not easy to seek it out, but you deserve to get it to live your best life.

Oh no, love, you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself, but you’re too unfair
You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care
Oh no, love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone 

David Bowie – Rock and Roll Suicide