The Mental Health Movement

So, the Bell Let’s Talk campaign ran again this past week. It seems the issue of mental health is becoming more and more prevalent in our society. I’ve seen a lot of people coming out of the shadows this week and sharing their personal stories of lived experience. I want to talk about why I have mixed emotions about that.

First off, I’ll start with the positive. I think it’s really great that we’re ending the silence. I believe that at some point, everyone will experience a mental health issue. It may not look as serious and scary as say, psychosis. It might be something like mild anxiety or depression, which you could argue are comparatively tame. I don’t put much stock into the commonly cited statistic that 1/3 people will experience a mental health concern. Everyone will, not just a third of us. Maybe it’s true that just 1/3 people will be diagnosed with a mental illness and have to receive medical treatment, but that is a different statement. Mental health is something we all have to deal with because we all have minds. No one can go their whole lives without having to take care of themselves, both physically and mentally.

I also think it’s probably beneficial to society that Bell is donating money for mental health initiatives. I can’t really say, because I don’t know how that money is distributed and what causes it’s actually going toward. I think it kinda sucks though that we have to rely on a corporation to address this issue as opposed to say, Health Canada. I think it’s a tricky thing when corporations start fundraising for philanthropic causes. It’s a PR move. If this initiative didn’t benefit their business, they wouldn’t be doing it.

 

That brings me into the big problem I have with this campaign. There’s a whole lot being tweeted and texted without anything actually being said. I’ve seen a lot of generic platitudes like “end the stigma” and “support people with mental illness.” I think it’s great to express your support and let people know you care. But the problem is that campaigns like these fool people into thinking we’re doing something significant about this issue. We’re not. It’s like saying Valentine’s Day teaches us how to love one another. It doesn’t. It’s an excuse to be romantic for a day, until you wake up on February 15th and start acting like a jackass again. The same BS with Thanksgiving, where we feel grateful for a grand total of 24 hours. You can’t take a complicated issue like this, tweet a bunch of nice phrases and then expect things to change. We’re not actually discussing anything.

What about the specific issues? Where are the debates on that? Why don’t we educate people on things like side effects to antidepressants, PTSD from serving in the military, drug-induced psychosis, the prevalence of suicide rates among aboriginals and LGTBQ youth, the rates of sexual trauma within religious organizations, the perceived infallibility of doctors in white coats with medical degrees? In our soundbite culture we can’t talk about these things in a way that actually makes a difference to anyone. I’m still waiting for Bell to air an intellectual, unbiased discussion on pharmaceutical medications versus alternative therapies. Instead we get celebrities saying very nice, but very useless things so that people will be more inclined to support this campaign.

And I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m just saying let’s move away from the idea that everything can be solved in 140 characters.

If you care so much about people’s mental health, then don’t wait until the one day of a year where they feel safe enough to talk about it. Reach out to them on a personal level, listen to what they’ve been through, learn from it. Because like I said, it’s not an us versus you issue. We all have obstacles that block our path to wellness. It is in everyone’s best interest to truly educate themselves on the topic. One of these days, it could be you begging people to listen.

The Highlight Reel

When I first started this blog, it was liberating. It was a way of telling myself and the world that I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to be perfect. I can share my story just as it is, flaws and all, and still be accepted. But as time went on, crises died down, moods stabilized, and I started to feel self conscious about all the intimate feelings I was sharing publicly. It’s been hard to maintain the same level of candor since then.

As much as I claim that I’m not ashamed of my mental health condition and all the… um… “personality quirks” that go along with it, that’s not always true. I get embarrassed when I’m not functioning at my best. I hide it, because I can’t take the thought of someone seeing me as a failure. And I have this totally backwards thought that being in less than peak physical, mental and spiritual shape is a failure. Silly, right?

I read something tonight that snapped me out of my shame spiral. “People tend not to show their honest selves. They show the highlight reel – only the best, curated aspects of themselves.” It’s true. I feel like I can only blog when I’m happy or have amazing news or accomplished something significant, so that I can keep up this illusion that I’m perfect. Because I hate the fact that I’m not.

But the whole reason I started this blog was so that I could drop the charade. So that I could out myself. So I could demonstrate the reality of mental health and in doing so, destigmatize it. But by hiding all my not-so-perfect feelings and thoughts, I’m reversing what I’ve done. I’m implying that it’s not okay to experience lows and insecurities and anxiety.

So here’s me saying, the last few months have been hard. A lot of changes in my life, too many to talk about in this blog post. A lot of instability, uncertainty, and rejection. And I’ve felt shitty about it. I’ve been hanging in and getting by the best ways I know how, but somedays it feels like I’m never doing enough. Somedays I feel like I’m not enough.

…Phew. I feel better now that I’ve shared that secret with you.

 

Taking Back My Illness

Lately, I’ve really started to embrace my mental health condition.

My nurse once encouraged me to pretend as if I don’t have a mental illness. I don’t experience symptoms anymore so there’s no reason why my past should influence me. Ta da! Everything can return to how it was and always shall be.

But no matter how clean I live, how normal I act, it doesn’t change the fact that the past isn’t some idea I can accept or reject. The past is a part of me. It’s shaped who I am. I can’t change the past. I can’t erase the past. However, I can decide how I will learn from the past.

Moving forward, I can choose to interpret things the way I want to. It sounds like a simple choice: the decision to govern one’s own mind. But up til now, I felt like psychosis and the process of recovery took that choice away from me. I’m taking it back.

I believe that everyone experiences the world in a unique way. My goal in life is not going to be to match up to everyone I compare myself to. I’m going to like the fact that I think a little differently sometimes. I’m going to like the way my brain works. I’m going to accept the person that I am, the person that I’ve become.

So, I’ve rebranded my illness.

I am the master of my madness.

The Truth about Conan O’Brien

Today I heard two very different perspectives on mental health. One, from someone who lives with positive symptoms of schizophrenia and is quite happy with them. The other, who has never been through the mental health system and has very much an ‘outsider’ viewpoint.

The person who has schizophrenia told me about how they hallucinate and see vivid colours and absolutely enjoy the experience. They’ve been living with these symptoms for a long time, and believe them to be a spiritual gift. They take medications, which do not take away these symptoms but help them to remain stable. They have embraced their illness.

The other person has only ever heard about or observed mental illness. I believe that much of their understanding of different conditions is based off sensationalism in the media (i.e. a little too much Criminal Minds). They are writing a story about someone who is obsessed with a television star and believes they can communicate with them, which ultimately drives them to start killing people who look like this actress. The condition is known as erotomania and is very much an aspect of psychosis, or at least, it was for me. Erotomania isn’t about murder. Or is it?

I’ve experienced very intense erotomania as part of psychosis. But note an important distinction: I’ve never had the desire to kill someone or harm them at all. This is something that people tend to get confused about with mental illness. People with schizophrenia are statistically LESS likely to engage in violent acts. They are MORE likely to be victims of crimes. There are plenty of people, like me, who experience erotomania and don’t feel compelled to become violent. It’s a real condition and while it might be frightening or disturbing, it doesn’t mean the people who have it are dangerous.

I suspect that the person who is writing a story has only ever read about erotomania on Wikipedia or seen portrayals of it in the news. Their concept of erotomania is based of infamous murderers like Mark David Chapman. In reality, there are real-life people who are walking around experiencing symptoms of erotomania and this writer has no clue whatsoever. It might just look like a very intense, possibly cute crush. Did I mention I love Conan?

Here’s what it’s like from MY point of view:

I first saw Conan when he came to Canada for a week and appeared on Much Music. I was twelve years old. I remember being mesmerized. He was so charming and handsome and witty with this outrageous personality and natural charisma. I had never seen anyone like that. After his appearance there, I watched Late Night with Conan O’Brien somewhat faithfully. It became my favourite show to watch when I wanted to be cheered up, because he always did the trick.

I remember feeling nauseous one night, and turning on the television to watch Conan. He made me laugh so hard that I vomited. Immediately afterward, I felt better. I remember thinking, “Gee, I wish he was my dad.”

Believe me when I say – I am fully grossed out by the fact that I have a crush on a man I used to wish was my father. I see the grossness there. I’m not even gonna get into the fact that I openly dated someone twice my age for three years (I was 19, he was 39.)

My little crush on Conan got heavier when I became sick, at age eighteen. I started to develop delusions. I began to think Conan knew who I was. That he had hired people to follow me around with his blimp, which I actually hallucinated and saw following me. I thought that every little gesture he did on the show was actually a coded message for me. I thought I could communicate with him telepathically. I thought he was in love with me, and I was in love with him.

Needless to say, it didn’t end well. But it didn’t end in murder, either. I ended up receiving therapy and medication, which is what the majority of people who experience erotomania receive. As my meds kicked in, I gradually stopped being able to “understand” Conan’s secret messages. After a few months, it seemed as if he had stopped trying to “talk” to me altogether. Like he lost interest. Years later, I realized that he was never trying to communicate with me at all. He doesn’t even know who I am.

It sounds scary, I know. It might even sound funny. You know what’s scary and funny? One of the questions my nurse will ask me to see if I’ve relapsed is, “How often are you thinking about Conan?” Through therapy, I was strongly discouraged from thinking about Conan, daydreaming about Conan, watching his show, or checking his Twitter feed and DEFINITELY from trying to send him messages. It took a long time for the real message to sink in. For me to accept that even though I loved Conan, he really did not love me back. And never will.

The moments where I would have clarity and realize, if only for a few minutes, that he really doesn’t know who I am…they were heartbreaking. I felt very real emotional turmoil, to the point where I would cry my eyes out. You have to understand, it felt like I was in a relationship with him. Even though we had never “officially” spoken.

I did absurd things to cope with my obsession with Conan. I would openly flaunt it, bragging about how much I loved him and how he was the greatest. I would literally make it a goal of mine to bring up Conan at least twice during conversations. I did stand up comedy and devoted my entire set to how much I love Conan. I made t-shirts with his friggin’ face on them and wore them everywhere. I lost track of how many tweets I wrote, hoping that somehow Conan would see them and know that I was sending him coded messages. When I was first hospitalized, I remember telling myself it was okay because it was just a matter of moments until Conan and his crew broke in and saved me.

I guess, on second thought, I can see how people like the writer I was talking about would make a leap from erotomania to murder. I mean, it sounds scary. Imagine being in the celebrity’s position, with some stranger who is psychotic and thinks they’re in a relationship with you. I bet that’s really scary and uncomfortable. I mean, when I thought Conan was in love with me, I was freaked out too. I thought he was hiring people to follow me. I was paranoid. I feared for my life.

The last thing I would have ever done, would be to travel to a different country and try to harm the person I had these feelings for. I’d be much more likely to break down crying and refuse to function, then get myself locked up in a hospital for a month and heavily drugged and provided with intense therapy. Which is what happened.

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that my friend with schizophrenia, who sees hallucinations….he’s kind of an inspiration. He taught me a lesson today. That I can learn to love my illness and recognize it for what it is. An illness. It’s not a personality flaw. It’s a medical condition that I’ve learned to deal with without ever harming anyone.

So yeah, I love Conan. And yeah, the truth is, he doesn’t love me back. And that’s okay.

I Know Best

I have been really lucky to have the summer job I have now. Without getting into specifics, I work at a drop in center for people with lived experience in mental health. They promote empowerment, mental and physical health, and self-advocacy. I am learning a lot about what my rights are as someone with a recognized mental illness. The more I learn, the less intimidated I am by my psychiatrist.

For a long time I was under the impression that I had to do whatever my psychiatrist wanted or I`d be thrown back in a psych ward. But the truth is, I don`t have to do anything I don`t want to. I can certainly appreciate the perspective of my doctor and care team, and I can consider what they suggest, but ultimately it`s my decision. No amount of shaming or stigma can take that away from me.

If I want to lower my medications? It`s totally within my rights to do so. If I want to stop seeing my counselor, or be referred to another counselor, or write a letter to the Head of Psychiatry expressing my negative hospital experiences? I can do all of that. If I don`t agree with what my doctor suggests and I want to do something else for myself, it is totally my choice.

Its not about being difficult or obstinate, its about being empowered to make decisions on my own. I am the ultimate authority in my life (except for my spiritual higher power). I guess I knew that on some level, but didn`t really realize it until I worked here. I know myself better than anyone, and that means that I know what is best for myself.

If I`m unhappy with the state of something in my life, I have the power to change it. I can say no to anyone, no matter how aggressive (or passive-aggressive) they may be acting. Huzzah! Freedom!

Holy Fuck

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a memoir about psychosis for a few years now. It’s slow going. Because honestly, when I look back at that time and really remember it, all I can say or write is “holy fuck.” That is my reaction when I look at the pictures of my bedroom, or I read the tweets from my meltdown. Holy fuck. And I have to look away. Writing this memoir forces me to look at it and put myself where I was when I did those things and that is tricky to do when you’re sitting in a Williams coffee pub with a look of horror on your face. This is just a snippet of the mess I’m trying to wade through:

DSC03730

It seems startling and alarming to look at now. If one of my friends had started writing strange messages on her bedroom walls red flags would be going off in my head. But that was my life at that time. I remember it seemed like the only thing I could do. I would get a message, and I had to paint it right then and there. I needed to look at it and get it out of my head. There was no time for canvas. It had to come out. Kind of like psychotic barf.

I remember I felt like I owed it to the message and the source of the message to immortalize the words by writing it down. I believed they were coming from angels. I remember writing, “Angels in my head. They talk and it hurts it hurts it hurts.” Not only did writing/painting this stuff help me cope by clearing my head, but it allowed me to feel like all this was happening for a reason. Because it really was a difficult thing to go through. Sometimes I forget that, because I can look back and say to my younger self “don’t worry – you turn out just fine.” But in the moment? It felt like my world was crashing down around me. Holy fuck.

And now I’m sitting here with the weight of it all, in this Williams coffee pub, trying to write a memoir. I guess I am. Just very slowly. Piece by piece. Maybe the title should be Holy Fuck? Would anyone buy it if it were called Holy Fuck?

If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person (or a Recovering Addict)

Phew! I have had so much going on lately, I can’t remember the last time I sat down to write a post. Even now, I’m writing while I wait for work to start.

A quick update of what I’ve been doing:

  • Making jam
  • Learning French
  • Working!
  • Volunteering!!
  • DATING!!
  • Learning how to cook and bake
  • Preparing to facilitate new groups in the Fall whilst attending school
  • Budgeting!
  • Working on my memoir
  • Making zines for Zine Club
  • Trying to talk myself into attending the kickboxing classes I paid for
  • Going to church
  • Hanging out with my very own pet betta fish!
  • Being all around happy, smiley and full of life

I didn’t realize until yesterday after a weekend of baking cookies, hanging out with friends, going on a date, going to a soccer game, painting two pictures, working, then going home and making a new recipe (French Toast Roll Ups) – I’ve been keeping kind of busy. I think it’s because whenever I slow down and I allow myself to have unscheduled free time I feel miserable. The longer I sit and do nothing, it feels like there is a layer of filth and grossness that covers me. Like how if you leave soup for a bit, it will develop a skin. Blech.

But really – I’m still fresh out of rehab. And I’m determined to make this sobriety thing work. I know that if I slow down, I’ll start to get bored. And if I start to get bored, I start to crave adventure and excitement and I want it instantly. And the most exciting thing I know how to do is get high or drunk and lose my mind.

I’ve learned that I did not only use drugs and alcohol to cope with feelings. I also used comfort food to cope with feelings. After ending a long standing, used-to-be-positive-but-turned-toxic friendship this past week, I’ve been getting into all the stuff I shouldn’t be. Ice cream, chips, cookies and never, ever in moderation.

It’s really thrown a wrench into the smoothly running machine that was my life. And as soon as one thing upsets my routine, then all the other things I’m focusing on start to drop. I’m working on that. How to let go of something without letting go of everything.

On the bright side – as one person exited my life, a new person entered it! I started dating. And FYI – she’s a woman. That’s another thing I’ve found out recently – I’m kinda sorta definitely very gay. Since I’ve embraced that, I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin and happier and clearheaded and focused on what I want out of life. It’s so freeing!

So that is my update for the summer. I am super busy, super gay, and super happy!

Progress not Perfection

I have to admit that the adjustment from rehab to normal life has been difficult. I went from having a strict schedule and being monitored 24/7 and being very social and active to sitting on the couch and playing The Sims. At least, that’s how I was looking at it. I was not being kind to myself.

I have adjusted, if not perfectly. I’ve started working, and getting in touch with people and going out more. I’ve even started creative writing again. But I’m not where I want to be yet. My life isn’t perfect, and because of that I feel like I’m never doing enough. And when I feel like I can never do enough, I get bogged down and unmotivated and don’t do anything.

Then last night I remembered: “Progress, not perfection.” So I made an attempt to clean at least some of my room, and to my surprise I ended up cleaning a lot of it. Now, it’s not spotless and there’s still piles of clothes to put away and books to sort but I’m getting there.

I have to remember that things don’t happen instantly, especially when I’m in charge of doing them! I need to be realistic, but I also need to be kind to myself. It isn’t fair to give myself monstrous tasks and then berate myself when I don’t accomplish them. 

And today, waking up to a semi-cleaned room I felt rejuvenated. I got everything done that I wanted to and still had time to spare (hence the blog!). I made a new To Do list – a practical To Do list that is sorted by level of importance. Now I feel like I can breathe.

Progress, not perfection.

Freedom

I’m free!! I have spent the past five weeks in addictions treatment. It was what I expected and a lot more. Very intense. 

Being out and living a “normal” life with “normal” people feels really strange. It’s so different. It feels like rehab was just a long dream, and I’m waking up to find nothing has really changed, except for me. I’ve changed.

I had this moment the other night where I was out at a dance, and I thought “hey… Nobody’s monitoring me. I could go wild!” But then I remembered that I’ve had plenty of experience with going wild and it’s never as fun as it initially seems.

I learned so much at rehab. I learned how to be assertive, how to be kind to myself, how to enjoy life, how to follow a schedule and do chores, how to express my feelings and observations, how to curl my hair, how to recognize and treat true friends, and most importantly how to stay sober. 😄

Addictions Treatment

Today I am going to rehab, or if you prefer, an addictions treatment program. It’s a first for me. But don’t worry, it isn’t urgent. I’m hoping this will reinforce the abstinence I’m already doing.

A little nervous. Excited. Going to miss my dogs. The program is five weeks long, and contrary to what my mom suggested, I don’t think they’ll let me out for appointments with Dr. Pumba and nurse Raffi.

I’ll be out of touch for those five weeks. But when I get back I’ll have new insights to share!