So. Today is Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” Day.
Mental health is important to me. That means that today, I’m going to be talking about some uncomfortable stuff. It’s uncomfortable for me, too—sharing on the great wide interwebz. If you don’t feel that this is a topic for you, this is the time to stop reading. It’s ok, I’m not offended. I’ll see you next time.
Still with me?
This is a topic that tends to get swept under the rug, alluded to with vague euphemisms, or avoided altogether. And yet, it’s so, so important, especially for creative-types. Research shows that we are much more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population, but the fact remains that they’re prevalent even in the general population.
Issues with mental health are not a sign of weakness. They are not a sign that you are “crazy.” They are not indicative of any failing. They can and do happen to anyone.
And yet there is this stigma. While it is perhaps better than it was even earlier in my lifetime, it is nowhere near gone. And so, the majority suffer in silence. The silence makes everything worse. Trust me, it does. The lack of understanding from other people, the intense fear and shame at carrying this “secret,” the loneliness and isolation…
So, let’s talk.
I have anxiety.
That probably surprises a grand total of absolutely no one. While I manage it a lot better than I used to, I’m sure everyone at school and work has seen me in the grip of an anxious flare-up at least once—those few moments of sheer panic before I can get things under control again. Or, they’ve seen the more subtle manifestations. For as long as I can remember, my biggest issue in social situations has been initiating contact. As my family puts it, I can’t say, “Can I play, too?” I find it very, very difficult to say, “Hey, can I get a ride?” “Hey, wanna grab coffee?” “Hey, let’s catch a movie.” Even if I know the person well. Even if I know the answer is likely to be “yes” (this is where I really appreciate my friends who understand my quirks…and then make me get over them).
I have had depression.
For years, I suffered largely in silence. Hapax was essentially me clawing my way out of the darkness. I needed to prove to myself that light could win, that the rigid, self-loathing thoughts were wrong. I needed to see that the Seraph could beat the Angel.
And she does. Repeatedly.
Am I better? Yes. Yes, I am better, and I know I would not be without a metric shit-tonne of hard work on my part, and even more understanding, love, and support from the people around me.
Am I cured?
No. The anxiety is just part of day-to-day life. I’m aware of it, aware of the need to manage it. It’s almost like asthma: knowing you should carry a puffer and avoid triggers. As for the depression…I view it as being “in remission.” Just like cancer, you can be symptom-free and utterly functional, with no trace of the disease left in your body.
Except you always know it might come back.
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you had the one bout, and that’s it.
But you always know it might come back, and so you monitor it for the rest of your life.
Now one other thing: and this makes people really uncomfortable.
Grief is hard. There’s no way around that one. Grief is hard, and not just on the person experiencing it. Like ripples in a pond, it affects people across that person’s life. People never know how to respond to it. If I had a penny for every time someone’s told me, “I don’t know what to say,” I would have a very large pile of useless metal.
Here’s the thing, though. There is no right or wrong answer in grief. Ok, the cop telling me, “Oh, you’re so young!” at the hospital, steps away from the gurney, was not terribly helpful. Neither was the person who cheerfully asked me at the visitation if I was “on Christmas vacation yet?”
Aside from those things: love, really, is all that matters. Anything said with love is helpful. Anything done with love is helpful. Some people simply texted, “Thinking of you.” I have a wonderful card filled with variations on, “I’m sorry.” Simple, simple messages, but each one was like a hug. Each one reminded me that people care.
Grief doesn’t make sense. It isn’t logical. It has no set pattern. Emotions swing wildly minute to minute. What was triggering today is comforting tomorrow, and vice versa. It takes time. And yes, all of that is hard on the people surrounding the bereaved. After all, the grieving person is volatile, irrational, preoccupied. Supporting them as they work through it requires so much patience and strength. Believe me, I know, and I am so grateful for everyone who’s stood by me.
Too often, I think, we shut down negative emotions. We try to keep them inside, for fear of being a burden, or for fear that people will grow tired of us. Certainly, I’ve noticed that tendency in myself. This is the most I’ve talked about it in a long, long time. At the same time, I don’t want my sadness and my tragedy to be the defining characteristic of me and my interactions with people. That’s not fair to them (I sometimes wonder if people are themselves grieving, mourning the old, pre-loss Katie), and it’s not healthy for me.
And yes, there have been people who have been unable to cope. I have lost friends through this. I don’t think there’s much that hurts worse. Someone you valued so much, turning their back in your most vulnerable moment, partly because it’s your most vulnerable moment…it hurts so very much, because it’s just loss heaped up on loss. (Please don’t freak out and wonder if I’m talking about you. If you’re reading this right now, I can almost guarantee it’s NOT you.)
But it just makes us treasure those who remain even more highly. Again, all things done with love. Sitting with someone. Going for coffee. Talking and laughing and pretending things are normal for a few hours. Even folding laundry and grocery shopping.
None of it—grief, depression, anxiety—are really comprehensible, not if you haven’t experienced it, and often not to the person in the midst of it. But in the end, what matters is that we have compassion. We hope for the strength to speak, and listen, and love. My own personal reserves of emotion are very low right now. But they won’t be forever, and I pray that in future, I can show the same love to others that has been shown to me.
That can’t happen in silence. This is about reaching out. Reach out to me, to friends, to family, to professionals. Accept that it doesn’t make sense, and that there might not be an answer. Have faith that eventually, it will get better.
And love. That’s the most important thing of all.
I’m glad we talked.
Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx
Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/
Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/
Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help
American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html
British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines
Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help
New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222
The sun was out for the first time all day. My boss had just called to see if I could work next week (in my favourite building, no less!). My roommate and I were eating freshly baked cake. I was whiling away the last hour or so before I needed to leave for a pool party. Life was pretty good.
“Whoa. What’s wrong with my hands?”
Small, flattish red bumps covered the backs of my hands. They seemed to spread as I watched, covering more and more space, though not really venturing past my wrists. I checked my feet, and found a few around my toes.
“Hives,” was Gemma’s diagnosis. In general, she’s not the type to accept much nonsense. As her boyfriend and mother both have epi-pens, she is even less inclined to do so with allergies—especially when you don’t know what’s causing them. And so, I was quickly dosed up with Benedryl, given copious amounts of water, and, when the hives refused to fade and my throat started tightening, bundled off to the emergency room.
Here’s an effective way of getting attention in a hospital: state, “I have hives, my throat feels tight, and we have no idea what’s causing it.”
We moved quickly through triage (I could only laugh at the question, “Have you travelled outside of North America in the past thirty days?”) and into a curtained-off corner of another room. For the next while, I answered questions, while Gemma provided additional details.
Yes, I thought I might be allergic to wasps, but have never actually had that tested. No, I hadn’t been stung by a wasp. No, I hadn’t used any new detergents or soap. No, I hadn’t gone walking barefoot through any parks. No, I’ve lived in this house for a year. Yes, I had started drinking almond milk instead of regular milk, but I’d been doing it for over a week and hadn’t had any since that morning.
“Well,” one doctor said, observing the new splotches on my feet. “I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”
Apparently at a loss, they decided to give me more Benedryl, this time via an injection into my muscle. Here’s an effective way of getting hospital staff to treat you like you’re six: stare at the giant, pokey needle, clutch your friend’s hand, and stammer, “Will it hurt?”
I still maintain that a fear of needles is perfectly rational.
They left us a while longer while the antihistamines did their work. The spots faded, but all the combined Benedryl took its toll as reality felt increasingly dreamlike and I drowned beneath a wave of drowsiness. I tried to chat with Gemma, but I think my side of the conversation stopped making sense. However, I do remember that we both decided it might be a bad idea to take a picture of myself looking sad in a hospital bed, post it online, and caption it, “In ER. Just got a huge shot. Doctors have no idea what’s wrong with me.”
But, eventually, the doctors decided the hives had calmed enough to let me go. They wrote me a prescription for an epi-pen, gave me instructions to come back immediately if I experienced any facial swelling or throat closing, and sent me on my way.
As soon as we got home, I hit my bed, slept for an hour, woke up for a brief conversation with Gemma, and fell asleep again until just now.
I’ve been told that hives recur, and since we don’t know what caused them in the first place, they may come back. So, just a general announcement: if you see me with bumpy, angry-looking hands and feet, don’t worry. I probably don’t have the plague.
I never thought I’d go to Uluru/Ayer’s Rock.
To start, I thought my chances of making it to Australia were low until quite recently, and even then, I figured I’d be hugging the coast. But a reluctance to tackle Oz on my own landed me on a tour.
Find a map of Australia. Stab your finger right in the middle. That’s about where we went.
After gaping at Uluru from afar, we got to walk around the base. I found myself walking next to a guy named Josef (nicknamed “Swissy,” by our irrepressible guide, to go with “Frenchie,” “Dutchy,” “the British Brigade,” “Big Fella,” and me, “Katie-Kates”). Josef and I are both fairly fast walkers, and we had just enough to talk about to keep the silences from getting awkward, though neither of us minded tramping along with our own thoughts, which kept the conversations from getting awkward, too.
Towards the end, we arrived at a water hole, nestled into the side of the rock. A helpful sign informed us that it was a sacred site, the most consistent water source around, and guarded by a snake spirit that provided the Aboriginal people with water. It also suggested that this was “a good place to listen to country.”
So we did. Gradually, the sounds from the not-too-distant carpark and roaming families fell away, replaced by the wind rustling the reeds and whistling through the stones. The pool was absoutely still.
Until it began to ripple. It sparkled, as though tiny copper beads were being drawn across its surface- slowly at first, then quicker. Very pretty, but slightly unnerving.
See, the water hole was in complete shadow. The sky was cloudless, but that bright Australian sun missed us completely- I’d just done my jacket up again. I was wondering if I was insane when Josef coughed.
“The water, it’s shining. But that is not possible, is it?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
We watched as the lights faded. And then, before we could exhale, they started again, even more of them. Josef shifted nervously.
“Perhaps it is reflecting the rock face?”
“Maybe.” I looked up. The sun hit a slab of orange rock a few metres above. The colour wasn’t exactly right, and I’m still not sure about angles, but it may have been possible. “I don’t know.”
We spent a few more minutes. It was still so, so quiet, and I think we were both slightly disquieted when we left.
Trick of the light? Spirits? Something else?
I don’t know.
And that’s fine with me.