You always remember where you were when…

Sandy Hook elementary never forget sidewalk

There are certain moments in time that become etched in our memories, and we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when an event happened.  Sometimes that’s because of the significance of the event itself.  For my parents’ generation, that might have been the assassination of John F Kennedy or the moon landing.  I remember that on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in university but for some reason didn’t have classes that morning.  When I got up my roommates had the tv on, and we watched in stunned, horrified silence as the 2nd tower collapsed.

Then there are the moments we remember not so much because of the event itself but because of our own circumstances at the time.  For me, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was one of those moments in time.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrible event, but sadly these types of events occur with disturbing regularity.  I remember Sandy Hook, though, because it is burned in my mind what was going on for me at the time.  I was in the small psychiatric emergency ward in a suburban hospital near the city where I lived.  It was a single large room with curtained off beds and a small seating area with a tv.  There was nothing else to do, so I watched tv and picked at the rats nest that my hair had become during the delirious days prior to my admission.  The tv was tuned to CBC Newsworld, the 24 hour news channel of Canada’s public broadcaster.  As I watched the story unfold, I felt a curious sense of indifference.  The only thing that really struck me was that I wished Adam Lanza could have shot me rather than those innocent kids.  Why did they get to escape this world while I was stuck rotting on the psych ward? Aside from that thought, I just kept mindlessly picking away at my hair.

I don’t like the heartlessness that depression brings about in me.  I previously blogged about my own non-reaction to the Las Vegas mass shooting; I was disturbed more by my lack of reaction than by the event itself.  Indifference was not a “normal” way to look at such a horrific tragedy.

I find it interesting that my life’s chronology has come to be defined very little by external significant events and much more by illness events.  Hospitalizations and relapses form the major milestones as I look back at my life over the past 10 years.  Everything else is situated in relation to those milestones; either that, or it just blurs into a fog of meaninglessness.  I regularly watch the news and so am aware of major world events, but unless things somehow relate to my depression journey my brain relegates them to the discard bin.

Mental illness changes how we interact with the world around us, and that can be distressing and even frightening.  It can be hard to separate how much of our reactions are truly our own and how much are the illness.  Why are both 9/11 and Sandy Hook burned in my mind when so many other events have gone into the dusty filing cabinet of my brain?  Why did 9/11 trigger stunned horror while Sandy Hook triggered nothing?  It’s not something I try to beat myself up over, but I do find it curious.  As in so many other situations, I’m not really sure where I end and the illness begins.  On this journey of self-discovery I don’t think I’ll ever find concrete answers, and maybe there will always just be more questions.  Still, it’s important to keep asking those questions – and maybe that’s what I really need to take away from all of this.

 

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Rising from the ashes of depression

tattoo.jpg

Those of us waging a battle against mental illness need to find strength wherever we can.  I decided a few years back to display mine on my body.

I got my first tattoo when I was 19, a dolphin on my right hip because I admired those beautiful, intelligent creatures.  I didn’t give much thought to any further body art until 2012.  I’d had my first relapse of depression in 2011 and spent two months in hospital, and I was finally starting to feel better and had returned to work.  I decided it was time for my second tattoo, and decided to go with Chinese characters on my left hip.  I asked a Chinese colleague what characters he thought best represented resilience, and the ones he selected literally mean “return to spring”, in the sense of regeneration and renewal.  The tattooing process was quick and easy, and I was happy with the result.

Not long after I got the tattoo, things began to take a downtown, and kept spiralling downwards until I made a suicide attempt in late 2012.  Once I got established on the road to recovery I decided I needed a more significant depiction of my ability to recover, and the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes seemed intensely appropriate.  I looked at it as sick me dying with the suicide attempt, and well me being reborn.

I found a tattoo artist I connected with and she turned my vague idea into an amazing drawing.  Then we began the long, painful process of tattooing.  It took probably around 10 hours to do, with regular breaks when I started shaking because it hurt so much.  I just tried to remind myself, though, that the only reason I was here experiencing this physical pain was that I had the strength to endure so much mental pain.  I was thrilled with the result, which covers my left side from hip to armpit.  When I am feeling weak, it’s an amazing reminder of what I can endure.

Celtic oak tree symbolI’ve been unwell for the last year and a half or so, and I think it’s time for another visual representation.  I’m thinking about a Celtic oak tree design, which symbolizes strength and endurance.  I would like to move forward a little more in my recovery journey before I get the tattoo done, but that gives me something to look forward to.  And even when depression makes my mind play tricks on me, my body can always remind me of the truth.

 

Living in fear: The tsunami of depression

crying woman inside a rainy window

While fear may not be a symptom of depression, it is certainly something that has become tightly woven into the fabric of my illness.  When I am well, I am fearful of when the next relapse might be, when the ground might disappear beneath my feet.  When that relapse happens, I am terrified – here we go again with yet another tidal wave to wash my life away.  And as a depressive episode stretches out, I am scared that I won’t get better, that I will drown in this mental pain.

What is probably the most frightening is the lack of control.  I can be doing what would appear to be all the right things, and I will still get sick.  As the years have passed it has become harder and harder to control my illness, so the fear only escalates.  This current episode has lasted for almost a year and a half, and I am utterly terrified that I will never get my well self back again.  I miss her so much, but she is either gone, washed away in the tsunami of my depression, or drowning in a dark basement somewhere.  If only there was a “find my iPhone” for the real me, to give me a life preserver to hold on to.

A few years ago I was making my case before a review board about why I should not remain committed to the psychiatric ward.  As a mental health nurse, I’m a bit of a research geek, so I was talking about the STAR*D research study, which essentially showed that the more treatment failures a patient has the worse the prognosis.  I argued that my suicide attempt stemmed from “evidence-based hopelessness” (although looking back, I’m not sure why I thought that would help my case).  Perhaps a better way to put it, though, would be evidence-based fear – fear based in the evidence of my personal experience and reinforced by the research evidence I was reading.  If I am already fearful that I won’t get better, it becomes very hard to challenge that kind of thinking.

woman drowningI’ve been learning recently about acceptance and commitment therapy (Russ Harris’s ACT Mindfully site is a great resource if you’re interested in reading more), and contemplating how fear fits in with this idea of acceptance rather than resistance.  Is this fear a form of resistance?  And if so, maybe it’s resistance in a good way – a reason to keep fighting for recovery.  Or maybe acceptance lies in making space for this fear, acknowledging it as a neighbour that’s not going to be moving away any time soon.

As I struggle to tread water in the sea of my depression, perhaps I have to both accept and resist.  Resist the urge to stop struggling and just drown already, and accept that another wave might come at any time and push me under.  In the end, whether I feel fear or not, que sera sera.

 

Photo credits:

Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

The lies we tell and the secrets we don’t

person making shush gestureAs a mental health nurse, I always hope that my clients will feel comfortable and safe enough to be open and honest with me.

As a person with depression, though, being open and honest is likely to go straight out the window if it appears to conflict with whatever goal feels most pressing to me at the time.  While this may sound manipulative, it is something I do for the purpose of self-protection and self-preservation.  It is part of the armor that I put on when I’m my illness leaves me feeling weak and defenseless.

The topic I lie the most about is suicidal thinking.  Based on past experiences, I never want to be hospitalized again.  Disclosing thoughts of suicide is probably one of the quickest ways to get committed to hospital, so I keep my mouth shut.  Is that a safe, healthy way to approach the issue?  Of course not.  But in the balance of pros and cons that goes on in my head, there is little that would win out against my desire to avoid hospitalization.  I try to consider this in my professional life and be very mindful of how I’m reacting when clients disclose suicidal thoughts to me.

I also omit symptoms that I either do not want or do not feel ready to talk about.  At one point I had gone off meds for a while after a 3-strikes-you’re-out series of negative experiences with doctors.  After a couple of sleepless months I realized that I really needed to find someone to order some drugs for me.  I didn’t want to talk about my depression for fear of getting a similar reaction to the last few doctors I’d seen, so I only admitted to being unable to sleep.  In doing so I could get my mirtazapine and quetiapine back on board, and after a while I felt safe enough to disclose the rest of what was going on.

girl and face mask juxtaposed on blue eyeIn the end, I can only conclude that we just try to do the best we can with the situation we’re faced with.  And I think the more that health care providers understand that, the easier it might be  for us to start to remove some of that armor.  It’s not realistic to think that we will never feel the need to resort to lies and secrets, but it’s worth reflecting on what underlies them so they don’t end up coming back to bite us in the butt.

 

Image credits:

Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Kellepics on Pixabay