Today..thousands of people from across the country will be sharing their stories and starting conversations about Mental Health. An initiative I couldn’t be more supportive of.
Believe it or not…that I’m sharing mine here..has nothing to do with the occasion and more to do with the fact that after a conversation I had with a friend recently…I realized how much more there is to do and that as hard as it is to share something so personal..that I have to keep talking about it. Not because I’m looking for sympathy…but because I made it through the storm…and I know that you can too…here’s my story.
I was in Grade 11 at Mayfield Secondary School…I was a part of the first group of students enrolled in the inaugural year of their now renowned arts program. Taking part in the program meant that I had to be bused from my home school in Brampton to Caledon every day.
This commitment took some sacrifice on my part and the part of my family. It meant long days. The bus picked me up around 7 a.m and didn’t drop me off until just before 5. It meant leaving my home school and the kids I had grown up with since Kindergarten. It meant hard work..in fact..even though I was leaving for a school dedicated to fostering excellence in the arts…because it was such a new concept…there was an even greater emphasis on and pressure to succeed with academics. The school wanted to be taken seriously and there was pressure on this first batch of students to prove that this program was a worthwhile use of funds and resources.
After a rocky first few months…I wanted to quit everyday…I began to embrace my new life at Mayfield. I majored in Drama and soon bonded with my fabulously talented classmates. I loved getting the opportunity to be creative everyday and to have it taken seriously. Here, I finally felt like I was with “my people”…investing time and energy into something that flowed so naturally and with people that inspired me on a daily basis. I felt alive..I couldn’t wait to get to school…and I soon forgot that I ever wanted to leave.
The first two years were pure bliss. We were fortunate enough to have the same teacher for both years and our class stayed together. We wrote plays….we acted in them…we choreographed…we created ..we inspired each other…and I could not have been happier. And then grade 11 rolled around…
Looking back…I don’t think it was any one thing that lead to “the moment”…I think it was a collection of things that I was going through. My parents were going through an acrimonious divorce and as much as they did their best to shield my sister and I from the fallout…to a sensitive child like me…even though I thought I was okay with it..it was more than I could handle emotionally.
There were a lot of changes to deal with at school too. We had a new drama teacher that none of us gelled with…she was unpredictable and moody…impossible to please…my A’s slid to C’s…I began to dread something I used to count the minutes to. Our once joined at the hip class began to split up into little groups…sniping and back biting ensued. To this day…my stomach still drops when I drive by the school.
I can only surmise that all of those things…coupled with the fact that I am a born worrier…I worry about everything…and when there isn’t anything to worry about…I worry about not having anything to worry about…lead to “the moment”…the moment when everything came crashing in.
Strangely enough…I got through all of the stress listed above fairly well…or so I thought…I knew it had affected me but I wasn’t aware of how much until much later.
Grade 11 also marked the year that I ended up on the same lunch break as the “fun table”. Everyday during lunch…what I could only call a motley crew of characters that happened to sit together one day in the cafeteria, hit it off. We laughed so hard during our lunches that we would return to class with sore bellies and tears running down our faces. We had so much fun that people I didn’t know would approach us in the hallways and ask if they could sit with us. Rob Scott, Alicia Mitchell, Peter Newman, Chris Brown, and Rhonda Newhook…I have never forgotten how much joy all of you brought me during one of the most stressful years of my life. We didn’t belong together on paper but somehow together, we were magic as a group that year.
That was why I couldn’t believe that the one place I was experiencing so much happiness everyday was also the place that it all fell apart.
I remember everything about the moment…the lights…the sounds…the laughter…even the temperature of the cafeteria. One minute I was laughing hysterically…the next…I couldn’t breathe. Everything went quiet for a minute…my heart started racing…my hands started tingling and I could not for the life of me draw air into my lungs. Rob was the first to notice something was wrong and God bless him…when I told him I couldn’t breathe…he marched me into the school office and ordered the formidable Mrs Shackleton to put down the phone and call an ambulance. By this time I was panting for air and sweating profusely…I thought I was going to die.
Paramedics arrived at the school…my mom was called…and I was taken to the hospital for rigorous testing. After several hours of poking and prodding and more tests than I could count…the diagnosis was in…I had had an anxiety attack. When the doctor shared this with my mom and I..not knowing a whole lot about it…my first thought was “So I’m crazy?” I had no idea what that meant or why it was happening to me. I just wanted it to never happen again.
The doctor suggested counselling and medication. Suggestions I took him up on. Suggestions that did not work for me. What I didn’t realize at the time of my first attack was that that was just the beginning. From that point on…the attacks got worse…I never knew when they would strike…large crowds became impossible to manage…movie theaters were torture chambers…and school…I couldn’t even get on the school bus. I experienced a complete mental and emotional breakdown. My entire world collapsed. At it’s worst…I could not leave my house.
I remember lying in bed one day…wondering why this was happening to me…I used to love life…being with my friends….always up for an adventure…in fact I’m pretty sure that under the definition of social butterfly..there was a picture of me…yet here I was..completely crippled by anxiety…my world had become so small…I felt trapped…alone and isolated…which eventually lead to a visit from anxiety’s ugly step sister…depression.
And while I would have never ended it all…I loved my family too much to do that to them…I did and do understand why someone in my shoes would want to. Until you have felt the soul crushing effects of depression yourself…you cannot stand in judgement of how someone should handle it.
I’ve shared my story with you…now I’ll share my tools. The tools that ultimately saved my life and can save yours too.
The turning point came at my lowest point. I had heard that New Kids on The Block were coming to Toronto…the group I loved most at the time. My best friend Kelly and I had dreamed of seeing them for a few years and wanted to go so bad we could taste it. Unfortunately…due to what I was going through at the time…I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to go…all those people…all that noise…was too much stimulation for my over stimulated brain to handle. Then my mom suggested that she buy tickets anyway….after all..the concert was a few months away. Maybe I could set it as a goal for myself to work towards and if it turned out I still wasn’t up to it…we wouldn’t go.
I wanted more than anything to go. More than that though…I wanted my life back..I wanted to be happy again…I wanted to beat this. From that day forward…I looked at my problem like a Rubik’s Cube…something that I was going to solve…no matter how long it took or how hard I had to work. I remembered something my grandfather had always told me.. “knowledge is the enemy of fear”. I set about the task of becoming an expert on my condition.
I went to the library and took out every book I could find on the subject. These books helped me to understand what I was going through on a logical and scientific level and for whatever reason…this was something I was able to process. It took away the mystery of the disease and left me with an understanding that what I was going through was actually the physical result of a mental health problem. And the first step to tackling the mental health problem…was to reduce the physical ramifications of it.
While all this was happening…my mom was trying to get me to go back to school. We took baby steps. One day, I would take the bus and then come right home. The next…I would stay at school for ten minutes and then my mom would pick me up. The next..a little longer. Yes..my break down was so complete that I could not function at all. Leaving the house was almost too much for me.
Then the person that turned my life around entered it. Her name was Mrs Gayle. She was my business teacher. Everyone respected her. She was strong, smart, and commanding. When the time came for me to try going back to classes…my mom told me she would call her and explain why I may need to leave. I was mortified. I was so embarrassed that someone as together as Mrs Gayle would think I was bonkers. Despite my protests..my mom ended up calling her and filling her in. What happened next changed my life.
Mrs Gayle was extremely kind and compassionate about it. To my complete and utter amazement…She pulled me aside the next day and shared with me that she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks too…and that sometimes…even years later…even though she’s got a handle on it..she still needs to leave the classroom to gather herself when she feels one coming on. She then told me that she wanted me to read the book that gave her her life back. It was by a Dr. Claire Weekes and it was called “Hope and Help for Your Nerves”. She promised me that reading that book would be a game changer and that it would help me get my life back…for good.
I don’t know if that woman will ever know how much she saved me that day. Truly the first time I understood how much having someone who had been through it to confide in could help me. I guess I was secretly embarrassed to be going through it…it seemed weak and I hated the thought of anyone thinking I was crazy…as I’m sure some did. To know that someone so strong and together like Mrs Gayle could also be affected by it and come out on the other side…it gave me my first true ray of hope.
I went to get the book right after school. I devoured it in two hours. And the moment I turned the final page of the book…I began the rest of my life. Not only did this book help me understand what I was going through…it gave me the tools to fix it…and fix it for good. It wasn’t easy…anything worth having never is…but at the end of what was the hardest battle of my life…I rose from the ashes…stronger and more stable than I had ever been. The tools that this book gave me are lifetime solutions…I have a life now thanks to that teacher and that book.
I have had to accept that I will always be a worrier and I will always be prone to the physical ramifications of stress. I even still get the odd panic attack when I’m at the movies for some reason. But I’m never scared when it happens…I know how to handle it so that it never gets to the point it did when I was younger. I recognize triggers early…steadfastly protect myself from drama and people that create it…I’m just too sensitive…I feel things too deeply. I’ve learned to separate the things that I can control from the things I can’t. Most importantly I’ve learned to take care of myself. That’s what I need to be my best self.
I ended up going to that concert and I stayed right up until the end. I don’t run from anything anymore. I hope…if you ever find yourself going through something like this… that you can stop running too.
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my mom, my sister, and my best friend Kelly for their support through one of the worst times in my life. Without them…there would be no me right now.
May you have people to support you through this journey…may you have love…especially for yourself:)