Tag Archives: mental illness

Suicidal Student Kicked Out Of Dorm Because He Might Negatively Impact Other Students

10 Feb

TW: talk of suicide

Imagine this: a student living in a university residence contacts his Residence Life don. He has fallen and injured himself, and there is blood everywhere. He is afraid he might die. He needs help.

Surely in this scenario the don would seek immediate assistance for the student. They would bring him to a clinic or perhaps a hospital. Once the student had recovered, they would welcome him back to residence – maybe even put up a banner or throw a little party.

Certainly the student would not be asked to leave the residence.

Yet recently when a similar situation happened at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the student in question, Blake Robert, was told to pack his bags and get out.

The difference is that in the real-life version of this story, Robert wasn’t physically sick or injured. Instead, he was depressed and struggling with suicidal ideation. After reaching out to his Residence Life don, Robert was told that he could no longer remain in student housing because he was “a threat” to other students. He was told that if he were to die on campus, it would have a “negative impact on the psychological well-being of other students in residence.”

As he put it so succinctly in his article for Acadia’s student newspaper, Robert was basically being told to go die somewhere else.

Normally I don’t like to compare physical ailments with mental health issues, mostly because I feel like doing so often validates the exact position that it’s trying to deconstruct – namely, that we still live in a society that considers physical injuries or illnesses to somehow be more real and more worthy of time and attention than mental illness. I don’t want people to accept my mental health struggles because they’re pretending it’s the same as me having diabetes – I want folks to accept that I’m struggling with something that is scary and occasionally makes me want to die and is in fact nothing like diabetes. However, in this case I think examining an institution’s reaction to a mental health crisis versus how it would likely react to a different type of health crisis is fair; doing so shows the clear stigma and lack of understanding that still persist when it comes to mental illness.

The bald facts are that had Robert contacted his Residence Life don about a broken leg or the stomach flu or a bout of pneumonia, he would have been given prompt medical attention and no one would have breathed a word about him leaving student housing. Instead, the don spoke to him in person, set up an appointment for him with student counselling, and then two days later was part of a team of people telling Robert that he needed to leave because he wasn’t “safe” in residence. Apparently the best way to ensure someone’s safety is to remove them from their support network without any plan or offers of assistance. No wonder Robert felt as if he was being sent off campus to die; he was basically being told that the university wanted him to go to a place where he was no longer their problem.

At no point did anyone take Robert to the university health clinic or the hospital.

At no point was he given the chance to advocate for himself.

Instead, Robert was subjected to a disciplinary meeting where he was told that he might perhaps be allowed back into residence in September, if he was healthy enough. He was told that the Residence Life manager’s word was final; there was no chance for appeal. The Residence Life manager said to Robert that Residence Life dons are essentially like “landlords” and can’t be expected to care for students with mental health issues. Of course, this completely ignores the fact that an actual landlord wouldn’t be able to evict a tenant because of mental illness.

Says Robert:

“… Had I actually broken clearly expressed rules, or otherwise willingly threatened the safety of other students, I would have been afforded due process through Non-Academic Judicial, perhaps involving the RCMP. But suffering from a life-threatening mental illness is apparently seen as such an egregious crime and so dangerous that Student Services’ executive director, in charge of counselling, accessibility services, Residence Life, etc., found it acceptable that I was promptly ejected from campus without warning.

Just let that sink in – a student accused of committing a crime would likely have found themselves in a safer position than Robert did.

A student with pretty much any type of physical illness would have been offered some kind of care.

Instead, Robert was treated as if he was worse than a criminal.

Imagine being in a place that is so dark and frightening that you are sure the only way out is to die. Imagine being in that place and allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share how you feel with someone else. Now imagine that this person’s response is to tell you to get the hell out before you scare anyone. Imagine that, unlike Robert, you don’t have parents who live less than an hour away and can come pick you up. Where do you go? What do you do? And more to the point how is any of this supposed to alleviate what you’re feeling?

Sadly, Robert’s case is not uncommon – a similar story came out of Yale last year, and the psychiatrist Robert later saw at a local hospital said that universities often deal with suicidal students in this way. This is the lived reality for people living with mental illness – you’re sick, you’re so fucking sick that you might die, but don’t you dare tell anyone about it. Even the people who are supposed to help you are just as likely to hurt you.

I am so angry right now. I am angry and sad that this shit is still happening and huge institutions like universities are getting away with it.

This is why people don’t disclose mental illness. This is why people don’t ask for help. This is why people suffer and sometimes die without ever saying a word. This. This. This.

Where the hell are Bell Let’s Talk and “end the stigma” all that other feel-good bullshit when stuff like this happens?

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On Negative Self-Talk

12 Dec

I know what it must sound like to you whenever those ugly words start pouring out of me.

Every time I tell you that I’m so stupid, I’m a failure, everything is my fault and so on and so forth forever into eternity, you must think that what I’m really doing is asking a question, namely: Do you agree that these things are true?

Or else maybe it comes off as a command: Tell me that I’m wrong. Tell me that I’m worth it. Validate me.

Maybe it sounds like a dare or a taunt: Go ahead, fight me on this. Just try.

It must seem like I’m looking for some kind of reaction – a hug, or an eye roll, or something in between the two, an affectionate sort of “there she goes again” crossed with “don’t worry, you’re not monster.”

The truth is that when I fall into the spiral of negative self-talk, even when my words seem to be directed at another person, they’re almost always meant for me and only me. These words are also a compulsion, and in the way of many compulsions they act as a sort of charm or a spell to ward off something worse. They’re a way of beating everyone else to the punch, and they also function as a funny type of pep-talk. But even when I say them publicly, they’re never meant for anyone but me.

Sometimes it’s almost like I have to say something out loud in order to know whether it’s true or not. It’s similar to how I can’t memorize something unless I’ve actually muttered it through several times to myself, except that it’s more like I have to shape my mouth around these vile thoughts about myself to see if they have a taste of truth to them. A thought seems so insubstantial that it could be anywhere on the realm of possibility, but a spoken or written word – well, that’s a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?  A thought is like cotton candy, melting and disappearing the moment you try to properly consume it; a word has heft. Speaking or writing something gives me the chance to weigh it against reality, to see which side the scale comes down on.

Negative self-talk is also a way of loudly and triumphantly declaring all of the terrible things you worry that other people are thinking about you. It’s a way to take the sting out of an insult, a way to toss your head and wink like you don’t care. Theoretically, what’s the hurt in someone else calling you stupid or ugly or pathetic if you’ve already embraced those awful things yourself? It’s a pre-emptive shedding of your emotional clothes before another person can come along and lift up your skirt; it’s biting your lip, hard, so that you don’t feel the needle in your arm. But of course you do still feel the needle, and even when you invite people to stare at your naked feelings their gawking sneers still hurt. You’re not really beating anyone to the punch, you’re just pounding away at yourself like a schoolyard bully landing one hit after another on some poor, defenceless, cowering kid.

Whenever I talk badly about myself, it turns into a sort of Harry Potter Devil’s Trap situation – the harder I struggle and the more I tell myself to stop, the worse it gets. Like, if I start of by saying that I’m stupid and can’t handle even the smallest things, then it escalates to saying that calling myself stupid is proof of my own stupidity, and having this meltdown is proof that I can’t handle my life, and then anger and shame that I’m letting other people see me going through this, with every added layer just making me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. Once you’re down in that pit, there’s no way out – you’re just scraping your fingers against the walls, unable to climb or dig through and ultimately only hurting yourself more. My own negative self-talk validates my low self-esteem, and in my rational moments I know that. But when I’m feeling awful about myself, the only way to fix it seems to be to drive the knife deeper.

I know that the negative self-talk serves no real purpose, no matter how I try to frame it or justify it, but it’s hard to quit. It’s an internal groove on a record and whenever my mental needle slips into it, the music needs to play the whole way through before I can put on something else. I’m slowly learning to pull off the needle mid-song, but it’s hard. If I tell myself to stop at the wrong time and I can’t or don’t for whatever reason, then that just leads to feeling awful over the fact that I’m still going. Right now I’m at the point where I can pick out harmful thought patterns after the fact; later, once I’m not sobbing stormily and feeling like the world is ending, I can look at what how wrong and harmful what I was saying about myself was. But when I’m in the middle of berating myself, I’m not in a place where I can listen or change – it’s like this howling mess that blocks out or distorts anything that doesn’t agree with what it says.

So I’m working on this. Along the same lines, I’m learning to Take A Compliment. Whenever someone trots out something nice about me, I just breathe deeply and say thank you instead of explaining to them all the particular ways they happen to be wrong. Sometimes, if I’m not too consumed in the haze of panic that compliments set off in me, I’ll remember to compliment them back. I hope that someday my negative self-talk will work along these lines – like, whenever I feel the compulsion to do it, I’ll just take a deep breath, smile, and say no thank you, brain. Not today. I’m too awesome for your shit right now.

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Fuck Busy

13 Oct

Late last night I was cruising around on Pinterest because hey I’m a boring 30-something mom and that’s what I do when I can’t sleep. Which, by the way, is every night, meaning that I’ve developed a bit of a Pinterest habit, among other things (my  insomnia-beating arsenal includes such soothing activities as: watching documentaries about the Chernobyl “liquidators,” hate-reading the blogs of conservative white dudes, and sending slightly incoherent late-night messages to my friends and acquaintances). Anyway, I was happily scrolling through pictures of pretty landscapes tragically marred by trite sayings (example: a gorgeous mountain at sunset with DON’T GIVE UP, THE BEST IS YET TO COME scrawled across it in white letters) when I came across this:

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I had one of those moments where I was like, “oh.” And then I was like, “yes.” And then I had this huge mishmash of complicated feelings that I’ve been trying to untangle ever since.

Busy is how I keep myself from having enough time to think the thoughts that might completely derail my day.

Busy is how I distract my mind from the refrain of you’re not good enough, you’re not trying hard enough, nobody likes you

Busy is word that I hold over my head like some goddamn Sword of Damocles, as in: you’re not busy enough, you should be doing more, you don’t deserve a break, just keep going.

Busy is the first thing I think of when I wake up – will I be busy enough today? Will I get enough done? Or will I be a failure?

Busy is the last thing I think about before I finally drift off into a sleeping-pill-induced sleep – have I been busy enough? Am I satisfied with my day? Or have I been a disappointment, both to myself and to the people around me?

Busy is my anxiety-charged brain, either leapfrogging from one thought to the next, stringing together conclusions so quickly that I can hardly breathe, or else fixating on one idea and spinning it over and over, like a sore tooth that you can’t stop running your tongue over even though you wince every time.

The glorification of busy is the reason that I struggle so hard to relax – because I’ve never really, truly been busy enough during the day to deserve a rest. I sometimes ask myself what “busy enough” would look like, and I can never seem to come up with a solid answer. I tell myself that “busy enough” or “accomplished enough” is just something that I would intuitively feel once I’ve reached that goal post. But I never feel it, so I always have to assume that it’s just another day of not being good enough.

The glorification of busy is why my go-to solution for anxiety and depression is to try to out-run them, as if they’re that big stupid rock in the Temple of Doom and I’m Indiana Jones, always able to stay one jump ahead of being crushed.

The glorification of busy is why I’m sitting here in my mother’s living room on a long weekend writing a goddamn blog post because I feel like I just haven’t satisfied my daily requirement of “getting shit done.” Never mind that I’m supposed to be lying in a pool of post-Thanksgiving turkey-coma drool. I tried that. It didn’t feel good; instead, it felt like I was wasting precious time during which I could have been doing something important, like maybe memorizing the periodic table.

We live in a culture that praises “busy” as the best thing a person can be – both in terms of employment and personal life. We’re encouraged to cram as many experiences and events and accomplishments into a 24 hour period as possible – and then we’re encouraged to share our interpretation of those experiences, via tweets and pictures and pithy Facebook updates, in as close to real-time as possible. Even when you’re relaxing or having fun, you’re still often tapping into that busy mindset. “Am I sufficiently relaxed? Should I be having more fun? What can I do to optimize this experience? If I’m not feeling good, is that because I’m just not trying hard enough?”

And while I would on the one hand argue that staying busy is sometimes what stops me from having a full on tear-drenched meltdown in the middle of the day, I would also say that living in a culture that promotes “busy” as the ideal has for sure shaped my ideas of how to handle the sick panic of repetitive thoughts or sharp flashes of fear that set fire to my nerves. If I didn’t live in a society that glorifies busy, would my response to anxiety be to immediately throw myself into some type or work or another? If I didn’t think that busy was the be-all-and-end-all would I maybe take a few deep breaths and try to slow my thoughts instead of crushing them with other, different, faster thoughts?

Fuck busy.

Fuck the fact that I crave busy as a way to block out all the other shit that’s going on in my head.

Fuck the impact that busy has had on my ability to zone out, to shift gears, to slow down.

Fuck tweeting about how much fun I’m having when all I can think about is what I’m doing next, and then next, and then next.

Fuck the sense of dread that I have when faced with a day full of empty, unplanned hours.

Fuck the feeling of inadequacy that the glorification of busy has left me with.

I just want to learn how to shut off the busy voice in my head for five minutes. I just want to know what quiet is like. I just want to close my eyes at the end of the day and sleep without having to Pinterest myself into an exhausted stupor.

Fuck busy.

TTC Posters pt. II

16 Aug

Tonight I spoke on the phone with Joe Burton, the president of Mystery Room Ltd., and I was honestly blown away by our conversation. He apologized right away for the posters on the TTC, and said that while he hadn’t thought about the reaction that people living with mental illness might have to the idea of a “psych ward” escape room, he now totally understood how hurtful it could be.

I feel like it’s so rare for people to genuinely examine why something they’ve done or said is problematic and then offer an apology for it. Like, so damn rare. So I just want to take a minute to recognize how rad Joe Burton is. He is a real, honest-to-goodness solid human being. Thank you, Joe.

Here is the email he sent to the reporter from The Toronto Star, which I found really touching:

Thanks [redacted] for bringing this story to my attention.

I just want to let everyone know, particularly the lady in question, that it was not our intention to offend anybody with the theme name “Psychiatric Ward”.
 
We were looking for themes/names for our rooms based on pop culture and Hollywood movies (e.g. “Psycho Ward”, 2007).
However, after reading her blog, we can truly understand how someone with mental illness can be really hurt by such a portrayal.
 
We have renamed the room to “Haunted Hospital” and we will take the following additional actions…
1.We will contact the lady who wrote the blog to explain and apologize.
2.We will contact the TTC and ask them to change the posters.
Sincerely,
Joe Burton (President)
Mystery Room Ltd.

Ahhhhhh, I think my little heart might burst. It’s so lovely to have these occasional reminders of how amazing people can be.

Happy weekend, y’all.

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An Open Letter To The TTC – Please Remove These Posters

11 Aug

Dear Toronto Transit Commission,

I am writing with regards to the following poster found in some of your subway cars advertising “Mystery Room,” which is apparently a sort of spooky role-playing game where you have to escape scary situations.

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As you can see, some of the frightening scenarios that you can participate in include “Satan’s Lair,” prison, something called The Mummy’s Curse and a psychiatric ward. All of them are problematic in one way or another, but one of them hits particularly close to home for me.

I am writing this because I am a person who has spent time on a psychiatric ward – in fact, I’ve been a patient at multiple mental hospitals. The first time was when I was sixteen – I saw a clinical psychologist to help figure out what medication would best manage my depression. The second time was when I was twenty one and suicidal – that time I was admitted and spent the night in the hospital. Last year I went to the CAMH emergency room because, again, I was depressed, overwhelmed and suicidal. I was accepted into the cognitive behavioural therapy program there and spent several months completing that as an outpatient this year.

I am not scary. I am not violent. I am not a monster.

I am not some trope that should be used to scare people in a haunted house. I am a for-real person, who struggles daily with an illness that colours nearly every aspect of my life. The same goes for every other person living with mental illness. We’re not the punch line to your “crazy” joke. We’re people coping with very real, sometimes deadly illnesses and that alone is a hard enough row to hoe without tossing mental health stigma on top of everything else.

And that stigma is exactly what these posters perpetuate – both stigma against the mentally ill and stigma against psychiatric hospitals. It plays right into the old belief that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent, even though we’re far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators of it. It also makes psychiatric hospitals look like frightening, terrible places, which is pretty discouraging to someone who needs treatment for mental health stuff. Dealing with this shit is scary enough without advertising campaigns like this.

To make matters even worse, here’s what Mystery Room has to say about the mental hospital scenario on their website:

Ward 15 is the place the mentally disturbed were contained. Dr. Johansson had a passion for experimenting on the unanesthetised living. The patients grew mad, losing the ability to speak as their throats ruptured from constant screaming. These people now haunt the ward, seeking and exacting their revenge on unsuspecting victims. As you enter the ward, one thing is certain: it is going to take all of your knowledge and skill to get out alive.

That is actually a thing that has happened. I seriously cannot stress that enough – that is actually a thing that has happened to psychiatric patients in this country. In the 1950s, the CIA performed “mind control” experiments on patients at a Montreal mental hospital. Similar experiments were done in the United States. To make light of this type of violence inflicted against the mentally ill is beyond awful, and to turn it into a form of entertainment makes me pretty much choke up with rage. There are victims of these experiments who are still alive, and you’re advertising a game that makes a joke out of the horrific things they’ve experienced.

Look, Robin Williams died today of apparent suicide; according to his publicist he was “battling severe depression” in the time leading up to his death. My chest hurts for him and his family, and it’s hard not to think about all the other people whose illnesses have or might turn equally deadly. People with mental illnesses are failed by our society on a daily basis, and every time we let something like this Secret Room program pass without saying anything, we are failing the mentally ill even harder.

I’m asking you to please take down these posters. They are not appropriate for public transit, and they do not reflect the values of this city. We, as citizens of Toronto, deserve better than this.

Sincerely,

Anne Thériault

Anyone wishing to lodge a complaint about these posters can do so here.

P.S. here is a list of suicide crisis lines – if you are thinking of hurting yourself, please call someone

Pharmacopeia, or, The Drugs Don’t Work

11 Jun

TW for talk of suicide

Some days, as I rush around the apartment trying to get ready to face the world, I can’t help but feel like a traveling pharmacy. Inside the vast expanses of my purse, along with my laptop, my wallet, my keys, my book-du-jour, two shades of Sephora lipstick (neutral pink “charmer” and come-at-me crimson “tango”), my headphones, my phone, assorted bandaids, bobby pins and hair elastics, I neatly arrange the bottles of multicoloured pills through which I measure out my life like those metaphorical coffee spoons. Blood-red prescription iron supplements, safety-vest-orange Zoloft, dingy red-brown Seroquel, electric blue Imovane and, of course, the virginal pink birth control pills. My own private stash.

The pills are like little hand-holds to grab onto as I swing myself through my day. Orange and red with my breakfast, to keep my mood somewhere above apocalyptic-crying-level and to boost my energy, red again with supper, to keep my iron levels up over night, then red-brown, pink and blue at bedtime to respectively “enhance” my anti-depressant, make sure that I don’t accidentally bring forth another life onto this dismal planet, and then float me off to sleep the sleep of the innocents.

I’ve been on psychotropic drugs since I was sixteen, and can give you a poetic sort of laundry list of all the different types I’ve tried: Paxil, Prozac, Remeron Effexor, Elavil, Ativan, Wellbutrin, each at varying and increasing dosages. Paxil was the first one they tried on me, and when it perform as expected, they kept increasing the amount until I was a miserable wreck: twenty five pounds heavier, lethargic, awake all night and falling asleep in class. The funny thing was that my doctor kept telling me that it was working, that he was seeing improvements. Never mind that I felt worse than ever – to him, it definitely seemed as if I was getting better. It took months of arguing before he agreed to try a different drug.

The latest addition to my personal valley of the dolls is the Seroquel, typically used as an antipsychotic. I wondered if my doctor was trying to tell me something. I asked Nathan if he thought my doctor was trying to tell me something.

Me: It’s an antipsychotic. Do you think my doctor thinks I’m psychotic but just doesn’t want to say anything in case it upsets me? Am I psychotic?

Nathan: The medium isn’t always the message, Tiger. [Editor’s note: he likes to call me Tiger. Sometimes also Buddy or Slugger or Buckaroo. One time it was Tex.]

Me: But Marshall McLuhan said it was!

Nathan: Heritage Moments aren’t always right.

But then again, sometimes they are. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I’ve never really been able to tell if these drugs help at all (except for the sleeping pills, which are an insomniac’s best friend, and, of course, the birth control, thank god). Sometimes I take them and things get better, but it’s hard to know if that’s from the pills or from the natural dips and rises of my inner life. But I keep taking them, even after I swear that I won’t. They’re well-marketed, these drugs, and at my weakest moments I always find myself acquiescing. The doctors make a good case for acquiescing.

Those doctors always sell me on the antidepressants by telling me that I have a chemical imbalance, a lack of serotonin that causes my brain to short circuit and makes me want to die. That’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be suicidal – a short circuit, a glitch in the system, a design flaw. Killing yourself becomes the answer to everything. Your mind becomes like a record needle that jumps the groove, a sort of skip in your mental process where instead of going forward and thinking up solutions to your problems, all that you can come up with is, the only way out is to kill yourself. And the drugs are supposed to fix that skip, supposed to make it so that your record can play all the way until the end, and then you can flip it over, then put on another record, and so on ad infinitum, happily ever after.

The idea of a chemical imbalance is supposed to make you feel like you’re not crazy in the 19th century meaning of the word;  you’re not some kind of incurable case about to be shipped off to Bedlam. What’s wrong with you is physical – like a diabetic who lacks insulin (they’re always comparing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs to insulin for some reason), you just need a little medical help replacing something that your body is failing to make on its own, and then you’ll be fine. It’s not really a mental illness so much as it is a physical condition with mental manifestations. You’re not like those people.

By those people they mean, of course, the people with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder or some kind of nonspecific psychosis. Doctors never let you forget that there is a hierarchy of mental illnesses, one which you might slip down at any given moment. Doctors want you to remember that your place in the mental illness food chain is a relatively coveted one, lest you get any big ideas about going any crazier.

It’s easy to internalize the stigma against mental illness. Sure, you’re mentally ill, but you’re not like them. You don’t ever want to be like them.

Never mind that you already are one of them, no matter how you frame it. Never mind that all of your attempts to distance yourself, to other, only make things worse for everyone. Because you’re basically giving healthy people permission to other you.

You and your delicately imbalanced chemicals.

The chemical imbalance theory has been around since the 1960s. There was never much research done into the idea; it was just something that seemed like it could be right, and everyone sort of ran with it. Maybe they couldn’t properly test for that sort of thing back then. Maybe theories were the best they could go on. But now, fifty years later, it might be time to re-examine those theories.

According to Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, doctors have known for a long time that the chemical imbalance model is likely flawed. In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, he says,

And as early as 1998, the American Psychiatric Association in its textbook says we’re not finding that people with depression have any abnormality in their serotonin, but because it’s such an effective metaphor for getting people to take the drugs and sell the drugs, it’s continued to be promoted.

According to Whitaker, people who take psychiatric drugs were more likely to still have symptoms five years later than those who didn’t take psychiatric drugs. Because, see, here’s the catch – people who take SSRIs but don’t have low serotonin to begin with begin to rely on those drugs to manage their serotonin levels. SSRIs actually reduce the brain’s ability to produce serotonin.

So maybe the drugs have never actually been helping me, or any of us; maybe all they’ve done is create a population of people who are dependent on psychiatric medication.

And maybe The Verve were right after all, and the drugs don’t really work, they just make you worse.

It bears thinking about, anyway.

I’ve been reading about lobotomies recently (as any good mental health patient does, I suppose), and I came across this gem in Ronald Kessler’s The Sins of the Father describing Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy:

We went through the top of the head, I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. I made a surgical incision in the brain through the skull. It was near the front. It was on both sides. We just made a small incision, no more than an inch.” The instrument Dr. Watts used looked like a butter knife. He swung it up and down to cut brain tissue. “We put an instrument inside,” he said. As Dr. Watts cut, Dr. Freeman put questions to Rosemary. For example, he asked her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing “God Bless America” or count backwards….. “We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.” ….. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped.

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like doctors take the same approach – albeit on a much smaller scale – with psychiatric drugs. Increase the dosage until the patient becomes incoherent, or at least docile. Push the pills until they don’t feel anything, because feeling nothing is better than feeling sad or confused or anxious. Don’t offer counselling, or therapy, or life management skills. Just fork over pills pills pills until some kind of effect (or affect – little psychiatric joke there for you) is achieved.

The truth is that we don’t know how psychiatric medication works – we just know that sometimes it does. If you’ve ever taken the pills, you know that it’s a lot of trial and error until you find something that gives you some kind of relief. Which is great and everything for the people who benefit from it, but where does it leave the rest of us? We become guinea pigs of a sort, choking down brightly-coloured pill after pill, praying that something, anything will work. Because, honestly, it’s better than the alternative.

The alternative is, of course, that the brain is still a vast unknown. That we are only just barely beginning to grasp its complexity, and we may never fully understand it. That those of us who suffer from mental illness are sailing in uncharted waters, with no stars to guide us. What looks like Cassiopeia or Orion to everyone else is just a jumble of unknown lights to us. And maybe for some, the drugs make the stars realign into their proper order – but for the rest of us, maybe we need to begin creating our own private constellations to ferry us from one point to another.

The thought is terrifying, and I feel unequipped to deal with it. I’m not an astrologer. I just want the same stars as everyone else.

I’m going to keep taking the drugs, at least for now. They feel like a sort of safety net, and I know that I’m not ready to walk the high wire without them. But someday, someday soon, I want to begin to chart my own inner universe. I want a map of my own personal stars, and there isn’t anyone else who can do that for me. If I’m not willing or able to play amateur stellar cartographer, well, then, what’s the point? A lifetime of one brightly-coloured pill after another, each with its own dreary side effects, none of them even remotely effective. I can’t live like that.

But I haven’t lost faith that I can, somehow, find a way to live.

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When Getting Better Is No Longer An Option

27 Apr

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

I used to think that I would outgrow it.

I used to think it was just hormones. The same hormones that caused the constellation of angry red pimples on my face and back. The same hormones responsible for the dark, wiry hair between my legs and nearly unnoticeable A-cup-sized swell of my chest. I thought that once the hormones settled down, I would feel better. Normal. But even once I grew used to my new body, even once I hit my twenties and everything was supposed to level out, I still felt it. The same howling misery, the same blind, raging creature whose claws and teeth were sunk somewhere too deep to find, was still there.

I did not outgrow it.

I used to think that I would get better, if by getting better I meant being cured. I used to think that I would find the right combination of drugs and therapy and life choices to make this thing, whatever it was, go away. Or maybe I would just wake up one morning and it would be gone, instantly and inexplicably, the same way it had come. I thought that it might recede like the tide going out, and then, like a bare beach scattered with seaweed and shells, I would go back to being the person I’d been before, only with a few small relics left over from what I’d been through.

I did not get better.

I might never get better.

These past few months have been hard ones. Really hard. And I don’t know how to talk about this, except that I think I should. For the last weeks of March and the first few weeks of April I was suicidal. Suicide was all I could think about. I didn’t want to die, exactly, but I didn’t want to be alive, either, and I couldn’t think of any other option. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I’d injured my hamstring, so I couldn’t really do yoga. I couldn’t string two thoughts together. I couldn’t even follow a conversation. All that I could do was get up in the morning and drag myself to work, and then drag myself home and cry. On weekends Matt would take over childcare, because I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything seemed awful, without any understanding of why it was awful. I felt like I’d come up against a brick wall, and all I could do was scratch at it until my nails broke and my fingers bled. I couldn’t imagine what the future would look like, other than more of the same but worse.

None of these are especially good reasons for being suicidal. But the thing about being suicidal is that you don’t need a good reason. You just are, and you don’t know how to get out of it. What makes it even worse is that you can’t talk about it – suicide is too big, too scary to bring up with your friends and family. And if you mention it to a health professional, well, I mean, forget it. All they want to do is lock you up so that you can’t do it (and rightly so), but they don’t seem to want to talk to you about the whys and hows of the way that you feel. Which means not only is everything awful, but on top of that you don’t have any kind of outlet. Because you don’t want the worry or the pity or the fear of the people around you.

So you just don’t talk about it.

Things are slowly improving now, but I know it will come back. That’s the funny thing – when I’m well, I’m constantly aware of it waiting for me, biding its time, sidling around me like a constant threat, and yet when I’m in the middle of a breakdown I can’t imagine that I’ll ever be ok again. When things are bad, the only thing that exists is the pain I feel. That is my only reality. While some part of me logically knows that it’s a cycle and eventually I have to come out of it, there is just no way to make myself believe that fact. The only fact I can trust in is how terrible everything is in that moment.

I’m learning to live with the fact that I am not going to get better, if by not getting better I mean that I am probably going to live with depression for the rest of my life. This thing, this goddamn soul-sucking thing, is not something that I can cut out, or drown, or poison. I can’t look at a CT scan and point out where it is. I can’t even really know anything about it, except that it lives inside of me and feeds off of me and leaves me aching and exhausted and so sad that sad isn’t even the right word for it. I don’t know what the right word is; maybe there isn’t one.

I’m also learning to live with the fact that I am never going to be the person I was before all of this started. I’m not even sure that it makes sense to want to be her anymore – she’s an absurdly hopeful little thirteen year old girl with no life experience and little understanding of how the world works. She’s the last memory I have of what I was like before this dark creature began nesting inside of me, and for a while I clung to her image as something that I could maybe someday achieve again, but I need to recognize that she’s gone. She’s gone and she is never, ever coming back.

Mental illness destroyed who I was. And I’m at a place now where I’m trying to recognize that that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I don’t think that it’s a good thing either. It’s just a thing. A fact. A truth. My family and I have had to adjust to this reality; we’ve had to mourn the loss of who I was and who I might have been, while at the same time accepting the person who was left behind. It’s a funny sort of thing, a weird feeling that I’ve somehow lived two lives – like a building gutted by a fire whose façade stays the same but whose interior, once restored, is entirely different.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

So I’m learning to live like this. I’m learning to ask for concrete things – help with housework, help with childcare, help with routine daily tasks. I’m getting used to the idea of talking to my employer about my mental health, and negotiating the possibility of time off when I need it. I’m trying to be better about accepting the fact that sometimes I just need to lie in bed and do nothing. I’m trying to be better about accepting all of this, because fighting it tooth and nail has gotten me nowhere.

I’m trying to tell myself that I am not weak. I am strong, and I will get stronger. The person that I was might be gone, but this version of me, the one that exists now, is just as good as she was – mentally ill, yes, but kind, compassionate, smart, funny, and with so many people who care deeply for her. She, too, is worthy of love.

If you are depressed, experiencing suicidal thoughts or otherwise need someone to talk to, please call 1-800-273-8255

For international readers, here’s a database of crisis centres listed by continent

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