Youth and mental illness.

“You keep finding dead ends to what you thought were good beginnings”


Life can be agonizingly difficult during a depression and/or anxiety episode. I am lucky that my experiences are limited to ‘curable’ episodes (typically lasting a few months). For some people, the symptoms never go away. I am also lucky to be an ‘adult’ in my 40’s with a fair amount of life experience, a loving family network, and a large (very large) amount of therapy and medication behind me. It must be so hard for children experiencing the same illness. It’s a testament to the strength of the young that any of them make it through at all. It is this strength that we now see rising up again and again in the form of youth who are coming forward and talking about their experiences with mental illness. The courage of these young role-models never ceases to amaze me as they make use of social media platforms to get the word out there… “mental illness can and does affect anyone! So, let’s talk about it…”

So I turn the rest of this blog post over to a talented young (13 years old!) advocate called Olivia. This is her ‘Slam’ poem in which she bravely and insightfully shares her experiences with some very problematic mental health. Her words speak for themselves, so I will say no more…

At just the age of 4,
I was already having anxiety about every little thing in my kindergarten class.
Whether it was taking the attendance down
or sharing something in a circle.
I always felt nervous.
 
At the age of 8,
I felt the need to be perfect with all the work that I did
because the last thing that I wanted was
to be laughed at.
When a test was being handed back,
I could feel my teacher’s eyes burning on the back of my head.
I could see a gleaming red ‘A’.
But later in the day,
peers were telling me that I did worse than them
as my worth was merely something to compare to.

 

At the age of 12,
I was more worried about the routine I had to do every night than my homework. All my books must be an odd number.
My laptop must be clean.
My bed needed to be made perfectly.
These routines anchored each passing day
and tricked me into thinking that my anxiety would go away
Now, at the age of 13, all of this combined is my reality.
Every little thing you can think of in a day, make me nervous in some way.
Even simply getting on the bus…
All I can think about is the hundreds of things my bus driver might say to me.
 
Before a presentation,
I find myself slowly shaking to the point where its uncontrollable. I can see the sweat on my hands leaving marks on the table. 
And then my name is called…
I find myself slowly moving to the front of the class.
I feel like a deer in the headlights,
waiting to be hit with the stares of my peers.
 
 
If one little thing goes wrong in my day,
my brain latches onto that memory
and keeps on thinking about it for two weeks…
until it finally goes away.
Only to find that it comes back haunting me 
the next day.
 
If I get invited to go somewhere
My thoughts go to every situation imaginable.
Just thinking about that
makes me feel so ashamed because I just want
to go somewhere
without having to say “no”

 

Anxiety is like going through a maze.
Except it never ends.
You keep finding dead ends to what you thought were good beginnings.
No one is around you trying to help because they can’t see you on the inside.  

…You feel truly lost without anyone.


“1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental illness in a given year. As people get older, their mental health often gets worse. But, not many people talk about it because there is still… a mental health stigma which creates stereotypes and offensive comments. This can lead to many dreadful outcomes. We must speak out because…

…there shouldn’t be any shame.”

Written By Olivia

Mental health advocate

Age 13

When Body Art Meets Mental Health

Getting a tattoo isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. However, for some it’s the perfect way to express themselves to the world around them. For some, it’s a spur of the moment decision. For others it’s a carefully considered choice. One thing that I have discovered on my ‘tattooing journey’ is that once you opt to get tattooed, it can be difficult to decide just exactly what to have permanently inked on your body. A favourite quote? A picture of your pet? Something tough? Something meaningful? Something funny? Something big? Something small?

I often get asked about my recently acquired tattoo ‘sleeve’. As a man in my forties, I joke that if you look at it in just the right light, from just the right angle, you can read the words ‘mid-life crisis’. This is not actually true… on either front. There are no words in it, and neither was it the result of a mid-life crisis. I prefer to call it my mid-life realization (although I’m having trouble getting my family to adopt the new terminology).

It has taken me 40 years to realize that I suffer with a cyclical mental illness. I have experienced recurring depression since at least my teenage years. The details of my journey with depression can be found in my other blog posts, however, long story short – I decided to have my tattoo reflect aspects of my experiences with mental illness. Here is how:

tattoo

  1. The circles on my arm reflect the cyclic nature of my mental illness, reminding me that it can come back at any time and that I must be on the look-out for warning signs.
  2. The two mandalas represent my two biggest episodes of depression. After both episodes, there has been an discernible calm in my life where I appreciate things again and I am no longer depressed. At these times, there’s an overwhelming sense of my life starting a fresh.
  3. The triangles (which make up the pattern between the mandalas) represent the three key phases that my mental illness has thrown at me. Picture at each point – mania, depression, and the calm in between.
  4. Finally, a line flowing all the way through the tattoo shows how life carries on with all of this happening around it.

That’s it. I’m happy. Happy that I’m not depressed right now. Happy with my tattoo and the ‘mid-life realization’ that it represents. Happy that I’m in a place where I can talk openly about my mental health. I hope that I don’t need to get any more mandala’s tattooed, but only time will tell. I do have another arm!

 

Check out more designs by the awesome artist Raimundo Ramirez here.

The Art of The Apology

They are two pretty powerful words – “I’m sorry”. Some find them hard to say, others say them so frivolously that they become meaningless. Many of us were taught to use them as kids, “Say sorry to your brother/sister/friend/aunt/goldfish” etc. etc. Sometimes the lesson went a bit beyond this with wisdom like, “and don’t ever do that again”. Although this latter comment reaches a bit deeper, when it comes to apologies, we usually only teach the tip of the iceberg.

“…the ‘I’m sorry’ part… is just the start of the apology – just the start of making things better and earning true forgiveness.”

When a behaviour or action has resulted in someone being upset, then an apology is generally required. If the action was an accident, for example a child tripping, bumping into and hurting another, then the offending child would say “sorry”. In this case, the hurt child would typically say something like “it’s O.K.” This response acknowledges that it was an accident and there is no need for the child who tripped to feel bad. However, when the action was intentional the response of “it’s O.K.” is not ‘O.K.’ The fact that someone committed an intentional behaviour to make someone else feel bad, is never O.K. In this latter situation, a better response is, “I accept your apology, but please do not do that again”. This emphasizes the need and expectation of changed behaviour from the offending person (i.e. “and don’t ever do that again”). Those words… the “I’m sorry” part… are just the start of the apology – just the start of making things better and earning true forgiveness.

“True forgiveness is earned over time. It happens in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months following the incident.”

True forgiveness is earned over time. It happens in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months following the incident. It happens as the result of two things – changed behaviour, and kindness. The offending person must change their behaviour by never performing that action again. They must also be extra kind to the offended person. If they do these things then true forgiveness might be achieved. This is what we need children to understand so that they do not grow-up thinking that ‘sorry’ is all that is needed to make things better.

If you say something really horrible about the way I look (it wouldn’t take all that much imagination) and then say sorry, I don’t automatically forget what you said. It isn’t O.K. that you said those things. I may not really care about the fact that you said it, or I might care a lot. This can depend on a variety of factors such as our relationship, my own level of resilience, what lead-up to the incident etc. Either way, it will not be erased from my memory. I will remember that you are someone who said that to me. What follows this incident is not typically complete forgiveness, even if the offended person says, “I forgive you”. However, if you are kind to me from here on, and never repeat that type of offending behaviour, then perhaps eventually we arrive at a point of genuine forgiveness.

Children deserve to be taught this. They need to understand how to accept an apology (according to whether it was an accident or intentional action), how to give an apology, and how to follow it up with kindness and changed behaviour. As adults, we need to both model this and explicitly teach it. Now go forth and apologize.

The Difference

I have had many episodes of depression, but two of them stand out among all the others. These two put me out of commission for about six months each. They both involved suicidal thinking, complete loss of appetite, and a general ability to carry on with everyday life. There have been other episodes in between them, but they were not as significant.

While both of these major episodes of depression were similar in severity, the more recent of the two was a much different experience. Overall, I felt more supported during it, I made a fuller recovery from it, and most importantly, I learned more from it. The following points highlight why I think this latter episode was the more positive of the two experiences:

  1. I accepted that I was depressed.
  2. People close to me understood that I was depressed.
  3. I started medication earlier.
  4. I went for more extensive counselling.
  5. I told people around me that I was suffering with depression.
  6. I talked about my experience to anyone that I thought would listen and potentially understand.
  7. I took time off from work to help me rest and recover.
  8. As I recovered, I actively made time to engage in activities that I usually enjoy such as writing, drawing, exercise, and music.
  9. I saw a psychiatrist (OMG we need more access to them!).
  10. I had already had the first/earlier experience, which helped to build acceptance and increased my determination to pursue treatment.

 

It’s too bad that I couldn’t have arrived at where I am after just one experience. There have been many, but this highlights the difference between my two most major episodes. Good luck. Hang in there and feel free to get in touch. #depressionsucks… more than people realize.

Sowing Seeds of Acceptance

At the age of 42, I now realize that I have suffered many episodes of depression over the years. However, I have only now learned that depression is what I had. Those times were confusing. There were moments when, I wanted to end my life. I made major life changes in an attempt to find happiness. I blamed things, events, and people around me for the feelings inside me, instead of understanding the real cause. I didn’t know what was happening. I hadn’t been taught what to look out for.

As much as I’d like to blame this all on a lack of education, a failure of society to prepare me for the possibility of mental illness, there’s another factor at play too. It’s acceptance. Even once I was told by someone else that I might be depressed, I couldn’t accept it. “That’s not something that could happen to me. I’m just sad, and there are reasons for it.” Little did I know that the reasons were likely to do with activity and chemicals in my brain rather than just things going on in the world around me.

“That’s not something that could happen to me. I’m just sad, and there are reasons for it.”

I was around 27 or 28. Just days earlier, I had ended a pretty significant relationship (8 years or so… most of it common law). Depression was crippling me. I had returned to our house to collect some belongings. There was a note waiting for me. The note was not from my (ex) girlfriend, but from her mother – Anne. I’d had a good relationship with Anne. She was (is) a very caring and genuine person. She had always been kind to me and I trusted her opinion on just about everything.

I opened the letter. As I read it, I felt every word with the vividness that I’ve only ever experienced during depression. It’s like all of your nerve endings are exposed and your regular feelings (well, just the sad ones actually) are magnified to the point of being unbearable. I cried openly as I read it. Sobbing and wiping tears from my eyes to read each word. Towards the end of the letter she suggested that I might be depressed. It was there in ink… “depressed”. I don’t know if the statement literally took my legs out from under me, but I do remember sitting on the floor by the end of the letter, crying so hard that I couldn’t find my feet until the crying passed.

“Towards the end of the letter she suggested that I might be depressed. It was there in ink… depressed”.

I honestly believe that part of me knew that she was right, but the rest of me couldn’t accept it. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t understand what depression was. I simply couldn’t accept that it was something that might happen to me. I marched on relentlessly. I went through hell, and found happiness again. But eventually, depression came back.

I’ve learned that I do suffer from episodes of depression. I hope that I have learned enough to navigate my future around it. I’ve learned what medications help to make me well again and I’ve learned what life choices help to keep it at bay. I think that the letter from Anne marked an important point in my life. In many medical and therapeutic appointments, I’ve talked about reading that letter. I’ve talked about how I look back and know that Anne was right. She played an important part in getting me to where I am today. She sowed a seed. It was the seed of acceptance – the seed that guided me, at least in part, to where I am now. I accept that I sometimes get ill and that the illness is depression.

“I accept that I sometimes get ill and that the illness is depression.”

I thank many people for helping me to be the person I am today. I am well right now. I was able to get the help I needed, but to get it, acceptance was a key factor. I think that for many people, we cannot accept that we have depression when we first hear it. Maybe it’s because we still lack a definitive test that tells us we are depressed. Whatever the reason, I believe that once that seed is sown, acceptance is in our future. Thank you Anne for sowing that seed.

To others out there, don’t be afraid to use the word depression to a friend who you think might be ill with it. Perhaps you will be that person who sows the seed, that leads to acceptance, that then leads to the cure… and in the cure lies happiness.

Happiness is everything.

Dear Self…

Hey there little guy. You look pretty full of promise right now. You are at an age where the ability to live ‘in the moment’ comes naturally. All of those years ahead are of no concern to you.

image1

School is ahead of you. It has its good points. You’ll discover writing and art. Bullies suck and there are plenty of them at your high school. You’ll meet some great friends. Some of those friends will still be by your side when you are 42. You’ll learn some stuff, including how to calculate the missing angle in a triangle (just in case you ever see one that is missing), a second language (that you’ll never use),

You’re a happy introvert. No one is ever going to teach you about being an introvert, so for a long time, you are going to aspire to the extrovert ideal. This will make some of your teenage years tough. You will find yourself aspiring to be something that you are not. I wish I could tell you right now, what your strengths really are and make you happy to be yourself. It’s a long and slow lesson. One that I cannot help with.

“No one is going to tell you that things can go wrong with your brain.”

Acne is on the way. It sucks, but it will get sorted out. The real doozy that’s on the way is depression. No one is going to teach you about this. No one is going to tell you that things can go wrong with your brain. Your stomach – yes! Your heart – yes! Your tonsils – yes! Your teeth – yes! But no one is going to mention the brain. Only ‘crazy’ people have problems with their brains. WRONG! The first few times you encounter depression, you aren’t going to know what the heck is happening. You will know that you are unhappy and that you want this to change. You will experience it like a puppy living in the moment with no concept of what is going on. During these times, you will view life through an altered perception. You will make significant life changes. You won’t understand it. People around you won’t understand it. Many of them will try to help. Some of them will make a difference. Depression will go away, but it will come back.

Eventually you will find people that understand. People that will stay by your side during these tough times. They will help you to learn about what is happening. You will find ways to control and even prevent your depression. Medication will help. You’ll meet some wonderful doctors, some amazing psychiatrists and counselors. You will learn much, but much of it you will learn the hard way. Perhaps it is the only way.

image2

“You will learn much, but much of it you will learn the hard way. Perhaps it is the only way.”

So right now, hug the daylights out of that cuddly panda bear. Make the most of that thick auburn hair (it’s here for a good time, not a long time). Reassure your family that you love them and then buckle up because it’s going to be one hell of a ride. The battle is inside, so not everyone will see it, but you are going to live every second of it. Good luck. I don’t know how it ends, but I can say that at age 42, things are looking pretty good. Well, even better than ‘pretty good’, but let’s not tempt fate.

Driving and The (Im)Perfection Factor

I’m not a perfect driver. Simple fact. Luckily, I haven’t had any major accidents to date. I try really hard to drive safely. I drive 20km to work and 20km back five days a week. I drive for groceries and other things on the weekends. Sometimes I take a three hour drive to my wife’s parents’ cottage. It’s a lot of driving and sometimes I make mistakes. Plenty of people drive a great deal further than this. Is it fair to expect someone to drive for so much of their lives, without the slightest mistake ever? I think not.

I’m not encouraging careless driving and I’m not referring to accidents that ruin or take lives. I’m not talking about fender benders.  I am talking about completely honest mistakes. Mistakes that harm no one. Mistakes that although harming no one, somehow seem to result in unnecessary, disproportional anger in other drivers.  I’m talking about a time you were carefully watching a cyclist while sitting at a red light. You momentarily missed the light turn to green and received a prolonged and angry horn honk from a car somewhere behind you. Or, the time you took a few attempts to safely reverse park and held up a couple of other drivers in the process, only to have one of them angrily yell out of their window at you as they drove by. Have you honestly never once forgotten to check your blind spot? Driving requires a lot of skills. It requires a lot of our attention. We are all human. Mistakes will be made.

“We are all human. Mistakes will be made.”

Armed with this knowledge, let us all drive the roads expecting to see mistakes. Our logical brains know that they will happen. Let us drive as a team, not as one person against the rest of the world. We can look out for the imperfections in our own and other people’s driving. We can try our best to help them recover safely and with as little stress as possible.

“Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for stress, frustration, and unhappiness.”

I hypothesize that at least some amount of road rage comes from expecting everyone to drive perfectly and becoming enraged when this expectation is not met. Yet, the expectation is not realistic.  Unrealistic expectations are a recipe for stress, frustration, and unhappiness. Expect imperfections. Look out for them. Be the person who helps another driver during their mistake. Be the person who helps make our roads a friendlier place to drive on. Be the kindness in someone else’s day, from the comfort of your car.

By expecting to see mistakes on the road, we can adopt the attitude of looking out for each other. Be kind, not rude, to other drivers. Help make the roads a safer place by supporting the other drivers out there.

Kindness is the most precious commodity that we have in our possession. Use it freely, even from behind the steering wheel of your car.