If mental illness is not embarrassing — then why the fuck am I embarrassed?
Why do I feel like I want to crawl under a damn rock every time I have a panic attack, or start sweating in public, or any other quirk that can come flying out of me.
Generally, it’s not a big deal. It passes. But whenever I let anyone have a looky-loo into that part of my life I feel like I’ve just farted in church… or like… I don’t know… some place clean, or something — like an Ikea.
A couple of months ago, I went to the emergency room for the first time due to mental illness. I’ve never done that before. I was going through some pretty extraordinarily stressful personal stuff at the time, so that helped trigger the feelings of panic. Ordinarily, I’m usually good at masking or trudging through. This time was a bit different.
I thought it might be a useful exercise to share what it’s like to have a mental illness “emergency” here in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Up to then I had been battling depression on and off since August. I’m just going to come out and say that. I have. There it is. Tadaw!
And in the weeks prior to my trip to emerge I had at least one panic attack every day.
Which, for those of you who know about panic attacks, is a hell of a lot to deal with.
So, I’m chugging along like a tank. I’m getting work done, I’m going to the gym, I’m writing a blog, I’m helping friends out with their problems. And then one dayI get knocked over like a tonne of bricks.
And I do mean, knocked over.
I had one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in my life. And I’ve been having them since I was 12.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I was crying to break my heart. I relinquished control to my brain, and it wasn’t doing a good job. And at that moment I knew that I had to do something. So, I had a friend drive me to the Emergency unit at the Health Science Centre here in St. John’s.
I checked myself in, I told the nurse on staff that I needed to see a psychiatric nurse. She brought me inside the room with her while she handled a number of other patients.
When she was finished she asked me a series of questions about my mental state, took my vitals and then told me to have a seat in the chair across from her where she could see me.
You see, I wasn’t allowed to move from that chair, not even to go to the can. And I had to go to the can pretty bad — sorry, TMI.
And so I sat there. For three hours.
There I was, for all the world to see in the hallway — about as vulnerable as I’ve ever been, listening to people describe their bowel movements to the triage nurse in front of me, or how they “finds it in their lower back”, or “me knee’s right gimpy”.
There was a reason for the three hour wait.
There was one mental health nurse on staff that morning. One nurse. For the entire hospital. Now, if you wanna talk about crazy — let’s start there.
But, nevertheless, I waited.
Eventually a smiling woman came out to greet me.
She was wonderful. She asked me a whole range of questions, took me seriously, showed empathy, and made me feel comfortable with being there. Which is a hell of a feat, because this is the room I was in.
After our chat she recommended that I be transferred to the Waterford Hospital to chat with a clinical psychiatrist there. And so, off we went in a cab to the Waterford.
Once there, I was immediately met with a young intern who escorted me into a small room.
I’m not saying that psych wards are dark and dingy places where all hope goes to die — but guys, how about a painting or two? Seriously, would it kill ya to chuck up a Van Gogh or a Picasso.
This was her first day on the job. And I was the first interview that she had conducted all on her own. But she was very kind and understanding as we ran through another list of questions.
I’ve been on some form of anti-anxiety/depression med since I was 17. Name one, chances are it’s passed my lips. From Ativan to Zoloft, and Paxil to Efexor. If it exists, it’s been in me. And not once, NOT ONCE, has anybody officially diagnosed me with anything.
That’s 22 years of medication and not a single person told me what it was for. I knew I had anxiety, but there’s a lot of different kinds of anxiety.
When the resident on call that day came to visit me, we chatted even more. She expressed her condolences for me having to live my life in this way.
Which, to be honest, I’ve never really thought of before. I guess when you’re going through it you don’t really think of “hey, I wonder what it would be like to not be anxious?” Because, it’s all I know. And I never once thought of it as something to be sad about, it just was what it was.
She asked me to describe my symptoms and how I felt. This blog has been a big help in self-reflection so I was able to accurately describe to her the sensations in anxiety, the intrusive thoughts I’d sometimes have about my own self-worth, images that sometimes flicker in my mind like an old run down Kodak projector — that’s when she asked me if I’d ever been diagnosed with anything.
“No,” I said.
“That’s unbelievable,” she replied.
“You’re telin’ me,” I smirked.
Tilting her head to one side, and staring into my eyes with caution she asked, “what do you know about PTSD?”
“I know that it’s fucking complicated,” I mumbled.
I had checked almost every box.
Then it all started to rain down on me. The intrusive thoughts, the visions of my childhood popping up like an unwanted ad, the thoughts about the death of my brother.
Every year around late August I would get sad. And every year I would tell the person I happened to be with not to worry, “I just get a little weird around this time”. September 6th was the date of my brother’s death, and every year the window around that date turned me into a different person, and I never once put it together.
It seems as though I had chosen that date to not only mourn my brother, but to also heap all of the other traumatic things that I have experienced in my life — bullying being one of those things.
Immediately we began to hatch a plan, “I want every single support that’s available to try and figure this thing out,” I said.
And so they enrolled me in support groups for both trauma and anxiety, referrals to a new psychiatrist and psychologist. I wanted everything. As they say around here “whatever she can suffer” — which is Newfoundland for “whatever it is you’ve got”.
These services exist. And that’s fantastic news.
But all of these services have a 1 to 2 to sometimes a 3 year waitlist attached to them.
Now, the programs ARE out there. So, there is hope for treatment. All of the people I spoke to throughout this entire ordeal were INCREDIBLY helpful, kind and empathetic. They truly were remarkable.
But it made me think. I can manage my anxiety — in the sense that I know I’m not going to go off the deep end. I work in a high stress field (advertising) and there are deadlines to make and jobs to get done, that stuff doesn’t freak me out at all. In fact, I kind of thrive on it.
But what if I couldn’t handle it? What if I was completely lost?
One thing that struck me was that after you visit emergency you are contacted immediately after by a nurse who does an assessment to see where you best slot into regarding services. I was told that if I missed the phone call for any reason I would be taken off the list and my file would be closed.
If I missed one call. One.
That made me think of all the people who may not be that cognitively aware of their own illness. People who may have difficulty concentrating, or fear contact with the outside world. If any of those people missed that call, everything goes to hell in a hand-basket pretty fucking swiftly.
And they left there. Alone. And failed by a system that is so overtaxed that a phone call can be the difference between getting help or not, and sometimes even life or death.
One common theme permeated throughout my travels that day. Every single person I spoke to told me how awful it is that there isn’t more funding in place for mental health. From one psychiatric nurse on staff in the province’s largest hospital, to the multi-year wait list to see a psychiatrist.
It’s deplorable. And it needs to change.
When I read the news today that our local health board were cutting positions in the mental health field that they felt were not needed, my blood boiled and my heart broke all at the same time.
If we, as a society, really and truly care about people who suffer from mental illness, why is it that we continue to neglect them. And when I say “them” I mean “us”.
Bell Let’s Talk is a campaign that happens once a year in Canada where everyone tweets out something and hashtags it with #BellLetsTalk. And it raises money and awareness on that one day. It’s also become quite trendy with politicians of all stripes. But it seems that policy makers and those that hold the purse strings stop short of making real change happen in the area of mental health.
And that, as somebody who lives with a mental illness, needs to change.
Mental health awareness and investment needs to extend past one day, and it needn’t be sponsored by or piggy-backed on by a major telecommunications company to fulfill some kind of slick community outreach mandate.
It needs to come from the people in power. They need the guts and the forethought to say “enough is enough, let’s help these people. Let’s stop the naval gazing and the tossing about of buzzwords, and let’s do something.”
To the people that I met that day. Thank you. You changed my life and made me feel heard and understood.
In my mind, that’s a feeling too good not to share.