Sometimes the universe comes together to deliver a message to you. Like today, I'm home with E-man (who may or may not be under the weather we are still deciding). When I called Michael to advise him of the events and talk about what I might do with my day at home he said “why don't you just write today? The laundry and the vacuuming aren't going anywhere.” (yes, I married a gem) Today also happens to be Bell Let's Talk Day; a day devoted to mental illness. What should I write about? I suppose today is the day, thank you universe – very subtle.
Sharing my mental health story is something I have skirted for most if not all of my life. Mostly because I never really viewed my problem as a true health issue but rather as a personal flaw. People with mental health issues see things and hear voices, they think they are Jesus and believe they can set buildings on fire with their minds. That was not me, I was just scared. Scared, that's a pretty tame word for what I felt. I was bloody well terrified every waking minute of my life and was powerless against it.
I spent every day in kindergarten bawling my eyes out, breathless feeling like I was going to implode with fear because I had to take a school bus home every afternoon. For an entire year, I didn't miss a day. I didn't get help, I didn't get better, I got told to get over it. I didn't get over it but I did learn to hide it, understanding that clearly my fear was a negative personality trait that annoyed adults and frustrated my family.
Hiding the fear from people did not make it go away. It made made me cleaver. I avoided people to avoid their questions, I avoided socializing to avoid situations that may put me at risk, I made escape plans and excuses, I cried in the bathroom and in my bed at night, I worried that people could tell there was something 'not right' about me. They were right, but I never asked for help, I never got help. I became a teenager and it got worse.
Worse meant that the physical affects of anxiety were paralysing. The racing heart, the headaches, the panic, the sleep loss, stomach problems. I seriously thought there was something medically wrong with me. So much so that I took my problem to my mother. Her diagnosis; Panic attacks “that's normal, I get them all the time.” she gave me a breathing technique and told me to take five and collect my shit then get back to life. That worked, I breathed and I got back to life avoiding all situations that threatened to provide more panic induction than I could handle. I altered my post secondary plans, avoided rock concerts and trips with my friends, driving on the expressway, great jobs, and once in a life time opportunities that were amazing but beyond my scope of control.
I also met Michael, sent from the heavens to hold me up through all those thing I could not avoid. He understood there was something not right about me but he didn't care. That attitude got me through a lot, It also got him more than he bargained for. We fell in love, we got married. I spent every day terrified that he was going to be killed on the way to work, he spent weekends at home because I was afraid to go out. He suffered through my questions “did you lock the door? turn off the stove? put out your cigarette?” I wouldn’t have put up with me I don't know how he did!
Then we had babies and the questions got worse. Worse because now I had other lives I had to worry about, more people I could hurt, loose, upset. There was so much I could do wrong. There were less people I could talk to about it, the last thing I wanted was for people to think that I didn't have what it took to be a good mother. I lost a lot of sleep, I did a lot of things over and over to make sure I had them right. I ignored my family making fun at my craziness. Inside I felt like I was going to self destruct but I had also been dealing with my illness long enough to keep myself under control and occasionally talk myself down off the ledge. When I couldn't Michael was always there to rescue me. Eventually I levelled out, I got to a point where I believed I had the world blinded to the fear and panic that raged inside of me 24 hours a day. No one who knew my secret not the mothers on the PTA, not the neighbours, not my family, not my friends. My mother will tell you she knew but she didn't, not really, only Michael knew. He knew because he paced the floors with me at night, he changed his plans to suit my strength, he made excuses for my absences and held me when I cried.
Then one night I looked out my front window and watched as a fleet of emergency response workers tried to save my friend. I stared in absolute horror as she lost her life at the hands of her husband. That night I lost the fragile grip of control I had on my life.
I was heart broken, I was terrified, I was in shock. I was 7 months pregnant with my son and that got me through the first 3 months. Then my son was born and I fell apart. I became enraged at the drop of a hat, I hated my friends because they didn't want to talk about it, I hated my family because they told me to get over it, I hated my job as a mother because I had no patience for it, I hated Michael because he couldn't make it stop. The panic attacks became constant and punctuated with sheer rage and ranting. I couldn't decide boxes or bags, dress or slacks, I slept less and worried more, I pushed everyone away. My head hurt constantly, my stomach was a mess, I shook all the time, cried constantly and didn't care, I couldn't care I was too scared every minute. My heart beat on high octane every second, I wanted out of my marriage, I wanted out of my role as a mother, I wanted to escape my own body and I couldn't. We lived in ever increasing turmoil for almost 10 months before I went to the doctor for help.
I sat with him and explained how I felt, he listened but didn't have too many questions, he had been my doctor all of my life and I remember him looking at me like “well it took longer than I thought for you to reach out but now we can do something about it” I remember how I cried when he handed me my first prescription for anti-anxiety meds. I wept, sobbed actually with the realization that the life that was spiralling out of control could be handed back to me as easily as scribbling on a piece of paper. I wept for everything I had missed while I was busy trying to hide and cope.
Of course that prescription wasn't a magic bullet, It didn't do the work for me. What it did was put my mind in a place where I could do the work, it put the breaks on my runaway fearful thoughts. It gave me the opportunity to experience life without paralysing worry and panic. It provided me the freedom to fix my relationship with Michael and our children. Most importantly it proved to me that the worst is not likely to happen, best laid plans are always tentative and that as long as nobody dies and even if the worst should happen and somebody does, everything will be okay, different but okay.
It was a lot of hard work to get to a place where I could control my own thoughts, be forgiving of myself and comfortable with expressing my opinions without worry that I would be judged or condemned. It was a long time before I could spend time in a crowd or let my children do the things that children do. It was a long time before I made new friends. It was a long time before I told my family that I was being treated. It was a long time before I could go without medication...but I got there. Today I live relatively free of fear, I appreciate when things go really well and I go with the flow when they don't
It's not perfect, I still struggle with social interaction and suffer the odd panic attack here and there but it's a far cry from where I was. There will always be something to work on and improve but the glory is that I am miles from where I was and when I feel the old me creeping back I can understand that it is not me, it is in me. I can do the exercises reach for the help and get back to a good place.
So let's talk. I talk to my kids and I talk to acquaintances who have suffered. I don't talk to some of my family about it because I no longer believe that 'get over it' is a solid approach to conquering the disease of mental illness and arguing about it brings me down. Let's talk, I think I could and when I surmount the final hurdle of social anxiety I would like to do just that.
Talk is important for those still suffering, for those like Michael supporting loved ones who suffer and especially for those who believe that their situation is hopeless. Let's talk because in my own life beyond my own story there are people suffering other forms of mental illness, talk is important because they need to know there is hope.
Gratitude for sharing my story.