This post is quite personal and difficult for me to share. I’ve toyed with it for quite a long while and finally feel like I’m able to, hopefully. I think it’s important to remember that those blogs we read, and those instagrams we follow have real, living, breathing human beings behind them, who feel emotions, who go through struggles and times of joy, who have many experiences we can each relate to. So it goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that I’m obviously part of that. My life may seem a specific way to you, heck you might think it’s pretty damn nice. And it can be, I won’t deny that, but it is not always. As you may or may not know, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week here in Canada. I bring this up because even though I may not reach millions of people on this blog, I do reach a few thousand, and I felt as someone who has suffered and watched close people around me suffer from mental illness, it feels important that I share my story, if only to feel like this is a truly honest space that I’m not ashamed or afraid to admit my truths, and also if in the smallest way I can help anyone, or open a dialogue about this subject, inform, whatever the case may be, then I have done a small part in helping raise awareness for illnesses that effect 1 in 5 people every year (oh god, I sound like a mental health ad. ha!)
To get right into it, I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which are not uncommon mental illnesses to be diagnosed together, they kind of go hand in hand, in my opinion anyway. I was diagnosed with MDD back in high school, I think just over 10 years ago. I chalk the cause of my illnesses up to genetics, for the most part – it just runs in the family. In some ways I feel both lucky and unlucky that I grew up in a home that knew mental illness well. Lucky because when my parents noticed the signs they knew what to do (for the most part), but unlucky because living with someone who suffers from mental illness is not easy, for either parties. I grew up watching MDD takes it toll on my family in many negative ways, so while I knew much about it and never passed judgment on those who suffer, it was kind of a nightmare. So, imagine knowing that you too may end up affecting those you love in a negative way, maybe you already do…It’s best not to look at things that way though.
What is MDD?
Incase you aren’t really sure what MDD is, it’s essentially a depressed mood/state for most of the day that lasts for extended periods of time (ie weeks, months…). For some people this only happens once in their life, maybe from a traumatic event, a death of a loved one, injury…there are many causes. For others, however, it can be a lifetime, with reoccuring episodes.
Now you might picture in your head someone who is totally non-functioning when you think of clinical depression – can’t get out of bed, someone who looks sorrowful, a real drag of a person, sluggish – but that really is not the case. Many people who suffer from MDD are quite capable of leading normal, productive lives, it’s just, in the easiest of terms, harder. Not only does MDD affect the mind, but it also affects the body.You know those commercials that say “depression hurts”, well it really does, all over. If I’m having one of my bad days, all of me feels unwell. I personally have lived with it so long that I don’t really know any other way – I have my bad days, I have my okay days, and I have my just darn fine days. And to be honest, for quite a long while I felt just fine. I stopped taking anti-depressants and I thought maybe I wasn’t one of those people that would have it for life, that maybe I could control my emotions and feelings and thoughts just by choosing to be happy…but it’s not that simple with MDD. Which brings me to my GAD.
What is GAD?
GAD is chronic and exaggerated worry and tension even though nothing is provoking it, throughout much of the day, if not all day.
I’ve always been an anxious person, and I never felt it truly got in the way of my life when I was younger. I would get anxious over normal things that anyone would get anxious over, but sometimes it felt a bit excessive, like I couldn’t think of anything but that worry. Fortunately, I didn’t normally have much to worry about back then, so that feeling would go away once I solved the problem. However, that changed entirely. To be honest, it was only very recently that I was diagnosed with GAD, although it has probably been going on for much longer. My anxiety felt like it had no cause, which made it near impossible to figure out how to stop it, and instead my mind would start obsessing over things, so much so that it was debilitating my ability to actually do anything. It sometimes felt like I was just existing in my mind. But I have always felt like I can manage my anxiety, however, the panic attacks were what really got me. In complete disclosure, only a few months ago did my life become almost unbearable because of the panic attacks GAD caused me. To put it frankly, panic attacks are the fucking worst.
What are panic attacks?
If we break it down into the simplest of terms, it’s that fight or flight feeling you get when you have been spooked. When your body feels in danger, it sends out signals and adrenaline telling you to protect yourself or flee the situation. It’s just basic human instinct for survival. Now imagine that feeling, but for no reason at all. My first panic attack – that was caused by nothing apparent to me – happened while I was sitting on the couch with Ryan, watching TV. Clearly there is nothing to panic about in that situation, but my mind told me otherwise. A panic attack can come on pretty abruptly, and my first one caught me out of nowhere. My best way of explaining it was a wave of fear came over. It felt like if fear had a form, it was a sheet and it was suffocating me. I couldn’t breath, I thought maybe I was having a stroke, maybe I needed to go to the emergency as soon as possible…something awful was happening. After that initial one, the attacks happened occasionally, like maybe once every few months, then it started happening almost weekly, and then finally, daily. My panic attacks got so bad it felt unbearable to be alive. This made my MDD so much worse because I thought to myself, if I have to live feeling panicked all day long, which is both mentally and physically draining (think cold sweats, panic, hyperventilating…), then what kind of life is this? Honestly, I wish panic attacks on no one. Panic attacks are difficult for people to understand if they have never been through them. But I think if you know someone who suffers from them, you should learn as much as you can about them.
Even though I had done the whole medication, seeing a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapist) shindig as a teenager, it felt kind of new because I didn’t have my parents here to help me through, to set things up, to solve my problems for me. It was up to me to go get help. But it’s scary getting help – you think you can fix your problems, you think tomorrow will be a better day, you think what’s the point, but you also just cannot figure out how because your brain is so consumed with anxiety and sadness that it’s impossible to make yourself do anything, like make yourself a meal, let alone set up an appointment, see a doctor and work your mind out. It’s a frightening thing, but I went to the doctor, I got back on meds, and it was the best thing I did. I haven’t had a panic attack since I started my medication which I can say with a huge sigh of relief. Medication doesn’t solve all my problems, but when it comes to my attacks and anxiety, it has made immense changes in my life.
How I help myself.
Back when I first moved to Toronto and I thought I was able to control my moods without the help of medication and talking it out with someone, the thing that helped me most, and I really believe it did, was Taoism. Now I am in no way a religious person, but Taoism isn’t so much a religion as it is a way of thinking or rather, not thinking, at least in my opinion. Reading books on Taoism really calmed me and helped me to live in the present, because one of the most debilitating parts of depression and anxiety is not being able to exist in the present moment and being consumed by your thoughts. Taoism helps you to focus more on your actual physical presence. I find I don’t use what I have learned from Taoism as much as I used to, which is something I would like to get back into.
To me, I feel it is important that we do not judge those who suffer from mental illness, however minor or severe it is. You likely wouldn’t be scared of or look at someone funny who had cancer or diabetes, so why should it be any different for mental illness? I understand the mind can be a scary thing, and when it is unwell it can make people act in a way that is unnerving to those around them. I recently was on the subway (metro, train et.al.), and a man was walking up and down the subway yelling things that made very little sense or at least felt very out of context, and people were so quick to move away, so quick to tell him to shut up or make jokes at his expense. He probably didn’t even register anyone around him, let alone hear the unkind words, but I felt sad, for him, in a way, I mean imagine being that sick, but what made me more sad was that human beings are so quick to judge, so quick to be disgusted by something that was so apparently out of his control. I mean, if he could control it, do you really think he would be doing it? Would you start yelling nonsense if you could help it? It’s so easy to judge people when we are unwilling to put ourselves in their shoes.
I’m no doctor and I’m definitely not an expert on this subject. To say I know how to perfectly deal with my illnesses would be a complete lie. I feel like I am still figuring that out each day. I’m not sure I could give tips on how to deal, because often, I don’t know if I deal all that well. But if you suffer or know someone who suffers from mental illness, it’s important to talk about it, and it’s important to get help. It sounds so stereotypical to say that, like I’m a living advertisement for Mental Health or something, but I really mean that. If nothing else, I’m happy to chat in the comments, or you can send me a private email (you can find my email in the contact section). And at the very, very least, I hope this post made you feel comforted in some way if you have been through something similar, or know someone who has. I’m not here to get sympathy, or to be congratulated for being so brave to talk about it, but rather to share my story in hope that it may resonate with someone who feels alone, or with someone who didn’t know much on the subject at all and now feels encouraged to educate themselves.