What do you mean I might not be mentally ill?

If you were to ask me 10 years ago where I would be at 25, “I don’t know if I’ll make it to 25.”

My mental illness (diagnosed as depression, anxiety & OCD) has been a shadow following me since I was 12. I remember the first time I thought there might be something wrong was when I started coming home from school at 4, sleeping until 7, eating and then sleeping till morning. No amount of sleep could cure the exhaustion.

It has stuck with me ever since. It has grown and morphed and squeezed into every single aspect of my life despite my best efforts to shield myself from it. It has progressed into a monster that I undoubtedly am no match for.

Now, at 25 I am married to a woman I adore, in a house I love with a dog I can’t imagine my life without. But, my “mental illness” has been worse than ever before. It has manifested into what my family doctor referred to as “probably bi-polar”, and has consumed me entirely as I tried to find ways to cope with it.

I’ve tried diet changes, medications (including an anti-psychotic for my “probably bi-polar“, exercise, socializing more, staying busier, taking time to rest, going on sick-leaves from work, life-coaching, therapist after therapist after therapist… To say the least, it has been exhausting and completely debilitating.

I have burnt bridges professionally, lost friends, and questioned my purpose during what I thought was “mania.” I have felt so enlightened and determined that I wrote half of a book in one sitting. A rollercoaster could not compete with the twisty ride my brain was on.

But, the one helping professional who has empowered me and helped me fight for answers is my naturopath. I’ve been seeing her for a year, and in that time, she has dug down to the roots of my being. She has asked questions no doctor ever thought to ask and wanted a full picture of my life (right down to when I go to the bathroom.)

So, when she suggested that I might not actually have a mental illness, but that it is a symptom of a larger problem, I believed she could be right. 

She then proceeded to tell me that she wanted me to take a test that tests the hormone, serotonin, dopamine, and neurotransmitters in the body called the Dutch Test
I trusted her. I trusted her wholeheartedly because I so badly needed an answer for why my depression and anxiety/OCD had morphed into this bi-polar like illness that was eating me alive.

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So- I took the test. I peed on little flaps of papers at certain times a day at a certain day in my cycle and then mailed it off in hopes that I would find relief. Nearly a month later, my results came back. I met with my naturopath who had taken the time to analyze the tests and what she told me frightened and enlightened me. “Your mental illness is a symptom of a hormone imbalance.” She also informed me that my serotonin levels, dopamine levels, and neurotransmitters were in the normal-high range. But that all of my basic hormones, including my cortisol, were not.

THANK GOD” were the first two words that popped into my head. Next were “who am I without it?” 

I never realized how heavily I identified as someone who is depressed, who is anxious, who has OCD. I never imagined it could be anything else. So now, I’m here. Sitting with the feelings that accompany my new diagnosis of having a “hormone imbalance” while not letting it have too much power over me (though I cannot wait to get my hormones back to a healthy level.)

For the next while, my posts will likely be about my experiences surrounding recovery & hormone balance, as well as my emotions surrounding this entire experience.

Love

 

 

 

 

 

#BellLetsTalk

I always look forward to #BellLetsTalk day. A day where everyone makes kind posts and offers their support and love for those who struggle with mental illness. Seeing all of the inspiring pictures and glimpses into the lives of friends and acquaintances I didn’t know struggle(d) makes me feel both comfort and heartbreak in knowing I’m not alone.

Though so many people show support for those struggling with mental illness, I believe the stigma surrounding medication is still so strong. I’ve taken medication for over a decade. And, even I have internalized guilt and judgments around medications. Not because I think they don’t help people or because I think people who take them are weak… simply because I wish I didn’t have to take them. I have no problem opening up and talking about my experience with clinical depression and anxiety disorders. But, I seem to have some sort of barrier when it comes to discussing my true experiences with medications to help manage my mental illness.

My Experience With Medication (Anti-Depressants/SSRI’s) 

As of now, I am on 100mg of Zoloft per day. My highest dose was 150mg per day and my lowest was 50 mg per day… At my lowest dose, I spiraled into a depressive episode where I couldn’t leave my house and was afraid to go to work. At my highest dose, I felt like a zombie with no ambition and suicidal thoughts entered my mind again. This is what people don’t think of- that even when on medication, suicidal thoughts may still be present and finding the right dose is excruciating and comes with a handful of side-effects, sometimes almost as bad as the mental illness.

Consider the side effects of any medication. Now consider the effects of a medication that directly affects your brain chemistry. Not to mention how hard it is for some of us to find a medication that actually helps. I tried nearly 10 different combinations of anxiety medications and anti-depressants before finally trying Zoloft. I’ve also been prescribed Ativan for panic attacks and a few different sleeping pills.  Through trial and error, I’ve found what seems to help me. Unfortunately, there’s no handbook to finding the right medication.

Although I truly believe medication has saved my life, I still suffer from side effects such as: dizziness, changes in weight (weight loss when I go to higher doses), shakiness and overall dullness. But, without it, the side effects of my mental illness are far worse.

****This being said, please please please give extra support to those who are sharing their choice to use medication to manage their mental illness. It isn’t easy to admit in a society that promotes all natural remedies. Though those can be helpful for some people/illnesses, they aren’t always enough.

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Why I Disappear at Christmas Events

With the holidays coming up I think it’s really important to raise awareness of the struggles introverts, people with mental health issues or just anyone who feels overwhelmed by Christmas parties and events.

*Written from the POV of a person who is both an introvert and struggles with mental illness.

  1. I’m Sad: Christmas is a hard time. Even the smell of a Christmas tree can cause childhood memories (good and bad) to come flooding in. Being sad around Christmas is OK. Believe me, I try my best to spread holiday cheer. But, sometimes I just need a few minutes to sit with the sadness, acknowledge it and let it pass.
  2. There are too many people: My comfortable number of people to be around is anywhere from 1-7. Anymore than that & I feel overwhelmed especially if I don’t know them well. It’s important to understand that not everyone enjoys being around a lot of people. It doesn’t mean I dislike anyone, it just means I get overwhelmed by the crowd easily. If I’m sitting away from the crowd, I’m likely just taking a few moments of quiet to regroup.
  3. It’s hot AF: The more people, the hotter it gets. I don’t know about you, but I hate being hot. Actually, more than hate… It’s like when I’m warm my anxiety also goes up 10 degrees. If you see me wander outside without a coat, don’t be alarmed. The shock of the cold is enough to bring me out of a panic attack sometimes.
  4. I’m trying to find a dog, cat or any other animal: I mean come on. Animals are like the greatest therapy. I’ll often find one and invite it to be by my side for the entirety of the evening. This is what my internal dialogue sounds like when I finally find a dog/pet, “Hey, you’re a dog? Perfect. Come with me, let me pet you and please don’t leave my side. You are my ticket out of awkward small talk.”
  5. The noise level is boggling my brain: Loudness can sometimes cause me to feel anxious. My solution? I hide in a bathroom. Okay okay, I don’t hide. But I’ll literally just go chill on the toilet for a bit. Even meditate. It doesn’t mean I want everyone to stop talking, I just need a tiny break.

Things to Remember:

  • I’m not mad at you.
  • I appreciate the effort the host has gone to.
  • I’m having fun (I swear)!
  • It’s not personal. Even if I have a panic attack at the event YOU hosted, it doesn’t mean the panic attack is your fault or relates to you at all. Sometimes panic attacks can be triggered by tiny things that cannot be avoided (ie: song on the radio).
  • I love you. If you’re my friend or family, I love you. And I appreciate you, especially when you’re patient and understanding of me during these events.
  • If you’ve come out of town, I have missed you! Even if I struggle to make conversation, just being around you is nice.

Ways to Help:

  • Offer me an out. Ask me to walk your dog, go to the basement to get something, or anything else that lets me have a break from the crowd.
  • Avoid pressuring me to be social. Please don’t mention how quiet I am or ask me to engage in conversations. Believe me, I will if I can.
  • If you see me standing outside, please don’t draw attention to me. I’m already the gay cousin, I don’t need to be the weird gay cousin who stands outside in minus 30.

Lastly,

Here are 5 memes that perfectly display my love-not love relationship with Christmas

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Love to everyone during the holidays. ❤

 

 

How to Support People With Mental Illness During The Christmas Season

Christmas, although a cheerful time, can be especially stressful for those struggling with mental illness. It’s a time where there are numerous social expectations, alcohol (depressant) is easily accessible and may be part of family traditions, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is at a high as the world feels terribly cold and dark.

Loneliness during the Christmas season is also common among people who suffer from mental illness. I know for me, winter is the time where I isolate myself most. I find winter and Christmas to be a lonely time despite the family gatherings.

Not to mention the stress of organizing a schedule of multiple family dinners, buying gifts for loved ones and still finding time to practice self-care and make sure mental health is being taken care of.

Here are some ways to help make the Christmas season more manageable for those who suffer from mental illness:

  • Manage Expectations: For those who struggle with mental illness, getting out of bed may be a struggle in itself, let alone going to multiple Christmas events and dinners. It’s important to understand if someone can’t attend an event or has to cancel. Understand that we are trying our best.
  • Do a secret Santa or a homemade gift exchange: Money is stressful for everyone. But, as someone who struggles with anxiety, I find money can put me straight into a downward spiral. Limiting gift expectations can ease the anxiety associated with gift giving. Side Note: Gifts are nice, but when did Christmas become more about material items than helping those who are truly in need?
  • Ask what they need: Instead of asking what they want for Christmas and insisting on getting them a material gift, ask what they need? Money for counselling? A massage gift card? Grocery money? These gifts may be especially appreciated and help in reducing anxiety surrounding the expensive months leading up to Christmas.
  • Try throwing a sober Christmas party if someone close to you has struggled or currently struggles with addiction. This act of understanding will likely warm their heart and ease their anxiety about temptation.
  • Check in: If you haven’t heard from a loved one who may be struggling, reach out. Or get creative- send them a letter. Small acts of kindness sure do help me get out of depressive states.
  • Support their dietary restrictions: A lot of people who struggle with mental illness have to be especially mindful of their diet. Certain foods trigger depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Be mindful of this and if you’re hosting a dinner, have healthy options available and don’t pressure people to indulge if they don’t seem comfortable.

I hope everyone is managing as the days seem darker and colder. Comment ways you survive the Christmas season!

 

How to Make Hard Decisions

Lately, I’ve been making some hard decisions. Decisions, I quite frankly, wish I didn’t have to make. Decisions that I wish the depression could make for me. I mean it takes up my entire body anyways. Making decisions when you have anxiety and depression is light fighting a fight you aren’t even sure you want to win. But god, I know these decisions are important to make.

Growing up, when making decisions usually resulted in making the wrong one, my dad would tell me:

“Life is about choices.”

I didn’t know how right he was until I grew up. Had to make these choices, with no idea of the outcome. Just a strong hope that I was doing the right thing. But what is the right thing? Is it what

  • society wants
  • brain wants
  • my body wants
  • my heart wants
  • my family wants
  • everyone expects from me
  • is stable/safe

Its taken me years of struggling, and doing things that don’t benefit my mental health, that I realize I finally have a definition of what is right (for me).

“Doing what is right means doing what benefits your body, mind and soul. It has to light you up. If it doesn’t, it isn’t right for you.” – Tara Jean

Some hard decisions I’ve been making lately include the following:

  • Go back to therapy (mine went on mat leave, and finding a new one has proved to be difficult)
  • Up my meds
  • Reduce # of hours I’m working to better manage my mental health
  • Eliminate as many things in my life as possible that do not bring me joy

All of these decisions have consequences. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t good decisions. It just means they may be hard to make. My heart feels heavy knowing that these decisions all have consequences, and that I may never know if the decision was the “right” one to make. All I know right now, is I have to trust my heart and listen to what it needs. I have to block out judgements, and make room for love and understanding.

Here are my 3 steps to help in making hard decisions

  1. Figure out what is driving the decision. Is it fear, money, health, opinions of others, opinion of yourself…
  2. Determine what the pro’s and con’s are. Make a list to help you see it.
  3. Consider the impacts of the decision and decide if the impacts are manageable.

For anyone going through a hard time, or in the process of making hard life choices, you’ve got this. Trust your soul and follow your passion. And most of all, take care of yourself. 

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Top 3 Spoken Word Poems by Andrea Gibson

Spoken word poetry (specifically by Andrea Gibson) is one of my greatest influences in my writing. I’ve been a fan of Gibson for years. Gibsons’ poems are my number 1 favourite purely because of the emotion, the shaking voice, the honesty of it all. Aside from the spoken part, the writing is absolutely chilling. With metaphors I never would imagine. My feet enter Gibson’s shoes each time I listen.

You could say Gibson is my favourite spoken word poet, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough  credit. Gibson advocates for LGTBQ+ people. They advocate for equality and for love and mental health. They are the purest form of art I have heard so far.

Here are my top 3 favourite poems by Gibson in order.

  1. Angels of the Get Through“Say this is what the pain made of you. An open open open road. An avalanche of feel it all. Don’t ever let anyone tell you, you are too much. Or it has been too long. Whatever keeps the stutterer from stuttering when he sings a song, you are made of that thing.”
  2. Your Life, Gibsons newest release is so pure and rings so true to not only myself, but so many LGTBQ+ people. It explores the struggle of a child who doesn’t connect with the gender/sexuality they feel they should be.
  3. I sing the Body Electric, Especially When My Power’s Out

    “The day my ribcage became monkey bars
    For a girl hanging on my every word
    They said “you are not allowed to love her”
    Tried to take me by the throat
    And teach me I was not a boy
    I had to unlearn their prison speak
    Refuse to make wishes on the star on the sheriff’s chest
    I started wishes on the stars in the sky instead.”

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The Reason For the New Blog Name?

I changed my blog name. I hope to not do this too many times. But, I’ve always had trouble with commitment.

My old blog title Mentally Not Quite Well implied that I was sick, and that anyone reading my posts who can relate must also be unwell. While I think it was a clever name, it didn’t convey the message I hoped to convey.

So why Undertow? Take a look at the definition:

“any strong current below the surface of a body of water, moving in direction
 different from that of the surface current.” 

If that doesn’t explain mental illness definitively, I don’t know what does. I have always felt the pressure to maintain a strong facade, a still ocean, ripple free. When beneath the calm, there was an undertow; a tenacious current, grabbing my feet and pulling me beneath the surface into the depths of the ocean.

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Also consider the following steps that I found upon searching “How to escape an undertow.”

Steps
  1. Identify an undertow. …
  2. Exit shallow water if you feel a undertow. …
  3. Remain calm. …
  4. Call for help if you are a poor swimmer. …
  5. Swim parallel to shore to escape the current. …
  6. Conserve energy when necessary. …
  7. Swim diagonally toward the shore.
I cannot grasp how similar escaping an undertow is to escaping or battling mental illness. Here are some steps I created based on the above information.
  1. Identify the problem, trigger etc…
  2. Exit the triggering event, space etc…
  3. Remain calm
  4. Call for help
  5. Stay close to shore (home)
  6. Rest
  7. Get out alive

I’m hoping people can resonate with this new blog title. I’m hoping you read it and say “hey, I have an undertow. I have a current beneath the surface that no one can see.” And even more, I want you to read it and truly feel a lull knowing you aren’t the only one.

If anyone wants to share the story of their “Undertow: please reach out.

I hope everyone is having a good Monday and has a peaceful week. ❤

 

Medication and Mental Illness

Taking medication for mental illness has always been a struggle for me. Not because I think it makes me weak, but because I know most of society thinks so. I’d like to raise the argument that taking medication isn’t for the weak, but for the fighters, the people ready to battle the side effects, judgement and spend years trying to find a medication that doesn’t make them sicker than the mental illness itself.

I have been medicated on and off since the age of 12. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression with components of OCD and insomnia. The doctor prescribed me a baby dose of Effexor. It made me sick, paranoid and put me in a lull of numbness. But, as a young teen, I thought that’s just what my life was going to be like on medication.

I spent 10 years trying to adjust the dose so I could function properly in school, without hyper-paranoia and constant shaking. Eventually at 17 I tried to get off the drug all together. The side-effects were so unbearable, I decided I’d rather battle the mental illness than the medication.

Getting off Effexor was the hardest thing I’ve tried to do. Physically I was nauseous, weak, shaking so badly I could barely get out of bed, my brain zapped and I couldn’t hold a train of thought. I felt like my brain was crumbling and I worried it would always be this way. I got down to a low dose but couldn’t get off of it completely.

In my last semester of High School I tried to end my life. The battle of getting off such an addictive drug, and fighting depression proved to be too much. I felt alone and like the world was a harsh, judgemental space that I had no place in.

Luckily, I got placed in CHEO’s mental health unit, they immediately helped me wean off Effexor (little did I know what I was doing was super dangerous). I tried a handful of different medications under supervision of the Drs at the hospital. Some made me sick, and some made me sicker. I began to lose hope of ever finding relief. Until they tried me on Zoloft. It didn’t make me as sick as any of the others. And eventually, it started to reduce my anxiety and I felt able to face the world again.

I have been on Zoloft since. I have tried to go off of it countless times due to my internal shame and perception that society won’t accept me if I’m on medication. But, I’ve been working to challenge those thoughts. I’d argue that medication is not for the weak, but for the people who are ready to fight for their lives.

I am open about my medication use and mental illness now. At work, I’ll disclose my anxiety and depression with close co-workers. And for the most part, I have experienced only support. Many of them will share their struggles, or open up about family members who have struggled through mental illness. I find this empowering and motivates me to stay stable so I can continue to connect with others who are fighting their way through.

Once we share our stories, we can empower others to do the same.

 

Staying Inspired When Struggling

When I wrote my first book Waves, a poetry book surrounding my experiences with mental illness, (Purchase here) I found it incredibly hard to stay inspired and motivated. It took me years (more than 5…) to compile all of the poems, edit, format, hire an artist and get the books made. My problem wasn’t that I was lazy or even too busy. It was that I was lacking inspiration which translated into lacking motivation!

Inspiration = Motivation

Struggling with depression and anxiety can make finding inspiration and motivation difficult at times. When all I can focus on is not having a panic attack when I’m at work and not letting the depression consume my energy, there isn’t much room left in my brain to become inspired by the world around me. This translates for any mental illness. They take up so much room in our brains, and in our lives, that other aspects of life sometimes get pushed to the back burner. But, there is hope.

Here are steps that I’ve found to be helpful when struggling with writers block/ lack of creativity and have had a hard time staying inspired and finding motivation.

  1. Get out of your normal space. Seriously, your wallpaper isn’t changing. You need to go outside, to a coffee shop, on the bus, to a mall, anywhere that has stimuli you aren’t used to. (When I used to take the bus, I would imagine the lives of different people on the bus and I would write poems about them.) This is a prime example of how leaving whats comfortable a.k.a home, for something far less comfortable.
  2. Expose yourself to new/different creative content. New music, books, exercises and even movies has left me feeling inspired in the middle of a depressive episode. I’ve gone to different art shows and yoga classes and music festivals in the past that have filled me with enough inspiration to write new poems.
  3. Foster a space for creativity to bloom. When you do create inside, try to create a space that’s comfortable and has the tools you need to be creative. If you know you like to paint with music that inspires you or takes you back to a specific time on, make sure there’s a music device in the room. If you know you have to be sitting comfortably to write, make sure you have a decent chair and some fluffy pillows. A space that is comfortable and inviting will likely lure you in more often, which hopefully leads to inspiration and creativity. (I’ll include a list of my creative space must-haves in the next post!)
  4. Connect with other artists. As someone with extreme social anxiety, this one is still a struggle for me. But, when I force myself out of my comfortable space and collaborate with others, I find it to be extremely inspirational.When writing Waves, I hired an artist who’s work I loved. But I also loved our coffee shop meetings. I found we both had the ability to inspire each other. It might not happen each time you hang out, but when it does happen it’ll be worth it.
  5. Force it. When all else fails, force it. I don’t believe creativity can be forced. But, I do believe if you force yourself to sit in your comfortable space, or in a new space with room for inspiration, you will likely notice by the end of the time you’ve spent, you will have created something. I used to force myself to write when I was at coffee shops between classes or when I was off work and bored at home. I’d usually start doodling and just playing with my phone. But, eventually some sort of magic would usually happen. Just holding the pen would ignite a certain flame in my brain and the words would eventually flow. If you’re a painter pick up the brush. A musician? Pick up the instrument. A writer? Pick up the pen. This rings true for just about anything. Starting is the hardest part.

I hope at least one of these can help all you creatives who struggle with mental health and/or finding inspiration and motivation. ❤