Jan. 29, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - Yesterday was Bell’s Let’s Talk day and today I’ve got something to talk about: living with depression, anxiety and PTSD, and – the icing on the cake – a social anxiety disorder, as if the first three weren’t enough.
In January of last year I was two months into a four-month leave from work. I had been evaluated by my family doctor, a therapist, a psych nurse, and a psychiatrist, and diagnosed with the above four mental-health issues.
Despite my initial refusal of anti-depressants, (I didn’t want to be one of those people) I eventually conceded when I realized that these challenges weren’t something I could simply will myself to get over. With the proper treatment, which, for me, was the combination of the medication and regular visits with a therapist who specialized in trauma counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, I am happy to report that I am healthy (mentally, emotionally, and physically, aside from an extra pound or two around the saddle-bag area) and off the medication completely.
And I’ve done it in less than a year.
The psychiatrist had told me that I may need to be on the medication for anywhere from two years to the rest of my life. I didn’t like hearing that and I’m glad that I was able to prove her wrong.
My problems originated with childhood trauma that occurred when I was about 10 years old, and I never told anyone. I suppressed the memories and emotions deeply enough that I didn’t think it was an issue, but I also never felt secure or confident in myself because of those early experiences. It’s kind of like having a program running in the background on your computer that you don’t realize is there, and it causes things to be a little sketchy and results in you misinterpreting things, such as your most important life experiences.
I was under some stress at work, quite likely nothing out of the ordinary for a well-adjusted individual, but well adjusted, I wasn’t. I felt like I could barely keep my head above water, day in and day out. I began to have trouble sleeping, I withdrew (heck I was in downright hermit mode), I had trouble focusing at work, I couldn’t concentrate, I was on edge all of the time, couldn’t relax, and thought everyone saw me as a failure. I’m not sure how obvious it was to my coworkers that I was about to shatter, but I’m sure if people could tell I was stressed, they had no idea how deeply fractured I truly was. I didn’t even know.
Along with the time off work, I had to take a leave from the fire department. It made sense. I mean, who needs a could-possibly-shatter-at-any-moment firefighter trying to help other people? How much of a calming effect would I have on a patient if I’m about to have a meltdown and suddenly put the oxygen on myself? Or if I’m trying to help extricate someone and suddenly decide, like Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun, “It’s no good. Can’t do it. I’m buggin’ out and going home.” Sounds like scenes from a comedy, and I can poke fun at myself now, but only because I’ve been through it.
The truth is, mental health is serious stuff.
Depression is the absence of feeling a connection to anything that matters in your life. My husband once asked me, “What’s wrong, what’s worrying you?” and I replied, “That’s just it, you don’t get it, it’s not any one thing that’s bothering me, it’s everything. Everything feels wrong. Nothing feels right.”
I also told him that it’s not something that people can ever understand if they haven’t gone through it themselves. No matter how much your loved ones love you, the seemingly never-ending torment and inner turmoil is incomprehensible to them.
My social anxiety had me avoiding any and all social gatherings, whether formal or informal. It was all I could do to go to the fire hall on training nights before I had gone on leave – and those were people I knew well and was comfortable being around. It was just such an overwhelming feeling of wanting to implode and disappear that the only relief was to stay home and avoid being social. We missed a lot of Christmas parties that year. I don’t know what excuse my husband gave as he declined invitation after invitation, but he seemed to understand that it simply was not something I could deal with at the time and didn’t push it. Perhaps it was my head spinning around and the flames shooting out of my nostrils that made him decide not to push the issue.
The general anxiety was always triggered by one thing – my thoughts. Trust me, anxiety attacks are real and create serious physiological reactions in the body, which just increase the whole panic experience. I had shortness of breath, weakness, restlessness and panic, all caused by negative, fearful thoughts. I was at home one day doing Pilates and thinking about returning to work and had some stressful thoughts. Before I knew it, I was unable to follow a routine that I’d done several times. I got angry at myself, and then at the Pilates instructor on the DVD, as if she had changed the routine. Then it snowballed into not only being unable to concentrate on the Pilates, I couldn’t focus on anything. I was almost hyperventilating and in tears. I ended up calling a friend, who talked me down because he has been through it and knew what to say.
It was a big wake-up call for me because the incident was a clear example of how our thoughts affect our emotions and our bodies. There was no one else here and no other reason for the anxiety attack to happen. The only cause was the negative and fearful thoughts I was having at the time, because quite honestly, I was worried about returning to work – and it was more than a month away at the time. Powerful lesson to learn.
However, for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, the ability to reason and make sound judgements in the midst of an attack is simply not available. If you take anything away from this blog, let it be that: our brains do not function the way a “healthy” brain functions during an anxiety attack, or when suffering with depression. Which is why there is such a stigma surrounding mental health issues. It is not a “just-suck-it-up” thing.
Facing your mental-health issues, whatever the demons in your closet, takes one heck of a lot of courage and strength. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone and everyone who is or has battled mental-health issues, because fighting for your sanity is a brutal battle to have to do through. And, for most of us, all of this is always in the back of our minds even after we’ve “recovered,” because if we don’t take care of ourselves, we will fall off that wagon for sure.
People just don’t understand what the afflicted go through, and that’s why I’m talking about it now – to help bring awareness and understanding to the issue because I have been there and I know exactly how it feels.
I’m also in a much better place now – I’ve been back to work and the fire department since last March, and I’ve been doing a second job covering for a colleague since November. If I can go from where I was to where I am now, then there's hope for others too.
I want to help others because the worst feeling in the world is thinking that you’re alone and no one understands. But I do.
Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @georgianbayjen