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.