(or I Am One of the 1 in 5)
(Trigger warning for trauma and suicidal thoughts.)
In honour of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I want to share a bit about my struggles with mental illness and my experiences at CAMH.
But first, a disclaimer: although I’m very comfortable talking about my own experiences, I won’t write about the incident from which I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because it involves many other people, and I don’t want to share anything they might be uncomfortable with.
Phew, alright. Let’s get into it.
In April 2014, I was involved in a traumatic incident. For a few months, I was able to (mostly) ignore my rising anxiety by focusing on others and throwing myself into work. By the summer, those around me needed less support and I started to feel… lost.
As the summer wore on, I withdrew from the things I enjoyed, opting to stay home a lot more often to get away from crowds… and just people in general. I read the news obsessively, fixating particularly on the Ebola crisis and terrorist attacks. Looking back, I think that I was subconsciously trying to prepare myself for the next trauma I felt I’d inevitably experience. The incident in April had caught me completely by surprise; if I was prepared to suffer, to fight, and possibly die, it wouldn’t be as bad as having been caught unaware. I went into work exhausted so many mornings after having laid in bed, scrolling through story after story on my phone until the wee hours.
For my birthday that year, I went to Vegas with my best friend. We’d been planning the trip since before the incident, and when we booked it I’d naively thought that I could just “power through”. The week before we left, I remember sobbing to my parents about how worried I was that we’d be involved in a terrorist attack or be abducted. I made them promise that they’d do whatever it took to bring me home if that happened, completely unaware that my fears weren’t overly realistic, and that my fervor spoke volumes about my mental state.
At Thanksgiving–just a week later–I fully broke down. Dinner conversation turned to the recent terrorist attacks, and I dissociated. If you’re not familiar with the sensation, imagine being a zombie. You’re mentally checked out, but your body is still there and you’re still technically awake. My parents quickly excused us and bundled me into the car. We’d only gone around the corner when I snapped back into my body and started to panic. I pleaded with my parents to not make me go home to Toronto; I was convinced that I was going to be involved in an attack if I went home. It wasn’t even that I was afraid of dying… I just couldn’t bear the thought of piling more trauma on top of what I was already experiencing.
At some point (the ride isn’t terribly clear for me, I’m afraid), I unbuckled my seat belt and tried to jump out of the moving vehicle. Thankfully my Dad’s quick thinking kept me safe in the car. When we got back to my parents’ house, they made me promise that I’d make an appointment with a counselor through my workplace EAP as soon as possible. I made the appointment the next morning (Monday) for the following day (Tuesday), and grudgingly agreed to go back to the city.
That Monday night, I was so emotionally drained from six months of, well, horror, that I couldn’t feed or take care of myself (and anyone who knows me knows that me not eating is pretty much unheard of). Instead of obsessing over the news like I had been for weeks, I calmly thought out ways I could take my life if the therapy didn’t work. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to die, exactly, but I knew that I couldn’t live the way I had been anymore. I wanted that feeling to go away, and I didn’t particularly care how it happened, so I was willing to give the counselor a chance to come up with another option.
The next day, I trudged down to the therapist’s office without showering or changing into new clothes (again, for anyone who knows me… that’s not me; I’m pretty high-maintenance). I slunk into a chair and explained what was going on. After only a few moments, she calmly informed me that she suspected I was suffering from PTSD and that I needed to go to CAMH’s emergency department immediately. I was surprised: I’d known that I was excessively anxious and that I’d experienced a trauma, but I associated PTSD solely with war and first responders. I guess I didn’t think what had happened would “qualify” me for PTSD.
I took a cab to CAMH and signed in at the emergency room. After being triaged, I was moved into a smaller, locked waiting room, with a TV that was playing Dr. Phil (which hilariously is pretty much my worst nightmare, even now). The staff were very kind, and eventually let me sit in one of the interview rooms when it became evident that being in the main room was causing me further distress (and not just because of Dr. Phil).
After a couple hours, I was able to see someone. We discussed my options and agreed that it wouldn’t be good for me to go home by myself. Instead, my best friend would come and drive me home to my parents’ place in Cambridge, where I’d stay at least until we could get a treatment plan in place. She also increased the dosage of the antidepressant I was already on, hoping to get a head start in getting me back to normal.
I stayed with my (amazing, generous) parents for the remainder of the month, during which time my saint of a dad drove me back and forth from Cambridge to Toronto for my appointments with a crisis counselor at CAMH. I had a number of appointments with her, as well as a couple with a psychiatrist so that we could adjust my medication (the higher dose of the initial one caused hallucinogenic nightmares, which is a super-fun side effect when you already have PTSD).
With the help of the crisis counselor, I was referred to a psychologist who specialized in trauma, with whom I completed exposure therapy a little over two years ago. Exposure therapy is exactly as un-fun as it sounds, but it really works.
The help that I received, both from CAMH and from the psychologist I was referred to, saved my life. I’m so grateful that those resources were available to me when I reached out; I can’t even think about what it would have been like for my family had they not. I still have my ups and downs, but I’m now able to weather them much better.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, please know that you’re not alone. The best thing that you can do for yourself and for those around you is to reach out and ask for help.
I promise you, things do get better.