Sharing my story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, but I feel that silence is much worse. #NowImStronger
My story began at age 19, when my illness started to appear. It showed up at the beginning as a general nervousness, excessive worrying and extreme fatigue. It moved into anxiety attacks and an unexplainable sadness. After a while, I eventually pulled away from all the things I once liked to do and the people I loved to spend time with. It was easier to withdraw than to explain to others what I could not explain to myself.
That’s what my doctor said it was. All I wanted to do was sleep. I stayed off work for three months and worked only part time when I initially went back. I ended my relationship at the time because I could not deal with anything.
The feelings and physical symptoms were new to me, but I had seen them before. I grew up with a mom who also suffered with depression or overwhelming anxiety attacks. She said hers started at age 20 as well. Alcohol has been a tool for self-medication in my family at times. I grew up with grandparents who both attempted suicide on more than one occasion. I spent hours of my youth in various psychiatric wards, hospitals and emergency rooms visiting them. My mom still battles her depression on a daily basis.
I remember my mom saying, “Some families have other diseases; we have problems with our nerves”. At times I have thought I would rather a physical ailment, at least I would feel I was being taken seriously. I also remember a saying in our family “if you’re going to suffer, suffer in silence”. It makes me cringe to write that today, because it is the farthest thing from what I now believe.
I started taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications at age 20. Zoloft. Paxil. Effexor. Cymbalta. Adivan. Zopiclone. Some had no effects; some made me feel like I was going crazy. Eventually, I found one that helped me manage my symptoms. These drugs do not come without their own set of side effects, but I have found they are the lesser of two evils.
“It’s just like a medically sanctioned martini,” assured my doctor.
“Are they addictive?” I remember asking.
“Studies have shown they are non-addictive,” he said.
Cognitive behavioural therapy was not even offered or explained to me at that time.
Fast forward 14 years – many prescriptions later. Most nights in my twenties, I would go home after work, straight to bed or spent the night watching TV on the couch. That is all I had the energy or motivation for. A regular message on my voicemail when I couldn’t answer was (and sometimes still is), “Hey Jess, it’s so and so…….. you must be sleeping”. That still makes me so angry to this day. It’s as if I was choosing to be exhausted, or they just assumed I was lazy? I was just so tired.
I have tried a number of times to come off the meds. Doing it the right way…weaning off. Nope no side effects at all, doc! It’s totally normal to have weird prickly sensations in my head, feeling off balance, extreme dizziness and fainting, forgetfulness, waves of emotions out of the blue…the list goes on.
For me, this illness comes in waves, and for some reason or another, I have always gone back to the meds. I have tried meditation, a naturopathic diet full of all the herbal remedies and supplements you could think of, counsellors, exercise, tanning to increase my vitamin D, art, deep breathing and more. All have helped for awhile until the cloud moved over again. I think for me, the medication is just a part of what helps. I still hope and look forward to a day when I can be free of anti-depressants and their side effects. I personally believe genetics also plays a large role, and depression could likely be with me in some shape or form forever.
It’s not all been doom and gloom, though! There have been many times over the years were I have felt back to my normal. I have travelled to many countries, I have made great friends, I found a loving partner, and I have worked extremely hard at making a great career for myself that I love. I try to only surround myself with positive people and things that I love, like animals. My intention here was not to write about ‘poor me’ or what a horrible thing depression is to deal with – we all battle something. I simply wanted to be an example, to show that there is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, most people who know me have heard different parts of this all before, I am very open about it. When someone hears about it for the first time, most reactions are “What?! But you’re so happy and bubbly all the time”. Judgement from others is a terrifying thing. There is no cast on my arm, or a scar from a surgery as proof that something is wrong, to explain how I am feeling. Most of the time I truly am happy and bubbly, but there are times where I am battling.
I am happy to say I have found something that worked for me. I recently completed intensive group therapy which I attended weekly for over two years. On top of that, I was regularly seeing a primary psychologist, one on one, who worked in conjunction with the group therapy. I felt that I had finally met a psychologist who fit with me. Prior to this program I had tried many different psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and social workers, but none of them seemed to really ‘hear’ me. I ended up spending the majority of our meetings reminding them of why I was there. Three years ago I got a new doctor. Not only did he take me seriously and support me, he did not just keep upping the meds like my previous doctor had. He helped me get into the program that has made a huge difference in my life.
Group therapy and individual therapy has helped me get in touch with my feelings and to feel comfortable expressing them. Most importantly, it has helped me to recognize when I need help and how to ask for it.
I know that we are not going to be, or even supposed to be happy all the time, but for anyone who gets low and can’t get out of it or bounce back, ask for help. Explore all the options until you find what works for you. It can be managed. I have been blessed; throughout it all I have had the support of amazing friends who call and check in when I seem to go off the radar, and who accept me just the way I am. Three years ago I met my boyfriend who was very understanding and encouraged me to change doctors. Because I did, I found the right help for me.
Dealing with depression has made me a strong, kind, genuine, down to earth and empathetic person. I also have a great sense of humour about it; I have to in my opinion. I have so much to learn about myself still, but I have learned more ways to deal with, and to recognize my depression. I have a supportive doctor who wants me to deal with it, not swallow it in little yellow capsules. If someone was to ask what has helped the most, I would say first, being taken seriously. I’ve had doctors tell me it’s in my head too many times. Second, talking about it in a safe place – for me that was group and individual therapy. Third was finding a medication that worked.
Sadly, there is a stigma attached to mental illness. I want to help eliminate anything that could be preventing someone from getting the help or support they deserve. I want to remove the immense guilt, the shame and the alienation that people who are dealing with a mental illness may be feeling. In my opinion, that should be the last thing someone who is sick should have to worry about. Sharing my story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, but I feel that silence is much worse.