It’s CMHA Mental Health Week, and they’re encouraging us to Get Loud to improve mental health awareness. Some 33.1% of Canadians 15 or older will have a mental or substance use disorder in their lifetime, so this affects everyone. If you’re not the almost third of Canadians it directly affects, then you likely know and love someone afflicted. For something so ubiquitous in our society, we talk about it as often, and with as much understanding, as we do the 90’s boy band LFO. (I mean, really—what was happening there?). Recently there has been a groundswell of increased vocal support for bringing mental illness out of the shadows and into the open. Campaigns such as Bell’s Let’s Talk, and the #CHHSLetsTalk media campaign have attracted attention. I Will Survive is a Calgary organization committed to removing the silence and stigma surrounding mental illness. My husband and I had the opportunity to go with Ashton from FeelGood to the Music 4 Life Art Showcase organized by I Will Survive. The speakers we saw inspired me. Joy Pavelich, who lost her son to suicide, and Greg Duhaney, who, in detail, described the progression of his brother’s illness that led to his suicide touched me. Steve Leong from I Will Survive laments that,
If someone we’re close to gets an illness like cancer, diabetes or heart disease, naturally as friends and family we want to give them as much love and support we can to help them get better. However, if someone gets a mental illness a lot of the time it’s treated differently. We may not know what to say or do … But from what we know about mental illnesses, the brain, the mind, human physiology we know that mental illness should be treated the same as any other illness.
But it isn’t. I Will Survive attributes a lot of this to the stigma surrounding mental illness and a lack of understanding about it. I would also add that I think this ignorance contributes to a perceived moral component to mental illness. If you don’t know or understand what it is like to suffer from mental illness, you could assume it’s a character and not biological deficit that keeps people who look well from fully participating in society. That’s a very attractive and convenient way to look at it for people without mental illness, putting distance between themselves and something frightening while making sense of the random nature of the universe. If they deserve what they get, and I don’t have those moral failings, it won’t happen to me.
But as comforting as that would be if it were true, it just isn’t. And pretending that it is only serves to isolate further those whom we should support. At Music 4 Life we were encouraged to tell our stories—the more people talk about mental illness, the more people will understand. And seeing Ashton go on to tell his story made me realize it’s probably time for me to do the same. It’s all well and good to talk about treating mental illness like any other biological illness, but if I keep my own experience in the dark I suppose I’m not really walking the walk.
So: I have dealt with depression and anxiety with varying degrees of severity since junior high school. It may be difficult to tell a mood disorder from general adolescent dickishness (technical term), but I had the physical symptoms of anxiety without knowing what it was. I would be ill; have stomach and headache complaints that were always worse in the morning and improved at the end of the day. This change was because I was anxious about going to school, and when I removed the trigger for my anxiety (i.e. not going to school), the symptoms dissipated. So it truly seemed like I was “faking it” to get out of school—a moral judgment—and not suffering from legitimate physical manifestations of mental illness. And I internalized that attitude for a long time. I can’t get out of bed because I’m lazy, I’m irritable because I hate people and think they should all shut up forever. None of these statements is true, but that is what I believed and what made the most sense to me. But nothing I did made any difference, I could not willpower my way out of it, and that was frustrating. And it only reinforced my low opinion of myself.
Now I know what you’re saying—how can someone so arrogant have such a low opinion of herself? Well, two things: firstly, I’m in remission now so I don’t really have that low self-esteem problem anymore. Secondly, my robust self-confidence may have been a constructed persona to keep people from finding out what I felt was my true inadequacy. Whatever, either way—I’m still awesome.
But I certainly didn’t feel awesome a lot of the time. When I moved away from home to take dental hygiene in Edmonton, my life became much more stressful, and, therefore my symptoms grew much worse. I started having panic attacks; I missed a lot of my classes. A lot. And that’s just not possible in the dental hygiene program. You have to be there physically to practice the skills you are learning in clinic; you have to be there for all the labs and classes, and there are only forty of you, so it’s obvious when you’re not there. It further isolated me from my classmates, because I couldn’t/wouldn’t tell them why I was absent.
It did force me to acknowledge what was happening because I needed a doctor’s note to explain my absences. Finally, I had a diagnosis that made sense—anxiety and depression—not random idiopathic stomach and heart disorder, which was my self-diagnosis. And I’d like to say my treatment was straightforward from there, but it certainly was not. I tried everything. Supplements, exercise, antidepressants, sleeping pills, psychologist, psychiatrist. It took years to get to a place in my life where I could handle daily life without struggle. And I thought that was remission. Sure, I still felt like I was underwater—but I thought life was just really hard. All the time. And that’s just how it is. I put all of my energy into making it to work and being pleasant with my patients, and I had nothing left for my family and friends. Nothing except sarcasm, sass, anger, no-shows, and something called rejection sensitivity. I didn’t know this was anything but Jan Brady syndrome, and I attributed it to being a middle child. I felt like everyone hated me, I was irritable, and I became overly upset when I perceived rejection.
I know what you’re thinking—“wow, she does sound awesome.” But since I could make it to work, and I was no longer having panic attacks, I thought I had everything sewn up. I thought I was just an irritable person. Life is just that hard. It wasn’t until after my first marriage unraveled and I had to go back to the psychologist for help to cope with the grief that I discovered the extent of my denial about the severity of my illness. It was right up there with thinking Elton John was straight in the ‘70s: ridiculous to think of now, but seemed reasonable at the time. A combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy truly made the difference for me. I wouldn’t be here without it, truly.
Now I’m in no way telling my story to get sympathy. My life is awesome. I have lost a lot of friends and went through a terribly sad divorce, but I’m still here. I’m telling my story to brag about how lucky I am: lucky that my depression and anxiety responded to medication, that my family didn’t give up on me, that the bathroom door was forced open in time, that the U of A has such good support for mentally ill students, that I had the chance to move on with my life. I have a charming and talented husband who gets my sense of humor (mostly Futurama quotes and innuendo) and the greatest baby of all time (an objective fact that is in no way a biased opinion).
But why do my parents get to see my second act, why do they get to see their daughter happy with the greatest grandchild the world has ever seen (completely true fact), when so many others don’t? Is it because I’ve worked so hard? It would be comforting to think so, but it seems unlikely to me. I didn’t want to be healthy any more than the millions of other sufferers of mental illness. Getting back to Steve Leong’s point: if we treat mental illness as a physiological condition, we know that people are different. And their depression is different. One medication will work for one person and it won’t for another, it doesn’t mean there is a discrepancy in attitude or work ethic. It’s not about morality or desert. I’m not here because I deserve it any more than countless others, and they are not absent because they were weaker than me. Suicide is not a moral failing, but the individual succumbing to the disease.
Of course attitude can play a major role in an individual’s recovery, but it doesn’t account for everything, and we would certainly not blame someone who died of cancer for giving up. (I mean, we shouldn’t, and if you do that—please stop). Removing the stigma of mental illness is about as daunting a task as avoiding the Kardashians (they’re everywhere, people!), but it’s just as important for a healthy society. Really, a lot of it is about giving people the benefit of the doubt and the empathy we would extend if they had any other kind of illness. Pretty much all we need to know we learned in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “be excellent to each other.”