Let’s talk about mental health. Part Two.

Just want to say a quick THANK YOU to everyone who read the 1st part of my story. The feedback has been incredible, and I’m so grateful for the support in talking about this journey.

In case you missed the beginning: Let’s talk about mental health. Part One.

So we left off just as my second year of university was starting.


Second year was another terrific one in terms of academics. I had my first 100%’s in university, and felt like I had (finally) started hitting my academic groove. I realized that I had a knack and passion for statistics (yeah, weird… I know).

I travelled to Halifax that fall to write my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). I figured that if medicine was my goal, I should write this year as a practice for the one that would “count”. I surprised myself by achieving a score that would have been more than sufficient to use in application to medical school. That was definitely a confidence boost!

I also met a friend, who was in most of my classes, to chat with during down time. That provided a nice boost of social interaction through the long, and busy, days on campus. I did notice something shifting towards trouble on the personal side though.

As someone who is fascinated by medicine, I have (unfortunately) always had a thing about “germs” and getting sick… which is not reasonable conducive in many ways to practicing medicine. I became fixated on things like hand washing, avoiding contact with those who were “sick” in my mind (i.e. coughing/sneezing/etc in class). It spilled into home life too as I created routines to help minimize my “exposure”.

My always analytical, black/white, detail-focused, and routine-driven brain went to an even further extreme. It really came to a point when my family was sick, and I would just stay in my room as much as possible to avoid “exposure”. The process for me entering and exiting my self-created “clean” space (my room) was:

  1. Go into my room.
  2. Shut the (sliding) door using the handle.
  3. Wash my hands.
  4. Get changed into my room-only clothes.
  5. Wash my hands again.
  6. Avoid touching anything from the outside… with 2 variations:
    1. Avoid the use of my phone, computer, school stuff… anything that was “contaminated”. Use only things that had been in my room and not used by others.
    2. Use the above items but ensure to sanitize the areas they touched thoroughly after use. I would also wear different sweaters/tops to make sure that if they touched the items they wouldn’t keep touching the clean environment after finishing with the “contaminated” stuff. Also, I would wash my hands again.
  7. Wash my hands before I leave the room, and ensure to not use the handle of the door because it was contaminated from entering… why contaminate the handle at first? Because if anyone had been in my room that’s what they would have used with their “dirty” hands”.

I know. It’s exhausting to even think about now. But that was my way of creating limits, control, and knowns in my life.

I knew it wasn’t normal, healthy, or even realistic… but I couldn’t stop. I would create rules upon rules that I HAD to abide by. I figured that at least using my rules would help stop the tormenting thought processes in my head pointing out the negative in everything… but they didn’t. The constant stream of awful “what ifs” and “this leads to this… leads to this… etc.” was always there, and never gave me peace.

I had also been dealt a blow on the mental healthcare side: the counsellor, with whom I had finally established a working therapeutic relationship, left to work for another university. So there I was again, without a resource for help. I tried going to see the replacement counsellor and the other counsellor on campus, but neither were good fits for me. They saw a highly intelligent and highly functioning person (at least for that 30 minutes in consultation). I didn’t feel comfortable diving right into my most recent extreme habits/compulsions… and tried to get them to read my notes from the previous counsellor to help them see the severity of my situation… but in the end they just re-assured me that I was coping well and to come back if anything really got out of hand. Thanks.

I decided to make another effort to reach out to the counsellors later that year. It didn’t work, but oddly  interestingly I found out about a student job through Counselling Services. They were looking for a student to create and maintain social media platforms for the school’s Student Services, create and display informational exhibits on improving mental health issues, and run awareness events on campus. Sign me up: work independently, learn more about psychology, and get paid. Perfect. I was hired on the spot.

I still can’t believe the irony… Anyway….

I finished the year in a decent way. But another big change was coming: my only friend at school was taking mostly different courses from me in the fall… and would be going on an exchange to England for the rest of the year after that.


The summer went reasonably well… all things considered, I guess. I wasn’t functioning on a terrific level in terms of my phobias, anxiety, or depression… but I was keeping my head above water and trying to use the coping skills I had.

The end of the summer came with a new challenge: a pilonidal cyst. I will spare you the details, but just know that it was a VERY painful cyst that became infected on my tailbone. And I needed it to be excised (lanced). The week before classes started. Awesome.


Third year was off to an OK start. Academics were still going pretty well, but I was yet again struggling with the lack of connection and support system in that environment. Not to mention the complete lack of structure. I had a really hard time coping with people having colds that fall and winter… and found that some days I couldn’t even bring myself to go to class because I knew that I would have to sit in rooms with people who were contagious. I spent a lot of  time in an isolated corner of a fairly quiet building working on my courses alone.

I was back working with the Counselling Team as the Student Mental Health Advocate. And still shaking my head at the hypocrisy of educating everyone around me on the very issues I couldn’t even cope with myself.

I knew I was struggling in many ways. My low moods and lack of energy were crippling. My anxiety and phobias were causing constant mental fatigue and frequent panic attacks. And my obsessive thought patterns and behaviours… they were still a daily struggle to cope with. 

Christmas break finally came. Just as the holidays were winding down I found out that I had a date scheduled for permanent surgical repair on my cyst area… for the first week of February.

I decided to go for the surgery. “Two weeks and you’ll be back to normal” was what I had been told, so nothing I couldn’t work with… or so I thought. The thought of having another infection requiring emergency excision without freezing (freezing doesn’t take in infected tissue) just wasn’t something I could have looming. As the term started I was in communication with my profs about my impending surgery and time out from class. They were (mostly) very helpful and accommodating, and I just kept telling myself that it would be doable.

I went for surgery the first week of February and ended up facing a gruelling recovery. As the weeks passed, and I continued to be out of commission. 

The down time lead me to realized that I was not going to achieve what I wanted through Sciences. I realized that medical school was not going to be a good fit for me in terms of lifestyle or timeline. I realized how much I wanted a family and to build a healthy life. I also knew that other grad school programs weren’t a good answer. So I started researching.


Spring started the snowball of HUGE changes in my life. All for the better.

Sometime in March I made a call (sobbing) to the registrar’s office to withdraw from my term. I still couldn’t sit, let alone sit all day in class. I knew, deep down, that I wouldn’t be returning in the fall either. I looked at my options and decided I wanted to try something that I knew would build my confidence. I decided: Medical Office Administration.

I had worked in that type of position before, but wouldn’t have been able to work in the hospital system because of my lack of credentials. I wanted a secure job with upward mobility. And more than anything, I wanted to start “real life”. And to make it a healthy one. 

I finally built up the courage to start talking to my parents about the whole story of my mental illness… and I finally let them in on the scope of my distress. They were incredibly supportive and loving, and helped me find the strength to try reaching out for help again.

I went to see my family physician, and brought my Mom with me as back-up to my voice. I wanted to make sure that my issues were being heard and being taken seriously. I also needed a source of strength with me to stick to my plan. He immediately started me on medication, something I had avoided asking about for years.

He also referred me to a psychiatrist. It took an unreasonable amount of time to get in… but I did eventually get to see him. I finally had answers:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Attacks.
Major Depressive Disorder.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

As scary as they sound, at least now I knew that it wasn’t just me not being able to cope. These were real, and treatable, glitches in my brain.  I will say…  it felt incredibly re-assuring and comforting to finally be heard… and for someone to validate that my situation wasn’t OK. And most importantly: that it could be helped.

Medication was step one, and step two was a referral to a psychologist. Gulp.
He assured me that this would be a good fit, and that there was only one practitioner he would recommend… so on to the waitlist for her I went.


While waiting to see the psychologist, I did notice HUGE changes with the addition of medication. I began feeling my mood and energy being lifted, and I could feel some of the anxiety ebbing for periods of time. At the very least, my quality of life started improving… for the first time in a LONG time.

The increased energy helped me get into a routine of physical exercise that helped boost my mood even further. I started weight training for the first time, and felt better than I ever had as an adult.

I started psychotherapy in the very early summer of 2015. I ended up in a wonderful therapeutic relationship, and with a psychologist who was an excellent fit for me. She helped me challenge myself, and she saw how to help me work with my knowledgable-but-stubborn brain. I did things in the mid-summer that would have been impossible even two months earlier… like eat at a buffet wedding without washing my hands after serving the food. Sounds silly, but it was INCREDIBLE to have that kind of freedom again!


 So the next BIG step was school that fall. I had been accepted into a Medical Office Administration program about an hour and half away from home. I would be moving… and living alone. This was both thrilling and scary…


I’m going to end here… I still have a lot to say. I want to tell you the exciting, and pretty astonishing, end of my journey (well, to today anyway!) tomorrow.

Again: Please be open and kind to those around you, and know that you are never alone. Mental health issues are all around us, and are not something to be ashamed of.

All my love, and lots of positive thoughts, to you!

Jenn

Let’s talk about mental health. Part One.

Hello! Yes… I’m still here! It’s been an exciting and eventful month and a half, but we’ll get to that soon. Today I want to have a talk. I suppose it’s a one-way talk, but I’d like to at least put my part towards the larger conversation.


Today, in Canada, is Bell Let’s Talk Day. It’s been an annual event to raise awareness and understanding of mental health issues. Despite being a HUGE part of our overall wellness, mental health struggles/illnesses are still regarded with fear, denial, stigma, and elicit many stereotypes.

This is NOT something we should allow to continue. Here’s the thing… mental illness is INCREDIBLY common. Depending on your source the stats can vary, but here’s the scariest part: they still won’t be accurate. Why? Because this is still an aspect of health that people AVOID talking about and seeking help for.

This needs to change. Right now.
How will it change? By talking. It’s truly that simple.

I’ve made mention in previous posts about having struggled with my mental health. I’ve never taken a full dive into it, but today I want to share my story. At the very least, this will allow me to practice what I preach in terms of being open and honest about mental health and wellness!

(Just a note: I know that this post will be long, and a little disjointed, but I’m trying to be honest about my experience.)


My Journey to Mental Health and Acceptance: Part One.

I want to start by saying that I truly had a wonderful childhood. I had two loving, supportive, and generous parents. I had an incredible younger brother, who was my best friend. Our family certainly had some big things to contend with (family illnesses, in particular)… but we tackled everything as a cohesive team (still do today). I have so many amazing memories of my family life as a kid. Trips. Hikes. Lazy days…. so many incredible things.

My parents will emphatically openly tell you that I’ve always been a RULE LOVER. It’s a running joke that I’ve been on their case since elementary school about them having too few rules (seriously!). My personality has always been Type A and perfectionistic; and both can be remarkably wonderful traits… if not allowed to rule your thought processes and life.

At some point though, that’s what happened. My thought process lost all flexibility, optimism, and ambiguity; my world morphed into black + white only. No gray, no ifs, no maybes, no sortas. I can’t actually pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it was definitely early on in life.

To add to the situation, I was bullied in middle school. I realize that this is not a unique situation, and unfortunately I was an “easy target”. I was outrageously tall for my age (despite having stopped growing by then), early to “develop”, a nerd, a know-it-all, a ballet dancer (before it was cool), a classical music lover, and an unapologetic bookworm. It got so bad that I remember pleading with my parents to home-school me the summer after grade seven.

I was referred, through the healthcare system, to a psychologist. She was awful. Her methodology of choice was a terrible fit for my situation… but she was also lacking the perception to truly grasp the extent of my dysfunction. The silver lining was that she agreed that I should not return to my school, so she was part of the plan to move me into grade nine that fall. I was also lucky enough to head to school in a new area.

High school was a mix of highs and lows. I LOVED my new school, and most of my classmates. It was a bigger school so I was able to find like-minded people. I really do think back fondly on my time in high school.

But I also remember my last year of high school was when things really started going off track again. Which fits… it was a period of many changes.

I remember getting panic attacks about tests but not wanting to tell anyone. I really didn’t even understand what was happening… it seemed so shameful and scary.
I’d always been the “smart” kid. The one who could ace a test, no problem. The one who had all the answers. In the back of my mind was also the memories of that psychologist. She certainly hadn’t helped, so that really made talking to a “professional” seem like a total waste of time.

“It’s okay though, I’ll be in university soon and things will be different” ran through my head a lot that final semester in grade 12.

Cue the summer pre-university. I remember feeling frozen and scared. I realize that some apprehension is normal/warranted… but this was way beyond that. I didn’t feel like I was doing something that I was capable of or ready for. But… where I was from, the “smart ones” go right to university after high school.

I also remember that summer was the first time that my anxiety stopped me from doing the things that I wanted to do. I remember being unable to bring myself to go to a celebratory end-of-summer barbecue with my friend group because I was so anxious about having to say goodbye to everyone.


My first year in university was a disaster on many levels. I was in an environment totally foreign to me… not easy for someone who ran almost exclusively on routines and knowns. I was sorely lacking a support system at the school to help me navigate. Ultimately, I ended up doing an abominable job at most of my courses and (worse still) re-enforcing those feelings of being inadequate, a fake, and stupid.

The constant panic, anxiety, and depression was unbearable. I remember feeling so worthless, and helpless, almost constantly. I still felt like I should hide my “shortcomings”. I didn’t recognize that this was something that should be talked about and could be helped. In retrospect, I really wish that I would have had the courage and knowledge to reach out. My family would have been such a source of strength and re-assurance, but my inner perfectionist just couldn’t accept that I hadn’t achieved my goals.

To make matters (and my faith in mental health providers) worse… I was again referred, through the healthcare system, to a psychologist. Different person and even worse results. She summed up our consult as “Well, your parents over-prepared you for all of the negative things in life. That’s why you have such a hard time coping”.

Wow. To this day that makes me so angry.
I was clearly dealing with some severe mental illnesses… and she still just brushed me off. That really broke my willingness to seek help for my mental woes. I’ve always been tenacious, so I decided to just move forward to the best of my abilities.


Off to the work world I went. Here’s a disclaimer: I didn’t usually always make good choices in this phase, but at least I was doing some pretty intense learning. Learning about myself, what I wanted in life, and what I was capable of in a supportive environment.

I still dealt with crippling anxiety and depression. I dove into work in an effort to escape my inner monologue. The more I worked, the more I felt that I could avoid thinking. Which was so NOT the way to cope… but was the most valid option (in my mind).

Move forward about 4 years… and my life changed more than I could have ever prepared for. Losing my younger brother was not unexpected, but that in no way prepared me for it. It ripped a hole through me, and left me realizing that I had lost not only my sibling, but also my best friend. I dealt with the loss as best I could, but again… I just didn’t know what options I would have had for outside support.

After half a decade in the workforce I realized that I was not where I needed (or wanted) to be. I had reached heights that shouldn’t have been possible given my lack of credentials, but I realized that I needed more. I felt secure enough in my mental faculties to give university another try… and to aim for Medical School.

Medicine had always been a big part of my life. I have always had a very high level of fascination with all things medical, and also an incredible ability to retain the stuff I’ve learned about it. I remember looking through my Mom’s Mayo Clinic book for fun as an elementary schooler. It profiled health through the lifespan and I read it not only from cover-to-cover, but also as a way to calm myself down when my head was spinning. Since med school was the goal, science seemed the best program choice to make.


My first year back in the university system was a good one in terms of academic success. After nearly a decade since taking many of the pre-requisite courses, the accessing of old information in my own brain was exhausting. I did really well though, all things considered. Socially and mentally though, I wasn’t coping well.

Being in science in my mid-20s put me at the very high end of the class, age-wise. Everyone else was fresh out of high school. I spent most of the year not talking to anyone other than my (assigned) lab partners. Even though there were big open times between my classes, I would always have a novel with me to disappear into.

The big step for me that year was reaching out to the counselling staff on campus. I had learned enough, and matured enough, to know that I was out of my league. I was so lucky to find an incredible resource in one counsellor in particular. He helped me with anxiety, depression, and the overall process of being a university student. I learned a lot from him, and still use some of the skills he taught me today. Still though, looking back, it wasn’t enough.

I honestly was looking forward to my second year back at university, and felt like I was on the right track for the 1st time in forever… and was that so reassuring!


I’m going to end here. I have so much more to say, and will be finishing my story tomorrow.

Note: PLEASE talk to those around you about wanting to love and support them. Remember that mental illness is so common, and that sometimes we just need to remember that.

With love, and positive thoughts, to you all.

Jenn