With Mental Health Awareness Month coming to a close in Canada and the US, what follows is the evolution of my mental health. My hope in writing this cautionary tale is…
- that it will illustrate the importance of immediate, accessible, sustained professional care essential to help everyone suffering with mental illness
- that it helps the sufferers understand the sometimes life-threatening pitfalls of ignoring mental illness and/or its treatments
- that sufferers understand that advocating for what is best for you, the individual, is necessary and is your right
- that it illuminates the need for continued improvements in government policy and spending, and the workplace, for those on, or considering, medical leave due to mental illness
- that my story provides you with a sense of determination, unwavering willingness to fight for yourself, knowing that you are a HERO during every phase of your illness, and that you should never give up.
This is my story.
I stopped working in 2018 when I was 54, leaving a place I had worked for nearly 20 years. Not by choice, not really, but because I simple could not go on.
During those 20 years, I suffered 4 major depressive episodes.
The first, in 2001, was when I was diagnosed with chronic unipolar depression and generalized anxiety disorder (which I now know I’ve had since I was a child), and put on medication, an SSRI. I attended a few talk-therapy sessions (four free sessions through my employment benefits; private sessions were cost-prohibitive; government-subsidized sessions had a year-long wait) and returned to work after 4 months. Was I ready to return? Let’s just say, I was more preoccupied with the idea of having to stave off my employer’s weekly check-ins – to convince them I was sick – than on my own recovery. Real recovery. Had real recovery been part of the equation, who knows how life would have unfolded.
Whether from unrest, lack-of-information, shame, or stigma, I stupidly went off my medication in 2003. Of course, I did a tailspin and fell into another major depressive episode. I went back on my medication, did a few more therapy sessions (six free sessions through my employment benefits; private sessions were cost-prohibitive; government-subsidized sessions had a year-long wait), and returned to work after 3 months this time.
The 7 years that followed were good. I functioned. I advanced. Then, in 2010 I became obsessed with the idea that I was no longer depressed. I was a top performer at work and had convinced myself (the trickery of mental illness) that I was no longer sick. I stopped taking my medication – AGAIN! This time it was brutal. I endured weeks of brain-zaps (withdrawal symptoms) and within 3 months, I crashed headlong into another major depressive episode. I was off work for another 4 months, had more therapy (six free sessions through my employment benefits; private sessions were cost-prohibitive; government-subsidized sessions had a six- to eight-month wait), and went back on my meds. At this point, my doctor said I would be on medication for the rest of my life.
The medication did its job, for the most part – until it didn’t. Around 2012 I started going through depression cycles every 2 months or so. My doctor made a minor medication adjustment and referred me to a psychiatrist – a 6-month wait – who would determine if I had been misdiagnosed with unipolar depression. Was I bipolar? No. I was suffering from cyclic unipolar depression.
By the end of 2012, I was so drained, distraught, and disgusted with myself, that I considered taking my own life. To an outsider, I had it all; a wonderful husband, 3 amazing children, living parents, siblings, friends, pets, house, job, etc. In that moment of deep despair, none of it meant anything. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, crying in the dark, with a handful of pills in the palm of my hand, desperate to end my pain. Somewhere in that dense, dark fog of psychological turmoil, I remembered something from one of my therapy sessions – to try and think of just one thing to live for. That one thing was seeing my beautiful daughter in her wedding dress in May the following year. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do – to get up off the floor, walk into the bathroom, and flush the pills down the toilet.
Despite how close I came to ending my life, I managed to crawl out of that particular hole of cyclic depression and go on with my life. For many years, I continued to experience ups and downs, though I (thankfully) never again got as low as I did on that dark day. Every morning I would find just one thing to look forward to and so, the years passed.
At this point I should mention two things. First, nothing in my mental illness treatment had changed substantially since 2001. The only medication change my doctor made was to play with my dosages and to switch me from one brand of SSRI to another. The therapy sessions I had were limited and geared more towards return-to-work than uncovering the cause of my pain. Second, by this point, I was drinking between 3-4 bottles of wine a week, plus vodka-based cocktails on the weekends. I had also started dabbling in cannabis, sometimes drinking and getting high at the same time.
So far, I have focussed mainly on the depression side of my diagnosis. Thankfully, the panic attacks associated with my anxiety were pretty much nonexistent and the generalized anxiety itself was well managed. Around 2016 – the year my eldest daughter got married (elation) and my mother passed away (desolation) – there began a very slow, yet persistent undercurrent of anxiety. Mental illness was, again, threatening to undermine the precarious balance of my life. Still, I took a new position at work – my dream job, as it were – and I stopped drinking. I went about keeping my leaky, life-boat afloat.
In 2017, my dream job was set adrift, and me along with it. There were reorganizations in the department and I was to be sent back to my old department, for which I should feel grateful as several others had been terminated altogether. I wasn’t even given a choice. I felt abused, abandoned, and angry. But mostly, I felt defeated. I went back to my old department, but it didn’t last. Try as I did, as many were depending on me, I simply couldn’t do it.
In 2018, I suffered my 4th major depressive episode in 19 years. I was done. I could go no further. I’ll admit there was a certain level of relief when all was said and done with the job. Given my state-of-mind, however, there was a lot of work to be done to put myself back together – again. I had my first, beautiful grandchild by then – he was my just one thing every day that year.
Despite rounds of private therapy (paid for 100% by my employer who, by 2017 was a front-runner in their benefits-based support for mental illness – kudos!) – which definitely helped with the turmoil around my job loss; shame, defeat, guilt, grieving, etc. – the undercurrent of anxiety I had been feeling since 2017 was increasing at an alarming rate. With my anxiety on the rise, no real strategies put forth by my doctor, and a deep desire NOT to drink alcohol, I looked for alternative relief.
I began taking medical cannabis in late-2018 as an accessory to pharmaceuticals, to help with my mental illness. My doctor, who knew/knows very little about cannabis as a therapy for mental illness, prescribed a radical change in my medication – which did NOT go well. The dreaded brain-zaps were back and my blood pressure shot up. My GP responded by ignoring the brain-zaps issue altogether (frustrating!), and prescribed blood-pressure medication to control that side-effect. I refused the blood-pressure medication (it’s so easy to go down medication rabbit holes taking one medication for one thing then another to combat side-effects, then another, and another…), and went back to my old meds. The brain-zaps subsided and my blood-pressure stabilized but I was no further ahead than before the experiment.
So, once again, in June 2019, I was referred to a psychiatrist to determine what this latest iteration of mental illness had in store. She was a stern, no-nonsense, close-to-retirement lady who told me, flat out, that heightened anxiety is often a symptom of peri-menopause. My GP had never told me that! The psychiatrist said that the medication I was on was essentially the best under the circumstances and admonished me for taking cannabis. She stated that, in a lot of cases, heightened anxiety brought on by peri-menopause has been known to dissipate a couple of years post-menopause.
I walked away, yet again, without any new strategies to improve my mental wellness. I had exhausted the tools at my disposal on the medical profession side of things. Left to my own devices, despite my GP’s resistance, and the psychiatrist’s warnings, I delved further into medical cannabis. It became my saving grace. I worked with a respected online clinic that provided great information and support as I searched for what would work best for me. Cannabis worked quickly to help stabilize my depression and anxiety, with little to no side-effects, and has become the primary treatment for my mental illness. I am lucky insomuch as, I can afford to pay for cannabis as a treatment. The Canadian and provincial governments levy taxes on medical cannabis when it should be treated like any other prescription drug. This fight is ongoing.
I will end this blog by saying that support for mental health in Canada (and around the world) is evolving. In 2001, there was little to no discussion about mental illness, very few support tools or resources were available, and governments and places of business were ill prepared and focused on the wrong things. In 2021, we (try to) talk openly about mental health, tools and supports are improving with many resources available at the click of a mouse, and governments and businesses are stepping up to recognize and support mental health. Is it perfect? HELL, no! Still, I am ever so grateful for the resources I’ve had along the way. It may not seem like it given this cautionary tale, but small changes over the years have kept me going. Have I had to fight? HELL, yes! Writing this chronology has reminded me of where I was, how far I’d fallen, how brave I’ve been, and how far I’ve come.
My hope in writing this blog is that it gives you… hope.
Mental Health resources:
- Mental Health Platform
- Mood Disorders Society of Canada
- Canada Suicide Prevention Service
- The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- US Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- US National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Wikipedia List of Suicide Prevention Crisis Lines
- World Health Organization (WHO)