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I am a survivor of a mental health disorder

Approximately two years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I doubted the diagnosis because I believed the symptoms I had experienced were caused by a high dose of my medication.  But I have struggled with depression on and off for many years. I figure I had my first bout as young as age 16.  I suffered in silence because I thought I was just sad.  Upon studying my past experiences, my psychiatrist and I realized I had most likely been depressed.  Being depressed was like feeling that I was in a hole and unable to get out.  I cried at the drop of a hat, I felt stuck and unable to start anything.  I had absolutely no desire to do anything. I didn’t even want to leave the house or socialize with anyone.

I had three more bouts of depression following that first one.  One occurred when I was separating and divorcing my first partner, and the second one I attribute to stress at work.  I even had post-partum depression when my first child was born.  It was awful. I was worried all the time that something horrible would happen to my loved ones. That was the first time a doctor told me I could be clinically depressed.

The biggest depression I experienced was a year and a half ago, when I was hit by the most difficult depression of all of them.  I was so sick. I had major depression and also suffered from generalized anxiety. The anxiety presented itself to me as constant shakes, lack of concentration and fear that something bad was always going to happen. I couldn’t even speak for myself at work.  My depression caused me to isolate myself, however I actually hadn’t realized that I was depressed; it had snuck up on me.  I thought I was tired and stressed out.  I should have asked myself why I could no longer hold a conversation without freezing and sinking into worry, or why I was shaking in meetings. I never asked myself why I was so anxious.  The reality is that I was anxious and depressed – and I needed help.  Things came to a head at work when I was crying uncontrollably and by the next week my doctor took me off work.  Unfortunately, I had made things bad for myself at my workplace and had by then burned a few bridges during this time. Up to that point, I had only taken time off work due to my condition for up to three months at a time. But this time, in the end, I wound up being off work for a year and a half. It was a very long haul.  This depression was scary for me and I had gotten to a very difficult place. I even started wondering what it would be like to just not be alive.

I am so lucky to have a wonderful psychiatrist whom I can see for 45 minutes at a time.  Most people only get 10 minutes with their doctors, they talk about their medication and symptoms and that’s it.  My doctor and I used a book called Mind Over Mood (By D. Greenberger & C. Padesky) and worked with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy together. The goal was to change my deep belief that I was worthless – the root cause of my suffering.  I was surprised, however, that I was not getting better at a rate that I felt was reasonable.  I was very impatient, and who wouldn’t be? Who wants to suffer?  My doctor would tell me that it would take time.  I thought it was taking forever.  All I wanted was to be better.  I wanted to feel that I wasn’t a burden on my family. I wanted to be able to help out around the house, to do laundry, cooking, cleaning, go back to work, but I just couldn’t.  All I desired was sleep.

The one thing I could do was paint.  I have loved painting since I was a child and painting turned out to be my best form of therapy. For some reason, I could get to the canvas, put my brush on it, and just go.  It was a meditation for me. I could disappear for hours at a time and not feel so awful.  I also practiced mindfulness and meditation.

My saving grace was that I participated in a program at Toronto East General Hospital which helped so much.  At the hospital, we would sit in groups and open up to each other, discussing various subjects.  We participated in sessions that taught us meditation; we discussed hot topics in mental health; we did art therapy; and covered other subjects related to mental health. I spent five hours a day, four days a week there for approximately six months.  While I was in this treatment program at the hospital, I saw a new Psychiatrist (this was temporary while I was in the program) and we worked on adjusting my medical ‘cocktail’ to finally get me to a point of stability and relative happiness.  In combination with the time previously spent with my other psychiatrist, it took three years for me to get to this point.  I also did work with a therapist and an Occupational Therapist at the hospital where we would mostly discuss my personal situation with regards to my goals of coping with my depression, and my desire to return to work.  The program was intensive, supportive and I felt safe there.  I attribute my success to the program and to the staff; the people in the group who openly shared their stories and listened to mine; and to the repetition of all the subjects we covered in group on a weekly basis.

At the hospital, I had established goals: the first one was to change my core belief about myself – that I was worthless.  I had developed a new belief about myself which I still work on. It’s a slow process.  I have to prove to myself that everyone has good qualities and bad qualities, that I am just like everyone else and I am not perfect.  The second goal was to learn to manage and cope with my mental health and return to work; I wanted to be a productive member of society and with my family.

Once I had established a sense of stability, my psychiatrist and I decided I could finally return to work.  One of my goals had been reached!  All three staff members and I developed a gradual return to work plan which would have me start working part-time until I was up to five full days a week.  This took 10 weeks.  But in building up to my return to work, I thought it would be disastrous.  My self-esteem had taken a beating from the depression and I was worried I’d make mistakes and lose my job.  I also have some memory and cognitive weaknesses, I was told that it’s a side effect of the depression.   I worried about not being able to survive the expectations of my boss.  It was explained to me that neuroscience studies show that we can do brain training exercises to regain cognitive strength. So, I practiced on an APP called Lumosity. I found this frustrating, but I saw that slowly I was starting to improve my scores. On the suggestion of my Occupational Therapist, I tried painting in different ways such as doing two paintings simultaneously, or painting upside down.  I started painting abstract paintings.  Any painting was helpful.

I found the idea of going back to work scary, and I worried a lot. I couldn’t even fathom walking on the street near my office because I didn’t want to be seen by anyone from work and I certainly didn’t want to have to talk to them.  I had to take baby steps, so a plan was proposed by my Occupational Therapist:

Step one: Practise taking the subway at rush hour

Step two: Take the subway to the station near my office and go have a tea nearby and go home.

Step three: Have tea with a friend from work near my office.

Step four: Enter the building where I work and go into the office, stay for five minutes, then leave right after.

Thank goodness for a friend who helped me do this. She literally accompanied me up the elevator, walked me around the office for five minutes and told me when it was time to leave. Then she even escorted me down in the elevator.  At first, I was so anxious to talk to people I was shaking, but my plan helped me so much that on my first day I could enter the office with little problem.

I still felt very nervous.  It was suggested that I should practise meditation on the Subway going to the office. So I did three on the first day, two on the second day and by day three I was relaxed enough to enter the office without shaking.

To my surprise, on the first day I was welcomed with kindness and understanding. All my catastrophizing was for nothing.  I was very lucky that HR and my boss took my re-entry seriously.  However, I didn’t return to my original position and was told that that job was too stressful for me.  Stress was a trigger for me and I had to keep it under control. But I didn’t like this news.  I felt confused about it.  On the one hand, I wanted my old job back. I loved it. I loved the creativity and the people I worked with. So I felt resentful about having to take a job that I deemed beneath me.  On the other hand, I knew that I probably couldn’t even do my old job and I was lucky that they had found a job for me that I could handle. I am grateful for that.  Now I have to rebuild my strengths and work myself up to a job that is more fulfilling.  I am still worried that I am not worthy, but I work on it every moment of the day.  I have incorporated some anchors into my day to remind me that it will all be fine.  I have to remind myself to use them.  I carry around with me a little figurine of a turtle in my bag or pocket.  The turtle reminds me to take things slowly and one step at a time.  My husband tells me the turtle is a good symbol for me because he thinks I am strong and like the turtle, I have a strong shell to protect myself.  I also have a citrine crystal which a friend gave me.  The crystal is supposed to help in overcoming depression (I’ll try anything). In the time I spent at the hospital, I had loved a mandala coloring book given to me by a therapist. I found it relaxing to colour in it so I decided to paint a mandala on a piece of wood to bring to my office as a reminder of my time spent at the hospital.  I painted four words on it: peace, strength, harmony and breath.  I have placed this on my desk to help me incorporate these ideas into my day.  While working, I listen to meditation music with my headphones to cut out the noise as I work in an open area.  I manage to stay calm, and I feel supported by my colleagues and management team.

My life seems manageable now and every day is a new adventure.  I still have to tell myself that I am worthy of a good life and that things will eventually get back in their place.  I hope that I will continue to go in the same direction, onward and upward.  You may be going through something similar, so I hope that by sharing my story I can help you in some way, that you may not feel so alone.   Thanks for reading my story.

This blog was submitted by a long-time CMG member who continues to enjoy a successful career in media

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