The Story of My Life…
Greetings people of the internet…
My name is Joel and like many others out there, I have worn a mask to hid a secret… I have shared my secret with some and have attempted to open up to many, but today I’m going to completely remove my mask for the world to see.
I hope this accomplishes a few things.
#1) By removing my mask, I hope to rid the shame that I have felt for having this disease and acknowledging that:
a. It is not my fault, and…
b. I cannot do this alone
#2) I hope to inspire others:
a. To open up and seek help if they are suffering, and…
b. to better understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness and be in a better position to help others who do.
#3) Most importantly, I hope my story will convey how it was the “stigmatization” of living with a mental illness that forced me to suffer for years and at magnitudes greater than should have been the case.
Pretty scary sight right?
Above is a picture of me at the Laing House Masquerade Ball (www.lainghouse.org/). In the picture I am participating in one of the night’s initiatives to tweet a picture of ourselves with the hashtag #unmasked. But here’s the thing about that picture. My mask was still 100% intact! See that smile? It’s fake…
What follows can be described as the story of my struggles with mental health… but in reality, it’s in fact: “The Story of My Life”… thus far at least…
The Story of My Life
I’ve always been an anxious kid.
I can’t say that I necessarily have any memories of myself without anxiety.
The main issue for me as a kid was that I had a lot of issues falling asleep at night. In fact, this Christmas my mother and I were looking at photo albums and she found a newspaper clipping that my grandmother had given her. It was an article giving advice to new mothers regarding babies that didn’t sleep well. Obviously, I have no recollection of this, so I will start from my first memories…
I don’t know how old I was when it started, but I was pretty young (probably between 5 and 7 years old, not sure…). For some reason when it was time for bed I would have thoughts that I didn’t want to think about. And really, what that meant was that I actually hated going to bed. I still have a memory of my family driving home from town one night and me thinking: “I really wish someone’s house in the neighborhood would catch on fire tonight; that way there will be a lot of commotion going on and it will distract me from thinking those other unpleasant thoughts I am so afraid of.”
The subject matter that I was so anxious to think about were a little bizarre. To this day, I have not come up with any explanation of why some thoughts were scary to me and others were not. The most salient anxious thoughts I had revolved around: scorpions, aliens, tornadoes, and sex…
I think the most extreme one I had though was: The Ouija Board. The idea that there were spirits (or whatever) out there really screwed with my mind. I’m not sure how long that subject haunted me, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that it would be measured in dozens of months, not days.
So obviously I eventually grew out of all that. But one thing I always think about now is: “Holy”… why didn’t my parents send me to see a doctor about this stuff? Seriously… that was some pretty messed up shit for a small boy to be going through. I would cry every single night and ask Mom to sleep next to my bed until I feel asleep. This lasted probably until I was in grade 5–6.
The way I look at it today is: “Opportunity #1 for me to get professional help didn’t happen.” Why not? I think it can be attributed to… that’s right, “the stigma”.
I feel pretty confident that if that scenario were to play out again today that my parents would have reached out to others and most likely eventually the medical community. I actually think we have made some progress in the broader understanding and acceptance that going to see a mental health professional today doesn’t have to be something shameful. But, unfortunately for me, my parents were probably just as lost as I was at that time. This is why education about mental health in our schools is so important today.
The 4 Worst Years…
Ah… High School!
The 4 worst years of my life! (For outsiders… no I did not fail, high school was a grade 9–12 affair in my school district).
I spent most of those years isolated in my basement alone: watching TV and playing music. Music was my therapy. I could find a song that described exactly how I felt. To this day I don’t know another soul who cares more deeply about the lyrical content of a song than me. For example, many people tell me: “Oh I don’t know what the song is about, I just like the rhythm.” Not me… a song can be catchy, but if it doesn’t speak to me emotionally, I’m bored of it in a couple of weeks.
So, high school is when my social anxiety really started to kick in. I was pretty shy, was afraid of getting in trouble and super awkward with girls, so you know, the perfect target for bullies!
I was bullied every day from grade 9–11. And I mean, every single day! It’s not something that even most of my high school friends would be aware of. It was very, under the radar. There was no physical abuse and there was not even that much social embarrassment, it was very much done by intimidation and power. It was so bad that I even eventually chose my classes based on my assumption that: this or that person would not be enrolled in it. If I ever had a chance to develop a self-esteem at that time, it was completely ruined by a couple of individuals who obviously had self-worth issues of their own.
A Brief Moment of Light
By the time grade 12 rolled around I started to get a bit more confident. I think SARMU really helped with that. SARMU is a three-day concert put on by the high school students. It was pretty fantastic, as besides how talented all the participants were; it also included a professional sound and light show.
Things were finally starting to look up and finally, people were realizing: “this Joel guy is actually pretty fun” and I started hanging out with some of the “cool kids”.
I’m going to skip ahead here for a second, so that you have context to better understand what happens next.
Today, I’m gaining a deeper understanding of myself: who I am, who I want to become and why I may have been the way I was. One thing that has guided a lot of my past actions has to do with being someone that psychology textbooks would describe as being “Attachment Avoidant.” In laymen’s terms, I have a fear of vulnerability and intimacy.
What is wrong with me?
Here comes the juicy stuff!
One day, a girl who I had an amazing plutonic relationship with dropped a bomb on me. She informed me that she broke up with her boyfriend because she was into me.
Well guess what?
I totally was not prepared for that. I don’t think I ever really let myself admit it to myself that I would be romantically attracted to her because she had been dating the same guy for 3 years.
I don’t really remember my thought process, but I do remember my physical response. My stomach just dropped. I had no idea what was going on.
I was totally messed up. I couldn’t think straight anymore and I didn’t know how I felt about her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next.
And at the same time I never had someone (the now heartbroken ex-boyfriend) hate me before. I never had someone threaten and want to beat me up.
It came to a point in which I had no appetite. I was afraid of eating in front of people in fear that they would ask me why I’m not eating… and what would I tell them? That just made me more nervous! Anxiety is full of vicious cycles like that.
So… I literally went 4 months without telling anyone what was happening to me physically. I started obsessing about: “What’s wrong with me” and coming up with different answers. Maybe I have acid reflux… Maybe I have an ulcer… What’s wrong with my stomach? Every morning I would wake up, and for a brief moment my stomach wouldn’t hurt, but the second I thought about it; it would start hurting again…
At school I was in a cloudy haze. I wasn’t listening to the teacher anymore. Someone would make a joke; everyone would laugh except me, but I would pretend so that no one noticed that something was wrong. I was hanging on to my “mask” for dear life!
I withdrew and I started getting depressed.
What does even that mean?
Everyone’s life has ups and downs. There are accomplishments and disappointments. There’s new life and there is death. But depression is not the same thing as being upset because you “failed” at something nor is it the same as grieving over a loss of a loved one.
Depression is different. I woke up every morning and I was already in a bad mood. I was completely disinterested. Things that used to give me pleasure no longer gave me pleasure. I couldn’t figure it out. “It’s been raining a lot lately, maybe that is it, the weather just has me in a bad mood.” Wow, how I was in denial…!
Joel wins an Oscar!
I couldn’t tell anyone about this…
What would they think of me? What the hell is wrong with me? This great girl is into you and this is how it affected you? Wow, you are a total messed up… What are you gay or something!?
Those were all things I would think others would think (and eventually what I would think about myself.)
When you are in high school and you live with as much shame as I did; going to see the school counselor is not an option. You cannot go to the school counselor because if someone sees you leaving his office, they’ll ask you: “Why were you seeing the counselor, are you depressed or something?”
So… what they say about alcoholics is also analogous to what had to happen to me for me to seek help. I had to hit absolute rock bottom. Until that happened, I refused to admit to myself and to anyone else that… Joel is not okay… Joel is the furthest thing from okay. Joel needs help.
Later, the school counselor told me that I deserved an Oscar because no one had any idea how sick I actually was.
I’m not sure if I can even explain in words how difficult it was for me to ask for help. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my entire life!!!
It was so difficult that I couldn’t even say it out loud! One night I wrote a two-page explanation of what was going on… I gathered up the courage and FINALLY walked into the counselor’s office. I sat down in the chair and said: “I don’t know how to say this, so I wrote it all down for you…”
After reading it, he looked up at me and said: “Joel… this is quite a story. Have you told anyone about this?”
I couldn’t even tell my own parents!!! I was 18 years old! Now that is stigma!
After asking me if I wanted him to phone my Mom, I said yes.
It’s Still a Secret!
So, I finally reached out for help, but at this point, what was my biggest fear? I didn’t want people to find out about this!
Well guess what? It was exam time… and I was brain dead.
I mean it… I could hardly concentrate enough to play guitar, never mind the fact that my calculus exam was scheduled for the next week.
I can’t write my exams! But at the same time, I can’t not write my exams… because then I would be exposed!
So, we devised a plan… a scheme of sorts, to make sure Joel can keep his mask on!
The counselor, my mother and (one by one) all my teachers met and we explained what was going on and thankfully they agreed. I could finish the year with my grades “as is” and I was welcome to come in and “fake taking” my exams, so that: “No one would know what was going on…”
It’s amazing that they did that… but it’s also heart breaking! It’s heart breaking that we live in a society and culture where I had to be ashamed of being sick! That just makes people sicker!
Meanwhile, I go see the Psychiatrist. “Yup, Joel… You are in really rough shape!” Let’s see how you feel in 2 weeks and if you’re not better by then than we can try some meds.
I can’t go without mentioning that my first appointment to see a therapist was going to be three months from then… What is wrong with our system?
No real labels were given to me, but “Generalized Anxiety” and “Depression” would probably fit the bill. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of putting labels on people. My depression surely must look and feel different than someone else’s.
Let the Healing Begin!
As Matt Damon’s character says in Good Will Hunting: “Let the Healing Begin!”
Side note: Good Will Hunting is my favourite movie of all time. Except for being abandoned by his parents, a genius and the being physically abused part… it’s essentailly “The Story of My Life”.
You know the: “Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.?” part. That’s totally how my thought process works sometimes!
Translation: Let the Neurotransmitters do their thing!
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, finding a good therapist in a reasonable amount of time is not an easy task in Nova Scotia today. Opportunity #2, gone.
So, that summer I worked at a Ford dealership washing cars, painting and mowing grass. The meds would take a while to kick in… It was very slow and very gradual. I would describe it as being similar to watching your younger brother grow taller. You see him everyday so you don’t ever notice, but if someone sees him once a year; they see how much he has grown.
So, there was no waking up and saying to myself: “I’m better now!” but to their credit, the antidepressants did do what they were designed to do: relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The Best 4 Years
When I moved to the city (Halifax) to go to university things got a lot better. I loved University, and at this point a lot of the high school bullshit was gone. I had some great friends and met even more great friends.
Those next years of my life I still describe as the best four years of my life. I fell in love with Saint Mary’s University and the city! Being away from home was also great; it offered me a certain amount of freedom that I had never enjoyed previously. The diversity of the city was also amazing versus growing up in rural Nova Scotia. It was a great time for me to open up to different thinking! Things weren’t perfect, but they were pretty okay! In fact, although most of my peers couldn’t wait to leave school and “make money,” I didn’t want it to end. I would have loved to be a “professional student.”
Entering: “The Real World”
Unfortunately, what I have recently learned is that although the meds did do their job, they did not solve the root of the underlying problems.
I probably saw four different therapists since high school. Because our healthcare system sucks, we didn’t click, the hefty price tag to see a private therapists, or one reason or another, I didn’t stick with it (I’ve never seen someone for more than 3 sessions).
So, these past few years anxiety and eventually depression has kicked in again. But this time around was very different. I didn’t get a text that changed my life…. The sickness just crept in very gradually. Just like the younger sibling that you see everyday, you live with yourself everyday, and therefore don’t notice that you are slowly sinking back into the disease.
Introducing: Joel, the Human Guinea Pig!
After entering work-life, I started feeling tired, having a hard time concentrating, my short-term memory was off, I couldn’t come up with words that were on the tip of my tongue, my muscles ached, I had digestion problems, I grinded my teeth at night, I got headaches, I became anemic…etc.
My family physician only wanted to treat symptoms. Couldn’t he see that it was all related?
This sort of thing lasted for years… I saw chiropractors, osteopaths, naturopaths, physiotherapists, and neurologists. I would see these “health professionals” and they’d ask: “Joel, are you stressed? You are a stock analyst: that sounds stressful…” In which my reply would always be: “Nope… not stressed… I like my job and I don’t have too much pressure on me, so I’m not stressed.”
I even paid $300 to ship a stool sample to Chicago to be analyzed! I went on a four-month diet that restricted me from consuming any sugar, whatsoever. And when I say whatsoever, I mean: No fruit, no alcohol, no starch, no dairy, no gluten: You name it… I probably couldn’t eat it. And let me tell you; I was determined! I only cheated once in those 4 months. But I only got sicker… a man needs carbs!
Another example is that my doctor thought that perhaps I had ADHD. I was an amazing student in school, so that didn’t make sense to me. I mean, I’m a goddamned CFA charterholder; do you have any idea how difficult that curriculum is? If I really had ADHD, how did I pull that off?
But I was willing to try anything. So I went to a psychologist to get an opinion. I had 7 out of 10 symptoms of people who suffer from ADHD. The psychologist told me he could not officially diagnose me with it without further testing, which would cost $2,500, but that he could write a letter suggesting I may benefit from ADHD medication.
“Ah who cares,” I thought. I just needed his letter so that my GP could prescribe me some Ritalin. The psychologist warned me though: “Joel, the bad thing about Ritalin is that even if you don’t have ADHD, if you take it, you will have all your dishes cleaned and homework done by 6pm.” That sounded great to me, so I tried it for 2 weeks.
Two weeks later, the only thing I had was a two weeklong headache! Dishes were still not cleaned!
That was enough; I fired my family physician and got referred to a clinic.
At the clinic, we did a few more tests and the results came back negative. The doctor informed me that: “Your past doctor has essentially done all the tests we would have done, and unfortunately the symptoms you are complaining about sometimes cannot be “fixed”.
That was pretty discouraging.
My thoughts were: “Well, it doesn’t matter if you can or can’t fix me, either way I cannot live like this anymore. You can either fix me or I’ll have to take my life in my own hands.”
For the record, thankfully I have never actually contemplated suicide, but I can totally understand how one could get to the point of sheer desperation that they feel it is their only way out.
The next time I saw the doctor she told me (and I love the way she sold it to me): “Joel, we actually have a person on staff that specializes in fatigue and other similar symptoms that you’ve been suffering from.” I was sold! And then she added: “Oh, and PS, she’s a psychologist.”
Eh… Well… Fine… I’ll go see her… But, come on guys… There’s something wrong with my body! This is not all in my head!!! It wasn’t that I was ashamed or afraid to go see a therapist. It’s that I honestly didn’t think that was the issue. Plus, I’ve been on antidepressants for 10 years now; it’s basically impossible for me to be depressed. I haven’t cried in 8 years!!!
So I went to see here, and what I learned was that… I have no flipping clue how I “feel” about anything.
I’m never angry. I’m never sad.
But guess what, I’m also never happy either!
I’m just anxious and numb.
It took my therapist five separate hour-long sessions over a 2-month period for her to finally “break me.” When it happened I just broke down and wept for the first time in my “adult” life.
Therapy can be amazing!
I’ve seen her for over 30 sessions now.
I’ve learned sooo much about myself: Why I’m the way I am. Why I’m afraid of what I’m afraid of. Why I think how I think…. And I finally am starting to feel again. Those feelings have been there this whole time, but I suppressed them, because as a “man” showing emotions means you are weak.
Well guess what? Not showing them is what has really made me weak! It caused my body to weaken. The tension that my body requires to keep those emotions inside has wreaked absolute havoc on my body. My stress lives in my organs.
But, I’ve finally figured out and now that I’ve learned how to feel, it’s time for me to start acting on those feelings and make positive changes in my life.
Just like the first time I went through this, slowly but surely, I’ve made it to the other side all right. But this time, I’m equipped with intuition, not just a Band-Aid to numb the pain and a mask to hide behind.
Today, I want to make therapy available to the masses!
And… just like any good story, there is a moral to this one as well.
I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts.
1) Mental Health is a very serious issue that affects everyone and society is failing those who suffer! This needs to be the time we rectify this! We need to Keep Talking!
If you know anyone who is suffering, please encourage them to seek help!
2) The disease is an invisible one and affects different people in different ways.
After reading this post, I hope you feel an increased sense of empathy and compassion for sufferers. But, I’d like you to open your mind and heart just a little bit more:
a. The homeless person on the street… most likely lives with mental illness. In fact, the only difference between them and us could be that they simply made one wrong decision in they’re life that eventually lead them down a very dark path.
b. The alcoholic or drug addict… is living with mental illness too. Abusing alcohol and drugs are just “coping mechanism” that people use to numb the pain.
c. Any other addictive individual… Whether is be over-eating, under-eating, gambling, shopping, sex/love: these are activities people use to escape.
But yet, why when we speak of someone who is an alcoholic do we persecute him or her like we do? Instead we should feel compassion. That person is most likely in a great deal of pain!
3) The world needs love.
The point I wanted to make regarding the above is that alcoholics didn’t choose to become alcoholics and homeless people are not terrible people! In fact, the saddest part about homeless people is that for the most part, they do not have people in their life that are willing to help them. I do not have to worry about ever being homeless, because I know that no matter what, I have family and friends in my life who would give me a home. Think about that… those people are all alone.
So, in conclusion… I think the greatest antidepressant of all is human compassion. If we can learn to love and be kind to each other, to be open and accepting, then perhaps we can be on our way to destroying the stigmatization of mental illness.
World, please be kind to each other!
To learn more visit: TranquilityOnline.co.