Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Year with "Clinical" Depression, How I Fought Back and Still Fight Every Day

Thank you to everyone who contributed, read, shared and discussed the Life is Sweet series this year. This isn't about a day or a month of posts though, we need to keep the conversation going every single day. With 1 in 5 people being directly impacted by a mental health concern and the other 4 knowing someone who is impacted directly, it really is up to all of us to talk, share, support, help & hug. 

My friend Esther shared this post on her Facebook for Bell Let's Talk Day and I'm happy to round out our month of posts with it here. 

I always knew I was depressed, from the time I was about 13 years old. Last year, which was 15 years later, I decided to finally seek a Doctor's help.

2014 was the year I was diagnosed as depressed with high anxiety. I cried tears of relief and sadness when I was told. What I'd known for years was confirmed and validated by a medical professional. It was a relief to know I wasn't just feeling this way for years, for no reason. It was also really scary. You think "Now that this is "real", what now? Will it get better? How will my life change?"

I was put on an anti-depressant known as Effexor (Venlafaxine), a drug for treating severe depression and anxiety. I did not know then that I was being introduced to the devil.

Let me say right now that my Nurse at the Artists' Health Centre (an AMAZING resource by the way for any professional artists) gave me fair warning about Effexor. She told me that going on Effexor is one thing, but if I ever no longer wanted the meds, I would have an uncomfortable time getting off of them. How I wish I'd taken her words to heart. Or at least Googled or something to see what she meant. More about my hell time getting off the meds in a minute.

First, let's chat about Effexor. It causes a whole school of side effects (as do most anti-depressants), and I don't even think they are really "side effects". These things happen. Period. Last year I gained about 20 pounds, even though I was eating healthier than ever and exercising. The weight gain made me even more depressed, and shot what little self-esteem I had left. So what was the Doctor's answer? MORE MEDS! My dosage was upped. Eventually I started losing interest in everything, and feeling very numb. Nothing made me genuinely excited anymore. And guess what? Those are some of the very symptoms of depression. So it seemed the anti-depressants weren't really so... anti, after all. There had to be a better way. Maybe even a less expensive way (Oh that's right, not only were the anti-depressants turning me numb, my wallet was sobbing too).

Last summer, I started looking to natural alternatives, and high doses of good quality vitamins. I started reading about the link between serotonin and depression. Many research studies suggest serotonin imbalance in the body as a root cause of depression. So, how then does one boost serotonin naturally without pharmaceuticals? Through diet and exercise.

I despise exercising. I really do. I've hated it since Grade school when everyone else got their golden 'Kilometre Club' popsicle sticks while I could barely get a blue one because I sucked at running. However - many people have said it, and I now agree, that the best medication for depression is exercise. I work out every day now. Even if it's just half an hour. I still do not like it. But I do it. And I'm trying to get better at it.

As for diet, the bad news is, there are no foods that directly boost serotonin production. The good news is, another natural chemical in the body known as tryptophan, which is the amino acid from which serotonin is made, is found in lots of good foods! Fun fact, taking a really good quality B-6 Vitamin increases the rate at which tryptophan is converted into serotonin. And the best part is - no gaining 20 pounds, or other nasty side effects that come from the "do not want" chemicals in my Effexor.

Speaking of the Effexor - flash forward to December 2014. I decided it was time to end my relationship with this drug. Oh, but it certainly wasn't ready to release its hold on me. I'd gotten down to the lowest possible dose, 37.5mg, and tried 'cold turkey' at first, then tried gradually decreasing the dosage by removing 'granules' inside the capsules. Day 1 was the worst thing I've possibly ever experienced, and I thought, "Well, at least it can't get any worse, right?" WRONG. The withdrawal symptoms just kept getting more severe. Let's go over a a few, shall we?

 - "Brain Zaps": This is the biggest one when coming off Effexor. It basically feels like someone is coming along and jolting your brain repeatedly for about 10 seconds until you nearly faint. That happened approximately every three minutes.
- Nausea, cramping, and vomiting: All three. It was great! (Said no one ever.)
- Unstoppable crying at any given time: Oh so THERE'S where all my tears went in the last year. I was in rehearsals for a show at the time, and every time the stage manager called break or lunch I would run to the bathroom and sob. Why? No reason. At all.
- Night Terrors: Basically extreme nightmares every night.
- Night Sweats: The only reprieve from the night terrors was waking up. But covered in night sweats. So that wasn't too great either.
- Dizziness: All the damn time.

Those were honestly a small fraction of the withdrawal symptoms. Effexor had effectively kicked my ass and I had zero fight left in me. I had no choice but to go back on the meds, at least until my show closed. It was devastating. I continued throughout the run of my show to read other people's stories on Effexor, and how they beat it. It was heartbreaking to read other people's battles with trying to free themselves from the clutch of this awful drug. Then I came across one woman's story of how she got off Effexor by doing something called 'Prozac bridging", a method where you gradually decrease the Effexor, then take a very low dose of Prozac, until you are left with just Prozac. Then, you take the Prozac one day on, one day off, then one day on, two days off, and so on and so forth.

I wasn't too sure about mixing the medications, or if it would work, so once I returned home from Ottawa from my show contract, I went back to the Artists Health Centre and chatted with my nurse about the Prozac bridging article I'd read. She admitted she wasn't sure about it herself, and consulted a couple colleagues who had heard of this process, and said it was safe to do, so long as I was on the lowest dose of Effexor. Green light. The first couple days were tough, but I certainly wasn't having any severe side effects like I was having the first time I tried to go off of it. It got easier every day.


I am so incredibly proud to say that today, January 28th 2015, is Day 5 for me of being totally medication free. 


So - am I still 'depressed'? Yes. It's a medical condition and unfortunately that will not go away. But I've learned and adapted to better ways of treating my depression, like exercising every day. Also, eating foods that contain high amounts of tryptophan that'll boost serotonin production, and taking really good quality vitamins... in particular, liquid Vitamin D (absorbed much faster in the bloodstream, therefore works quicker!), B-6, Niacin (B-3), and a solid multi vitamin. I'm also taking natural supplements called 5-HTP which produces tryptophan to move along that serotonin boosting, and Ashwaghanda which helps anxiety and stress disorders. Know what else I love? Essential orange oil. A couple drops in my hands, then breathing it in for about 10 seconds. Immediate mood booster. 

Am I happier treating my depression this way? You bet. I'm not there yet and it's going to take awhile, but I can find little bits of myself returning. I'm starting to feel like a better version of myself every day, and a more present version of myself. I am so, so incredibly grateful for that.

Esther is a Toronto native and works as a musical theatre performer. She is a lover of all things pink, Disney, girly, and frilly. You can usually find her around Toronto riding on her pink bicycle while belting out a showtune or five. Esther is also currently pursuing her side passion - learning about holistic nutrition.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Yesterday was Fine, Wasn't It?

I received this post this week and then received an almost identical message following my post on my mom's death anniversary on Tuesday. This is why the Life is Sweet series and sharing my story alongside so many others is so important to me. We are not alone. 

There are often times I don’t know how to deal with my feelings. Many days I feel fine, but then all of sudden, like from out of nowhere, BOOM, I feel every awful feeling at once. Sadness, hatred, anger, unappreciated, overwhelmed; as if I’m drowning in my own feelings. I can’t control myself in those moments, I’m 30 and still can’t figure out a way to control my feelings like a fully functioning adult should. I run to the bathroom or anywhere I can lock myself from everyone else and cry and scream and think all sorts of horrible thoughts.

In that moment I think of how much better my family would be without me. Or would they be?

They wouldn’t have to witness my breakdowns; my children might have a better chance at self-control, since I am certainly not a great teacher of that particular skill. Then as I think of how I would do it, how I could end my life, I stop, breathe and think of how my friend has felt ever since losing her mother while we were in grade school. Her mom unfortunately succumbed to these types feelings.

I think of the wonderful things I would miss with my children, and how hurt my family would be. How would my husband raise our kids on his own? Even though it might put an immediate end to my internal fight, what would happen to everyone else? Then I cry harder, wishing so much that I could control myself, my feelings, and my thoughts. I think, "what just happened in that moment to push me over the edge? Yesterday was fine, wasn’t it?"

Many times I’ve attempted to get help. Seeing many different counselors, taking classes, trying to start exercising regularly (which for one reason or another never happens). I feel I have not yet found someone who is able to properly assist me. I am trying very hard not take meds yet as I want to try all the natural methods I can first. It’s not have I think there is anything wrong with medication, but I’ve watched my mom take it since I was in elementary school and I just always hoped I could find an alternative. However, I also am more aware that it might end up being the only thing that will help. 

Since depression and anxiety run in my family I knew it was something that I needed to be mindful of, though I often try to deny these feelings. I’m still searching for help, and know that I want to feel better for myself, my children and my family. I want to be the mom, daughter, sister, wife and friend that people deserve for me to be. I just am still unsure of how to get there. I hope I will find someone who is able to help me soon so that I could at least have the tools to take control of my feelings.

Though it’s bittersweet, I think the thought of my friend and her mom helps keep me from doing the unthinkable. I was lucky to have known her and she raised a beautiful human being in her short time here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fire Within

I feel very lucky that in hosting the Life is Sweet series that people feel comfortable enough to share their stories with me, and anyone who reads this blog. The feedback I've gotten from the series this year has been an incredible reminder that we are not alone. Thank you to Ashley for joining the writers this year and sharing her story. 

Rage.

Everywhere, in all things, and of course, sadness.  For as long as I can remember, my world has always been tinged with an underlying layer of anger.  Whether the anger was the catalyst for the sadness or the other way around, I’ll never be quite sure.  One thing I do know is that my view of reality has always been a little skewed. 

Despite the trouble it’s caused me, I’m convinced that this rage is what got me through my younger years.  There were a whole host of issues I was dealing with.  I’m part albino and I was classified as legally blind until the end of high-school with no help to be found from glasses or contacts.  I was also diagnosed at the age of 10 with something called Tactile Defensiveness, a sensory disorder that caused me to be bothered by things that no one else would notice.  I had a hard time making and keeping friends and became an easy target for bullies.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and have a better life away from all my problems.  Too bad I didn’t know that things wouldn’t necessarily get better just because I got older. 

Over the years I slowly learned more about the various disorders that I was dealing with and that knowledge did help me but I was still sad and most of all underneath everything was the anger, the rage. 

A little over a year ago I made the decision to try medication.  This was a really hard decision for me.  I’ve tried other things in the past, talking to a therapist, doing mental “exercises”, nothing seemed to help, in fact, they just seemed to make things worse.  The biggest thing that held me back from taking medication was the fear that I would become a different person.  Would I even still be “me”?   That rageful undercurrent that accompanied everything I did was what propelled me through all the difficult time in my life.  Who would I be without it?

It might not be for everyone and I must admit, the beginning was not easy but the overall effects have been more than worth it.  Something I’ve come to realize is that you don’t know how bad you’re feeling until you don’t have to feel that way anymore. 

The story doesn’t end there.  I still have my low points, but before it was only down and lower down.  A large part of this journey has been accepting that depression is a part of who I am but it doesn’t have to own me anymore.

Something else that held me back in my decision was knowing how some people perceive people with depression.  It is my sincere hope that outlets like this blog and other initiatives will assist others to feel more comfortable with themselves and safe enough to seek the help that they need.  As much as I am ok with the fact that I need medication there are still times that I find myself hesitating to admit the truth.  “Are you taking any medications we should know about?”..Ummm….  I hope that very soon I can say yes without hesitating and wondering what that person will think.


Ashley is a 34 year old country loving girl trying to making a living in the city.  She is an avid crafter, artist and writer who believes that the best is still yet to come.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why My Mum Would Rather Have Cancer Than Bipolar Disorder

This post was sent to me to be shared anonymously. As someone who has family members who deny the existence of mental illness in our family, I can sadly relate to this idea of her mum's "accident". Even though mental illness is so prevalent in our society, people are still afraid to talk about it and there remains an enormous stigma around it. I hope to see a shift in this thinking in my lifetime.

When I was a kid my mum told me that she would rather have cancer than to be “crazy” because at least if she had cancer no one would blame her, or mock her, or tell her to ‘just snap out of it’; people would have sympathy for her, and would care for her¹.


Then when I was a teenager my mum quietly rode a bus to a bridge. When she got to the bridge she took off her jacket, folded it and set it down at the side of the road. She took off her purse and her shoes and placed them on top of her neatly folded jacket, and jumped feet first off the bridge.


My mum survived the fall. She was even conscious and lucid enough laying on the concrete below the bridge to be embarrassed when a passerby asked if she needed help, and so she said no, she was fine.


In my family my mum’s last suicide attempt is referred to as her “accident.” People in my family say things like, “before your mum’s accident” and “since your mum’s accident” as though it were the most accurate and natural description of what happened. But it isn’t. My mum didn’t have an accident. She was ill, and she tried to end her life intentionally, not accidentally. The word “accident” is a cover, a screen, a way to avoid the shame and disgrace that mental illness carries. It’s also a slap in my mum’s face because it denies her illness, obfuscating the pain and duress at the root of her jump.

My mum has found a level of normality and comfort since her last suicide attempt but she will always be medicated, she will always be fighting depression, her feet will always hurt from the moment she wakes up until the moment she falls asleep, and everyday is a journey.


----

¹This is not meant to minimize the enormous challenge, pain and heartbreak that people who have cancer (and their families) experience. It is only meant to illustrate the added layer that the stigma surrounding mental illness adds to the experience of sickness.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Suicide, God and Comments on the Internet

A few months ago, someone that I admire wrote a post about Brittany Maynard, the woman who had moved to a new state with her family so that she could die with compassion. She was terminally ill with brain cancer and her health was deteriorating and she wanted to live the end of her life with dignity and have control over a disease that had taken control of her life.

This person that I admire is openly religious and often posts about his faith. He wrote a post about this woman, asking "what if Brittany choosing to die was not in God's plan" and went on to wonder whether God had great things planned for this woman that she would miss out on because she was choosing to end her own life. I read the post and realized that he and I shared a very different view on Brittany's decision, but then I made the mistake of reading the comments.

People were ripping the woman apart. Some said she should burn in hell for choosing to end her own life. Harsh opinions of suicide ensued. Others criticized her immensely for her "selfish" decision. Comments on the Internet can be a really horrific thing, but I couldn't believe the lack of compassion that these people were showing this woman who had made such a tough decision and shared it publicly. And while Brittany's situation is very different than anything I've experienced in my lifetime, with their criticism of her choice and suicide in general, I felt like they were also attacking my mom.

Since my mom's death in 1998, I've had some very difficult conversations / debates / arguments with people about suicide. It's a heated subject, and I've had my fair share of people express their opinions about it to me.

About how selfish it is.
How awful it is for the people who need to "clean it up".
Shouldn't I be angry at my mom?
And now reading the opinions of these people who believed that those who commit suicide should burn in hell.

Just, wow.

In 17 years I've certainly wondered what had to be happening in my mom's head in order for her to end her life. She had 2 children, family and friends who loved her immensely and she left that behind. I've felt sad for the time I lost with her and all the things she'll never be a part of in my life. It hurts to think about the time we've missed out on together and the moments in my life that she will never experience. The important people in my life that she'll never get to meet. And while suicide is a selfish act, I recognize that those who commit suicide really see no other way to keep living. It's not a feeling that I have personally experienced, but I have felt the bleakness that comes with depression and can only imagine that suicide is a further extension of that. And in Brittany's case, it was a choice to die with dignity. Not an easy one, but a decision that she and her family decided was the right one for her.

I can't imagine condemning anyone to "burn in hell", especially not someone who was hurting immensely and going through their own version of hell; A person who was experiencing a lot of pain and sadness, who through their own actions would leave family and loved ones and a whole life behind. I'm not a religious person, but I understand that the bible says to "love thy neighbour", right?

And like I felt the day I read those comments, I feel the need to write this and defend my mom, because she isn't here to do it herself.

Because in my experience, when people get upset about suicide or the idea of suicide, they forget that there was a person attached to the concept. They dismiss the people that were left behind. They get caught up in being against the idea and view it as a concept that they are against. When really, there's so much more to it than that.

Each year I host this Life is Sweet series for people to share their stories and to remind others of the humanity behind the ideas of mental health, mental illness, suicide and loss. It's easy to get caught up in a concept, but let's remember that there are people behind them.

Seventeen years ago, my beautiful mother Debbie chose to end her life by committing suicide. I can't claim to understand exactly why, but I know that she dealt with a lot of pain and sadness in her lifetime.

I'm not angry at her.

I don't feel resentful of her "selfish" act.

I feel sad for all that we both missed out on.

And I miss her every day.